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Episode 22: Moral Absolutes and The Motivation to be Moral

01 Nov Posted by in Eps/Transcripts | 1 comment
Episode 22: Moral Absolutes and The Motivation to be Moral
 

 

Ep 22 Pt 1:

Ep 22 Pt 2:

PART 1:

Although the concept of ultimate accountability appears to result in the loss of free will, many monotheists argue that a lack of belief in one’s accountability to God and a rejection of moral absolutes is what drives non-believers to indulge in sinful behavior, under the alleged false pretense that a god does not exist.

This view raises some very interesting questions about the theistic perception of morality. If the faithful truly believe God’s Law is necessary to guide human behavior, then let’s imagine a “hypothetical” scenario where God does not exist and there is no final judgment or eternal consequences for one’s actions. Under this scenario, do monotheists feel it would be acceptable to steal a car or rob their neighbor’s home? If believers could know for certain that God does not exist, would it then be perfectly fine to murder someone in cold blood? If the thin veneer of God’s moral law is the ONLY thing keeping Christians and other monotheists from looting, raping, and murdering their neighbors, then it reveals something very terrifying about the theistic system of value.

However, a divine, objective standard of morality not only fails as the basis from which to derive our true moral conscience, it cannot inform us about how we actually KNOW right from wrong. God is not subject to reveal the inner-workings of His moral barometer nor is God required to explain His moral reasoning, no matter how benevolent or malevolent a command might appear. God’s Word IS The Law, therefore if God were to claim abstaining from adultery is morally good, then it would be so, just as if God were to claim killing the children of his enemies is morally good, then it would also be so.

“You shall not commit adultery.” (Exodus 20:14)

“Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” (Psalm 137:9)

Even though some of God’s commands might appear to contradict our understanding of right and wrong, the objective moral worth of the action in question is always upheld because it comes from God, period, case closed. Therefore, objective morality cannot inform our actions, it can tell us IF an action is right or wrong, but not WHY an action is right or wrong.

Although the seventh Commandment claims we should not commit adultery, it fails to provide an explanation as to why it is wrong in the first place. However, there a several stories throughout the Old Testament that tell of great leaders that were destroyed or lost their power because of adultery.

In 2 Samuel 11 and 12, the Bible recounts the story of King David and his affair with a married woman, named Bathsheba. When David learns Bathsheba is pregnant he devises a plan to send her husband Uriah to the frontlines of battle where he is subsequently killed, allowing David to marry Bathsheba and thus concealing her pregnancy. David’s actions anger God and as punishment David’s child becomes very ill. For one week David fasts and pleads with God, but to no avail, for on the seven day the child dies. (2 Samuel 12: 15-18)

Do monotheists base the decision to remain faithful to their spouse solely on what God commands? Is the lesson from David’s story, that committing adultery could result in the slow and painful death of one’s innocent child, truly a motivating factor for monotheists to refrain from committing this immoral act?  Or rather, does the motivation to abstain from adultery go much deeper?

The desire that drives two people to remain faithful to one another is not a conditioned response to a command, but rather, is derived from consideration for the other person’s feelings, out of love and mutual respect. We remain faithful to our spouse not out of coercion and fear of God’s retribution, but out of concern for the potential loss of trust that would result by cheating on one’s partner.

Here we can see that secular morality excels where Biblical morality fails, because a subjective moral standard is informative, whereas an objective moral standard is not. The desire to be honored and respected informs our moral reasoning that others are also entitled to honor and respect, as defined by the Golden Rule. Therefore, subjective morality can provide an answer to WHY it is important to be moral, whereas God’s objective morality merely states the command and the resultant punishment.

The non-informative nature of absolute morality is sometimes difficult to observe when it comes to an issue such as adultery, where the immorality of an action is obvious to everyone, regardless of whether or not one believes in a god. However, this distinction is not so clear when it comes to certain passages in the Bible that promote inequality or injustice against opposing groups of people.

We have seen many examples of this earlier in the series, where the Bible promotes slavery and prescribes the death penalty for trivial infractions, such as non-belief and working on the Sabbath. However, objective morality’s inability to inform our moral reasoning is most evident when Scripture promotes an action so heinous that if one were placed in a similar situation there would be no other option than to disobey God’s direct command.

