Friday, December 31, 2004

Ethics and God

One of the great, and original, bloggers is Steve den Beste of USS Clueless fame. He is a creative and analytical thinker possessed of a singularly clear writing style. Sadly for the rest of us, he decided he had enough and just up and quit.

But his essays are still available, and still thought provoking. One such is Ethics can't be based on belief in God.

Religionists are particularly inclined to assert that without a Supreme Being, ethics and morality are impossible. The reasons for this assertion are various, but cluster around two considerations: the threat of eternal punishment keeps wayward humans in line, and the notion that any sense of ethics is God-given:

Since this ethics comes from God (or from several such Gods) then it has particular meaning – it is literally sacred – and must be followed by all believers in that faith. And often these ethical systems are backed by threats of punishment for those who violate them, and promises of reward for those who do not violate them.

Certainly this is true of Christianity, the predominant religion of the United States. The received wisdom is encompassed in the teachings of the Bible, particularly the New Testament, and in its current incarnation most Christians believe that those following the teachings will end up in Heaven and those who seriously violate them will end up in Hell.

Ignoring for the moment that the reason for the plethora of religions throughout History is their mutual exclusivity, and the consequent problem of deciding just which one is literally sacred amongst the dross, God-based ethics begs a fundamental question, posed by the Greeks. Does an act have an inherent ethical value?

Is an act right because God says it is right, or does God say it is right because it is right? In other words, either (1) the act has no inherent ethical value, but is assigned a value of "right" or "wrong" solely based on an arbitrary edict from God, or (2) God recognizes the inherent value of the act and then passes this on to us as received wisdom.

Whichever of these a Christian (or any other believer in a religion based on deities) chooses leaves him in a bind. If "wrong" acts are not inherently wrong, but only wrong because of God's arbitrary edicts, then the Christian must face the possibility that God could change His mind. God could appear tomorrow, ten miles high, astride Jerusalem and announce in a booming voice that henceforth only murderers and torturers would be permitted into heaven, that slavery was a good thing*, that genocide was noble and that anyone who helped a neighbor in need would burn in Hell for all eternity.

It does no good to argue that God would not actually do this; who are you to say what God will do? If acts have no inherent ethical value, God could do this, and instantly turn every concept of right and wrong upside down.

I suspect most, if not all, Christians (I use the term here as Mr. den Beste did--shorthand to identify any adherent of deity-based ethics, keeping in mind this blog's audience comes from predominantly Christian nation) would assert that such a thing is out of the question.


But that means God has only put His imprimatur on an act's pre-existing ethical value.

God is not the source of the ethical value of the act, but only a convenient conduit by which we learn of that ethical value.

This gives us the ethical permanence we desire, but at the expense of removing God's role in it. For since the ethical value of the act exists independent of God's declaration, then it would exist even if there were no God at all.

How does a deist--keep in mind there is no difference between a deist, agnostic, and atheist save for spelling--square this circle?

With a, for some, ugly resort to utilitarianism. A lone human makes no more sense than a lone ant. Ethics is the embodiment of the modus vivendi humans reach to live in social groups, and exists always as a tension between unsustainable absolute self interest, and absolute self-sacrifice that is hostage to the first defector (see also Pacifism, impossibility of).

Such ethics is situationally dependent, and materially justified. What works is what's right. The classic example is Christianity's approach to interest--forbidden prior to wars between Italian city states [dates fail me here, but let's say circa 1200AD]. Permitted after one city state was able to marshal superior military forces through the monetary infusion resulting from granting said interest. What worked became right.

At best, religion acts as a flywheel in resisting precipitous change. At worst, sacred scripture actively sometimes justifies what we mere humans now view as evil. Slavery, anyone?

So far from being indispensible, God given ethics are scarcely more than icing on the human cake.


Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Why is it that the non-religious are so adamant that the religious must hold each and every theological interpretation and ethical rule, no matter how minor or obscure, to be timeless and literal? Is it so very hard to grasp that religious belief and understanding is, by definition, imperfect and conditioned by human limitations and historical circumstance, and that science, discovery and historical experience can all influence scriptural interpretation? I don't know anyone who believes he has access to perfect knowledge and has nothing left to learn, but unbelievers seem to feel religious belief can only be valid or "sincere" if we all live like the ancient Israelites. This reminds me of Harry over on Brosjudd, who clearly objects and cries foul when anyone diverts from the ultramontane Catholicism he so loves to hate.

Let's take your example of interest. Feudalism was an effort to pull society out of the Dark Ages by crafting a self-contained order based upon duty and fealty. They craved stability and protection, and they had good reason to. Individual freedom meant anarchy and there was no notion of progress as we know it--certainly not economic progress. In the early Middle Ages, wealth was believed to be finite and pretty much consisted of land, gold and jewels and livestock. The only way to increase it was conquest, plunder and mining. There was no social security net and no bankruptcy code. To lose your land was a death sentence for you and your family.

Seen against this scientific knowledge, the injunction against interest was not only an important basis for social stability, it also was a reasonable, logical and humane expression of fidelity to the Commandment against stealing. It was simply beyond their ken that there could be any merit in acquiring wealth for no labour because they could not conceive of wealth as other than a zero-sum game. With the development of banking in Lombardy and increased commercializiation, people began to see --slowly--that money itself could beget wealth, even if it took hundreds more years to understand how. Obviously this scientific development put everything in a different context, as science frequently has. But what theological implications do you want to draw from this story? That they should have understood economics from the beginning? That they should have ignored the expansion of economic knowledge? Do you think the case for faith would be stronger is the religious were still fulminating against interest?

