Russell vs. Copleston on the Moral Argument

On his Dangerous Idea blog, Vic Reppert asks for comments on who won the famous debate between Bertrand Russell and Frederick Copleston, S.J. on the existence of God, broadcast by the B.B.C. in 1948. I recently commented on this debate in the chapter “Bertrand Russell” in Icons of Unbelief, edited by S.T. Joshi and recently published (2008) by Greenwood Press. My scorecard is: Russell clearly won the first round on the argument from contingency. The second argument, on religious experience, is not argued well by either side, but I give a slight edge to Russell. The moral argument is clearly won by Copleston. Here is a quote from Icons, pp. 365-366:


COPLESTON: The vast majority of the human race will make, and always have made, some distinction between right and wrong. The vast majority I think has some consciousness of an obligation in the moral sphere. It’s my opinion that the perception of values and the consciousness of moral law and obligation are best explained through the hypothesis of a transcendent ground and an author of the moral law (Seckel, p. 141).

Here again Copleston is offering an inference to the best explanation.

Russell’s reply is, first, that there is no identifiable universal or absolute moral law (Seckel, p. 141). If there were such a universal law, it would have to have some specifiable content, but when we look across cultures and through history we find a great multiplicity of contradictory norms. For instance, at one time cannibalism was acceptable (Seckel, p. 141). Copleston replies that the fact of historical and cultural diversity in moral judgments does not mean that there is no true absolute law (Seckel, p. 141). Russell scoffs that, in that case, the true moral law has been revealed to only a small portion of humanity, coincidentally including Copleston (Seckel, p. 141). Copleston admits that societal norms will reflect particular cultural and historical contexts, but he counters that when individuals criticize the accepted moral code of their own societies, which they sometimes do, they must appeal to an objective standard (Seckel, pp. 141-142).

Russell thinks that there is a naturalistic explanation of the sense of moral obligation: It is merely the inner sense of imagined approval or disapproval that we get by internalizing the teachings of parents and nurses (Seckel, p. 141-142). Copleston replies that moral obligation is a unique and basic concept that cannot be reduced to any other terms. For Copleston (Seckel, p. 142), moral obligation takes the form of what Kant called a “categorical imperative”—the recognition that we are bound by universal and unconditional moral duties. Therefore, attempting to explain our sense of moral obligation as “really” something else is not to explain it at all, but to explain it away, to turn it into something else, like a feeling of guilt or shame.

Copleston clearly wins this round. Russell is certainly right, indeed it is an anthropological truism that norms vary across cultures. However, Copleston’s claim is that those who reject the prevailing norms of their own time and place in the name of a higher morality, and these have included some of history’s great spirits, do so by appealing to ideals of goodness and justice that transcend particular, culturally-specific codes. Further, some acts, like Nazi atrocities, are clearly intrinsically reprehensible, regardless of whether any person or society endorses them (Seckel, p. 143). Copleston therefore holds that we do acknowledge some objective, trans-cultural moral standards, and Russell never addresses this claim directly. Also, Russell fails to recognize that Copleston is not speaking of a feeling of moral obligation, like a sense of guilt or shame—which we might explain away in psychological terms—but is alleging an intellectual recognition of pure and unconditional duties, i.e., that, as Kant claimed, we are aware of being bound by categorical imperatives.

“Seckel” refers to Seckel, A., ed., Bertrand Russell on God and Religion, Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1986.

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