Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Universal Declaration of Human Rights October 16, 2013

The above Zen Pencils cartoon was accompanied by a reminder that October 16th is Blog Action Day, with a focus this year on human rights.

Human rights are things that we as humans define. But we do so rationally, by declaring that the same rights, freedoms, and protections that we want, all should have. Looking to ancient texts will not get us to them – the collection known as the Bible both declares humans as made in the image of God, and legislates slavery and even genocide.

It is important to recognize the human origins of notions such as human rights, because, if we want to add free healthcare, three meals a day, leisure time, and a decent wage to the list, we can do so. And I would argue that we should do so. Because human rights is not a default position that we naturally revert to. It involves commitment, effort, struggle, as we seek to not merely declare, but achieve the reality. And because reciprocity is at the heart of what motivates work to ensure that all have basic rights, many Christians find that undertaking to be not merely consistent with, but a natural outworking of, their core moral convictions.

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  • Eluros Aabye

    Dr. McGrath,

    Thanks for the post. I’ll be honest: this sort of thing has always had me confused. It seems to me like we consider pretty much every right to be a really, really, REALLY important privilege.

    1. Several of these rights are “denied” to prisoners. Prisoners don’t have the right to travel, for example. We wouldn’t consider prisons to be denying these rights; we just consider (I assume, anyways) that prisoners have forfeited these rights. But, if they’re rights, how can they be forfeited? Isn’t a right that can, in extreme circumstances, be morally taken away, simply a really important privilege?

    2. Why should we affirm/believe in rights? Simply because it’s beneficial? If so, I affirm the right to working no more than 5 days a week, and I’m pretty sure I could get a majority behind me. It seems like rights are making a moral claim; they feel normative to me. However, I’m not sure why we “ought” to respect rights, or how we should determine what a normative right is versus a non-normative “right” (like the right to have 2 days off work) is.

    Obviously, no pressure to respond. It’s your blog, and you’re usually more theologically oriented than this topic. I do feel, though, like a lot of folks are confused about this topic, and addressing it would be very helpful. 🙂

    • Good questions. We certainly have a precedent for denying some rights to those who have previously violated the rights of others. To allow sex offenders and thieves and others of this sort to roam freely reduces the right of others to live in safety. Sometimes we have to choose and cannot maintain the ideal that everyone have rights, precisely because of the refusal of some to accept the rights of others.

      I think the reason for affirming rights, as I said in the post, is reciprocity. Determining which ought to be normative is indeed a challenge. But when I enjoy rights, the conviction that others ought to have them as well can emerge both from self interest (if these rights are not protected for all, then my own are not protected) and from empathy (the Golden Rule).

      • Michael Wilson

        I agree that reciprocity is the key to rights. we could speculate that their are absolute wrongs and rights, things that are mandated by “God”, but how are we mortals supposed to objectively know the mind of God? On the other hand, if I’m stuck in a room with 5 other people, the best way to go about business in peace is to agree we are all equal because we all think that our self is tops.

        On the other hand I don’t think locking away rights violators is a failure to maintain the ideal of everyone having rights. The notion of a right implies that one may defend it. A absolute pacifist does not believe that one has a right to be free from violence, only a principle, because were someone to restrain and attack them, their principle would prohibit self defense, they couldn’t claim any right to not be assaulted. Having a right means having the authority to enforce your claim.

        The above means that some of the rights listed in the universal declaration of human rights are perilous. For instance if I have a right to an adequate standard of living and don’t have it, I can take it. If I’m in a bread line and the guy ahead of me gets the last loaf, I can take it because I have a right to an adequate standard of living. Of course that conflicts with his right to adequate standard of living and right to property. Thusly we can’t offer as right things which are limited. Same goes for education, if nobody in my village can read I can’t go kidnap a teacher from the next village.
        I should add that one doesn’t lose rights that they don’t secure. If I don’t lock up my bike that doesn’t mean its free to steal, I mean it may get stolen, but I haven’t lost my right to it. But if I have a right to adequate food and shelter, then by the same logic, I should receive these even if I don’t bother to acquire food and shelter. This is why Jefferson said you have a right to pursue happiness, not to have happiness. Providing education and adequate standards of living are obligations put on society along with protecting rights. I might seem like splitting hairs, but I think multiplying rights tends to cheapen the notion of a right.

  • Jon Fermin

    I think this begs the question of where do rights come from? If rights are merely the invention of mankind, then it is just as easy for mankind to revoke these rights. Are there such things as irrevocable rights and if so where do they come from? Certainly not us I would say.

    Also, given humankind’s tendency towards imperfection, this leads to the inevitability of an unjust humanly constructed right. what are we to do in such an instance? or is the fact that it is humanly agreed upon justify it?

    I guess what all this boils down to is justice inherent and a priori to our own arbitration at some level or is it your view that justice is entirely a social construction?