It is fair game to level charges of hypocrisy and self-interest provided that it is understood that humans are by definition self-interested and incapable of either complete undertanding or completely disinterested actions. In other words, the charge should be excess hypocrisy or self-interest. To live according to relgious precepts is a constant struggle for meaning and enlightenment and it occurs in this world with all its changes, wonders and horrors. You won't go too far with your objections if you insist on treating scripture as a crystal clear, timeless, how-to manual, because nobody sees it as such. Except non-believers, of course

January 03, 2005 3:06 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


Unfortunately, when religions claim Divine Guidance as the source of ethics and morality, they are rather bound to "timeless and literal."

As Mr. den Beste noted, when such an ethical basis is used " is literally sacred – and must be followed by all believers in that faith." That is all well and good as far as it goes, but it leaves God open to changing his mind, and leaves Divinely based ethics on the quicksand into which believers accuse non-believers of sinking.

Based on my reading (Durant, Age of Faith), there is rather more to my example of interest than possibly met your eye.

"The greatest obstacle to the development of banking was the ecclesiastical doctrine of interest. This had three sources [including] Christ's condemnation of interest." (page 630)

Which underlines the question posed in the essay: Is an act right because God says it is right, or does God say it is right because it is right?

Is interest wrong only because God in Christ said so?

If that isn't the case, then believers, under the auspices of The Church, were basing their notions of ethical behavior--ultimately changing wrong into right--essentially solely upon utilitarian considerations.

Hmmmm. What does that sound like?

I do not mean to level charges of hypocrisy at either believers, or institutional religion, suggest there are any theological implications, nor insist believers stand fast to some judgment long since overcome by events.

Rather, my point is to take on the (to my eye) the fundamental contradiction involved in asserting God is required for ethics, using as an example a clear change in Church sanctioned ethics driven by, of all things, what works.

How do you square that circle?

January 03, 2005 5:43 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Ah, Will Durant, that well-known theologian. Please tell me what the scriptural admonitions against interest are that allow for no ambiguity as to what Christ or the ancient Israelites meant.

January 04, 2005 3:37 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

Skipper is spot on. Peter, as Jeff said, when the claim is based on the imprimatur of divine will, it pretty much has to be timeless and perfect. If the best that people can do is interpret such timeless wisdom through the dark prism of human frailty, then how is such divine guidance any advantage over human self-guidance? Your example on the Medieval attitude toward interest is a perfect example of Jeff's point on the good is what works.

When theists claim that the defense of human life and human dignity is based on the fact that we are made in God's image, it is just a backdoor way of affirming Humanism. The Good is what is good for humans. We are the measure of all things. So a Humanist, if he truly follows what is best for humanity, cannot help but do what is good by God. So why do we continue to get such grief from theists?

January 04, 2005 5:51 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


I certainly wouldn't claim that Durant is a theologian, but his research is extensive and detailed. Further, while to socialist for my taste, his most repeated refrain throughout the series (or at least as far as I have gotten) is the absolute necessity of religion to society.

While I might term it an unavoidable necessity, in as much as the vast majority of humans are not going to give up religion except under duress or the ennui that is a consequence of an established church, that still leaves the question open.

How do you, with your religious belief, square the circle Mr. den Beste describes?

As opposed to your first impression, and possibly due to my inexpert writing, looking for religious hypocrisy is the furthest thing from my mind. In fact, I am quite willing to grant, on sufficient evidence, that materialists are in fact ethical free loaders.

You, and others, have asserted God is sine qua non for ethics. But I don't see how that avoids being a self contradicting position.

So show me.

January 04, 2005 6:06 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Mr. Den Beste hasn't presented us with a circle. He has given us an a priori fallacy.

"If "wrong" acts are not inherently wrong, but only wrong because of God's arbitrary edicts, then the Christian must face the possibility that God could change His mind"

It is hard to believe any religious person could write such a sentence. How can God's edicts be "arbitrary"? He is using that word the way journalists use scare quotes. It doesn't take too much reflection to see that Mr. Den Beste believes he has a more perfect sense of right and wrong than God, because he is suggesting his "edicts" can be ill-thought out or impetuous or whatever. In other words, his humanism defines his notion of what an ideal God would look like and he doesn't have much respect for one that doesn't conform. Bully for him, but he can hardly expect the religious to agree with an argument based upon a premise that mankind can arbitrate the justness of God and dismiss Him if he doesn't measure up. You do that all the time, Jeff--selectively--and many before you have too. At some point you arrive at an argument over whether the Holocaust is a dramatic proof or disproof of faith and you exhaust the power of language and words.

As to "changing his mind", I don't know. How could I? But I have absolutely no trouble with the notion that our understanding of His will changes in response to history, and I am beginning to feel you guys are being wilfully stubborn by not addressing that and ducking my request that you cite the passages that leave no possible ambiguity over interest and many other issues.

(BTW, seeing as you believe that religious people, on their own terms, must hold literal, eternal views on everything about life, and seeing as you have a fair knowledge of scripture and assume all is revealed in detail, you should be able to pronounce definitively whether the Catholics or the Protestants are closer to the Truth, or at least more faithful to Christian tradition. I'd appreciate a little guidance, as i've always been confused. C'mon, a little rigourous logic and scientific inquiry should make that an easy one.)

Back to interest. In fact, the prohibition against interest is not an exclusively Christian or even Judeo-Christian concept. Aristotle condemned it and the Greeks prohibited it. The Romans allowed it, but subject to onerous usuary laws. There is something inside of us that finds it a necessary evil at best, otherwise we wouldn't have extortion laws. We accept interest today, but only at modest and manageable levels, otherwise it becomes a very hot political/ethical issue. So let me turn the tables and ask you whether you see anything immoral or unethical about a working class family borrowing funds for a child's medical care at 300% if they went in with full knowledge? Square that circle for me, please?

