Thursday, June 29, 2006

Loftus on theism and objective moral values

John W. Loftus wrote: Look, even a first grader should now that he or she should not cause unbearable suffering to another person, even if it's a punishment for what that person has done wrong. We should always treat people respectfully. We should never torture people to death. And we as a civilized nation even exercise capital punishment in a humane way, unlike that barbaric God of yours.

Let's pose the following problem. Let's take the simple statement "It is wrong to inflict pain on little children for your own amusement." And let's look at the kinds of facts there can be in a naturalistic universe, a universe which in the last analysis can be described by the natural sciences. There can be a number of different types of facts in the universe: physical facts indicating the state of the fundamental particles that exist when a person is in pain. Chemical facts indicating what is going on with the body's chemistry. Biological facts about what causes the pain sensors to activate. Psychological facts about how human beings are affected by pain. And sociological facts about what groups of people approve of what types of behavior. But how do moral facts fit in. Describe the physical world from the most fundamental level to the highest level of analysis and you will not find anything that closes the question of whether it is wrong to inflict pain on little children for our own amusement. There is an absolutely unbridgeable conceptual gap between the "ought" of ethics and the "is" of science.

Of course there are non-theistic philosophies that affirm some kind of objective standard of moral values. Platonism, although theistic, bases moral values on the Form of the Good, which is not identical to God. Fine, but do you really want to accept a doctrine of pre-existence in which we knew the forms and recollect them here on earth? That doesn't do a whole lot from the point of view of naturalism. Maybe Aristotle has an objective basis for moral values. But even though Aristotle didn't believe in personal God, he did believe in an inherent purpose in things in the world. He thought there were no purely material objects: everything was a combination of matter and form. Try that out on Richard Dawkins and see what he thinks of it.

Even a first grader realizes that it is wrong to inflict unnecessary and unbearable pain. But to say that a first grader knows this implies that it is true. And I claim that it is not the sort of truth that can be true in a naturalistic universe. The ontological commitments of naturalism force us to treat these judgments as subjective, even though deep down we all know that they are objectively true.

If a supremely powerful being has inflicted unnecessary pain on human beings for his own amusement, (or maybe his own glory), then I would like to say that this is wrong, and so would you. The only trouble is, you have to borrow my world-view in order to say it.

4 comments:

Steven Carr said...

' And I claim that it is not the sort of truth that can be true in a naturalistic universe.'

You mean, a universe without people in it? People with feelings and emotions?

Edward T. Babinski said...

VIC: Let's take the simple statement "It is wrong to inflict pain on little children for your own amusement."

ED: Vic, when are you gonna learn to question "simple statements," like the statement, "it is wrong?" You think statements like "it is wrong" came out of thin air? You're talking about an entire history of living things on earth, up to our nearest cousin species and their societies and behaviors and biology and psychology, and finally human societies and behaviors, biology and psychology, and the human mind that came up with the sentence, "it is wrong," a sentence that has a near infinite amount of stuff that could be discussed before even getting to that sentence.

Personally I have grown to suspect that plenty comes before and prior to the writing of any human commandments or judgments throughout time that people have come to phrase in terms of "right or wrong."

(And aside from all my questions above, oddly enough, the idea of inflicting PAIN on little children for our own "amusement" or "to please us," or even to "please God," is not an idea that is absent from Christian theological history, nor even from the Bible.)

John W. Loftus said...

Sorry for my previous spelling errors. I was typing on the fly.

Vic, let's say that you're right about this, that there can be no absolute "is" from "ought" following Hume. So what? Who needs it? I mean really, who needs it?

Christians claim to have an absolute standard in a historical conditioned document purportedly from God, but since it's a historically conditioned document they disagree on what they should do all of the time. And even when they agree that we should "love" one another, it doesn't help them know what to do with specific cases, even on a personal level (should we discipline or punish her, or forgive her?).

Besides, the modified divine command theory is so fraught with problems that even on a theoretical level it solves nothing. And even if it can be defended, and I don't think so, such an absolute standard does nothing to help the Christian know how to behave. Which ethical commands follow from accepting the modified divine command theory of ethics? Even if someone accepted it, she could still deny that the Bible is from God, like I do. Natural law ethics places us all on the same ethical plane, since ethics can be discovered by us all, in the natural world, if true.

Then there are the many civilizations of the past which did not have any Christian influence, and by the standards of their day were great civilizations. Surely, you as a Christian would deny these great civilizations had an absolute ethical standard. And yet they did just fine without your standard.

You and I are in the very same ethical boat, except that you claim to have an absolute objective standard for your behavior. Go ahead and keep claiming that all you want to. Go ahead and claim the high ground here all you want to. But such a claim is hollow and makes no difference in how we both live our lives.

If I'm wrong show me where. The Christian can do whatever she desires believing that God understands and will forgive. You know this is true. Explain how a Christian can have an affair for years and still profess Christ, if this isn't true? Just saying she knows right from wrong doesn't cut it here, because she's doing what she believes is right, i.e. having the affair and believing God understands and forgives.

For me, I cannot turn my character on and off like a faucet, following the late Louis P. Pojman. So I deny myself instant gratification all of the time in keeping with the benefits of having a good character. The benefits of having a good character include friendship, a livelihood, internal peace, a nice family, and a good reputation. And these benefits are shared by people regardless of whether or not they claim, like you do, an objective absolute or universal standard for behavior.

People who do not want the benefits of having a good character abound. But it's not limited to people who don't have an objective standard for morality.

Mike D said...

John Loftus asked Victor:
"If I'm wrong show me where. The Christian can do whatever she desires believing that God understands and will forgive. You know this is true. Explain how a Christian can have an affair for years and still profess Christ, if this isn't true? Just saying she knows right from wrong doesn't cut it here, because she's doing what she believes is right, i.e. having the affair and believing God understands and forgives."

I am sorry if I am rude for butting in, but the author of I John is very clear on this subject. It is a short read. Unfortunately, Christians today seem too focused on the minimum requirements for their ticket to heaven to consider whether the way they are living their lives is consistent with following Jesus. Good character is the right vaule, John.