Atheists & Morality (Again)

Another blog post about atheists and morality. Before I start, let me respond to the inevitable criticism that always seems to come up. I affirm that atheists teach morality; I deny that atheists are nessesarily immoral. OK, I said it. I always have to say this because so many people, theists and atheists alike, don’t grasp the central point of the moral argument. We’re not saying that atheists are immoral; quite the contrary, we’re saying they can’t help but be moral, for there is a universal moral law. The moral argument says that atheists are moral,, but they have no grounds for their morality outside of a moral law giver. But I digress…….I just want to repeat again: I affirm that atheists teach morality, as do all other cultures, Christian and non-Christian.

Now today’s post is taken from one that C. S. Lewis expressed, most likely much better than me. But here goes:

If I have a tree in my yard, I might say this is a “bad” tree. But when I say it is a bad tree, I would mean that it didn’t make shade, or it was shaped wrong, or smelled bad, or leaned over my house. But one thing I would not mean is that the tree was morally bad, for we do not hold that trees have morals. If the tree dropped a limb and killed the bratty neighbor kid, we would not hold the tree morally responsible. We would understand why the tree grew the way it did if we understood the natural forces upon it….wind, rain, sun.

However if I were to kill the bratty neighbor kid myself, I would be held morally responsible, for we hold that people ought not do such things. But wait a minute, where did we get this idea of “ought?” If all that exist are natural forces, would they not act on me as well as the tree? Are we not taught that somewhere earlier in the biological system, there was a chance mutation on some cell, and the branch that resulted in the tree went one way, and the branch that resulted in me went the other? Therefore what is the fundamental difference between me and the tree? The naturalists tell me that nothing exists but molecules in motion, and B. F. Skinner tells me that I am the result of a long series of stimuli and responses, and that I act the way I do because of the natural forces that have shaped me. Philosopohical naturalists agree, and tell me that all that exists are natural forces and I really don’t have free will, but are merely the result of a very complex system of natural causes, all without any purpose or reason. (see www.centerfornaturalism.org) No spirit, no soul, no true free will, nothing but molecules in motion.

So where did we get this idea of “ought?” When we mix vinegar and baking soda on the kitchen counter, we get a reaction and we might say that it is wasteful, but we don’t say that it is morally good or morally bad. When the tree limb falls and kills someone we might say that we don’t like it, but we can’t say that the tree did something morally wrong. But suddenly when I do something, I’m told that I ought not act that way, that I did something evil.

Philosophers call this the “is/ought” problem. By defining what is, we can never get to what ought to be. The natural scientists tend to not grasp the significance of this. Can “ought’ be explained by measuring it with an instrument, or by complex thought patterns? Perhaps our brains and social conventions grew so that we began to believe that group rules were morals? Well, no, this still does not explain ought. We do not believe that social rules are merely conventions, we believe certain acts are objectively wrong. Back to our tree: what is the difference in a bad tree and a bad person? Both are following the rules that shaped them, yet we call one OK and the other responsible. We cannot get to ought by measuring what is.

So unless the atheist naturalists can explain the existence of the whole idea of ought, they can never have a basis for morality. Any system of morality based on naturalism is hanging in mid-air, without any grounding, or else they are sneaking God in the side door and calling Him something else. The most they can say is “I don’t like this” but can never say “This is wrong, it ought not happen.” But we know they all do claim that some things are truly, trancendently evil, ought not happen, and this is not just their opinion. For example, every last one of them feels that it is wrong for me to steal their stuff. If you find someone who thinks it OK for me to steal their stuff, get them to send me their address and tell me when they’re not home. By claiming that the sense of “ought” is only from natural forces the atheist loses all grounding for his position that the morals in the Bible are wrong. The atheist seems to always be pointing to the Old Testament, saying Joshua “ought not” kill the Canaanites. Too bad, old chap. Without explaining ought, which atheism cannot do, all you can claim is that you do not agree with the Bible, but you cannot say you have a basis for why it is objectively morally wrong.