For a moment, imagine if God were to make a commandment that requires all believers to sacrifice their first born child in order to display their honor, devotion, and unquestioning faith in His Word. Even though believers are compelled to obey, how many will actually follow God’s command, if to do so, means they must knowing go against their understanding of right and wrong?

This serves to highlight a famous philosophical question posed by Socrates to the theologian, Euthyphro. Originally found in the Dialogues of Plato, the “Euthyphro Dilemma” can be paraphrased as follows, “Is moral goodness commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?” The apologist William Lane Craig explains the dilemma and the argument against it.

Is what Craig says really true, that because God’s very nature is good thus all moral goodness must emanate from God? God has historically commanded his followers to engage in immoral behavior. However, the fact believers could engage in immoral behavior simply because it has been commanded by God, shows us that the second half in the Euthyphro Dilemma is actually true — essentially anything can be considered morally good, so long as God approves.

In Genesis Chapter 22 God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. The Bible also claims Abraham dearly loves his son, and it would only be natural for Abraham to have experienced some kind of internal conflict with God’s command, but in the end, Abraham is fully prepared to engage in the cold-blooded murder of his beloved child. It appears the simple fact that God commands an action makes the action acceptable, and the only conceivable explanation as to WHY it would be acceptable is because God has command it. As we can see, absolute morality is based on circular reasoning and therefore it is completely non-informative.

If our understanding of right and wrong is only supposed to emanate from God, it would seem that our internal sense of morality should never conflict with God’s will. However, if Abraham could know that it is wrong to kill his child, despite the fact God has commanded it, where is this sense of morality derived? Although Genesis 22 never lets on that Abraham has reservations about killing his son, the fact Abraham dearly loves his one and only child seems to imply that he does. Any caring father placed in a similar situation would surely experience concern and hesitation about what he believes God has commanded him to do. However, perhaps Abraham did not have any apprehension or reservations about God’s command. Maybe the scenario played out a little something like this…

There is no question that Abraham was a devout believer, but he was not a special case, for this story is applicable to everyone. Indeed, even if Abraham is a factious character, his story is useful as a parable, for it provides an example of the level of devotion God expects his most faithful servants to possess. We are given this story for no other reason than the simple fact it displays the degree of faith that God requires of us. Therefore, put yourself in Abraham’s position. Imagine if God commanded you to murder your first born child. Who among you would even entertain the idea, let alone attempt it?

It is obvious no sane person would never behave as depicted toward the act of murdering their own flesh and blood, even if they believe God’s voice is directing them to do so. Whether monotheists want to admit it or not, EVERYONE, both believers and non-believers, employ subjective reasoning in order to inform their understanding of morality. The fact we can still know right from wrong, despite what God commands, shows us that morality does not come from god, but rather, from our own subjective reasoning, morality comes from ourselves.

Because secular morality is not comprised of rigid commands handed down from upon high, we can take the information we glean from our moral reasoning, as well as from scientific investigation, and apply it to a wide range of situations in order to assess the degree of moral relevance on a case by case basis. Among the mainstream followers of the monotheistic faiths the moral implications of, premarital sex, occasionally smoking tobacco or even drinking alcohol in moderation are up for debate, but any sane, rational, self-respecting person that believes in a higher power would never sacrifice their children, even if it meant going against the explicit will of God.

PART 2:

Some theists may continue to argue that even though the Bible condones immoral acts like slavery, killing non-believers, and even possibility sacrificing your own child if called upon to do so, if moral absolutes do not exist, then how can anyone have the authority to claim another person’s actions are wrong?

The proponents of objective morality commonly raise the question about Hitler and what makes his act of committing genocide against the Jewish people wrong if there is no objective standard by which to examine moral conduct. In other words, if morality is not fixed and absolute, what is the motivation to be moral, and who is to say that one version of subjective morality is any better than another? However, this is not the question we should be asking, but rather, if morality IS fixed and absolute, then how can there be so many different versions of objective morality?

The problem with debating moral issues regarding someone like Hitler is due to the very fact that Hitler believed in moral absolutes. It is clear from Hitler’s speeches and writings that he was convinced moral standards are absolute and prescribed by God, but more importantly, Hitler believed he was actually conducting himself according to God’s moral absolutes.

