In episode 02 of Morality in the Real World, Alonzo Fyfe and I discuss whether or not God can be the basis for morality, without discussing the Euthyphro dilemma (for now).
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Transcript of episode 02:
LUKE: Welcome to ‘Morality in the REAL World’. I’m Luke Muehlhauser.
ALONZO: And I’m Alonzo Fyfe.
LUKE: Alonzo, before we talk about morality in the real world, let’s take a moment to explain why we don’t think a god can serve as the foundation for morality, because a lot of people seem to think that you can’t have real morality unless it’s grounded in God. For example, this is what Christian apologist William Lane Craig says:
CRAIG: If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist. If there isn’t a god as your absolute standard, then everything becomes socio-culturally relative. Moral values are just ingrained patterns of behavior that have evolved through biological and social evolution. So if God does not exist, objective moral value and duties do not exist.
ALONZO: Well, I suspect that a lot our potential listeners are going to start off like Craig, thinking that there is some essential connection between morality and religion – such that, you just can’t have morality without God. Not too long ago you were standing in that position. right? You are one of those people who thought that there was some deep connection between morality and God.
LUKE: Yeah, that’s just the way I was raised, so when I was growing up it didn’t make any sense to me to think of a ‘Law’ without a Lawgiver. Morality had to be grounded in God, or else right and wrong was all just a matter of human opinion. And worse than that, if morality is just a matter of human opinion, than we have no objective ground from which to condemn rapists and pedophiles and murderers, so society is doomed.
ALONZO: I imagine somebody telling a parent who loses belief in God, that without their belief they just aren’t going to care anything about the welfare of their child. It’s absurd. Tell me, when you lost your belief in a God, did you suddenly become indifferent to the welfare of your friends and family? Did you acquire this urge to rape and kill just for the fun of it?
LUKE: Ha! No, though some people seem to think that’s the way it works, apparently…
ACTOR READING CHRISTIAN FUNDAMENTALIST FORUM POST: So you think that if no one believed in any religion, there would be no wars or fighting? I think it’d be worse. I think it’d be way worse. I know if I didn’t have God’s judgment to fear, I would have killed many, many times.
LUKE: But that’s just silly. Losing a belief in morality doesn’t suddenly change our desires.
ALONZO: Obviously, someone doesn’t have to believe in God or even believe in morality to act morally. However, it still might be the case that God is necessary for morality to really exist.
LUKE: Right, and that’s what we’re going to argue against. Now, when we talk about the problems with God-based morality, Alonzo, I think many people will expect us to bring up something called the Euthyphro dilemma.
ALONZO: Which is what, exactly?
LUKE: Well, I honestly don’t know whether or not the Euthyphro dilemma actually works – that’s something I’m researching – so I’d prefer to save that one for another time.
ALONZO: Okay, then: Is there some other reason to think that God-based morality doesn’t work?
LUKE: Well, in the first place the idea that morality is linked to God doesn’t actually solve any philosophical problems for us. Actually, it would only make those philosophical problems worse. I mean, think about it: How it is that morality could be grounded in the attitudes of a timeless, spaceless, supernatural being who is defined as being the opposite of everything we know and understand? That’s just crazy and incoherent, or at least it’s way harder to justify that than other theories of morality based on less controversial and confusing features of our world. So adding God to the picture doesn’t help give us objective morality, it just makes everything way worse.
ALONZO: I’ve had people tell me that something is bad – like eating pork – just because God disapproves. I have to ask: Why does God’s disapproval make it wrong for me to eat pork? If God doesn’t like pork, that’s fine, I’m not going to force him to eat any. But if they’re saying that I shouldn’t eat pork because God doesn’t like it… How does that work?
LUKE: And that’s just one of many problems. Another problem is this… look, if a perfectly good God allows all the suffering we see around us, that implies that maybe we’re wrong about the idea that we should be preventing suffering. After all, if God is supposedly perfectly good, and HE isn’t preventing all this suffering, shouldn’t we be following his lead? ((Scott Sehon argues along similar lines in “The Problem of Evil: Skeptical Theism Leads to Moral Paralysis,” International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion, Vol. 67, No. 2, 2010. Also see Steven Maitzen, “Ordinary Morality Implies Atheism,” European Journal for Philosophy of Religion, Vol. 1, No. 2, 2009.))
ALONZO: Yes, it’s like this: Let’s say I look out my window and see my neighbor’s daughter drowning in the pool. Am I supposed to know that I should rescue her? Maybe God has a reason to drown her. If she does drown, that’s what they’ll say. They’ll claim that God must have had a reason to take her. So if I rescue this girl, then I would be thwarting this higher purpose that everybody would be claiming that God must have had, and everything would be ruined just because of me.
Besides, if I, as a mere mortal, have no way of understanding God’s infinite wisdom or why he does things, then I have no way of knowing whether or not to save the girl. It wouldn’t be the first time God killed a child.