So what do we make of this? Atheist naturalists have no basis for morality, but all of them do indeed have a system of ethics. They attempt to explain all this away by claiming some sort of motivation for survival, but this too only addresses “is” and does not address “ought.” Why ought an animal want to survive? Why is it “wrong” to want to die? The existence of morality as a concept can only be explained by a transcendant moral law, given by a mind, from which none of us can escape. If you would like me to introduce you to the universal moral lawgiver, I would be glad to do so. He’s actually quite a nice once you get to know Him.

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About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
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27 Responses to Atheists & Morality (Again)

  1. Chris says:

    Yes there is away to rescue the is-ought problem for subjectivism.  An ought is in some sense a reflection of a preference. A preference will often have an objective basis in that if we may know, objectively, that x leads reliably to y and if we desire or value y, then we will often say “one ought to seek y through x”. That ought says something about my wishes for the world around me. I do not say it to tree branches because they do not seem to listen to me and don’t grasp my meaning. Same with animals. Obviously my desires may have little immediate influence over you. My saying I want to do x entails nothing from you necessarily. Maybe you do not value y and therefore will not countenance my doing x. We have to negotiate, compromise, fight, or give in. That is life.  

    Neat trick, claiming that we atheists all secretly hold to some transcendental moral truths. Not true for subjectivists, of course.  I certainly do not want you to steal from me. I don’t need a transcendental moral code to make that true (that I have this desire) . And no objective moral code will have little influence on someone who wants to steal. And I can say “people ought not to steal, and here is why”. I suppose it is better if you can convince others that God happens to agree with you. But keep in mind that a set of moral rules and prescriptions from God does not make it less subjective; and that the list actually objectively exists does not make the moral oughts contained therein objectively true. 

  2. humblesmith says:

    We can indeed know objectively that x leads reliably to y. In spite of our friend David Hume, we can determine such relationships through observation and repetition. In this part you and I agree.

    But the critical part of your explanation hinges on words like “desire” “preference” “my wishes” and “valaue.” Of course, if you value y, you would have to do x to get it. But there’s the rub……if all we’re saying is that x or y ought to happen because you desire it, then that is as far as you can claim. If I do not desire x or y, then I see no right or wrong in either of them. You can say “I don’t like it when y does not occur” but you cannot truly say it is objectively wrong for everyone. Take the classic example of Hitler. In your model, you can say “I do not like it when Hitler kills Jews” but you cannot expect Hitler to agree. Therefore how can you say Hitler or any other evil act in human history is objectively wrong, if ought is based in desires? You can say “I don’t like it” but you have no grounds for claiming the other person ought not do it, for their desires are as equally valid as yours.

    In fact, deep down, none of us truly believe that ought is a reflection of preference, at least not completely. We believe that some things are objectively, universally right or wrong for everyone. No one believes that it merely feels bad for me to steal their stuff, they believe that it is truly morally wrong for me to steal their stuff. But the case for moral law is not that everyone agrees on what is good and evil. The argument is that we have a sense of ought that we hold all people to, and we feel this is more than what I prefer. We assign moral culpability to these things. If the believer in pure naturalism truly believed that all human action is determined by physics and what stimuli we’ve been exposed to, then what difference is there between me and the tree?

    Now regarding if a moral code is created, whether it objectively applies to everyone, or whether it is a subjective code. Again, no one, not anyone, will believe it is OK for me to steal their stuff. Every last human feels this is morally wrong, and feels it is more than just something they do not like……they belive it is a moral issue. This is not subjective. Stealing is not wrong merely because God says so. Rather, it is wrong because it is univesally, objectively wrong in itself. In other words, God could not have subjectively decided to say “Thou shalt steal” and think it would be just as OK as “Thou shalt not steal.”

    Yet the moral law still comes from God as moral law giver. Stealing is wrong because God is good, and all creation reflects His nature.

  3. Dustin says:

    If we get our morals from God’s nature then our morals are arbitrary and have no objectivity. Trying to argue for objective morals from an arbitrary source makes for an incoherent argument.

    Atheism and Morals

    • humblesmith says:

      You said this in your blog: “If morals are simply given to us from God, then we are not truly moral. We are servants of God’s nature, making our morals arbitrary. This has serious negative connotations. For example, if it was in God’s nature to murder then murder would be a moral act! How any theist can argue that morals are universal based on this notion is beyond me. It is simply incoherent.”

