Posted on Nov 23, 2009
Jordan has been saying things on the Manhattan Declaration thread like,
Atheism does not entail moral relativism, and theism does not entail moral realism. I’m an atheist, and a moral realist.
I (imperfectly) perceive morality with my moral sense. What is the basis of your “alleged moral objectivity”? I imagine it will be long-winded and incoherent. Or maybe you’ll save us both some time with a good old-fashioned, “Goddidit!”
Everyone on that discussion agrees on one thing: that there are unchanging moral absolutes. The dispute is over the content of those eternal moral standards, and especially over whether they could exist without God. I want to lay out more thoroughly the reasons God is necessary for moral realism.
Moral realism is the view that moral duties and values have an objective reality that does not depend on any person’s or group of persons’ opinions or beliefs about them. Morality has an existence independent of human opinion. In fact, Jordan takes it that it is eternal, or at least as old as the Big Bang.
Again, we all agree that moral duties and values really exist and always have, and that their essential principles are eternally unchanging. We also agree (as Jordan said) that we perceive morality with our moral sense, albeit imperfectly. The question I have is whether that makes sense on atheism. Jordan would ask whether it makes sense on theism.
Regarding the latter, I’m not sure how leaving out spaces between words—”Goddidit!”—turns their meaning around and makes them an argument against what they mean with the spaces included. Theism indeed says, in a rough sense, that moral values exist because God did it. That’s only in a rough sense, of course, because God didn’t “do” moral values. He didn’t make them up or invent them. They are an eternal aspect of his own character and nature. God has eternally been the ultimate instantiation and expression of love, justice, holiness, and so on; and since the universe he created is an expression of himself, those moral values apply in all of creation. Although Jordan said “theism does not entail moral realism,” the fact is that the Jewish and Christian versions of theism do entail it (Islamic theism may also; I can’t speak to that). If there is some form of theism that does not entail moral realism, it’s something other than Judaism or Christianity.
I’m also not sure why “good old-fashioned” counts against the theistic view eternal moral realities. If moral values and duties have existed from eternity past, then humans ought to have had some knowledge about them for longer than just the past couple of decades. I would say that “old-fashioned” counts in favor of a view on this topic. Jordan has tried to use negatively-laden language to take a bite out of the theistic view, but in fact it has turned around and taken a nip out of his own nose (metaphorically, of course).
(Now perhaps Jordan instead meant “Goddidit” was “old-fashioned” by its being some kind of non-answer, presented without any thoughtful justification. If that’s what he means, then I will simply say he is wrong. “Goddidit” is his word—if it’s fair to call it a word—not ours. As evidence that we don’t just settle for a mindless “Goddidit,” I would invite him to read the 48 or so posts I’ve written here on ethical theory along with all their attendant discussion; or better yet to visit some nearby seminary, and see how many books its library has on ethical matters.)
So let’s call Jordan’s phrase, “an old fashioned ‘Goddidit!’” what it really is: it’s his ironically failed and illegitimate attempt to marshall emotion rather than reason in support of his position. And let’s recognize that theism has a more than adequate space in it for eternal moral verities.
Now to the other question: can eternal moral realities exist on atheism? The idea presents numerous problems.
- What is a moral value or duty; specifically, to whom or what is it a value, and to whom or what is the duty directed, owed, or pointed?
- To whom or what was it directed, owed, or pointed when there was no person in the universe toward whom it could have been so pointed?
- Who or what held any responsibility for these moral values or duties before there was any intelligent life?
- In what did these values or duties inhere, or in other words, where did they exist?
- Was there such a thing as evil while the stars and planets were forming? What was it?
- Was killing immoral for the first 3 billion or so years of evolution, before humans arrived? Jordan says yes; but animals killing animals certainly wasn’t immoral then, nor is it now. There was no immoral killing until humans came, as far as I know.
- When humans arrived, what was it about us that made it (frequently) immoral for us to kill? Note that we take it that it’s not just about killing each other; we often consider it immoral to kill animals, too.
- Moral standards have changed over time, and in fact have oscillated back and forth on some issues (abortion, infanticide, homosexual relationships, for example). Jordan seems to take it that this moment in history represents the “right” moment on abortion, I think; he definitely takes it that this is the “right” moment on homosexuality. So where we’re heading as a culture on homosexual rights is in the direction of what has been eternally morally true. How can he be sure of this? What is the measuring stick? Is this not possibly chronological/cultural chauvinism?
- And to tie together two of the previous bullets, does Jordan think that seven billion years ago it was morally that same-sex couples should have the right to unite and call it marriage?
I propose that these questions are extremely difficult for the atheist who believes in eternal moral realities.