Rusty Lopez on Morality

Rusty Lopez on Morality July 21, 2004

Rusty Lopez at New Covenant has responded to my post on the evolution of morality. Well, he’s kind of responded, by which I mean his response doesn’t actually engage what I said very much at all. He doesn’t deny the fact that today’s common moral precepts are significantly different from those found in the bible as it regards either the conduct of war or the institution of slavery (the claim that morality has evolved) or that today’s outrage at slavery is better than the bible’s acceptance of it (that it has evolved for the better). And those were, after all, the central claims of my essay on the subject. Thus, it’s kind of a non-responsive response. So what does he say? Here is the gist of it:

What I’d like to address is the thought that Ed expresses in his last sentence: “…our modern moral standards are entirely opposed, and infinitely superior, to biblical moral standards.” In fact, he prefaces his quotes from the Bible with the same thought, “Not only has our morality “evolved” since biblical days, it has evolved for the better.” Did you catch it? – it has evolved for the better.

For anyone to claim that one form of morality is better than another presupposes some separate standard with which to compare the two. Regardless of whether a secularist wants to admit it, he is, in effect, appealing to a higher standard that all “forms” of morality must answer to.

A commonly heard argument, to be sure, but not terribly compelling, for several reasons. First, it simply is not true that in order to claim that one thing is better than another we must have some “absolute” standard to compare it to. You need not compare two things to some Platonic ideal of the thing, you need to compare the two things to each other. That does, of course, require that you have some criteria with which to determine which is better, but that still doesn’t require that you have some absolute and Platonic ideal of perfection. Secondly, it presumes that there IS such a Platonic ideal and that that ideal, that perfect system of morality, can only be defended if one can say “God said so”. When you boil it down, Rusty’s entire response comes down to “But you didn’t say Simon (i.e. God) says.”

The entire argument from morality is, in my view, little more than a ruse. It consists of saying, “But how do you KNOW that?” over and over and over again, in response to every single claim no matter how self-evident, until the opponent finally admits that at some point, the argument rests only on the application of human reason. And then they say, “A ha! But human reason is faulty, and just because you think that doesn’t mean someone else should believe you!” The obvious response to this is that they are in precisely the same boat. The only difference is that rather than admitting that their arguments rest on the application of human reason, they end with, “God said so”. But the situation is identical, is it not? Human beliefs about God are faulty (they know this because they reject every other set of beliefs about God other than their own) and just because you claim that it comes from God doesn’t mean someone else should believe you. But they really do believe that merely repeating “God said so” over and over again is some sort of intellectual trump card, the claim that ends all dispute. And if that’s the case, then all I would have to do is finish my argument with “God said so” and that would be that. But sorry, it just ain’t so.

Now, we can certainly discuss whether the criteria I use to determine which behavior or set of precepts is more moral than another are reasonable or unreasonable criteria. I’d be happy to do that. But if the only argument is going to be, “You didn’t say God said so, therefore you can’t KNOW that you’re right”, there is little point in even getting started. Unless of course you will believe me if I say, “Okay, God said so” – and I doubt you will.

There are of course lots of logical difficulties with what philosophers call the Divine Command Theory of morality, particularly when you believe in the literal truth of stories that show serious inconsistency in the application of those divine commands. Divine command theory holds that the only way to determine morality is by the command of God. But this quickly unravels into absurdity because it is, ironically, relativistic in nature. I’ll give you one quick example – the story of David and Bathsheba.

There are numerous verses in the bible that declare that each individual is responsible for their own sin, that you cannot punish one person for the sins of another. Deuteronomy 24:16 says, “The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin”; Ezekiel 18:20 says, “The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him”. Pretty clear, right? Yet look at the story of David and Bathsheba, told in 2 Kings.

David desires Bathsheba, but she is married to Uriah. They had sex anyway and Bathsheba was impregnated. So David arranged to have Uriah sent to war, and placed against the strongest of the enemy, so he would be killed. And here is what the bible says happened:

This is what the LORD says: ‘Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity upon you. Before your very eyes I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will lie with your wives in broad daylight. You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.’ Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD .” Nathan replied, “The LORD has taken away your sin. You are not going to die. But because by doing this you have made the enemies of the LORD show utter contempt, the son born to you will die.”

Now, this is obviously contradictory to the command that you shall not punish the child for the sins of the father. The child didn’t do anything wrong, his parents did. But God (allegedly) killed the child for the sins of the father, and says openly that he is doing so for that reason, the very thing he said was forbidden several other times in the bible.

There are several possible responses to this, the most obvious of which is, “He’s God, he can do what he wants. He is not bound by his own commands, we are.” But this answer puts them in the same dilemma they claim I am in. Is there some actual ideal morality that God’s actions and commands conform to? Obviously not. Which means that divine command theory really means, “Hey, he’s the biggest guy on the block, so whatever he says goes, even when it contradicts itself.” Which means that their basis for morality dissolves into relativism – there is no real right or wrong, whatever God decides at any given moment is right, even if what he says at this moment contradicts what he said last week. In other words, it is simply a matter of God’s whims.

And for human beings trying to decipher such whims, it’s a matter of which claims about God’s whims we are going to consider authentic and which we are going to consider fraudulent. So “God says so” turns out to mean “I believe this is what God said”, which leaves the “God said so” people in the very same boat with the “I said so” people. In the end, we are all left attempting to apply human reason to the question of morality. And that can be a very interesting discussion. But Rusty, and many like him, skip over the interesting discussion and instead say, “But did God tell you that? If not, you have no reason to claim it’s true.” But as we’ve seen, this argument doesn’t hold up to examination very well.

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