I hope soon to engage a few of the specifics of a debate going on at our friend George’s blog Misplaced Grace which started when a Christian apologist named Peter tried to argue that atheism has no way of ruling out pedophilia as immoral. Peter’s first remarks were critical of posts at Jason Thibeault’s blog Lousy Canuck. While I would like to address Peter’s remarks themselves at some point, in this post I want to critically disagree with a point in Jason’s first rebuttal to Peter’s claim that we need “universal, invariant laws of morality based upon God’s character” in order to ground morality. In showing what’s wrong with Jason’s rebuttal, I hope to also make a better rebuttal to Peter’s claim that moral laws need to be “universal”, “invariant”, or, as he puts it later “unchanging”.
So, first, Jason’s comment:
Atheists dislike the idea of pedophilia because children are vulnerable, and it is in human nature to protect vulnerable members of our species. They are not sexually mature enough to make an informed consenting decision, and therefore they are not “consenting adults”, and therefore do not count as someone you can “have sex with and enjoy it because sex is fun”. It has nothing to do with objective morality, because all morality is subjective. Just look at all the commandments you’re ignoring in the old testament because they’re supposedly not applicable any more. That is the very definition of subjectivity.
It is inaccurate to call the changes in religious values and moral codes “the very definition of subjectivity”. The changes in the biblical and subsequent Jewish, Christian, and Muslim interpretations of morality do not necessarily reflect moral subjectivity but moral mutability. It is possible for moral standards to rightly change with changing circumstances. Certain practices or rules might in some circumstances be highly useful for manifestly improving human happiness and flourishing in ethically relevant matters and therefore be morally estimable and enforceable in those times and places, whereas in other times and places those same practices or rules might be counter-productive or outright harmful to human happiness and flourishing and should rightly be denounced as immoral. Even though they will not put it this way and instead claim they have a God of invariant moral laws, fundamentalists like Peter implicitly believe in moral mutability and it is this which Jason is rightly pointing out but wrongly calling “subjectivity”.
To say that not only do moralities change but that they should and that even good moralities may not be permanently and at all times good is not to say that morality is subjective. To call morality subjective risks falsely implying that it is based on purely personal, idiosyncratic, arbitrary, or otherwise publicly unjustifiable premises—something I do not think Jason wants at all to commit to if he wants to consistently be able to morally condemn the pope and not simply say “I just don’t like what the pope does, but that’s only my personal feeling”. Morality, even if mutable, need not be just a matter of arbitrary feelings or tastes that admit of no argument for persuading those who happen to feel differently.
But good moral judgments and moral codes are to some important extent context dependent. They can change with different circumstances. What was genuinely good in Old Testament times may not have still been so in New Testament times and what was genuinely good in New Testament times may not still be so today. And what is genuinely good today might not be so tomorrow. But this does not preclude us, in theory, from doing an analysis of all the various factors at work in Old Testament or New Testament or contemporary times and discerning that x or y was, or is, genuinely effective at making life better, or worse, on various cross-culturally valid measures of human flourishing.
I think there are broadly definable human goods—intellectual power, social organization and cohesion, artistic prowess, physical health, athletic prowess, aesthetic sensitivity and complexity, technological capability, technological achievement, emotional satisfaction, pleasure, political efficiency, virtues, etc.—which stem directly from human nature. We can judge different cultures by how well their practices for attaining these fundamental goods actually succeed in the final analysis. We can ask how well they progress or retard both general humanity’s and their own specific culture’s attainment of these goods.
In this context, we can say with no inconsistency that some things rightly stigmatized as immoral in our own culture was, or still is, actually rightly treated as either permissible or obligatory by their moral standards.
This position moral mutability and context dependence must be clearly distinguished from moral relativism. What I am endorsing is moral pluralism, not relativism. Moral pluralism acknowledges that differing moralities, which in particulars may formally contradict each other, can each be ethically approvable given variations in circumstances or given their respective abilities to meet certain thresholds of valuable contribution to life.
Moral relativism would allow for no cross-cultural assessments but would say that the only standard a morality has or needs is the endorsement of a particular individual or culture. A moral relativist would say moral standards are only valid for those who adopt them and for as long as they adopt them. Moral relativists treat all of morality as binding only the way that personal rules or the rules of private organizations are binding. If I make a rule for myself, I may excuse myself from it at will since it is only my rule. If a group makes a rule for its members, members may run the risk of expulsion from the group or other practical penalties inflicted by the group if they deviate from it, but they have no further, more principled, reason to feel obliged to adhere to it.
Obviously moral rules take cultural and legal forms and can be analyzed as cultural artifacts from this perspective. Anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists will look at moral schema as they relate to group dynamics and individuals, often without making normative judgments. From the social scientist’s perspective what is interesting is often only how moral norms function as sociological, psychological, or anthropological phenomena.