The fight to permit interest was a religious one and was ultimately resolved within religion, not my the heroic secularists of your imagination. Dun Scotus tried without luck, but the Catholic Church never bought it. Early Protestants opposed it too, until Calvin opened the dikes and the rest is history. Wanna make Calvin an honorary secularist?

Now, you know that the scriptural admonitions against interest are general and short. Like many Biblical teachings, it is far from clear whether they refer to personal behaviour or societal norms. I assume we can agree Christ wasn't calling for banks to give out interest-free loans, so was he also against banks? Or was he referring to our relations with family and community members in need? If I understand you guys, you think it is illegitimate to even ask these questions within a religious context? Well, then, I'm taking my ball and going home! :-)But not before I add that I think you are being silly in beating this dead horse and that you are far too exclusively fascinated with formal deductive logic. You should read more Blake:

"Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau:
Mock on, mock on: ‘tis all in vain!
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.

And every sand becomes a Gem,
Reflected in the beam divine;
Blown back they blind the mocking Eye,
But still in Israel’s paths they shine.

The Atoms of Democritus
And the Newton’s Particles of Light
Are sands upon the Red Sea shore,
Where Israel’s tents do shine so bright."

January 05, 2005 6:18 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


I think perhaps you are letting the wording get in the way of the underlying critique.

Let's say some things are wrong because God set up humans that way from the very beginning. That makes notions of right and wrong organic to humanity, and not in any way arbitrary in the sense the notions could change at any time without notice.

Alternatively, things are right or wrong only because God has an ongoing opinion about them. In that case, God's edicts are arbitrary, or even perishable, because the notions of right and wrong only have whatever value God puts upon them at the moment; or, given a sufficient lapse of attention, notions of right and wrong could vanish altogether.

In the first case, God has done His Work, notions of right and wrong are embedded in humanity, and, consequently, God is irrelevant to any ongoingg ability to understand and act upon those notions.

Alternatively, God's opinion is continuously essential, and could change at any time--hence the arbitrariness.

This is not a fallacy; rather, it is a dilemma posed to point out a fallacy--the oft stated assertion that without God, and, by extension, belief in God, notions of right and wrong are impossible.

How do you resolve this dilemma?

I resolve it by noting that Evolution, if true, has resulted in humans possessing organic notions of right and wrong. Which, if you look at it, is no different from God having set us up that way from the beginning.

If you find that, the non-arbitrary, concept of God the most palatable, then any assertion materialists aren't capable of applied ethics collapses.

I think I stated this above, but I will repeat it. I absolutely do not believe religious people must hold literal, eternal, views about everything, or even many things, about life.

My assertion is that where God directs, the religious must obey until directed otherwise. In my, admittedly inexpert, reading of the Bible, there are not many instances of God being explicitly directive. But they are there. (Interest is just one example; what I have read on the subject is that within Christianity and Islam, interest was forbidden because, by creating something from nothing, it presumed to something only God could do.)

If Christ manifestly states charging interest is wrong (or God frowns upon suffering witches to live, etc...), then how do Christians presume to conclude otherwise?

Simple--what works is what's right. Evolution, in other words.

I believe I (well, I piggy-backed upon Mr. den Beste) have made a case that materialists are just as capable of ethical distinctions as the religious.

Am I wrong?

P.S. Regarding your 300% question. You asked that without a shred of background. Why would a family have to pay 300%? Presumably because their circumstances, or past financial behavior, made them a very poor risk. Otherwise, they would be able to obtain a rate commensurate with low risk and the existing future valure of the money.

Which means your question lands you in a quandry. Clearly their need is great, and their perceived inability to repay extreme. How is it moral or ethical to simply not give them the money?

In a free market, usury is impossible; high interest rates are simply risk pricing.

January 05, 2005 2:35 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

It is a fiendish dilemma for the believer in God-given ethics. Luckily I’m not one of them, so I don’t have to answer it, but here’s what I’d say if I was trying to rationally defend God-given ethics…

To summarise the dilemma:

If something is good because God says so, then God could change his mind at any time and reward murder and make charity a sin.
If God just reveals that which is inherently good, then they’d be good anyway with or without God, so he is unnecessary.

It’s seems clear that we can’t just take one of the horns of the dilemma and make it work. The second horn kills God-created (not God-revealed) ethics stone dead.

The first horn offers an apparently easy way out if you just accept that God could change his mind. But I suspect there are few religionists who’d allow that it could ever be conceivable to murder and rape your way into heaven.

I can think of two better answers:

1) God could change the laws, but he wouldn’t and won’t. Of course, this requires a very large insight into the mind of God

2) When God created the Universe, he created ethical laws which are timeless, irreversible, irrevocable and universal. So he didn’t just reveal ethical laws, he created them. But since they are by definition irreversible, even he can’t change them.

Which sacrifices omnipotence, but I can’t think of a rational answer that doesn’t.

January 06, 2005 2:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Peter--Duck accidentally posted this under drinking and hooliganism. Perhaps there is a subtle connection ...

Peter says: BTW, seeing as you believe that religious people, on their own terms, must hold literal, eternal views on everything about life, and seeing as you have a fair knowledge of scripture and assume all is revealed in detail, you should be able to pronounce definitively whether the Catholics or the Protestants are closer to the Truth, or at least more faithful to Christian tradition.Peter, my knowledge of scripture, while it is not exhaustive, makes me believe that it cannot possibly pronounce definitely on what is Truth and what is not. As you say, there is much ambiguity, which is a problem with something that should be an authoritative guide. Too much is left to interpretation, so in the end a beilever is left to his own judgements as to what is good and what is not.

As an example, when Lot is pleading with God to spare Sodom & Gomorrah if there be but one righteous man there, God agrees to spare the cities for the sake of one virtuous man. How to interpret? Is that to be taken as a law that men, in war, should never knowingly destroy innocent lives while trying to eradicate evil, as we do when we bomb terrorist sites, with the full knowledge that some innocent bystanders will most likely be killed? Or do we take such passages to represent only what God decided to do in this one instance and not interpret any general laws for mankind?
You can interpret it either way, and most people will do so based on their own sense of what is right or wrong.

