Thursday, January 20, 2005

Judeo-Christian Values for Dummies II - The Rabbi Punts

Dennis Prager follows up with the second installment in his series to explain Judeo-Christian values to the masses. I applauded this effort after his introductory essay, believing that he would be making the case based on a rationale that could cross the divide between religious and secular thinkers. I take it back. Prager's second installment reiterates the tired litany that morals are not possible without God:

For those who subscribe to Judeo-Christian values, right and wrong, good and evil, are derived from God, not from reason alone, nor from the human heart, the state or through majority rule.

Though most college-educated Westerners never hear the case for the need for God-based morality because of the secular outlook that pervades modern education and the media, the case is both clear and compelling: If there is no transcendent source of morality (morality is the word I use for the standard of good and evil), "good" and "evil" are subjective opinions, not objective realities.

In other words, if there is no God who says, "Do not murder" ("Do not kill" is a mistranslation of the Hebrew which, like English, has two words for homicide), murder is not wrong. Many people may think it is wrong, but that is their opinion, not objective moral fact. There are no moral "facts" if there is no God; there are only moral opinions.



How does Prager imagine that such an argument can win over the secular audience? If right and wrong cannot be derived from reason or the human heart, then what faculty does he expect the secular person to utilize to be won over by his argument?

Prager wants to have it both ways. He spends many hours a week on his radio program using rational arguments for promoting his position on moral values, yet he will dismiss any secular person who would use reason in defense of his values, even if those values are in agreement with his! According to Prager, I should distrust even his arguments if I do not believe in God. So why does he spend so much time presenting them?

Prager argues that values either are objectively based, or "factual", or are a matter of subjective opinion. Why are these two forms of establishing morality mutually exclusive? They are not. Opinions are to a large part guided by experience, they have to explain factual occurences. They are rarely spun purely out of fantasy or desire, with no accounting for reality. As faulty as they can be, opinions formed by reason and guided by the heart are the best faculties that humans have for developing an accurate, close approximation for the factual world as a human can get.

Prager's argument rests on the assumption that God's will can be accurately known. If his argument for Judeo-Christian values relies on a belief in the Judeo-Christian scriptures as a revelation of God's word, then his essays should be trying to prove to the unbeliever that this is so. He derides the ridiculousness of the positions taken by animal rights crusaders, as if the unreasonableness of their values alone should prove to everyone why they are in the wrong. But a God based argument can only be based on God's word. He should be citing scripture to prove that their position is not in accordance with God's morality, but he doesn't.

Years ago, I debated this issue at Oxford with Jonathan Glover, currently the professor of ethics at King's College, University of London, and one of the leading atheist moralists of our time. Because he is a man of rare intellectual honesty, he acknowledged that without God, morality is subjective. He is one of the few secularists who do.

So what? What is so bad with the subjective? Humans can only act from a subjective stance. Even given God's word, humankind has interpreted it in many different and opposite ways, based on subjective feelings. God was used to justify and condemn slavery, and today is used to justify and condemn capital punishment. The objectivity that Prager touts as his basis for morality is a fiction, a view distorted by his own subjective biases.

Is abortion morally wrong? To the secular world, the answer is "It's between a woman and her physician." There is no clearer expression of moral relativism: Every woman determines whether abortion is moral. On the other hand, to the individual with Judeo-Christian values, it is not between anyone and anyone else. It is between society and God. Even among religious people who differ in their reading of God's will, it is still never merely "between a woman and her physician."

Prager pulls a fast one here. Though championing conservative values, he is pro-choice on abortion. But apparently it is better for people to differ on what God's values are but agree that they come from God, than to agree on values but not agree on the source of the values. How can these values be factual, be objective, when two people who agree on the text from which these values are based, and agree that the text is the inspired word of God, differ on such a fundamental question as to whether it is permissible to take the life of an unborn child? How can such values be differentiated from subjectively derived values? They can't because they are subjectively derived.

And to those who counter these arguments for God-based morality with the question, "Whose God?" the answer is the God who revealed His moral will in the Old Testament, which Jews and Christians -- and no other people -- regard as divine revelation.

Now Prager is arguing from authority - his. If he were a Muslim he would have answered the God of the Koran. So much for objectivity. The question is valid: which of the many traditions that claim to represent God's truth should one follow? Prager's answer is much like the answer given by an old woman to te scientist, who after hearing her tell him that the world rested on the back of a turtle, and having asked her in reply what the turtle rested on, responded "Oh no you don't! It's turtles all the way down!" Why, Dennis? Why that god?