    • As a liberal Christian, I think that notions of universal rights come from reciprocity, the granting to others of the same freedoms and protections that we want for ourselves. If someone wishes to make a claim that rights somehow exist objectively in some supernatural realm, I don’t see that that helps things at all in any practical way. As the world changes, we need to update our thinking about rights. In the past, that someone could have a right to enough food would have seemed laughable, in a world in which people were at the mercy of drought and pestilence. Today, when we can take steps to make it nearly certain that we can produce enough food, the application of basic principles should be extended. And whether one thinks that rights are in some sense “God-given” or simply a matter of being a considerate and fair human being, it doesn’t change the fact that rights are often denied to people in our world, and effort and struggle is sometimes necessary to change that.

      • Jon Fermin

        Is reciprocity a good standard to determine rights by? I question that. According to your definition the basis of rights is then a reflection of human desire. even if it is human desire molded by the restraint of majority opinion, how does this avoid problems like Plato’s mob rule?

        I think it does make a difference whether or not justice is grounded in ourselves or outside ourselves. Paul Boghossian wrote in “Fear of Knowledge” of the loop of infinite recursion which occurs in relativistic logic, this however can also be applied to relativistic moral systems and their associated rights. the basic version is this:

        “Rule A exists against action B” the questioner will then ask why does rule A exist? the response? according to a theory we accept C, therefore Rule A. the questioner will repeat the question and the response received is “according to a theory we accept D, there is a theory we accept C, therefore rule A” and this will go on forever adding onto the chain.

        so long as all justice is human manufactured and subject to this chain of infinite recursion can it truly be said to be just or merely the result of a string of theories which are without God to end the chain of infinite recursion, groundless and arbitrary? therefore if we are to believe ourselves as Christians it stands to reason that God must necessarily be the ground by which justice is established, by nature of His being which possesses the characteristics to act as the end of such a recursion at any point in time of a potential chain.

        Of course the main argument against this by skeptics is “How does one know what God calls just?” we both are Christians, so rather than try to build the argument from the ground up from natural law shall I assume for the sake of simplicity that both of us agree that God has revealed himself to mankind historically and uniquely in the person of Jesus Christ?

        Theologically, if we are to take what we believe seriously, there is already grounding which is (1) truth in itself (2) per the axioms of thought cannot be contradicted (3) has the value of permanence, what good and truth God is remains the same as it was yesterday as it does today. a commandment of God in such a case would take higher priority than civil law.

        applying this to the maintenance and creation of rights, our rights must extend from a firm foundation, rather than on mutual agreement, otherwise it will fall into a situation of splitting the baby. hence why I appreciate language in the American Constitution which places it’s basis of rights in our creator rather than in individuals. even in times when the nation endured slavery, when the contradiction in rights was discovered, eventually the right to one’s life and liberty was retained. had it been a basis of rights in purely human terms, who is to say that such a thing may have happened?

        A basis of rights with it’s foundation in humans can take rights away as well as grant them. for the most part I have almost no problem with the UDHR as it stands today, almost. the fact remains that it is a house built upon the sandy foundation of human nature. When the rains come down, the streams rise, and the winds blow and beat against that house, and popular opinion bares down upon it to change with the zeitgeist, it will either eventually found a right which will be a license for injustice and add it’s weight of legal pressure to the mob, which in turn will affect us all. or it will fall with a great crash, revealing it for the facade of justice it was all along.

        I say it is a nice looking neighborhood, but I wouldn’t invest in property there.

        • I don’t think this involves “mob rule” since it involves, as happens in well-defined constitutional democracies, people accepting limitations on their own maximally-defined freedom in the interest of protecting the freedoms of others as well as their own. It requires the mob to empathize and care – something that not all mobs do.

          I don’t find that bringing God or the Bible into the picture actually helps. The latter has been used to justify any number of things which seem, based on core Biblical principles but contrary to some passages, immoral to us, such as slavery and even genocide. Specific commandments are ignored and even set aside from our perspective of hindsight, and so clearly they are not a source of some so-called objective morality. And much that is in the Bible, but especially in the teaching of Jesus, suggests that morality is in fact about caring about and for others, not about finding some way to figure out what the divine viewpoint is on a topic and then following it, whether to the benefit or detriment of one’s fellow human beings.

          • Jon Fermin

            are all constitutional democracies moral? Ironically enough the term “well defined” used here seems ambiguous. what makes a constitutional democracy, even well defined ones immune from mob rule if it has charismatic leadership which even when lacking empathy can feign it?

          • I understand your desire to do better than these frail human attempts. But I am not persuaded that we have some means to bypass our frailty.

          • Jon Fermin

            I suppose that is the issue I take with progressive Christianity. It makes claims to affirm Christ existed, but when it comes time to affirm what He taught, any and all statements He made in the bible can be washed away as as the errant teachings of some backward misogynistic, slave owning, nomadic, rural, fill-in-the-blank people. In other words, Jesus becomes a blank slate, and can mean whatever you want Him to mean. in this state, God exists and he cares for humanity but it’s such a vague an ill defined caring that it may as well be meaningless. At least the deist has the common sense to say if God existed he has no way of knowing if such a being cares for us at all. That is not to say I agree with the deist, but his position is infinitely more practical and logical than that of modern progressive Christianity.

          • I don’t follow you. Thus far you have been the one arguing against the adequacy of Jesus’ definition of morality in terms of the Golden Rule and reciprocity, and I’ve been defending it.