      In response, there is a distinction that must be made in order to understand God, us, & morals. The distinction is called voluntarism vs. essentialism. Voluntarism says that things are moral because God says so; essentialism says that things are moral because of God’s essence.

      As you hinted at with the Euthyphro dilemma, it can be described this way: are things moral because God has decided it? or is it moral because it is moral in itself? The first would seem to indicate that God is (or could be) arbitrary, the second implies that there is something greater than God to which He is subject. You seem to have a view of God that aligns with voluntarism, saying that God could have just as easily said “Thou shalt steal” in which case stealing would be moral.

      However, the dilemma has an answer, and turns out to not be a dilemma at all. We deny voluntarism, and hold to esentialism, which says that things are moral and good because God’s nature is good; not because God just made a decision. Things are not moral merely “because God said so.” Nor did God say so because there is something “out there” to which God is subject. Rather, all of creation follows God’s nature, which is wholly moral and good. Stealing is wrong because God’s nature is wrong, not because God decided it was wrong. The universal moral law exists for all people because God’s nature is moral, and everything He does reflects His good nature.

      Further, God’s nature is unchanging. Christian doctrine has always taught that God is immutable, e.g., unchanging in His nature. So the moral rules that God gave us could not have been otherwise because God could not be otherwise. Your statements seem to indicate that you view God’s nature as if it could be some other way; e.g., as if God’s nature could be a murderer. This is incorrect for several reasons, namely 1) it is factually incorrect; 2) such a nature, even if it could be conceived, would destroy itself, for if his nature were to murder or steal, he would murder himself or steal everything in himself. 3) similar to 2, evil can only exist as a void in the good, and therefore God’s nature cannot be evil, for it would destroy itself.

      Another way to understand this is in logic, which works the same way. God could not have voluntarily decided “contradictions are possible” or “A can equal non-A” or “2+2=5, because I like 5 and hate 4.” Rather, the rules of logic and math work the way they do because God’s nature works logically, and everything He creates follows His nature. If God were to say “contradictions are possible” He would have made a self-refuting statement, for the statement “contradictions are possible” is held to be non-contradictable, and is therefore self-refuting. It works the same way with goodness; God’s nature must be good for evil cannot exist on its own.

      So your statement is that our source for morals, God, is (or could be) arbitrary, therefore our morals are arbitrary. This is incorrect, for God is unchanging and always wholly good. But you did get one part right…….you said “…we are not truly moral.” This is correct, for we are not. No human is inherently moral, but we are all by nature immoral. This is due to sin.

      But all of this speaks nothing in relation to the is/ought problem, which is the subject of the blog post.

    • Walt says:

      Humblesmith,

      I don’t understand this common way that theists escape the dilemma. It seems to me that either God has and/or had control over his own nature or that God was and/or is subject to his nature which was arose out of his own control. What am I missing?

      • humblesmith says:

        I presume you are referring to the theist answer that God acts according to His own righteous nature, and therefore is not subject to some external moral code nor is He arbitrary in His moral commands. I don’t think I mentioned this in this post, but likely mentioned it somewhere else.

        God does not have control over His nature in the sense that he could decide to be something other than what He is. God, by nature, is uncreated, eternal, and pure. He cannot wake up one day and say ‘I think I’m going to change my nature, and make myself created, finite, and sinful.’ God, if He is God, cannot decide to make Himself different than God.

        Your second option says that God would have to be subject to His own nature. The answer is that ‘is subject to’ is not the way to describe it. Rather, God acts according to His nature, and does so every time. In a sense, you could say God is limited to acting according to who He is, but this is no surprise, for all beings that act do the same thing….they act according to their nature. Humans act according to human nature, snails according to snail nature, and God acts according to His divine nature. He cannot voluntarily act otherwise.