25 Comments:

Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Duck:

There are so many gaping holes in Judeo-Christian Values for Dummies that it is a real challenge to know where to start. I think there is a real opportunity to turn this into a learning exercise, though.

Perhaps a primer in logical fallacies?

From the top, then.

Fallacy of Exclusion: evidence which would change the outcome of an inductive argument is excluded from consideration.

For those who subscribe to Judeo-Christian values, right and wrong, good and evil, are derived from God, not from reason alone, nor from the human heart, the state or through majority rule.Material consequences are excluded from consideration. All actions considered immoral (as opposed to sinful) have material consequences, as evidenced by the stark lack of societies, successful or otherwise, championing such in-group transgressions.

Slothful Induction: the conclusion of a strong inductive argument is denied despite the evidence to the contrary.

Though most college-educated Westerners never hear the case for the need for God-based morality because of the secular outlook that pervades modern education and the media ... "Never" means not ever; "Most" means more than half, yet in the US, roughly 80% of the population claims adherence to one religious sect or another. Therefore, the vast majority of Americans are exposed to "... the case for the need for God-based morality ..." solely by virtue of their sect membership.

Begging the Question: the truth of the conclusion is assumed by premises that are in dispute.

In other words, if there is no God who says, "Do not murder" murder is not wrong.God says--to whom? When? If someone said God spoke to them, then the basis for presuming God actually said something is precisely the same as presuming the wrongness of murder in the absence of God's say so.

False Analogy: the two objects or events being compared are relevantly dissimilar.
Composition Error: because the attributes of the parts of a whole have a certain property, it is argued that the whole has that property
Irrelevant Conclusion: an argument in defense of one conclusion instead proves a different conclusion

Is abortion morally wrong? To the secular world, the answer is "It's between a woman and her physician." There is no clearer expression of moral relativism: Every woman determines whether abortion is moral. On the other hand, to the individual with Judeo-Christian values, it is not between anyone and anyone else. It is between society and God. Even among religious people who differ in their reading of God's will, it is still never merely "between a woman and her physician.

False analogy: The question is one of moral judgment, the answer is a decision to proceed with an action. The latter could be affirmative even if flying in the face of the former.

Composition error: The individual with Judeo Christian values is not the society, and the society, while largely Judeo-Christian, is far from exclusively so.

Irrelevant conclusion: This is a two-fer. First, Presuming the society is Judeo-Christian vitiates the assertion above that college educated Westerners aren't exposed to the requirement for God in morality. Second, acknowledging different sects--that compose society--have different impressions of what God negates the assertion that notions of right and wrong are between society and God, because "society" has no settled opinion on the question. This leaves only the woman and her doctor capable of answering the question.

Duck, you of course nailed the argument from authority quite well, although I might add a further objection. The appeal to authority is greatly weakened by expert disagreement, as noted above in irrelevant conclusion.

Prager could have made a much more effective argument by noting that many Judeo-Christian moral precepts are time-tested, and should be followed for that reason alone. Unfortunately, that is also the argument a materialist would make, and, while true, rather leaves God out of it.

He might also note that no materially based moral system has an overarching "or else" clause. Unfortunately, as a recent article in Christianity Today, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, that particular angle doesn't seem worth a tinker's darn.

January 21, 2005 2:13 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

Skipper,

That is quite a tour-de-force of logical deconstruction! You wonder if Prager has ever learned how to formulate an argument. The problem is that I agree with many of the moral positions that he takes, and he can be very persuasive in making rational arguments for them. But when faced with a secular based moral philosophy, he falls back on emotionally charged straw-man broadsides. He makes it impossible for anyone to agree with him!

The article you link to is quite an eye-opener (well, not really). It is instructive that evangelical leaders find it scandalous that their flock are only as morally righteous as average Christians, or God forbid, the unchurched! Do you want to post an analysis of it, or should I?