Our criticism of the religious is not that you are hypocrites or that you fall short of perfection, but that the basic premise of your criticism of the non-religious, ie that we cannot have a system of ethics that is not based on God, is flawed, because, in the end, all moral judgements, whether God based or not, are based on the personal judgements of individuals.

--Jeff (relocating for Duck)

January 06, 2005 9:06 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Thanks Jeff! My bad!

January 06, 2005 10:13 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

"1) God could change the laws, but he wouldn’’t and won’’t. Of course, this requires a very large insight into the mind of God"

How about: "God could change the laws, but he hasn't." And why does it require insight into the mind of God? It may require great faith built upon scripture, prayer, tradition and even subjective experience, but why does it require knowledge in the objective sense? I would allow that if our scientific, rationalist skills could prove incontrovertibly that murder and adultery were good and useful things, there would be a challenge to the faithful. But to say belief can only be justified on scientific, logically consistent grounds rather misses the whole point.

I think you guys have more of a problem with Christianity than religion per se. Because of the Redemption (and all those pictures in Sunday School of Jesus personally guiding and protecting the good little child), Christians tend to see God as infinitely kind, calm, patient, perhaps a little wistful, avuncular and, above all, present and near, expressing His love in ways that bring immediate, comprehensible rewards. But of course there never was a promise that belief would bring a better temporal life. It can be argued that the religious life is statistically more likely to bring health, prosperity and contentment, but anyone who argues that there is some kind of guaranteed payoff is a fool. Whether that is purely a sociological phenomenon or some slight crack in the mystery of the Divine Will, I don't know, but I do know tsunamis don't distinguish between the righteous and wicked and that very few believe that even though secularists are always coming up with clever arguments as to why we have to.

Jews are not so saccarine. They have no problem with a god whose interest in human notions of fair play is minimal. Nor do they have difficulty in seeing Him as wrathful and vengeful. Robertson Davies used to call Him "The Great Prankster", which I rather like. Anyway, the point is that secularists who argue as you guys can't just pick out your strawman God from the depths of the Bible Belt. It's no good arguing with kindly, simple little old ladies and wowing them with your airtight logic. Take on someone like Neuhaus, you bullies.

Jeff, of course materialists can lead ethical lives, and many do. There are, I think two possible explanations: They could be, as Orrin says, free-loading emotionally or psychologically on past religious values. I think there is something to that, except it doesn't explain very well why secularists who consciously reject traditional morality seem to fill the vacuum with new ethical values they hold just as fervently and irrationally. I'm thinking of the guy who abandons his family for his pretty assistant but then can be found wrecking an animal laboratory or trying to injure horses and riders in a foxhunt. The other argument is the naturalist one that evolution “hard-wired” us to be ethical or think in ethical terms. Maybe, but you run into the same objection that it doesn’t help us choose which ethical rules to follow. Here I expect you to say “what works”, but I simply don’t buy your seemingly tortured arguments on this one. They seem to simply end up justifying anything and everything. Besides, how can a theory that relies on the notion that science is ever expanding and self-correcting be a backdrop for telling someone with any authority what is the right thing to do here, today.

As with our debates about evolution, my main criticism is that your theory only works for the objective- others, not for the subjective self. You can argue that our ethical notions are tied to group survival and collective prosperity or “what works” etc, but you can’t use that to explain why I personally shouldn’t go off and have a wild affair, especially if I live in a world where most people don’t. Your theories simply don’t allow for the full implications of consciousness and conscience.

(posted before digesting Duck's (hic) misdirected post.

January 06, 2005 11:03 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


First off, you have to keep in mind I'm walking a fine line here. I have to maintain that balance between boring you, and pissing you off to the point you award a single-digit salute to The Daily Duck. Management has told me market share is an issue, so I'm sure you can understand the pressure.

Besides, I value your opinion.

Back to the action:

... you run into the same objection that it doesn’t help us choose which ethical rules to follow. Here I expect you to say “what works”, but I simply don’t buy your seemingly tortured arguments on this one.Am I that predictable?

Absent the part about not buying it, you encapsulate my argument very well, if ironically. Within a given set of circumstances, we don't have much choice.

Perhaps it is clearer by considering the inverse: Can you imagine following ethical rules that don't work? Islam is trying that now. Their ethical rules require wasting the half of their human talent that happens to be female.

Allah says that is ethical.

But even if Allah exists as advertised, and the Quran is Allah Approved from cover to cover, in material terms societies that waste half their human capital do not work when compared to those whose women have attained a status beyond religiously ordained property.

What works is what's right.

I bet you would say polygany is unethical. But in primitive societies believing in shared, vs. particular, paternity, the children of women who mate freely survive more than the children of those who don't. Why? High male mortality militates against putting all ones support eggs in one basket. Polygany, clearly unethical in our context, is ethical in theirs.

What works is what's right. Would you want to be the one to clue the men in to particular paternity, then walk away?

I can use that same reasoning to explain why you,I, or most men, don't routinely go off and have wild affairs.

You, I, and all honorable men, think in the long term as well as the short. And whatever physical rewards you may enjoy in the short term, you know that you will be less happy in the long term. You choose not to have wild affairs because you cannot perceive such a course of action leaving you better off than you are now.

I spotted you objecting to my use of the word "honorable." How could I possibly understand such a thing?

Because those who think longer term tend to have self- and everyone else-defined better outcomes. The happiest men on the planet are those who are both selfish, and have long planning horizons.

I do not wish to negate the impact peer pressure has on someone who is the member of a congregation. That peer pressure may be sufficient to dissuade bad decisions for someone at the tipping point.