  4. R.Ross says:

    Morality in its most important sense is an inherent part of being human. It is an important ingredient for survival. Studies show that the morality which has us acting well toward others, kind, compassionate, understanding, considerate etc., has a beneficial and physiological impact upon us; we are actually hardwired to be like this but the ‘wiring’ is often damaged.
    Studies also show that human beings live longer and healthier lives if they are in relationships and supported by community so again, physiologically, it behoves us to act in ways which maintain relationship and community and this is what the so-called moral laws do.
    When we are unkind, cruel, thoughtless, selfish, mean-spirited etc., toward others we experience a negative physiological impact (albeit unconsciously most of the time) and we sabotage or limit our capacity for relationship or community. Stealing, killing, cheating, hurting etc., are all things which make us feel ‘not good’ either consciously or unconsciously, depending upon our level of damage or woundedness.
    In simple terms, the more we abide by most moral laws (not all, some are religious propaganda) the better we feel, the healthier we are, the longer we live and the happier we are and our community is. It’s the ‘warm fuzzies’ as opposed to the ‘cold pricklies.’
    The best advice ever given, and it can be traced in varying forms through all religions including the ancient Egyptian and even older Goddess religions is:
    ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ The only problem with this one is that people are often far kinder to others than they are to themselves, but at core it makes the point, perhaps better as Judaism puts it, and Hinduism for that matter: ‘DO Not do unto others what you would not do to yourself.’

  5. R.Ross says:

    p.s. For any atheists here, some of the kindest, most compassionate, sensible and grounded people I have met are atheists. I’m not one but I am married to one and have a few I count as friends. I actually think being agnostic is more sensible given the fact that atheism is an extreme and absolute position, just like believing in God is, and in truth, we none of us know anything for sure.

    • humblesmith says:

      You say that none of us know anything for sure. Do you know that, or is it just an opinion? If you know it, and hold it to be true for everyone, then you’ve just claimed to know a universal truth by saying “we can’t know anything.” This is self-refuting. If it is just an opinion, then it is possible to know something.

      Presumably you mean “none of us know anything about religion for sure” but this too is self-refuting. For what such a statement would actually mean is that we have examined all religion, learned about it, and we then know about religion that we cannnot know anything about religion. Again, this is self-contradictory.

      • R.Ross says:

        I should have qualified this by saying we cannot know what God is or is not with any absolute certainty; it cannot be proven.
        But we can ‘know’ things for ourselves about life here and beyond and while this cannot be proven to anyone else, it is a surety for the individual.
        No-one can say for certain what happens when we die in any sort of way which stands as absolute proof for other people. One may gather all sorts of information about God, religion, life after death etc., but, at the end of the day, each individual must decide how much if any of it makes sense to him or her. Some people live excellent and honourable lives believing there is no God and there is no life beyond death. That is right for them. Others live similar lives believing the opposite, that is right for them.
        What I meant was there is no absolute empirical proof for either case, merely clues, anecdotal evidence, instinct, insight and often psychic ability which enables people to make a decision one way or the other. But prove there is a God one cannot and prove there is no God, one cannot either. Hence my comment that we can never know for sure in an empirical sense.
        We can however know for ‘sure’ our particular set of beliefs from a place of study, insight, mindfullness and careful thought but that applies to all sides of this particular equation.
        In terms of religion, we can have some understanding of the mythic and historical sources but as to it being the word of God or some ‘higher being’ we have no empirical certainty. There is no doubt that tracing the histories of religion the links are so common at source and clearly they have all drawn upon each other for millenia, it indicates that one thing is certain, within the human condition is a desire and need for spiritual expression. There is also clear evidence throughout religions and all spiritual beliefs, no matter how sophisticated or primitive, that a belief in existence beyond this life is deeply sourced in humanity…. which leads me to believe there is a reason for that and that reason is we are spiritual beings having a material experience. But, for many others, without empirical proof, they do not believe this and hold other views on why it is so.
        What I would say is that you can certainly know for ‘sure’ what a religion teaches but you cannot know for sure the source of these teachings, nor, in terms of historical accuracy, how right they are.

        • humblesmith says:

          Whether we can prove God’s existence with absolute certainty depends on how we define absolute certainty. There are different definitions……some, such as Immanuel Kant and David Hume, claim that we cannot even know our sense perceptions with absolute certainty, and conclude that what we see and hear and smell are in doubt, much more in doubt than a math problem such as 2+2=4. So if absolute certainty means trying to prove sense perceptions, trying to prove the existence of anything outside of my own mind, then I would agree that proving God to that level of certainty is not a fruitful endeavor.