          • Jon Fermin

            It is what you didn’t defend I took note of, that morality is objective. reciprocity and the golden rule mean nothing without an objective morality to undergird it.

          • The notion of “objective morality” is inherently problematic. What most people mean who use the phrase is actually that morality is rooted in a divine subject, which is not what objective means.

            But Jesus taught that morality involves empathy, putting ourselves in another’s shoes. That is inherently subjective. Why do you consider Jesus’ teaching on this subject to be inadequate?

          • Jon Fermin

            I don’t consider Jesus’ teaching to be inadequate given the premise that God as the person of Jesus should exist to teach it in the first place. Morality as I had demonstrated above necessitates a divine foundation because of the problems associated with infinite moral recursion. Jesus calls one another to empathize and put oneself in the shoes of another, this is viewing not only one’s own subjectivity but the subjectivity of another. but the moral judgement comes not from one’s own subjectivity or the subjectivity of the other, but the objectivity of God which is extrinsic. Hence other places in the scriptures which call us to affirm that which is true and reject that which is false. this is not to be conflated with the oft trotted out “judge not lest ye be judged” as this is in reference to final judgement, as opposed to ordinary discernment.

          • Unless you deny that God is personal, which I doubt you do, then you are at best seeking to root morality in the divine subject rather than human subjects. And you are free to adopt that view, if you so choose. But you haven’t shown it to be necessary. That Jesus taught us a positive form of a principle that is widely attested among human societies suggests that morality is something that human beings are capable of deducing and applying in the empathetic manner that Jesus taught, and does not somehow depend on one first tracing the deduction back beyond the persons involved in whatever the situation is, to something that objectively exists somewhere.

          • Jon Fermin

            I do adopt the view that God is the root of morality by the very nature of His being. I deem it necessary in the sense that in the final analysis, any other alternative is arbitrary. I affirm that mankind is afforded reason and will and that in the sense according to natural law, ideas like the golden rule can be affirmed by humanity but in a sense humanity is not it’s author, but rather it’s reader. whether we are aware of God in a personal sense or not, we seek good according to it’s congruence to the highest good. the highest good is God, who rather than being one good among many is goodness itself. if God is personal, then He also has communicated to His people. if He has communicated to His people His will has been made manifest. if God has made even one moral commandment, then moral relativism cannot coexist with the acknowledgement of a personal God.

          • arcseconds

            I’m not sure how you think God is helping here.

            If goodness is just defined by what God does, then couldn’t He order you to kick puppies, and you’d have to take that as a good thing to do?

            If you’re inclined to say ‘God could never order kicking puppies’, and would, for example, take that as proof that a heavenly voice, no matter how heavenly and wise it sounds, could not be God, doesn’t that mean you’re more sure of morality than you are of divinity?

          • Jon Fermin

            This is the famous Euthyphro dilemma, for which atheists use to prove there is no God. The question usually takes the form of:

            “is something good because God wills it, or does God will something because it is good?”

            The answer to the Euthyphro dilemma is that it is a false dilemma.

            the dilemma presupposes that goodness is a quality of the acts God does or that the acts God does are good simply because it is God doing them. it presupposes that goodness is in acts and are outside of God’s being when the two are one in the same. to this end if it were not that God and Good were one in the same He would lack the omnibenevolence to resolve the moral recursion paradox. this paradox I had brought up earlier is exactly why the Euthyphro dilemma is a false one. in order to avoid an infinite recursion there must exist a good which is perfect and good in itself. if this good were external it would merely become another link in the chain. this good must be able to be eternal as to exist in any time this paradox may have existed. if there is no resolution to this paradox there is no such thing as a moral good. The Euthyphro Dilemma would lose all meaning. if good possesses meaning at all, then it means this paradox is resolvable, therefore such a good as God does exist and this dilemma truthfully has more than two choices.

            As an aside I think this is getting off topic from the question I posed to Dr. McGrath, and I would like to remain focused. Is moral relativism and the existence of a personal God consistent with one another?

          • I’m not sure why you think that Socrates and Plato were atheists. But on the substantive point, it isn’t clear that your attempt to define away the problem works. Either God defines the good, and whatever God says is good, or good is something objective – the actual meaning of objective morality – and God’s goodness can be asserted meaningfully precisely because the word has actual objective meaning and moral content.

          • Jon Fermin

            Dr., I never said that Plato or Socrates are atheists, I only said that the Euthyphro Dilemma is employed by atheists. and the point which I had brought up is that the dilemma is a false one because it seeks to assert either good as preexisting God’s will thus making God arbitrary or making good a matter of whatever God does thus rendering good arbitrary. these two horns of the dilemma are resolved by removing the separation between Good and God and pointing out that ontologically they are the same. let’s go back to the infinite recursion paradox I talked about earlier.

            Person1: “Moral rule A exists against action B”
            Person 2: “why does rule A exist?”
            Person 1:”according to a theory we accept C, therefore Rule A”.
            Person 2:”why does theory C exist?”
            Person 1: “according to a theory we accept D, there is a theory we accept C, therefore rule A” … to infinity

            to resolve this paradox requires a good which is objective, that is, at all times and places good. it must be outside of the constraints of time to apply at any possible place where this paradox may exist therefore it must be a timeless good. and it must be a good which is a person in itself, ontologically good and capable of acting as it’s own moral agent.

            this timeless, objective ontological good which acts as it’s own moral agent is God.

            given this, I’ll repeat my question. Is moral relativism and the existence of a personal God consistent with one another?