LUKE: That’s right. And here’s another problem: It’s worth reminding people that God-based morality is a subjective moral theory, because it’s grounded in the attitudes or nature of a person: namely, God. That doesn’t make God-based morality false, but I have to remind people of this when they say you can’t have objective morality without God. The truth is – contrary to what William Lane Craig says – you actually can’t have objective morality with God. God-based morality is subjective.
ALONZO: What do you mean when you say God-based morality is subjective?
LUKE: Well, like I said, God-based ethics grounds morality in the attitudes of a person. That’s what subjectivism is.
ALONZO: You are saying that it’s similar to individual subjectivism. Individual subjectivism grounds moral value in the attitudes of each individual. And there’s cultural subjectivism, to give another example, which grounds moral value in the attitudes that dominate each particular culture.
LUKE: Right. And divine command theory grounds moral value in the attitudes or nature of God. That makes it a subjective moral theory. It’s grounded in the attitudes of a particular person.
ALONZO: I think some of the people who say God-based morality is ‘objective’ might actually be wanting to say that what makes God-based morality special is that it is universal. Individual subjectivism gives you different moral claims for each individual. Cultural subjectivism gives you a different moral claims for each culture. However, divine subjectivism gives you one and only one moral code for everybody, even if it is still subjective.
LUKE: Yeah, so it is universal it’s just not objective. Exactly. And hey – words like ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ are used in different ways, even within moral philosophy. So, sometimes believers will say God-based morality is objective because they’ve chosen to define ‘objective’ to mean something like ‘grounded in something beyond human attitudes.’
ALONZO: That’s true. And it is something else you can get from a God-based morality.
LUKE: Yes, it is. But think about this. Imagine a giant alien appeared in the sky tomorrow…
ALONZO: Maybe it’s a real little alien.
LUKE: No! Definitely a GIANT alien. Or else they wouldn’t be screaming.
ALONZO: Fine. Have it your way.
LUKE: Anyway, so imagine some people decided that whatever this giant alien in the sky approved of, that’s what was moral.
Now, whether such a theory is true or not is one question, but according to people like William Lane Craig and their definition of ‘objective’ morality, this alien-in-the-sky morality would qualify as an “objective” theory of morality, because morality would be grounded in something beyond human attitudes. But I just don’t think that’s what most people mean when they say ‘objective’. It can’t just be grounded in something beyond the attitudes of a particular species of primate. That’s not enough to make it ‘objective.’
ALONZO: And the giant alien theory of morality would also be universal – there would be one moral code for everybody, just like a God-based morality. But, I agree, I wouldn’t want to call it “objective.”
LUKE: Exactly. So, I have a lot of problems with the idea of morality being grounded in God – even if God does exist.
ALONZO: Right. Well, for me, whenever I hear people talk about God and morality, the problem that I have always had with it is that there is no God. God doesn’t exist.
Scripture tells us of the superstitions and prejudices of people who have been dead for centuries. The authors weren’t necessarily evil, but they were far from all-knowing or perfectly benevolent. They were people who knew a lot less about the real world than we do.
Unfortunately, when you get the moral facts wrong, and when you carry those mistakes into the future, a lot of good people end up getting hurt.
LUKE: Do you have anything specific in mind?
ALONZO: Where do I start? There’s flying airplanes into sky scrapers, killing a girl who was raped because this dishonored the family, killing children by denying them life-saving medical treatment, banning homosexual marriage, teaching myth and superstition to children and telling them that this is ‘science,’ which leaves them ignorant of real science, and that leaves them unable to form rational policies to deal with real-world events.
Ultimately, trusting scripture to be the ultimate truth in morality is like trusting Hippocrates to be the final word in medicine.
LUKE: And atheists, of course, get all of the moral facts right, right?
ALONZO: Yeah, right, of course they do. No. Atheists have a lot of disagreements about morality amongst themselves, so obviously some of them have to be wrong. But the fact that they make mistakes doesn’t mean that God-based morality works, particularly if God doesn’t exist.
LUKE: Yes. In the end, the biggest problem with God-based morality is that God doesn’t exist.
ALONZO: Simple as that.
LUKE: So we’ve talked about why morality doesn’t work with God. Next time, we’ll start talking about how morality does work without him.
(in order of appearance)
- “Hour Five” from Somnium by Robert Rich
- clip of William Lane Craig on objective morality
- clip from Ghostbusters
- clip from ‘If Atheists Ruled the World‘
- “Iconography” from The Blue Notebooks by Max Richter
- “Svanesang” from Varde by Elegi
- “Il trovatore : Act IV: D’amor sull’ali rosee vanne” from Verdi Arias by Giuseppe Verdi / Sondra Radvanovsky
- clip from the Max Flescher Superman cartoons, and from cartoon screams
- “Aase’s death” from Peer Gynt Suites / Holberg Suite by Edvard Grieg / Herbert von Karajan
- “Third Movement” from Grand Pianola Music by John Adams / Christopher Warren-Green
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