          However, that said, we can be as sure of God’s existence as we can be sure of anything in history. For example, there is more empirical evidence for the existence of God and that the Bible is correct about Jesus than of the existence of Alexander the Great, or anything else in ancient history. I have included several examples on this blog; for one example, see here: http://humblesmith.wordpress.com/2010/07/21/proof-for-god-the-sequel/

          You are correct that we can know things in our own minds. I credit you with this, for it is an insight that many thinkers miss. I can indeed know for certain what I am thinking, what I am feeling, and what is in my mind and emotions and will. Not all people realize this, and it is an important concept in the field of how we know things.

          Your last statement mentions the lack of ability to know the historical accuracy of a religion. I have written a good handful of posts on the historical accuracy of the Bible. When I started studying it, I did not realize how extensively the Bible can be corroborated from external secular history. For a couple of examples, see here: http://humblesmith.wordpress.com/2011/02/16/an-example-of-historical-accuracy-in-the-bible/
          and here: http://humblesmith.wordpress.com/2010/06/05/so-the-bible-is-accurate-historically-so-what/

          Regarding the connection between between religions, especially between ancient ones and Christianity, I have found that there is commonality in some things and not others. For example, it is true that most all religions try to teach us to live better, to reach some transcendant state (heaven, nirvana, etc.), and give spiritual expression. But these are very general things. Once we start to look at the specifics, there are vast differences. So many diffrences which are so notably different, that I must admit that the only way I can see anyone thinking there are similarities between them is to either be very unaware of what they actually teach or to be intentionally only focusing on the similarities. If you know of any specifics that support your statement that religions have a common source, I would be interested to know them, for all my investigations have shown just the opposite, that the origins and teachings of the different religions are so different as to be dramatic.

          I wrote on this recently, and included a follow-up. See here: http://humblesmith.wordpress.com/2010/12/24/was-jesus-a-story-that-copied-pagan-myths/
          and here: http://humblesmith.wordpress.com/2011/05/08/was-jesus-a-copy-of-pagan-myths-part-2/

          Thank you for the discussion. I find this very interesting.

          Peace & Blessings

  6. Beau Quilter says:

    “Ought” comes into play whenever you are dealing with social animals. If the mothers of a social species do not care for their young, the species fails to survive. For more complex social animals (humans are probably the most complex), this simple formula for survival extends to include altruistic behavior toward family, tribe, or even species. At the level of the individual animal, emotions driven by chemical processes reinforce altruistic behavior. When we “feel” that someone “ought” to behave in a certain way, our feeling is driven by millions of years of successful evolution.

    Animals with brains complex enough for rational thought may add logic as a determining factor for this feeling of “ought”, especially when two “oughts” are in conflict. Ought I protect my child no matter what he says or does, or ought I protect the altruistic cooperation of my tribe, even if it means allowing the elders to punish my child for stealing? There is no simple answer to this question. We base our answer on nuances such as the fairness of the punishment, the long term benefits for the child, etc.

    We do not need a force or god outside the known universe to account for “ought”, no more than we need a god to account for any of the feelings, dreams, or thoughts, we experience through the evolution of chemical processes in our brains. And we have ample evidence that “ought”, like any other feeling or idea, is driven by natural chemical processes. We observe throughout our world how an individual’s experience of “ought” is changed by brain damage. I can become less able to assess the morality of a situation, become more apt to curse or behave violently, or even become more docile/innocent, simply by damaging my brain in a car accident.

    Just because we recognize that altruism is an evolved trait doesn’t invalidate it as a basis for behavior. Our species survives through cooperation. I have evolved as an individual who feels happier by behaving altruistically towards others. Knowing that evolution is the cause doesn’t invalidate the feeling. Should I give up eating apples, just because I know that the pleasure of eating fruit is an evolved pleasure?

    I can behave altruistically even when I recognize that altruistic behavior may sometimes mean sacrificing my own comfort, even the length of my own life. I know that I will die someday. Having a long life may bring me happiness, but so will educating my children, easing the suffering of a sick friend, creating a novel, an idea, or an invention that makes life interesting for other people. An atheist can value the quality of life over the length of life; and it doesn’t bother us that our measure of quality is driven by evolved emotions that ultimately protect our species.