But that does not vitiate the point under discussion. The charge some religionists make that materialists are incapable of ethical behavior beyond the influence of religion is self-contradicting nonsense. Furthermore, it displays a significant analytical deficiency--of their own motivations, the history of their religion's ethics, or the ethics of others living under different circumstances.

January 06, 2005 5:01 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


BTW--in case you are wondering about my nom de plume.

My last tour of duty was commanding a Navy squadron.

So that was my name for a couple years: Hey Skipper.

January 06, 2005 5:06 PM  
Blogger Brit said...


"How about: "God could change the laws, but he hasn't." "

Maybe, but that doesn't answer the problem of whether God-given ethics are good of themselves, or are good just because God says they are.

This is specifically a dilemma about rational justification for the belief that ethics must come from God.

If you invoke faith, that's fine, but it's the end of the discussion. There's simply nothing for me to argue with once you invoke faith.

Everyone is entitled to reject reason as the be-all and end-all, but we need it for the purpose of arguments, otherwise we're just making noise at each other.

As to whether I have more of a problem with Christianity than religion per se....I'm not sure. You may be right. It seems to me that Christianity is pretty good in terms of outcome - which is to say, Christians tend to be good people. And I can't think of a better moral principle than "Do unto others as you would have them do unto yourself".

But the specific element of Christianity that I do reject is the notion of the Fall. I think that the precise opposite is true: humans are not born sinful, but are social animals hard-wired by evolution to generally behave ethically (within elastic limits). And of course, without the Fall, there is no need for the Redemption, so no Redeemer, so the whole thing collapses, for me. All religions seem improbable to me, and Christianity seems to be among the most improbable, when examined closely.But then I've never had faith.

January 07, 2005 7:21 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...


"humans are not born sinful, but are social animals hard-wired by evolution to generally behave ethically (within elastic limits)"

Well now, that certainly joins the issue, as we lawyers like to say.

I think the favourite opening line of modern scientific humanists is "man is a social animal". Forgive me, but that that sounds just like one of those BBC/PBS documentaries where learned Oxbridge professors promise to explain the mysteries of life and end up spouting the same theory of ethical relativism we've heard a million times. Good old Chesterton would have had a field day with that because it is obvious from our history in the last two hundred years that man will flee other humans as soon as circumstances permit. Bigger and more remote houses, cars over public transportation, faraway anonymous vacations, isolated country retreats, abandoned families and children, generations living apart, etc. Today, as our houses get bigger, more and more we see everyone with his/her own room, TV, computer, bathroom, etc. And what do we talk endlessly about? Our space and how others don't respect it!!!

The only naturally "social" instinct I see is mother/child. Otherwise, we don't like each other much naturally, at least not in large doses. People do NOT naturally care for their families or children, honour their parents, stay faithful, obey the law, contribute to their communities or volunteer for community or social service unless they are physically compelled or inspired to do so from a sense of moral duty and obligation which we fulfill by resisting or overcoming our instincts or natures. To say we are hardwired for ethical behaviour is--well--quaint. (And just how can we be hardwired "with elastic limits"? That sounds like something from Microsoft on a bad day.)

Hey Skipper:

Your description of the thought processes of the "honourable' guy contemplating an affair is amusing. You should spend a week in a family law office. He foresees he won't be happy if he has the affair? I can assure you the typical "he" foresees nothing but bliss if he does and drab if he doesn't.

January 07, 2005 11:19 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Hey Skipper,

How does an Air Force guy get to command a Navy squadron? Was this a cultural exchange deal?

January 07, 2005 11:21 AM  
Blogger David said...

Hey, can anyone play?

I have the greatest respect for Mr. den Beste, who wrote some great and interesting essays on USS Clueless, but this is jejune.

Humans deal with this type of issue all the time. Is it bad to commit a crime just because the act is outlawed, or because the act is inherently bad? The answer is both. Some crimes, murder is the usual example, are mala in se, inherently bad. Other crimes, though are bad only because the act as been prohibited, mala prohibida. For example, there is no moral basis on which to prefer driving on the left or the right, but there has to be a rule. Once there is a rule, it must be obeyed.

G-d seems to work the same way. Some acts are inherently sinful. Others don't seem to be, but we are commanded to avoid them anyway. It is not obviously inherently wrong to boil a kid in its mother's milk, but Jews are prohibited from doing so; a command taken so seriously that, unlike other commandments that are strictly limited, it is expanded to a general prohibition on mixing milk with meat, just in case we inadvertantly disobey. Some acts are wrong in themselves, some acts are simply forbidden because G-d has forbidden them and we don't really know why.

And, as my examples show, some things are prohibited to some people but not to others.

The other problem is that this idea of the inherently bad act assumes that there can be some repository of transcendental Truth other than G-d. Of course, such a repository would be G-d, so the hypothetical collapses of its own weight.

January 07, 2005 10:20 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


You said:

People do NOT naturally care for their families or children, honour their parents, stay faithful, obey the law, contribute to their communities or volunteer for community or social service unless they are physically compelled or inspired to do so from a sense of moral duty and obligation which we fulfill by resisting or overcoming our instincts or natures.
In the same manner that the police have their assumptions of human nature indelibly stained by the subset of humanity they typically deal with, so it seems with you. Your family law practice cannot help but have a similar effect--it must be nearly impossible to avoid ascribing to all humanity the behavioural buffoonery you see daily.

But people must naturally have some inherent drive to care for their families, honour their parents, etc. And like any other characteristic, each individual occupies a spot on a bell curve for the entire population. (Yes, I know that sounds aridly analytical, but I can't help it. That's where I fall on the analytical bell curve ...)

Given precisely the same broad circumstances, some people exhibit vastly different abilities (or drives) to care for their families, etc. In other words, some are naturally better at it than others.