          • I think that you are making this more complicated than it needs to be. One can trace anything back to God if one wishes. If on one level my comment here can be explained in terms of my own volition, on another, it depends on your prior comment, and on another, it all goes back to the First Cause. But bringing in the First Cause does not really add anything to the matter of why I wrote this comment, understood within the framework of our conversation.

            In the same way, Jesus defined morality as doing to others what we would have done to us. I accept that definition. I am persuaded that morality is that, and that it applies perfectly well irrespective of the views that people may hold about the First Cause. Because morality is an interpersonal matter. If there were no beings of our sort, only rocks and streams, there would exist none of the situations that morality deals with.

          • Jon Fermin

            but if we are in agreement over the existence of God, and that God as trinity is interpersonal, it can be held that there always has been a being of such sort that can utilize it’s intellect for the determination of oughts. Moral discourse goes back to the first cause because before there was man or even a planet earth, it was God Himself in Genesis which determined creation was good.

          • arcseconds

            Why does that matter? if the distinction between right and wrong comes about at the same point there’s a being that’s capable of choice, then it’s of little importance, as far as I can see, as to whether it exists for all time, because for all time there have been beings capable of choice, or whether it came into being alongside the first beings capable of choice.

            Either way, the distinction is always there for those to whom it applies.

          • Jon Fermin

            it’s a distinction because it posits there are moral goods which are permanent and eternal, and that God as the highest good not only exemplifies this good but is this good itself. it flies in direct conflict with the concept of moral relativism coexisting with a personal God, which is the question I have been trying to address to Dr. McGrath this whole time, it’s the main point of my questioning. With all due respect, arcseconds I’ve been clarifying my statements with you, but only secondarily to this first point addressed to Dr. McGrath. This last post was in response to him.

          • You seem not to realize that you are the one creating moral relativism by emptying words like “good” and “morality” of all meaning. That is what creating a closed circular argument, in which morality means nothing else than what God is and ordains. That you yourself feel the need to say that God also “exemplifies the good” as though there were separate standard for goodness illustrates just how hard it is even for those who want to adopt this stance to do so consistently.

          • Jon Fermin

            I say God exemplifies the good in the same sense that I as an individual exemplifies me-ness, that is to say if ontologically God and Good are the same it is not a circular argument but rather an expression of the law of identity. Much in the same way that Christ says that he and the father are one and yet separate persons and yet still God. I may not have a doctorate, but I can appreciate the truth behind such a mystery, one that alone is worth much study, prayer and contemplation.

          • So good does not have any objective moral meaning in your view? It just means God’s own “me-ness”?

            Making a cross-reference to something that many would say does not involve identity, and is at best understood in many different ways and at worst a complete mystery, doesn’t make your view any clearer or more persuasive.

          • Jon Fermin

            So long as God has objective meaning, so does the good, for they are one in the same. I will speak this plainly so there is no room for confusion.

          • arcseconds

            The word ‘good’, though, is a word in a human language, used by non-theists, polytheists, and theists who don’t share your view on God being the good. We’re also quite happy to use it to translate words from cultures who have no history of monotheism, most notably ἀγαθός (agathos), the word used by Greek philosophers whose writing thoroughly informs the discussion we’re now having.

            While there’s not complete agreement across all people and cultures as to what ‘good’ means down to the last detail, it’s also not the case that there’s complete divergence on the matter. Good things are desirable, good actions are the ones we desire people do, and the ones we praise people for, good tools etc. are fit for purpose. There’s a complex of meaning here that can’t be denied. We can go a bit further than that, and note that, largely, arbitrary cruelty is considered bad and bravery, generosity etc. are widely considered to be good.
            What guarantee do we have that identifying the good with God preserves any of this meaning? Without a guarantee of this, then you’ve no right to call God ‘good’, because then you’re just ignoring what it means in English in favour of your own idiosyncratic useage. At best, it would be a technical term in your theology which doesn’t have any connection with the ordinary use of the word, rather like ‘colour’ in particle physics refers to a property of quarks which has nothing to do with it’s ordinary meaning.

            (It might be a bit like me deciding that the good is actually primality. Prime numbers are eternal, so this fulfills everything you want to establish complete objectivity. Of course, it doesn’t resemble the way we normally use ‘good’ in everyday life, but oh well! We’re often wrong about objective things. )

            For example, what’s preventing God from being arbitrarily cruel? He’s certainly portrayed as engaging in cruel and arbitrary acts in the Bible, and in many sorteriologies and eschatologies, too. If we put aside our everyday notions of goodness, and just look at what religious literature tells us about God, then don’t we learn from that that arbitrary cruelty is good?

            If, on the other hand, we reject these stories as being untrue because they show God to be bad, then it seems we already know about the good prior to knowing anything about God, and use that to inform us about God, and not the other way around. That once again suggests that ‘good’ has a meaning that’s independent of God.