But from a philosophical, metaethical perspective, we should be concerned with questions of what values are best and what moral codes best realize them. And from this context, while moral codes and their particular social and psychological force are historically relative to particular cultures and other conditions, we can also analyze each varying moral practice and code’s actual value for actually attaining those things that philosophically, metaethically, biologically, anthropologically, psychologically, and sociologically, we can discern constitute human flourishing and happiness.
And this means that we can discern that a particular culture’s moral judgments, codes, and practices was, or is, to some greater or lesser extent either counter-productive or outright harmful for the people in that culture themselves or for humanity itself. This means that we can, if we have enough historical understanding, assess in what ways Old Testament morality, imperfect as it manifestly is for today’s more progressed way of life, was in its own time the best and most progressive advance for the people who adopted it—and in what ways it failed and could have been better conceived even for its own time, in what ways it may have proved lamentably counter-productive in the long run, and in what ways it may have been regressive and harmful, etc.
In other words, to properly assess the relative worth of the Old Testament morality historically, we need to understand how it advanced the people who adopted it, what negative side-effects it had, and whether those drawbacks were on net more costly in the long run than the gains that came with them.
And to assess the viability of the Old Testament as a moral guide for today’s world, we can simply imagine what applying its value priorities, beliefs, and attitudes to modern problems would look like–and realize pretty quickly it would be a regressive, destructive disaster. And we can also compare its brutal, authoritarian, theocratic, Draconian, misogynistic, racist, homophobic, and inegalitarian value priorities, beliefs, and attitudes to our own contemporary ideals of democracy, openness, tolerance, freedom of thought and speech, scientific rigor, egalitarianism, pluralism, etc. and judge that our values manifestly have produced and can be expected to produce greater advances in knowledge, aesthetics, technology, emotional health, politics, geopolitical cooperation, athletics, social cohesion, general happiness, and numerous other human goods than reverting to the Old Testament’s archaic values possibly could.
On those grounds we can and should (and all of us—even the fundamentalists—implicitly do) dismiss the Old Testament as irrelevant to a contemporary context. And yet still we may possibly, from a neutral and open-minded historical perspective, praise the book if the facts were to bear out the thesis that it was a progressive landmark for its time, which, for all its repulsiveness by modern civilization’s standards, really did advance the condition of its miserable adherents in their day.
This does leave puzzles though for the Christian or the Jew who wants to assert that the Old Testament contains the “invariant” moral code of a morally perfect divine being and not merely the best and most progressive code a particular archaic tribe was able to come up with. It is puzzling how anyone could claim that the values of the Old Testament, the New Testament, and contemporary American Evangelical Christian are all the same when they each are manifestly different and calibrated rather finely to wildly different cultural contexts. Jewish and Christian moralities have rightly changed drastically with new conditions and cultural shifts which have necessitated the rethinking of values. And this makes perfect sense, for it is what all vital, strong, adaptable institutions do when faced with new circumstances. They evolve. If they do not, they go extinct.
But it is a laughable and plainly false attempt at revisionism to say a God with an unchanging morality gave his people an unchanging moral code they have retained for thousands of years. Jewish and Christian values have to their credit rightly evolved and the primary hindrance to their further, proper, evolution is the fundamentalist’s insistence on reading (conveniently only a select some) of the Bible’s more obsolete value judgments as necessarily binding for all time.
It is also wholly unpersuasive to claim, as some try, that God’s values have always been the same even as he has given his people moral codes that fit their times or their understanding at each of their stages. Such a claim quite conveniently, but with no evidence so unpersuasively, reads divine guidance back into what is observably a haphazard, unguided, organic process of cultural evolution, indistinguishable from other naturally explicable processes of social progress.
Such a claim leaves us with a truly weird kind of “morally perfect” God who first creates humans totally unequipped by their nature to figure out how to be morally ideal and civilized on their own and then guides them towards greater culture only through the use of barbaric, inferior, training-wheels moral codes which are so crude and awful by ideal standards that in a few thousand years they look outright embodiments of evil.
In future posts, I hope to come back to the metaethical and sexual ethics questions Peter raised and to address the question of his presuppositionalism which subsequently became a center of his debate with Jason and George.
The considerations spelled out in the above post should offer a greater context and justification for the ideas in the following, roughly logically ordered, posts. Listed below are some of the most salient posts I have written on problems in value theory, metaethics, moral psychology, practical ethics, and normative moral theory. There are a lot of them but you do not need to read them all to understand any of them whose titles interest you in particular. So don’t avoid all of them for fear you cannot read all of them.