Absolutely Moral? (From the Archives)

I wrote this post after wandering into the midst of a conversation between a moral relativist and a moral absolutist. It was a thought-provoking experience. When asked if I believed there is an absolute truth, I had no hesitation in answering. As a critical realist, I am persuaded that there is indeed such a thing as objective truth, even if what we “know” as human being may at best approximate it.

But what about morality? Do I believe in moral absolutes? There I found myself returning to Plato’s famous Euthyphro dilemma. If there are moral absolutes, where do they come from? If God is the source of them, then God can command genocide and it is moral. If genocide is wrong no matter what, then morality seems to transcend even God.

The moral absolutist offered the suggestion that moral absolutes might simply be an expression of the Creator’s character. That doesn’t seem to me to solve the problem. In fact, it seems to create a problem akin to the “fine tuning” of the laws of physics, offering us a Creator of our universe whose morality is fine tuned to the cosmic moral absolutes…or something like that.

I am pretty sure that the question whether “killing babies” is absolutely morally wrong came up in the conversation. It seems to me ironic that a Christian fundamentalist would ever want to raise that issue, since the God of the Bible commanded such acts. One cannot make the problematic nature of such stories go away by waving the magic “Well, that was the Old Testament” wand, since the Letter of James quotes the Abraham story as a positive one. That God was “only testing” Abraham, and that the story in its present form is intended to combat child sacrifice, still leaves unresolved the problem that the author thought it appropriate for Abraham to think it conceivable that God would make a request that his son be sacrificed.

How might we retell the story today from our own perspective? What about a version in which a heavenly voice asks Abraham to kill his only son. Abraham refuses, saying that no God worthy of worship would ask such a think. Then God says, “Well done, Abraham, I was just testing you…”

So is killing babies always morally wrong? I find myself recalling as I ask this question an episode from M*A*S*H that I watched as a child. In it, Hawkeye Pierce is showing evidence of mental instability, and the psychologist who counsels him gets him to remember something he had been blocking from his memory. He and a number of other people had been on a bus driving through the jungle. They stopped and shut all lights and kept quiet when they realized enemy troops were nearby. One Korean woman on the bus had a tiny infant that wouldn’t stop crying. “Can’t you keep that thing quiet?” was what Hawkeye had asked her, if I remember correctly. The woman, to save the rest of the people on the bus, smothered her baby.

Would it have been a better moral choice to allow the baby to cry? Perhaps they all would have lived, or perhaps they all would have died. Is any further judgment upon those involved necessary, beyond the horror of the tragedy of what they did, and the guilt that will haunt them the rest of their lives? Cannot what that woman did be called a sacrifice as much as, if not indeed more than, Abraham’s action? That woman gave her child’s life to save others. Abraham had no such motivation. Conversely, if this woman’s action would still be considered murder, does that term apply any less appropriately to Abraham’s case?

Can we be “absolutely moral,” even without moral absolutism? Is moral truth objective in the same way as scientific truth? What do you think? Personally, I find it ironic that it seems to be those who claim to be moral absolutists who find the least problem with the story of the binding of Isaac. Perhaps such claims about the Creator being the source of absolute morality are simply one more way to bolster a fundamentalist understanding of the Bible’s perfection. But the Bible’s moral perfection is every bit as difficult to maintain as its grammatical perfection, or any other sort of “inerrancy”.

  • JS Allen

    Richard Joyce had an excellent paper on this.  He thinks that Euthyphro is not a problem for DCT at all, although he rejects DCT on other grounds.

    To me, it feels like we can decide that “moral” is synonymous with “God commands” it, thus making moral relative with respect to God, but universal with respect to people.  As Joyce says:

    But now compare this: “I acknowledge that God commands me not to φ, but I don’t care about God’s commands—I’m going to do it anyway.” This person, it seems to me at least, provokes a very different “feel”. Someone who ignores the God that he believes in we think of as misguided, as pitiable. But it hardly has the same air of paradox as the former case. Someone who acknowledges but ignores God we think of as a wretched and foolhardy figure; someone who claims to acknowledge but reject morality seems literally not to know what he’s saying.

    He summarizes his argument like this:

    The trouble with the DCT is nothing to do with Socrates’s bamboozling, nor some modern “dilemma,” each horn of which threatens to impale the theorist. The upshot might then be taken to be that the theist (who, by definition, takes himself to have good grounds for believing in God) can happily endorse the DCT after all. But this, I have argued, cannot be assumed without further debate. First the adherent of the DCT needs to make absolutely clear just what kind of truth the theory expresses.  I have argued that even with this clarification made, the theist still needs to earn the right, via argument, to the DCT. It must be demonstrated that the property of being commanded by God is the best contender for fulfilling our shared moral platitudes.

    It seems to me that you can restrict your definition of “moral” to just mean, “that which doesn’t land me on the wrong side of God’s judgment”, and then you can jettison Joyce’s second requirement (of rationalizing it with humans’ shared moral platitudes).

  • JS Allen

    Richard Joyce had an excellent paper on this.  He thinks that Euthyphro is not a problem for DCT at all, although he rejects DCT on other grounds.

    To me, it feels like we can decide that “moral” is synonymous with “God commands” it, thus making moral relative with respect to God, but universal with respect to people.  As Joyce says:

    But now compare this: “I acknowledge that God commands me not to φ, but I don’t care about God’s commands—I’m going to do it anyway.” This person, it seems to me at least, provokes a very different “feel”. Someone who ignores the God that he believes in we think of as misguided, as pitiable. But it hardly has the same air of paradox as the former case. Someone who acknowledges but ignores God we think of as a wretched and foolhardy figure; someone who claims to acknowledge but reject morality seems literally not to know what he’s saying.