January 21, 2005 7:44 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Duck:

Ah, but you, too, have your turtle argument don't you. With you, it is "whys" all the way down. Despite the fact that you know full well that religion cannot be substantiated through formal logic or scientific inquiry, and that no religious person ever claimed it could, you sit on the outside as the rational sceptic demanding that kind of answer. Both Christianity and Judaism emphasise that their "truths" can only be fully understood through living the tenets (and I believe psychology would substantiate that), but you are like the guy who demands airtight proof of the usefulness of studying Latin before he will open the book--he refuses to believe that it is the study of it that will prove it. As David Cohen once remarked, the religious just smile--what else can they do faced with such stubbornness?

"What is so bad with the subjective?" Oh, my ears and whiskers! Are my old scientific, objective, rationalist buddies now suggesting we be guided by the subjective? Good for you, but aren't you the teensiest bit concerned with giving it the full rein you seem to imply and what would happen if we all unleashed our subjective desires and perceptions in the absence of any common objective rules? Prager is obviously writing in a popular style and has been a little careless on the whole logic front, but if you take what he says as referring to how we live together as couples, families, communities and nations, rather than how we make choices in splendid atomistic isolation, his wisdom is a lot clearer.

(BTW, unless I'm missing something, I can't access other posts while I am composing my own. You and Skipper are verrrry clever and thorough in your errors and fallacies and it would be helpful to refer back to them while crafting attacks. :-) Is it possible?)

January 22, 2005 5:29 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Skipper:

What! Christians aren't adhering to Christianity? They are sinning, licentious, slothful and cheap? Oh, man, you sure have struck gold here.

This comes as a real shock to me because I was raised on all those stories of how the Old Testament prophets were always complimenting Israel on its righteousness and telling them how pleased God was. Then there were Savonarola, Luther, 19th century evangelicals, etc., etc. who are fondly remembered for preaching that the faultless lives their audiences were living was proof of Christianity and that they should all relax and enjoy themslves---they were guranteed eternal bliss.

This is great. So many people abandon relgion because they object to the moralizing and guilt-inducing talk about sin. Years later they can be found on websites hurling thunderbolts at the faithful and sniping like stuffy Victorian spinsters at the moral sloth around them. Skipper, I'm sure a cautious rationalist like you would never accept so many statistics at face value without further rigorous inquiry, especially in a fire and brimstone sermon, but, assuming they were to pan out (pant, pant ), are you heading towards an argument that secular people are actually more moral than the religious?

January 22, 2005 5:50 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Peter,
The best thing to do is open two windows to the post. What browser are you using? Another thing that I do is just copy and paste the original post to a word processor or text editor, compose my reply there, and then just copy & paste it back to the webpage.

The "whys all the way down" are only necessary when someone invokes the imprimatur of Objective Truth. Prager invoked it, so his argument should have answers for every why that can be thrown against it. Arguments for objective truths are no different than scientific arguments, it is expected that they will establish knowledge that can not be argued with. Just as the Theory of Evolution should have answers to the whys that skeptics can throw at it, so should the attempt to establish a religious tradition as objective truth.

What Prager seems to be saying is that moral values must be built on an assumption of objective truths. That is, I assume that there are unchangeable moral laws that guide how we should behave, although I cannot prove that my subjectively derived opoinion as what those laws state are 100% accurate. Prager is saying that moral arguments only have meaning if they are based on this assumption, which to an extent I agree with. But where I part company with him is when he says that this assumption of objective truth can only come from a belief that the laws emanate from God, specifically the Judeo-Christan God. Indeed, for Prager, "Objective Morality" and "God's Will" are synonymous semantic constructs, they cannot be separated. To which I say "Balderdash!"

So what other basis can we use as an objective standard for moral judgements? As Jeff has endlessly pointed out, "what works". It isn't a perfect standard, but at least it doesn't have the opaque, inpenetrable remoteness that "God's Will" has. We can see the results of countless moral judgements throughout history, and in our own lives. History is the feedback loop for man's moral judgements. There have been successes and miserable failures.

This is the area where I hoped Prager would focus his explanation of Judeo-Christian values. I hoped he would trace the historic lineage of that tradition, outlining its consistent themes and successes in dealing with the human condition. This is the common ground where the religious and secular can work out agreements on moral questions. The Ten Commandments have survived because they have been proven to encapsulate those social laws that work! If one of the Comandments had been "Every man will sacrifice his first-born son when he reaches the age of five", then Judeo values would have been a sad, obscure footnote in history.

January 22, 2005 9:47 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Peter:

First, a hint-from-Helloise moment.