    • humblesmith says:

      The trouble is that our sense of ought goes beyond our value system or sense of opinion. All humans hold that some things truly ought not happen. We might disagree on some of them, but the post deals mainly with the sense of ought in itself, not the specific morality. That ought exists in the first place is evidence agains naturalism (physicalism). The sense of survival does not explain the problem. If I mix vinegar and baking soda together on my kitchen counter, I get molecules in motion. But why ought it continue? Why ought an animal want to survive, as opposed to not? If all we are is matter and energy, and all our minds are are chemical reactions, why ought it it continue, as opposed to stop? What is immoral about dying? If only matter and energy exists, then getting to ought takes some sort of a leap. Your explanation says that a drive for survival is our substitution for ought, thus ought is a type of illusion, not really existing as a moral ought, but rather a physical need. This denies C.S. Lewis’ point about the tree, saying that physical forces are the explanation for “how we are.” Yet the point of the post is that deep down we all don’t really believe this, holding that some things fit into a different category, that some things ought not happen regardless of whether it means survival or not.

      Apart from that, we do indeed hold some things ought not happen, that me stealing their stuff is not just a feeling, but is objectively wrong, apart from people’s feelings. That some might have brain damage and think otherwise only proves that we recognize this person as damaged, not normal. We would not say of such a person that “He’s just thinking different, he’s entitled to his opinion.” No, we instead pass laws to ensure such people do not hurt themselves or others further. As Lewis points out in his appendix to The Abolition of Man, all societies throughout time have had very similar laws, the same sense of what ought to happen.

      • Walt says:

        humblesmith,

        I’m curious how you would respond to Harris’ analogy here to physical health. He argues that no one questions whether our view of physical health is objective – it is better not to have a disease than to have a disease. If someone comes along and tells me that I’m wrong, and that it’s actually much better to have a disease, we do not need to respect this person’s opinion – they are clearly wrong.

        Do you think this analogy fails or do you think that physical health is not objective enough?

        • humblesmith says:

          This analogy fails. First, purely observing “this person has physical health” is a statement of fact, not a moral judgement. Presumably the point is rather, ‘physical health is morally good.’ Second, even assuming the latter statement, the atheists cannot have their cake and eat it too, which is what they are constantly trying to do. For example, at this year’s “Reason Rally” in Washington, DC, Richard Dawkins made this statement: “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.” Yet in the same short speech, he said that religious faith leads to evil deeds. Well, how can the universe be made of blind, pitiless indifference with no evil, and at the same time have some things that are evil? The position is inconsistent. The statement about physical health has the same conclusion…..the atheists constantly tell us that we do not need God as an explanation, and matter and energy are sufficient explanations for everything that exists. If all that exists is matter and energy, then whatever happens in the universe are purely natural forces and ought to be the way they are. How did the atheists suddenly sneak in the idea that physical health is morally good and sickness is morally evil? Physical health, in an atheist system, is no more good nor evil than the vinegar and baking soda reacting on my kitchen counter. Why would it be the case that sickness was any more evil than health? Atheist moral systems want to deny all objective standards, then cling to objective standards.
          So the answer is that they make these statements that sound good, but when you unpack them, they use imprecise terms and always seem to sneak God in the side door and call Him something else.

          • Walt says:

            humblesmith,
            I think we misunderstand one another on this analogy. I’m not actually talking about whether being physically healthy is morally good – I’m actually discussing the facts of physical health and arguing that these facts are objective enough without any sort of external standard. Why do you take it for granted what we mean by physical health? My doctor and I say that it is a fact that it is healthier to live without cancer than to live with it, and we’re right about this fact of health regardless of what anyone else says. But we don’t have an “objective external” standard of health, and yet we’re able to make this statement of fact. I would have as hard a time defending this statement of fact about health (if you don’t understand why, ask yourself what health actually is) as I would trying to defend a statement about morality. Hopefully that was a bit clearer – does the analogy still fail?

          • humblesmith says:

            I do not have Harris’ language in front of me, so I can only comment on the way you presented it. I believe you phrased it as “it is better to be healthier.” The term ‘better’ implies a value judgment, which is why I thought you were referring to foundations of morality.