          • Jon Fermin

            the view of God in the old testament from the Christian perspective does not view God as arbitrary or cruel. rather one has to consider a few things, namely that old testament books dealing with the history of israel are more concerned with the truth of the history of israel as a covenant and that this oral history which became these books of the bible have this covenant as the primary point they are pointing towards. they are ok with using symbolic language and allegory if it helps to understand the truth of the covenant. this was the history they were trying to pass on.

            Fr. Robert Barron, as one who has articulated more on the subject than I, offers an interesting perspective of violence in the bible. I’ll provide the link here.


            this link is not intended to persuade skeptics into immediately agreeing that God and good are one in the same, rather it’s to provide context to those who have trouble reconciling God in the new testament and God in the old testament. and why even though this is an old stumbling block to considering this truth, it need not be an irreconcilable one. I acknowledge my own weakness in the limits of my own ability to express this. but I also sincerely hope that you should not hold it against a sincere consideration it just may be true.

            to further this discussion would only serve to tempt all the wrong kinds of reaction all parties involved I fear. I confess my own vanity and pride in my manner of speech. it will kill what truth and charity anything of what i have said could contain. to that end I will offer no further comment or attempt to appease my pride by getting the last word in edgewise, but simply I will offer up my own shortcomings that we may grow in a spirit of wisdom and humility.

          • arcseconds

            Thanks for sharing that. It was interesting.

            By suggesting that those stories are just power fantasies of the Israelites (which I’m sure has a considerable degree of truth to it), isn’t he really ‘wash[ing] them as as the errant teachings of some backward misogynistic, slave owning, nomadic, rural, fill-in-the-blank [violent] people.’ ?

            What do you mean by “sincerely hope you should not hold it against a sincere consideration it just may be true” ?

            However, it’s kind of beside the point. My point is not that the Bible portrays God to be cruel and arbitrary, and therefore it’s either a pack of lies or God is cruel and arbitrary.

            My point is rather, that if we follow your suggestion and accept God as the fountain of morality, then whatever God does is good. So we don’t need to re-interpret these passages as allegories or see them as power fantasies of a violent tribal people — why would we want to do that? Rather, we can read these as straightforwardly telling us about God.

            And what God’s all about is killing His enemies down to the last child.

            If you’re tempted to reinterpret them, that’s presumably because you don’t think these stories show God to be good. But that can only mean you’re more sure of your notion of goodness than you are of the statement of scripture about God. If that’s the case, what use is revelation? It seems you’re just going to use your judgement either way, which seems to suggest you’re finding morality in your judgement, rather than God.

          • arcseconds

            To put it another way, we can certainly make ostensive definitions of words. For example, the metre for a while was ostensively defined as the length of a platinum bar held in Paris.

            But if we do this, then we can’t say of that platinum bar that “it’s a metre long”. Or rather, when we say that, we mean something completely different by that than saying “this plank of wood is a metre long”. By saying that about the plank, we learn about a property of a plank, but by saying that about the platinum bar, we don’t really learn anything (except maybe a reminder of what the definition of the metre is).

            And also, assuming you can get people accepting your new definition, you haven’t clarified any previous use of the word, but replaced it. If you think that the new definition was really also the old definition, or a superior drop-in replacement for it, then that requires a rather sophisticated argument.

            So, sure, you can define ‘good’ as being a property of some entity or other (God, maybe, but why him and not Winston Churchill?).

            But by doing that, ‘God is good’ is no longer a description of God, but rather reminding us of the definition of ‘good’. So we haven’t, and can’t, learn anything about God from that statement, or anything like it.

            It also doesn’t mean we’re any clearer about what the prior use of ‘good’ was. As I, and most other people, don’t currently accept this definition, when we say “what is good?”, we need an answer that connects with our current ideas about it, not a novel re-definition.

          • What do you mean by “objective” in that sentence? What does “good” mean, other than “what God is”? You may think that you are speaking plainly and avoiding confusion, but that is far from the case, because you are not using words in anything like their generally accepted sense, nor are you clearly defining how you are using them differently.

          • Ian

            Feel free to tell me to butt-out here, but can I try to respectfully reinterpret Jon’s rather imprecise language into something that makes sense to me, because I think there’s a point he’s struggling to make which I both disagree with, and think is not simply naive.

            Taking objectivism in the sense of being mind-independent.

            Jon seems to me to be arguing that morality is, in fact, objective, because it is defined by a set of qualities that belong to some being he calls ‘God’. Such qualities are qualities that God did not choose, nor could choose to change or eliminate.

            As such, Jon’s moral theory is objective – it is independent of the biases, interpretations, feelings, and imaginings of any subject. In the same way that there are facts about me that are objective, so there are, in Jon’s theory, about God. The qualities he identifies as being necessary to the construction of any moral theory among them.

            So this seems to be a third way between the narrow form of Euthyphro Dilemma that Jon seems to be describing, but is one that, of course, still falls foul of Socrates’s response to Euthyphro in the dialog: that morality is therefore contingent. Were God a slightly different God, then morality could be significantly different.

            Which leads us nicely to arc’s point, which is that, even granting Jon’s moral theory, only the ontological source of morality has been settled, there is still the problem of objectively determining the qualities of God in order to determine what is moral, given the range of claims to the interpretation of relevation, and direct inspiration which characterise religious history, and the dramatically changing standards of morality over time as a result.