I, too, found the inability to refer to comments whilst posting one annoying. So I ended up doing what was, in retrospect, bloody obvious. Unfortunately, I didn't allow obviousness to hasten my way to the solution, which is: I enter my comments in a text editor. When done, I click on Post A Comment and paste the result. Not only can I keep track of what has already been said, it is a heck of a lot easier keeping track of what I have said, since the text editor window can be a lot larger.

OK. Time to get serious.

The reason I referenced the The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience was not to make the cheap point that some, or more to the point, all Christians fail to achieve the moral standards they have set for themselves. Christians are human; that is the lot of humanity to morally struggle and fail.

Rather, my point, admittedly so subtle as to be completely hidden, is that the article completely substantiates the point I have long been trying to make: any notion of God is merely a gloss on what utilitarian moral reasoning would yield.

So how is it Christianity Today was carrying my water? By clearly noting, albeit without a hint of irony, that fervently believing in divinely ordained ethics yields results indistinguishable from those finding that notion completely unpersuasive.

If one were to conduct a medical study on the efficacy of a particular procedure, and came up with similar results between test and control populations, the inescapable conclusion would be that the procedure was useless, and could not even claim a placebo effect.

In Ethics and God, my conclusion was that a notion of a morally aware God is not a prerequisite to defining a moral code. That discussion left open the possibility that, while materialists could elucidate a moral code just as soundly as religionists could, the absence of a putative enforcement mechanism (the "... overarching 'or else' clause ...") might very well mean that materialists adhere less closely to such moral code as they have.

The Scandal strongly suggests that even claims to generally more moral behavior among religionists would lie somewhere between highly overrated and downright wrong.

While I am self-admittedly far from the most well read person on religious issues, I have heard of Dennis (Dr.?) Prager. From what I have read, I expected a rigorous exposition of his point of view.

Instead, he delivered a festival of fallacies so thoroughgoing I wouldn't put any credence in his presentation even if I agreed with the conclusion.

January 22, 2005 10:29 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Skipper:

If your test for an objective moral code is "what works", and if you agree that prohibitions against adultery and commitment to family are almost universal expressions of what man has found to "work", what do you say about the modern divorce rate of 40%? Is divorce objectively wrong or has "what works' changed as evidenced by the fact that so many are divorcing? And if mankind will naturally gravitate towards "what works", why does he need restrictive codes at all---won't he find the way naturally through evolution? (divorce exploded when the French liberalized it during their revolution and when the Soviets did likewise in the 1920's).

January 22, 2005 11:20 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Peter:

You have hit on the crux of the problem.

Knowing what is right, and doing what one knows to be right are two entirely different things.

Frankly, I really had a Mister Jaw meet Mister Floor with loud, anvil-like clang moment on reading The Scandal. I had taken it for granted that while, despite self-congratulatory claims to the contrary, religionists were no better at distinguishing right from wrong, they would be far, far better at living the talk.

And, to answer your question, no, I did not gloat.

What do I say about the modern divorce rate of 40%?

Well, besides the trivial observation that there are far too many people who made a mockery of their marriage vows, I do have a few observations:

-- Religionists are responsible for 80% of the divorces (or 32% of the total)

-- I'll bet (my assumption is completely untainted by actual knowledge) the divorce rate is going, albeit too slowly, down. Why? Because children of divorce know the cost far better than their parents did, and are therefore more reluctant to follow that path.

-- The divorce rate has as much to do with urbanization as with liberalized divorce laws, and nothing whatever to do with that all purpose bogeyman, secularism.

-- As to divorce being objectively wrong, there is no simple answer. There are a few marriages so awful (alcoholism, gambling, serial philandering, profound mental illness, etc) that the least wrong outcome is divorce. I suspect (see preceding knowledge caveat) most are not like that. However, I am certain that the negative outcomes attributed to divorce by comparison to the never divorced are overstated. The portion of the population that gets divorced is not like the portion that stays married. If you could pass a law tomorrow banning all marriage, the childhood outcomes for the now 100% married population would get worse by an amount I suspect would not be too different from that obtained by summing the two different populations.
-- I have no idea what the answer is. But I am certain of what it is not: imposing scriptural decree upon the entire society (more on this in a para or two), including, by definition, those that simply don't buy the validity of that decree.