If there was absolutely no natural prediliction towards such behaviors, they wouldn't exist, and no amount of imposing moral duty would create them.

Communism is the singular example. Communism, if achieved, would have been something like a utopia on earth. No wonder it suckered so many. Unfortunately. for its long term prospects, Communism required behavior to which humans are not naturally inclined, and no amount of mass re-education, regardless of how violently imposed, was going to change that.

Free market economies demonstrate the alternative. They operate almost autonomously and yield at least adequate outcomes nearly all the time for almost all the participants.

David would attribute that to a shared ethical basis.

I would attribute that to a shared humanity, and a system that by its very nature punishes habitual defectors, possibly solely because people are hard wired to be very sensitive to reciprocity.

Which is directly related to Andrew saying we are hardwired within elastic limits. In other words, humans as a group operate within fairly wide limits, but any individual human occupies a very narrow and fixed part of that spectrum. And with the possible exception of those right at some tipping point, supernaturally justified ethical systems only provide a "because" to what would happen anyway.

Also, I think your characterization of humans fleeing others as soon as circumstances permit is overegged. People want more space than is available in stack-a-prole housing, but they don't want infinite space.

People select cars over public transportation purely as a result of network considerations (a richly interconnected network and public transportation are mutually exclusive--a worthwhile subject for a future discussion); people choose, at times, far away vacations because lots of interesting things are far away and we have the money to get there (and don't ignore the social gains to be had by interacting with those who live where you are going).

Your description of the thought processes of the "honourable' guy contemplating an affair is amusing.First, the typical 'he' you see is not the same as the typical 'he' you don't. Second, and to my mind most important, is that all people have some sense of futurity; some have a much longer horizon more accurately perceived than others.

That "talent" alone is likely the one thing that separates honorable men from the ones you see. Those with the most accurate perception of the long term are far less likely to engage in flings then men who are more impulsive. And if the long term picture is sufficiently bleak, no amount of supernatural imposition will change the outcome.

I just don't see how you can explain the wide range of human behavior without accepting that such behaviors are innate, exhibit a gaussian distribution across the population, which each individual occupying a very narrow spot along that distribution. (also fertile ground for a future discussion, particularly the gender differences in that distribution, and how those differences drive mating strategies)

The occupational hazard you face is dealing with people, primarily men, who innately live on the left side of the bell curve.

January 08, 2005 7:32 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


I was lucky enough to screen for command, and was next in line for a squadron at my base in Del Rio, TX.

So I wasn't terribly surprised when the Wing King called me at home one night to tell me I was going to get a command. However, it was very much a Mr. Jaw meet Mr. Floor with loud anvil-like clang event when he told me it was to be a Naval squadron. Because I was blissfully unaware that Congress had directed the Navy and the AF to work towards common training establishments, I was also unaware that the AF and the Navy each had one completely joint primary flying training squadron--half the instructors and students were from the other service, as was every other commander.

I had never thought of it that way, but your characterization of it as a cultural exchange deal is really on the mark. And, for reasons I hope have nothing to do with service loyalty, the Navy had far greater need for it than the AF.

January 08, 2005 7:41 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

David, welcome to the blog. That certainly is one way of "squaring the circle", by collapsing God and the Good into one entity. But that raises other problems with the traditional conception of God. It takes away God's free will. God can't change His mind, as He did in Genesis by first commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, then by commanding him not to. That depiction of God suggests that there is no Good other than what God wants, and God can change Mind. So killing your son is not inherently good or bad, only obeying God's will at any particular time with regard to whether he wants you to kill your son or not is what is good or bad.

January 08, 2005 8:13 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


I don't know that just anyone can play, but you certainly can. The last thing the Daily Duck needs is an echo chamber; you and Peter are uniquely qualified to stop Duck and me from drinking our own bath water.

Thanks for adding to my very limited stock of Latin phrases--your explanations of mala in se and mala prohibida are both concise and clear.

I think you muddy the waters in the transition to the next para, though. There is clearly no moral preference for driving on the left as opposed to the right, but there is a very clear, immediate, and substantial material cost for not deciding one way or the other.

[parenthetical note: there were at least three seconds of mental Windows-esque Blue Screen of Death upon reading It is not obviously inherently wrong to boil a kid in its mother's milk ... until I grasped that by "kid" you were not referring to a rug monkey]

That stands in strong contrast to your discussion of dietary prohibitions.

They are, in material terms, completely arbitrary. Obeying them, or not, has no material consequences. As such, one may wonder about why God chose to forbid such things, but I don't see how they belong to a discussion on ethics.

Similarly, we, or God, could prohibit driving any car that isn't red. Driving a blue car would be "bad" simply due to the prohibition. But its arbitrariness, would sorely test the credulity of the driving public, and I doubt few people would equate the desire to drive a red car as immoral.

In saying

The other problem is that this idea of the inherently bad act assumes that there can be some repository of transcendental Truth other than G-d. Of course, such a repository would be G-d, so the hypothetical collapses of its own weight. I think you are posing a straw man.

That some acts are inherently bad is because of their material effects--there simply is no need to resort to some notion of transcendental Truth. Of course, one could presume God established the system in order to work the way it does (He could have set things up so that societies that encourage theft succeed better than those that don't, but didn't, so they don't). The Existence God has constructed it contains the Transcendental Truth; it is as inescapable as 2+2=4.

Okay, I'll grant that.

That means the argument that some notion of a Supreme Being is essential for ethics and morality collapses of its own weight. If they are organic to existence, then belief of any kind in such a Being, or the ultimate costs of ignoring the Being's dictates, even if true are irrelevant.

No form of religious belief will make effective what doesn't work. And what works won't succumb to what doesn't, no matter the belief.