            I’m not sure that is clearer, but I was a bit frustrated that Jon’s point seemed to be missed. Among his assertions that his is the only possible objective moral theory (which is incorrect, and misunderstands objectivism) his assertion that his is an objective moral theory (which is correct) seemed to have been lost.

          • Thanks Ian. Jon seemed to be depicting God as a deliberating moral agent, and so in that circumstance, then God’s morality would be subjective in the same sense that human morality can be said to be. And conversely, Jon’s statements about God’s morality being objective are not, after close examination, objective in a radically different sense than at least some human morality is. Does that capture the gist of it adequately?

          • Ian

            in that circumstance, then God’s morality would be subjective in the same sense that human morality can be said to be.

            Yes, although I didn’t read Jon saying that. But again, might me being too generous with interpreting, because he strays towards that in places.

            conversely, Jon’s statements about God’s morality being objective are not, after close examination, objective in a radically different sense than at least some human morality is

            Most definitely. I thought it was clear Jon wasn’t aware of moral realism accounts of morality, which as you say can be both objective, and humanistic.

            No criticism intended, I just wanted to restate things in different terms, to see if I was reading him right, but he seems to have given up on the conversation.

          • arcseconds

            Actually, I think my criticism is a bit more far reaching than that. I admit that I’m having a little difficulty making myself clear here, even to myself, but I’ll have another go.

            I accept for the sake of argument that we need an eternal standard for morality to be meaningful, and I’ll similarly allow that God exists.

            The only argument that Jon has given is that our one option for morality to mean something is to identify the good with God. I agree that gets us the required eternalness. I agree it could be an objective definition of something.

            But that’s as far as it goes.

            One thing to note is that we already know quite a bit about morality. At the very least, morality needs to be a guide for our action (almost by definition). It’s not just wrong to identify morality with Lake Huron or the number 57, it’s nonsense, because lakes and numbers can’t serve as guides. We also expect morality to rule out arbitrary cruelty and endorse at least some of the things we value about human beings.

            With that in mind:

            1) what right has Jon to say he’s successfully identified morality with the nature of God?

            2) The only quality that Jon’s mentioned that qualifies God for this role is the fact that God’s eternal. There are other eternal things, like prime numbers, and (more plausibly) decision procedures. Why can’t we identify morality with one of those things?

            3) It seems that to warrant identifying morality with anything, we’d need that identification to do justice to our ideas about morality prior to making this identification. How does identifying morality with God do that?

            (A decision procedure looks more promising here.)

            4) that includes explaining how we came to know anything about morality without divine revelation. It seems that, for example, by noting that condoning wanton killing puts everyone at risk, and no-one wants that, we’ve discovered a moral principle and a reason for following it, and God isn’t in this picture at all. But if God is identical with morality, that means this is is illusory.

            Obviously these are all closely related to one another, and there must be a better way of showing the interrelations…

          • arcseconds

            I know whom you are replying to.

            You’re posting on a public website, and anyone who has anything to say about any post can post a reply, and on most such forums (and on this forum in particular) this is entirely acceptable.

          • You seem to be reading Genesis with a literalism that it simply cannot bear. Did God’s vocal cords resonate, with the sound being carried through an atmosphere which presumably is at odds with the notion of creation out of nothing? Of course, creatio ex nihilo is not itself found in the text, but many emphasize it nevertheless.

            And in your trinitarian approach, you are simply illustrating what I have said elsewhere. When you say “objective” you mean “subjective.” You consider morality to be what divine subjects say is moral. But that divine subjects say something doesn’t make it moral – this is the problem we face in the story of the binding of Isaac, when we take it together with the blunt statements of Jeremiah, Ezekiel and others that child sacrifice is always wrong. Either morality has a meaning, as Jesus taught us, and it involves compassion and reciprocity, or it is simply “whatever God says” and has no objective status, being only that which a divine subject determines, which could presumably change even as the Biblical literature’s statements about certain matters can be seen to change over time.

          • Jon Fermin

            Dr. McGrath with all due respect it does not take a literal approach to Genesis to understand that God reasoned it good that we should exist rather than not exist. were it not so we would not be. you bring up the passages of scripture which admittedly while not an easy read are also not impossible to reconcile. these passages should be understood within the hermeneutic of the entirety of scripture itself particularly it shares much in common with understanding the book of Job. and the book of Revelations. here God demonstrates that he possesses the long view of history, that as the author of life and death it is his prerogative to use as he sees fit. it is immoral for us to act on such things because we do not possess the authority to do so, and we lack the ability to offer final judgement, or the ability intrinsically to condemn or beatify. in such a view, God’s actions though seemingly arbitrary from our perspective are not made good because he has done them but because they are expressions of his inherent goodness to which we may posess varying degrees of understanding. it is not an easy teaching, but being able to accept a certain degree of mystery in an infinite being is just a part of coming to grips with God as He is. it takes humility to accept this. God came to us incarnate as Jesus to provide the context for this when it is said:

            who, though he was in the form of God,
            did not regard equality with God
            as something to be exploited,
            but emptied himself,
            taking the form of a slave,
            being born in human likeness.
            And being found in human form,
            he humbled himself
            and became obedient to the point of death—
            even death on a cross.

            and yet today there is still today those who today are trying to renew the gnostic idea of the demiurge when they struggle with the difficulty of God in the old testament. I do not blame them, but would urge them to reconsider it from the view, that while we may not fully comprehend God, he he has provided us definite, objective moral teachings, and these should be understood as they apply to us as human beings and not as God.