            As you have rephrased it, it seems you are asking more of a question of whether or not we can say the man without cancer is healthier than another with cancer. This is not a question of the foundations of morality, but rather a question of whether we can make statements that are true statements about reality. The answer is this: If I look at two pieces of cloth and say “this one is whiter than that one” then I must have some sense of pure white in order to make the judgement. The same is true of health: if I can say one man is healthier than another, I must have some sense of pure health or I could not make the judgement. In order for us to determine relative whiteness or health, the idea of whiteness or health must be external to the cloths and the men. C. S. Lewis described it as a fish cannot know wetness, for we must have something external to the water, dryness, to determine if something is wet. If all the fish knew was water, it would have no idea of wetness. The idea of a universal standard external to the object is necessary.

            Presumably the idea was to take the idea of determining health and apply it to determining morals. The same logic would apply.

  7. Walt says:

    I’m not sure I understand your distinction between my two phrasings – is it different to say, “it is better not to have cancer” and “it is healthier not to have cancer” ? If I need to demonstrate that it is objectively good to be healthy, then we need to back up.

    Regarding your response to my second way of stating it, I’m only familiar with your argument from Lewis and Descartes. Are you arguing that having a sense of something being “better” or “best” means that that better or best ideal must exist in reality? I don’t understand why this external ideal would have to exist – what would you call pure health? Is it living to 80? 100? 800? Is it having all the right bacteria in my gut? Is it needing none of them? I don’t have a clear idea of what perfect health is, and yet I’m able to make real judgments on what is more and less healthy, so I’m not sure I understand this logic.

  8. humblesmith says:

    I’m not quite sure we’re following each other. Your earlier comment above said “I’m not actually talking about whether being physically healthy is morally good” (which takes the question out of the realm of morality, goodness, or evil. The question seemed to be whether we can objectively say that one thing is further along on a scale than another. In this case, whether one man is healthier than another. Your next comment seemed to be back to the realm of health being objectively good. So I’m not sure I’m understanding where you’re coming from. If the question is whether health is good, then the original post quotes atheist naturalists……..if no God exists, then all that we are dealing with are natural forces, and natural forces have no good or bad, they just exist. In physics, one force is no more “good” or “bad” than another force, they just exist. Health would be no better or worse than non-health. Only by introducing a moral code that is not a physical force can we get good or bad.

    If the question is out of the realm of morality, and into the realm of how we know things, then my most recent comment stands. The only way we can know if one thing is further along a scale is if we have an idea of a scale that is beyond the things being measured. One thing cannot be healthier, higher, whiter, etc., if viewed in isolation. We must have an external scale beyond the thing being measured.

    The discussion has gotten way off from the point of the original post, and it’s starting to get repetitive. I’ll shut it off soon unless the conversation progresses.

    • Walt says:

      humblesmith,

      Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I’m not trying to be repetitive or off-topic…I do think that our discussion right now is very much related to the original post, I just don’t think we’re understanding one another as you say.

      I’m simply arguing that we don’t need an external scale or external ideal/purity to know where we are on the scale and which direction we should go. Like health, I would say moral direction can be found even by observing what it’s like to move slightly in either direction. If I get a stomach ache one day, I know that it’s better not to have a stomach ache, so I pursue that. If someone ridicules me and it makes me feel bad, then I know that ridicule is bad and I avoid it.

      You keep saying that we need an external scale, and I just simply disagree with this assertion – my apologies if you don’t think my contributions have helped the discussion at all. I’ll leave your blog be and be on my merry way – thanks for your time and thoughts.

      • humblesmith says:

        I was not trying to run you off, I apologize if it came across that way. My comment policy is to try to avoid being a discussion board; too many duscussion boards on the net that go round and round without getting anywhere, and just turn into a boring name calling exercise.

        It is impossible to know whether one thing is higher than another without having the ground to measure them against. It is impossible to know whether one thing is whiter than another unless we have a black and a white to measure them against. If we view two objects in isolation, we have no idea whether one is higher or whiter than the other. The same with health; we cannot know whether one person is healthy unless we have an idea of sick. I suspect the author of the quote you mention was trying to have a purely physical universe, but also have a non-physical moral system, and using the concept of health to try to demonstrate this. When we use a fuzzy concept like health, the flaw in the logic is less obvious; when we use something like height, the flaw becomes apparrent that we cannot know height without having an earth to measure against.

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