Communism, Nazism, Islamo-fascism, and state sponsored religion have all proven this point--all relying on the ethical dictates of a supreme being (no caps because some of those beings are not transcendental), all failing because, well, they just don't work.

January 08, 2005 8:19 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Skipper is right, I think you are suffering from "dirtbag fatigue" or some similar occupational affliction common to lawyers. For a minute there I thought that Bart from BrothersJudd had hijacked your moniker for one of his rants.
People are most certainly social animals. Why is solitary confinement one of the most extreme punishments that American prisons mete out to unruly inmates? Even antisocial killers and thugs need the contact of human interaction. We tend to equate sociability with all the good traits that come to mind with that word, such as generosity and good cheer. But our social nature is also discernible through our "anti-social" behaviors as well. Overweening ambition and all of the ruthless behavior that it spawns is based on a drive to ascend a social hierarchy. Being "King of the Hill" assumes there is a "hill", or social group, which validates your status. All of our good and bad impulses are played out within a social context. Indeed, as Skipper has often pointed out, there is no morality outside of a social context.

January 08, 2005 8:25 AM  
Blogger David said...

Duck: As Peter has said, it is amusing that you guys have a much firmer and clearer idea of who G-d is, or who He'd better be, than we do.

I'm not sure that G-d can be said to have free will in any sensible way. If He knows creation as one immediate fact -- if He knows all of history from Big Bang to the death of all the way we know the concept "2" -- then "free will" may not be a meaningful concept for Him. But that does point out that this discussion of the den Beste paradox is really just a much more sophisticated way to ask whether G-d can make a rock so large that He can't lift it. The only possible answer is, "If He chooses to."

As for Abraham and Isaac, my reading of that passage is that G-d doesn't change his mind. He never wanted Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, he just wanted Abraham to be willing to sacrifice Isaac. Or, since that wasn't much of a test, given the times, maybe He just wanted to make the point that there should not be any human sacrifice in a way that could not be missed. (There is, by the way, one tradition that argues that Abraham does, in fact, go ahead and sacrifice Isaac, who doesn't really show up again, other than as a bit player in the story of Jacob.)

Hey Skipper: I've really got to get to bed, but I did want to note that you have given me the chance to say, as must be said in any discussion of Steven den Beste, that that is a feature, not a bug.

January 08, 2005 11:00 PM  
Blogger Brit said...


"To say we are hardwired for ethical behaviour is--well--quaint."

Yes, it would be quaint if I was arguing that all humans are born virtuous. Fortunately, I'm not. I'm saying that certain basic ethical behaviours have their origins in evolutionary traits. So do some 'anti-social' behaviours.

Humans are primates, evolved, and fundamentally social animals. You can learn some things about our instincts and behaviours by examining our origins, and by examining the instincts and behaviours of other evolved social animals. Not everything, since our brains and social structures are fantastically sophisticated. But some things.

Which is to say, you can't pretend that our origins don't exist, or that they exert no influence on our basic make-up.

I know conservatives take a generally pessimistic view of human nature, but not THAT pessimistic. I'm not so naive that I think a selfishness-free utopia could ever exist, but it seems as plain as day to me that people who: "do NOT naturally care for their families or children, honour their parents, stay faithful, obey the law" are the exceptions, not the rule.

You seem to prefer a Hobbesian view. But the trouble with Hobbes is that his state of nature is, like the Fall, a myth. It never existed. It is, however, useful in showing what a human 'society' would be like if such things as reciprocation, loyalty, altruism etc didn't exist at all in human nature: it would be unworkable.

Which is why evolution favours these traits, among others.

January 09, 2005 3:30 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Dr. Duck and Dr. Skipper:

Dirtbag syndrome, eh? Too much time with the lower classes? Do you recommend extensive therapy or anti-depressants? Or maybe just more time with righteous, clean-living secularists who obey the Commandments while prattling on at cocktail parties about how they are childish nonsense?

Guys, I'm talking about family and civil law, not criminal law. If you two bluestockings want to believe that the forty percent divorce rate is made up entirely of unpleasant, unmannered libertines with low moral fibre--the sort one would prefer not to have in one's home--fine, but aren't you even the slightest bit embarassed that that your adamant, theoretical rejections of The Commandments/objective morality and your spirited defenses of radical freedom dissolve into such priggishness when reality hits? Are you modern Sir Galahads seeking to slay licentious cads for abandoning their pure and innocent wives? If so, you might ponder the paradox that seventy percent of divorces are initiated by women against their husband's wishes but that far more women than men come to regret them.

You seem to live in a manichean world where people are hardwired by nature to be good except for those in the elastic regions, who can be very bad. And you also seem to hold that the Commandments reflect pretty much what natural evolution has shown "works". Of course, nobody adheres to the Commandments as rigorously as Muslims do, but, well, they obviously don't "work", as Skipper seems pretty ready to dismiss their societies hollis-bollis. As Yul Brynner sang: "Is a puzzlement!".

Duck, your suggestion that David's collapsing of God into The Good is "one way" to resolve the logical dilemna took me a little by surprise. Now, David is one clever guy, but I don't think he would claim copyright on that idea. Isn't that the whole point of what we are arguing?

January 09, 2005 4:25 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Do we know God more clearly than theists? If you are asking about the "reality" of God, then, no, noone knows that. If you are asking about the concept of what the word God represents, then we are just adding clarity to the concept that you theists have woven. If you say God is a "personal" being, then we will pick apart what that statement means, and find the inconsistencies between that and how the world works. If you say that God is "the good" or if God is "omnipotent", then again, we will pick those arguments apart as well. Peter knows all about this, it's called cross-examination. You guys think we are putting God the "reality" in the dock. No, we are putting the pretender to the throne, the God of the Judeo-Christian imagination, in the dock.