          • As long as you tautologically treat “good” as simply whatever God’s nature is, then saying “innate goodness” is meaningless, since it does not have to correspond in any way to what humans mean by “good” since there is no objective standard by which to evaluate “goodness.”

            I really do think that if you would just look up what the word “objective” means, it might help you realize that what you are arguing for is the opposite of that. I know many people misuse the term, but that doesn’t justify perpetuating that misuse.

          • Jon Fermin

            if one’s definition of objective means assuming for the sake of compromise that God is not who He is, then he would make an honest atheist and a poor Christian.

          • Are you saying that one has to choose between being a good Christian and using words in their accepted English sense? I don’t see why that should be the case. But if you want to continue to use “objective” to mean something that it doesn’t in the dictionary, then why not just explain what you mean and why you think it is the case?

          • arcseconds

            How does your reply relate to my question? I’m not asking a question about metaphysics, which is what you seem to be answering. It’s primarily a question about definitions, and about epistemology.

            But it’s also a question about practicality.

            Let’s put it this way. How do you know that it’s wrong to kick puppies? And how does the existence of God help in that? What would be different if God didn’t exist?

            It’s certainly not true that atheists generally use the Euthyphro dilemma to prove there is no God. The normal argument is that there’s no especially compelling proof of the existence of such a being. What the Euthyphro motivates is thinking that God can’t really serve as an answer to “what is good?”.

            As to your musings about an eternal, perfect source of morality, buying your framing for a moment (which I don’t think I necessarily agree with), there are two problems with your argument.

            Firstly, it might just be the case that there is nothing that is morally good in the kind of meaningful sense that you’re looking for.

            Secondly, even if there is an eternal and perfect moral thingy, what justifies identifying it with God?

            I mean, why couldn’t it be, say, a decision procedure?

            Decision procedures can certainly be perfect (e.g. the optimal tic-tac-toe strategy, which can never lose). Arguably they are eternal, too, at least as eternal as numbers are.

            And a decision procedure would also allow us to say ‘God is good’ and mean something by it — it would mean ‘God always follows this decision procedure’.

            Note that the other traditional properties ascribed to God also have definitions independent of the notion of God. Omnipresence means ‘exists everywhere’, for example.

            Defining the good in terms of God and God in terms of the good still seems to get us nowhere, as far as I can see.

          • Jon Fermin

            a decision procedure is not capable of acting as it’s own moral agent. hence it still continues the chain.

          • arcseconds

            Why does it need to end in a moral agent?

            That seems like a bizarre requirement to me.

          • Jon Fermin

            because not only must the end be the completeness of good, it must also have no causality. it must eternally be. decision procedures have causality in the intellect that abstracts them and a decision procedure cannot make a moral judgement. moral agents posses and intellect and a will, and in the case of God can eternally be without causality. God is capable of making an eternal moral judgement.

          • arcseconds

            What do you mean by ‘have no causality’, and why is that necessary?

            You say ‘it must eternally be’. Does that mean you think decision procedures can’t be eternal? If so, why not?

            Why is it necessary for the supreme good to make moral judgements itself? That seems very strange to me. It’s almost like saying a method of surveying mountains must itself be a mountain, or something.

          • Jon Fermin

            decision procedures or a (code of conduct) can be eternal in a limited sense (they can exist eternally into the future but cannot extend eternally into the past) they have their causality in an intellect that creates them. to resolve the paradox it must exist eternally into the past as much as it exists eternally into the future. Assuming God is an eternal intellect in the fullest sense it is entirely possible for his intellect and morality to be eternal as well, in the case of God it’s not causality but an aspect of his being as ontologically good. absent of God, there would need to be some causal agent for the decision procedure or code of conduct.

          • It still sounds to me as though you are trying to root morality in the divine subject, and thus are talking about divine subjective morality, not something that can be called objective morality in the normal meaning of the term objective. For something to be objective, it doesn’t mean that it ultimately resides in a divine person, it means that it can be determined fully well by any person and does not depend on a person’s perception of it for its existence.

          • arcseconds

            Here is a decision procedure to determine whether a (natural, i.e. counting) number n is prime or not:

            1) create a list of all natural numbers up to n/2
            2) for each number on the list, check to see whether it evenly divides n.

            If any do evenly divide, the number is composite. If not, the number is prime.

            Note its close relationship to the definition of prime numbers (i.e. a prime number is a natural number which has no natural number divisors other than itself and 1).

            When do you think this came into existence?

            And when do you think prime numbers came into existence?

            Also, I’m still very unclear as to the role you think casuality plays into this, and what you mean by ‘causality’. It sounds like you think a decision procedure’s lack of causality without an agent is a problem, but that somehow it’s good for God to be without causality, whatever that means.