Although there is historical evidence to suggest Hitler was not a practicing Christian and may have even plotted to destroy Christianity all together, despite remaining in good standing with the Roman Catholic church until the time of his death, it is undeniable that Hitler believed in God. The exact version of God that Hitler believed in is irrelevant for the purposes of this discussion, because the fact still remains that Hitler believed he was conducting himself according to God’s divine will, a fact repeatedly stated in public speeches as well as in his book, Mein Kampf.

“One cannot live faithfully and give up what has given meaning and purpose to one’s entire life. That would not be so if it were not a cardinal command. And no earthly power gave us that command. For the God, our God, who created our people, gave us that command!”

-Adolf Hitler, Triumph of the Will

 

“What we have to fight for is the necessary security for the existence and increase of our race and people, the subsistence of its children and the maintenance of our racial stock unmixed, the freedom and independence of the Fatherland; so that our people may be enabled to fulfill the mission assigned to it by the Creator.”

- Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, Vol. 1 Chapter 8

 

“In short, the results of miscegenation are always the following: (a) The level of the superior race becomes lowered; (b) physical and mental degeneration sets in, thus leading slowly but steadily towards a progressive drying up of the vital sap. The act which brings about such a development is a sin against the will of the Eternal Creator. And as a sin this act will be avenged.”

- Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, Vol. 1 Chapter 11

 

“I believe today that my conduct is in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator.”

- Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, Vol. 1 Chapter 2

 

IF moral absolutes do indeed exist, then how is it possible for Hitler’s objective version of morality to so greatly differ from other versions of objective morality, such as, those belonging to the very same people who believe in moral absolutes and are so quick to invoke the name of Hitler during debates of this nature?

Even if moral absolutes could exist, it would pointless to believe that they do, because it is utterly impossible to know with any certainty exactly what those absolutes are. The simple fact that different versions of objective morality can EVEN exist in the first place, renders a belief in moral absolutes meaningless — for how can anyone accurately determine which version of objective morality is correct if all parties believe they are following God’s divine will?

Never mind how an atheist would convince Hitler that his version of morality is incorrect, how would a Christian convince the members of the Westboro Baptist Church that their understanding of God’s morality is wrong? How would a Muslims convince al-Qaida that their understanding of God’s morality is wrong?  In fact, how could someone belonging to ANY religion convince the members of an opposing belief system that their understanding of divine morality is wrong? Because you cannot ask God which version is correct, because you cannot use absolute morality to infer anything beyond what you personally believe God states is right or wrong, any hope for honest debate is lost.

A belief in moral absolutes also prohibits learning by discouraging the examination of scientific evidence that might provide greater insight into moral questions. For instance, if Hitler had not based his morality on what he believed to be God’s divine will, but rather, on scientific fact, he would have found there is no such thing as “racial purity” and simply upon those grounds he would have no basis upon which to commit genocide against any group of people.

Similarly, science has revealed that homosexuality is determined before one’s birth and is not a choice as was once commonly believed; therefore, the United States should afford gays the same rights as every other tax paying American citizen.

Without the judges’ ability to uphold laws and the legislature to shape public policy based on new evidence and changing culture perceptions, we would still have social injustices like, slavery, women would be unable to vote, and it would still be illegal for interracial couples to have a relationship. Indeed, if they could have their way, this is the kind of bigoted society many monotheists would like to return to.

Absolute morality leaves no room for debate and no leeway to accommodate society’s changing perceptions about moral and social issues. The inflexible nature of moral absolutes discourages growth and understanding because the act of changing one’s mind about God’s divine, moral standard results in the appearance of hypocrisy and negates the very basis of objective morality. Therefore, despite all the rhetoric about seeking humility and being humble, monotheists can never change their minds about what they believe to be God’s divine will, because their pride and unquestioning faith in God prevents them. Finally, fixed morality leads to elitism and provides fertile ground for tyrants such as Hitler to obtain influence and power.

In order to have a sound code of conduct that is applicable to everyone, that is accurate and consistent, yet adaptable to various circumstances, our understanding of morality can not be governed by the ambiguous will of a God that every religion interprets differently. Only a secular understanding of morality can achieve a logical, consistent, and all-encompassing code of conduct.

Hitler’s actions were wrong because he systematically violated the core principles of secular morality, by denying the Jewish people access to their belongings, denying their want of freedom, and most importantly, denying their desire to live. Furthermore, Hitler caused a great detriment to society at large, not only in Germany, but across the entire world.

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