Getting back to Abraham. So if God never wanted Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, why would he reward Abraham for attempting to do something that God doesn't want? Why is attemped murder good while murder is bad? If he were testing Abraham, then Abraham flunked the test, no? Abraham didn't know the difference between good or bad. He's the proverbial flunky willing to "follow orders" with no regard to morality. This is the historic act upon which all of Judeo-Christian morality is based, so I think that it is central to the qhole argument of what "the Good" means. If God has no free will in regard to the good as to whether he can choose to change his mind, then the story of Abraham goes by the boards, doesn't it? You can't reconcile the two arguments.

January 09, 2005 9:03 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


Gee, that's funny. I don't recall injecting class into this discussion (although one might use class as a proxy for the outcomes of personal decisions; but that is a subject for another discussion, and would likely substantiate my claims here).

No secularist I know considers the Commandments childish nonsense, although they might consider the first four a matter concerning only the relationship between the individual and God, hence not directly relevant to societal morality.

(A secularist might also have some serious qualms with the 2nd commandment: if taken seriously, then religionists have some explaining to do, because the phrase "visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children " itself raises some serious ethical concerns. But that is an issue for another day.)

As for the remainder--ignoring the view of women as property--they codify common sense. I have never heard anyone of any philosophical stripe deride their essential meaning.

How do I decide upon "common sense?" By what works, given the nature of the beast combined with the notion of particular, as opposed to shared, paternity.

This is all by way of explaining that neither I, nor any materialist I know--have ever rejected the Commandments that apply to interactions among members of society, nor do I defend radical freedom, because such a thing does not exist. None of us are free of the material consequences of our actions.

Rather, and this is my point, I reject that God is indispensable to ethics. No notion of God is required to distinguish ethical behavior from its opposite.

I doubt you can find a successful society where in-group murder, theft, etc are encouraged, regardless of philosophical persuasion. Since the notions of God pretty much run the imaginable gamut, there is simply no correlation between supernatural conception and core ethical concepts.

We are not hardwired to be "good." As social animals we are evolutionarily hard wired to exist in tension between self interest and group survival. Humans do not succeed singularly, and a society composed entirely, or even largely, of people solely concerned with self interest is a contradiction in terms. Similarly, a society composed of completely selfless members fails upon the appearance of the first defector.

Muslims do adhere very closely to their commandments. But even if Allah exists, and the Quran is divinely inspired cover to cover, Islam will fail, if for no other reason than their commandments direct they effectively waste half their human capital.

Islam will, under the lash of comparative--if not absolute--failure, either change its attitude towards women, or continue to suffer that lash. Similarly for secularization and some form of representative democracy and free markets.

All of Natural History gives the very convincing appearance of being governed by two things: recursion, and chance. Whatever your theory on how such a state of affairs came to be, once the ball starts rolling--first instance of life on Earth--then the entire system will develop towards self-organized complexity. No external direction, no deus ex machina is required for the system to develop emergent properties.

This includes human societies. God is not required for ethics. The material impacts of conduct how we distinguish ethical from unethical, which, at its basis, is all an ethical system does.

US society is, in material terms, immensely successful. US society is also largely laissez faire and individualistic, neither of which bear any particular resemblance to what Jesus would do.

But it is right because it is Good, and it is Good because it works.

January 09, 2005 9:53 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

This para from an article in Christianity Today seems pertinent:

Then the pollsters started conducting scientific polls of the general population. In spite of the renewal movement's proud claims to miraculous transformation, the polls showed that members of the movement divorced their spouses just as often as their secular neighbors. They beat their wives as often as their neighbors. They were almost as materialistic and even more racist than their pagan friends. The hard-core skeptics smiled in cynical amusement at this blatant hypocrisy. The general population was puzzled and disgusted. Many of the renewal movement's leaders simply stepped up the tempo of their now enormously successful, highly sophisticated promotional programs. Others wept.

And yet others said "What did you expect? Human nature is what it is, no matter how you spell 'because'."

January 09, 2005 1:31 PM  
Blogger David said...


Jeff has mentioned in the past that he has a Porsche. Now, I've never seen this Porsche, so obviously I can't believe in it, but let's assume that I'm willing to be convinced, so I ask Jeff to describe it. He starts by telling me that it is English racing green. As it happens, the fundamentalist Porsche mechanics who taught me when I was sent to mechanic school by my parents low these many decades ago clearly stated that all Porsches were red. I am thus convinced, to my complete satisfaction, that this supposed Porsche, which has caused so much strife down through the ages, does not, in fact, exist.

Jeff, though, will probably drive it to work tomorrow, nonetheless.

As for Abraham and Isaac, I'm not sure I understand your point. G-d tested Abraham to see the scope of his obedience. Abraham, by demonstrating his willingness to go through with the sacrifice, passes the test. G-d cares about Abraham's willingness to conduct the sacrifice, not the sacrifice itself, so He provides a substitute and Isaac lives. I'm not sure what's unclear about that or what reward you have in mind.

The Akeidah (the "Binding" of Isaac) is a rich source of debate and people have spent life-times on it. That it was a test, though, is pretty clear, as that's what the Torah says:

And it came to pass after these things, that God tested Abraham and said, "Abraham." And he said, "Here I am." And He said, "Take your son, your only son, the one you love, Isaac, and go into the land of Moriah and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will show you." (Genesis 22:1-2)Note that the command is to "[t]ake your son ... and offer him there for a burnt offering." That is, in fact, what Abraham does so that G-d's commandment does not go unfulfilled. In fact, I've always wondered whether Abraham and Isaac didn't know exactly what was going on as they went up the mountain. Which brings up a point: Jews have been reading the Torah cover to cover every year for the past few millenia. Clever as we bloggers are, we're not likely to come up with anything new to say.

January 09, 2005 3:58 PM  
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