          • Your assertion that morality requires an eternal agent, is no more than an assertion, and an arbitrary one. You have defined morality to suit your belief system.

            One could just as easily define morality as a rational code of conduct (the general definition used by most philosophers). There is no requirement that it be invoked by a causeless, eternal agent. That’s an arbitrary addition to the definition.

          • arcseconds

            Most moral philosophers would affirm ‘objective morality’ (although they’d usually these days describe that as ‘moral realism’). And most of them would not mean by that that morality is rooted in a divine subject.

        • Jon, you can find a “creator” reference in the Declaration of Independence which is an important historical document, but which has no legal standing.

          The American Constitution, however, has no language that “places it’s basis of rights in our creator rather than in individuals”. Quite the contrary, the American Constitution begins, “We the people … do ordain and establish this constitution for the United States of America.”

          • Jon Fermin

            an honest mistake, the confusion for which I ask your forgiveness. it was a reply made in haste. The point of the post was not so much the merits of American politics, but rather the illustration made by the founding fathers in *the declaration* which understood the principle of a moral system which extends beyond the individuals which create it, and attribute our creator who is the foundation upon which rights sit and not with ourselves. After all, it was the idea of manmade arbitrary rights which drove many out of England into the colonies in the first place. I was contrasting the differences in the tone of the documents with the tone of the UDHR which posits all rights come from mankind and the inherent problems with such an implication. so once again thanks for the correction.

          • No apology necessary, though I’m not sure what you mean when you say that “it was the idea of manmade arbitrary rights which drove many out of England into the colonies”.

          • Jon Fermin

            what I mean is that the abridgment of rights like the ability for one to worship freely (whether worshiping rightly or wrongly) is an abridgment of free will which is antithetical to the goal of worshipping truly (if one were inclined to be of this position) because true worship can never be forced. (this side topic is tangental to the main point of the discussion I’ve been having so for)

          • Tangent or no, I would agree that the abridgement of rights is a factor that drove some of the original colonists to the Americas. But the abridgement of rights cannot be described as “man-made arbitrary rights.”

  • Anarchist

    “Biggest facepalm ever” should be the title of this post.

    How can you possibly harmonize the right to own property with guaranteed entitlements? The only natural, God-given, rights are your personal ownership (freedom) and we must all accept property rights to avoid conflict.

    The first person who claims I owe them their lunch violates my property rights. Education, travel, democracy, social security, et al. violates others rights.

    • Actually, “Biggest Facepalm Ever” is the title of the next post: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/2013/10/biggest-facepalm-ever.html

      A definition of rights can be formulated that ignores the well being of human beings in general in favor of the possible wealth of individuals. But that is in essence a rejection of rights as protections for all in favor of protecting the ability of some to succeed at the expense of others – and such “rights” scarcely deserve to be called “universal.”

    • arcseconds

      Well, if the basis for property rights is the avoidance of conflict, then can’t that also base other things, like ensuring everyone has enough?

      If I’ve grown a cabbage and you’ve grown a cauliflower, then it’s a cause of conflict if I decide I want a more varied diet and try to take the cauliflower that you’ve grown. So, OK, to avoid having dangerous and costly fights we set up norms of property.

      But if you have a cauliflower and my cabbage got eaten by slugs, and I’m about to starve, then I’ve got a much larger motivation to take your cauliflower than merely getting bored of cabbage. And I’m less likely to be put off fighting you (you might kill me, but I’ll surely starve otherwise). So there’s a much greater push towards conflict here.

      So if we’re to establish property rights in the first place to avoid conflict, it seems, for the same reason, there’s an even more pressing need to establish some kind of norms of redistribution in the second.

    • Anarchist.

      Did you receive a public education? Do you drive on publicly funded roads, highways, and interstates? If your house is burglarized will you call the local police or sheriff’s office? If your answer to any of these is yes, aren’t you engaged in a conflict of interest with your own property rights?

      How are property rights God-given? Most of the property distribution in the world is determined by where people are born and to which parents.

      • arcseconds

        I took Anarchist to be saying that personal freedom is God-given, but property rights are conventional yet necessary.

        • So is he being facetious when he says:

          “The only natural, God-given, rights are your personal ownership (freedom) “

          • arcseconds

            I’m not sure why you think that is facetious, or would have to be facetious on my interpretation?

            On my interpretation, the ‘are’ there should be an ‘is’, or they think of ‘personal ownership’ as not being a single right. It’s a clumsy sentence either way.

            The ‘God-given’ could be fairly literal: i.e. Anarchist is a theist, and thinks freedom/personal ownership arises directly out of properties God created us with, or maybe even arises from a God-given command or something. Or it could be fairly symbolic: i.e. Anarchist is adopting theological language to express that the right(s) embodied in freedom/personal ownership arise out of properties we naturally have.

            It seems to me that Anarchist is making a distinction between God-given rights on the one hand, and rights necessary to avoid conflict on the other. I’m not entirely sure on this point, but otherwise it would seem they think property rights are both God-given and accepted because they are conflict-avoiding, which seems a bit odd to me.

            Usually people take ‘God-given’ things to not also need a pragmatic reason to value them.

          • OK