And if mankind will naturally gravitate towards "what works", why does he need restrictive codes at all ... In a conversation this complex, it is easy to lose sight of the starting point. My claim earlier, and Duck's criticism of J-CM for Dummies, is merely this: the assumption that God is required in order to have a moral code is arrant, self-congratulatory, nonsense. (And, I might add, often self-contradictory. The proprietor of a certain well known conservative Christian blog is on record stating that society should follow Biblical edict and murder all homosexuals. That amounts to roughly 4.5 million murders now, and 3% of the number of annual births going forward. Remember, this is because God decrees such. Christianity as a pre-requisite for moral perspicacity? Puhlease.)

Neither Duck nor I have ever suggested there is no need for an enforcement mechanism. What kind, and how based, is gist for a future discussion once we wear this one out.

Before I go, I need to bring up one last point. This quote from the article, "On the other hand, to the individual with Judeo-Christian values, it is not between anyone and anyone else. It is between society and God" strikes me as singularly sinister. Why do you suppose that is?

Also, Peter, is he on sound scriptural ground in making that assertion? (honest question, I simply don't know)

January 22, 2005 7:07 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

Ditto Skipper.

Another point to make about divorce and "what works". There are certain moral strictures that have been near universal throughout time and cultures, and others that have had much more variation. Divorce, and marriage rules generally, have had a greater degree of variation than rules against murder and stealing. The Old Testament allowed divorce:

Deuteronomy 241 If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, 2 and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, 3 and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, 4 then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. That would be detestable in the eyes of the LORD . Do not bring sin upon the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance.The Catholic Church forbade it, but allowed annulment, which was really their way of taking divorce out of the hands of individuals and civil authorities and reserving it for themselves. The Protestant Reformation gave it back to individuals and civil authorities.

So all along, the Judeo-Christian theology acknowledged that marriage is a very difficult thing to pull off for mere mortals, and that the price to pay for preserving marriages gone bad can be more than the price of dissolving them.

Certainly the economic liberation of women since WW2 has placed additional strains on marriage. Evangelical faiths continue to place emphasis on the traditional authority of husbands, which is why, I think, you see a higher percentage of marriages where physical abuse is present. Today, the barriers to divorce, both economic and social, are less than they have been in the past. No amount of exhortation by religious leaders is going to change human nature in the aggregate.

January 23, 2005 9:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

'almost universal expressions of what man has found to "work", what do you say about the modern divorce rate of 40%?'

It's actually a little higher than that, Barna speculates that the current generation of 20-30 year olds will experience more divorces than successful marriages. around 52-54%. First marriages have a 42-46% failure rate.


'Is divorce objectively wrong or has "what works' changed as evidenced by the fact that so many are divorcing?'

Or was 'what works' wrong from the get go. Women for 1000's of years were mere property. Now the world, in some places, is different. Often ending a marriage and allowing both partners a new start is the most civil, humane, and kind thing that can occur. Keeping marriage together 'just because' is every bit as harmful as divorce. Witness the myriad of domestic abuse calls, bad marriages, etc.

I've had so many conversations with elderly woman who often regretted staying married as they were never happy. To see divorce as primarily negative is a poor mindset, it can also help a great many people.


'And if mankind will naturally gravitate towards "what works", why does he need restrictive codes at all---won't he find the way naturally through evolution?'

Perhaps he doesn't. You could also argue that we have already done so.

'(divorce exploded when the French liberalized it during their revolution and when the Soviets did likewise in the 1920's).'

Untrue. American divorce was still relatively low. Simple fact is the Roman empire had a high rate of divorce. we have marriage contracts AND divorce papers from the time period.

The comment on the Catholic church is a good one, the christian church outside of performing ceremonies) was silent on marriage and divorce for nearly 1600 years. Then the Catholics decided to change the stance to effect some control they felt was being seeded to governments. They also inserted the profitable annulments.

January 27, 2005 7:36 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

I am getting weary of this false dichotomy folks set up between objective and subjective perspectives. One cannot step outside the world and view it objectively. But subjectivity does not mean "anything goes" relativism. The goal of science and other endeavors is to seek inter-subjective agreement. Fortunately, humans have a very homogeneous natural perspective (we are nearly identical genetically and live in the same time and place in the universe). Striving to reach inter-subjective agreement among ourselves on a moral system is not only the best we can do -- it is undoubtably good enough.

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