    He summarizes his argument like this:

    The trouble with the DCT is nothing to do with Socrates’s bamboozling, nor some modern “dilemma,” each horn of which threatens to impale the theorist. The upshot might then be taken to be that the theist (who, by definition, takes himself to have good grounds for believing in God) can happily endorse the DCT after all. But this, I have argued, cannot be assumed without further debate. First the adherent of the DCT needs to make absolutely clear just what kind of truth the theory expresses.  I have argued that even with this clarification made, the theist still needs to earn the right, via argument, to the DCT. It must be demonstrated that the property of being commanded by God is the best contender for fulfilling our shared moral platitudes.

    It seems to me that you can restrict your definition of “moral” to just mean, “that which doesn’t land me on the wrong side of God’s judgment”, and then you can jettison Joyce’s second requirement (of rationalizing it with humans’ shared moral platitudes).

  • Angie VanDeMerwe

    James,
    Most agree that “just war” is a justifiable position, because liberty is an earned by protecting and defending against tyranny…of any form. Sacrifice of life, is not the “ideal” in a free society, but is a place of voluntary service in defense of liberty and justice for individuals and society at large. Many public servants do such works.

    As to the DCT, justification of such a theory is in the court of those that believe it. “Good” is defined upon one’s values, and is dependent on one’s interests. DCT doesn’t think outside of “God’s Command”, as that would be blasphemous…..

  • Angie VanDeMerwe

    James,
    Most agree that “just war” is a justifiable position, because liberty is an earned by protecting and defending against tyranny…of any form. Sacrifice of life, is not the “ideal” in a free society, but is a place of voluntary service in defense of liberty and justice for individuals and society at large. Many public servants do such works.

    As to the DCT, justification of such a theory is in the court of those that believe it. “Good” is defined upon one’s values, and is dependent on one’s interests. DCT doesn’t think outside of “God’s Command”, as that would be blasphemous…..

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1280183233 Jerry Wilson

    The fundamentalist might say that, since God is on a higher level than humans, his morality is measured against a different standard. So what is moral if God does it (for a higher purpose) is not moral if humans do it. It’s simply their way of rationalizing seemingly unexplainable events in the bible. It’s just more theodicy.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

    My opinion is there is an absolute morality, but knowing it isn’t possible for a human. I imagine a commandment for ever possible situation that would ensure the greatest good for all.  On killing babies, the notion of savages doing it as a means of population control doesn’t bother me, because ultimately it ensures the continued survival of the group. For tens of thousands of years infanticide was a moral good.  In the modern context, if burning every one in Dresden may have stopped Hitler, it is worth a try.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1280183233 Jerry Wilson

    The fundamentalist might say that, since God is on a higher level than humans, his morality is measured against a different standard. So what is moral if God does it (for a higher purpose) is not moral if humans do it. It’s simply their way of rationalizing seemingly unexplainable events in the bible. It’s just more theodicy.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

    My opinion is there is an absolute morality, but knowing it isn’t possible for a human. I imagine a commandment for ever possible situation that would ensure the greatest good for all.  On killing babies, the notion of savages doing it as a means of population control doesn’t bother me, because ultimately it ensures the continued survival of the group. For tens of thousands of years infanticide was a moral good.  In the modern context, if burning every one in Dresden may have stopped Hitler, it is worth a try.

  • Angie VanDeMerwe

    Michael Wilson,
    You suggest that when war is necessary, that there is not a debate about how to defend life whenever possible. You say that it doesn’t bother you when savages sacrifice the young for group survival, but, yet, you disagree with the sacrifice of life to live in a free society?  

  • Angie VanDeMerwe

    Michael Wilson,
    You suggest that when war is necessary, that there is not a debate about how to defend life whenever possible. You say that it doesn’t bother you when savages sacrifice the young for group survival, but, yet, you disagree with the sacrifice of life to live in a free society?  

  • Guest

    Angie, don’t feed the troll.

  • Guest

    Angie, don’t feed the troll.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

    This isn’t an attempt to be incendiary. Necessity creates morality. basic cultures may do things that seem cruel to us, but in many cases had they not, we would not be here today to debate this.

     This goes for the allied war plan against fascism. The brutality of these regimes was well known. Their winning would have begun a new dark age. When we look at civilization of the past and the loss of their culture, I think nearly anything would be justified to stop that. I have no qualms with the firebombs or a-bombings. Even the rapes the Soviets perpetrated have to be seen in the light of the hell the Soviet troops went through, their whole nation was effectively insane (which in not to say this isn’t a failure of moral reason, which says in every case we ought not to indulge our lesser demons, but only that it was better to have their flawed assistance than to have risked loss.) Maybe this is why I don’t quite identify with Christianity, as I expect good people to fight back against evil, but to not seek vengeance.                             

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Wilson/1355591760 Michael Wilson

    This isn’t an attempt to be incendiary. Necessity creates morality. basic cultures may do things that seem cruel to us, but in many cases had they not, we would not be here today to debate this.

     This goes for the allied war plan against fascism. The brutality of these regimes was well known. Their winning would have begun a new dark age. When we look at civilization of the past and the loss of their culture, I think nearly anything would be justified to stop that. I have no qualms with the firebombs or a-bombings. Even the rapes the Soviets perpetrated have to be seen in the light of the hell the Soviet troops went through, their whole nation was effectively insane (which in not to say this isn’t a failure of moral reason, which says in every case we ought not to indulge our lesser demons, but only that it was better to have their flawed assistance than to have risked loss.) Maybe this is why I don’t quite identify with Christianity, as I expect good people to fight back against evil, but to not seek vengeance.                             


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