Why Forgive?

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Continuing our exploration of forgiveness and forgiving, today I intend to go straight to the heart of the matter: why should we even consider forgiving—especially those who have done great harm? I will begin with something that may seem to be off the topic, but I think it helps us get to the answer.

I was reading N.T. Wright’s The Challenge of Jesus a couple of weeks ago. Wright is an historian of the first century, and it was his intent in the first half of this book to try to get the reader to see Jesus the way his contemporaries would have seen him. For me he succeeded in that, far better than any other author has done. Though Wright himself is a believer in Jesus, I actually experienced a crisis of faith from this book unlike any I’ve had in decades. I was seeing Jesus as he would have looked at the time: a young man, considerably younger than myself or most of my colleagues and friends.

On first view, before observing him in action or hearing him teach, I’m sure I would have viewed him as just some guy on the street, no different than anyone else. As Wright argues, though, he came (among other things) to overthrow the Jewish Temple system. This was a big deal. The Temple was no mere center of a religion. It was the center of Israel in every sense: the center of their relationship with God, the center of their political and social system, the center of their hopes for independence from Rome, the center of their very identity. For the ruling elite it was the seat of their power.

Above all that, it had been instituted by God himself. And this ordinary-looking young man came with the intention of saying, “That was then, this is now, and the days of the Temple are over. I’m throwing all that out and instituting a whole new way of relating to God.”

Here was my crisis of faith: how could we think that one relatively young man, just one guy (as he would have appeared on first impressions), could be the one to do that? How could we think he would do it the way he did, by gathering a tiny group of followers and teaching them? Now, part of that teaching included demonstrations of God’s kingdom breaking in to the world, through miracles of healing, resuscitation of the dead, multiplying food, and so on. That gave him vastly increased credibility, to be sure. But his fundamental approach was to teach and prepare a small group of men and women, and then send them forth with instructions to change the entire world. Does this make sense?

The author, Wright, was not trying to upset my faith; he argues strongly in favor of the Resurrection in the latter part of the book. But nevertheless I had to deal with what seemed to be the basic implausibility of the whole approach. Then last Wednesday evening I saw a music video depicting Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and suddenly it hit me, “It’s not implausible that God would do it this way! This is how it had to be!” Here’s why: We each live our lives one person at a time. We each experience our joys and our pains, our successes and our failures, one person at a time. We all fall short of what we intend to be, what we know we ought to be. We know that every person falls short. But we all fall short one person at a time. We have only our own individual lives to live.

Jesus showed us what it really means to follow God, one person at a time. He showed that the life God calls us to, a life of joy, love, obedience, giving, fruitfulness, and submission to the Father above, could be lived on earth. He was the living demonstration of God’s plan. Just one person; but it took just one person to show us how to live one person’s life; to demonstrate that it could be done, and to show how.

We all fall short. There isn’t a single reader of this blog who hasn’t lied, cheated, stolen, manipulated a relationship, intentionally used words (or worse) to hurt another person, desired to take from another person (their goods, their position in life, their sexuality…), harbored anger or even hatred toward another, wished harm on another. I speak from experience, for I have been guilty of all this and more. Jesus Christ alone was “the man for others” in all integrity, as Bonhoeffer put it, and at the same time fully a man for God. Our own falling short is most visible in our interpersonal relationships. On a deeper level, we also all fail badly in our relationship with God as well. To God’s character of love we say, “I don’t need it.” To his position as Master of his own creation, we say, “Step aside there, God, I’ll take over.” We thumb our noses at his justice. We ignore his omnipresent, omniscient Deity, as if it were an inconsequential thing.

We do violence against both humans and God.

For this, Jesus Christ did more than demonstrate a life lived well. That would only have frustrated us. He also died for our sins, opening the way for God to forgive us, paying the penalty for us that God’s justice demanded. Hanging on the cross, an instrument of slow, torturous death, he said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.”

God forgives. I have recently quoted Alexander Solzhenitsyn on a very relevant point:

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

We are not all guilty of genocide, but we cannot look at killers and say, “They’re the bad guys, we’re the good guys.” We are all co-participants in a common, fallen humanity. Hutus killed Tutsis in Rwanda. Had history taken a different turn, it could as easily have been Tutsis killing Hutus, and the wise among the Tutsis know that to be true. Had it taken a different turn it could have been Americans or Britons doing the same. Philip Zimbardo’s horrifyingly famous Prison Experiment provided empirical proof of this, in case any were needed.

So why is forgiveness a value? Because we all stand in need of it, first of all. But to receive it and not to give it to others is contradictory. Jesus Christ showed what it means to live one good and godly life, and in so doing showed that each of us in our individual lives fall short. Jesus told a parable about this in Matthew 18:23-35:

“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents [a large unit of currency]. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

(Also see further Matthew 6:9-15 and Colossians 3:12-14.) To accept forgiveness from God is to say, “I recognize what grace and mercy are, and that I stand in need of that.” To fail to forgive others is to deny that understanding of grace and mercy.

To forgive even a murderer is to say, “What you have done is horrible. But we are both human beings made of the same stuff, and deep inside, you and I are much the same. I need forgiveness, and you need forgiveness. Knowing this to be true I give you that forgiveness that is mine to offer.” To do any less is to deny the other person’s humanness, or else our own. And it is to deny the truth of our standing before God, from whom we all require forgiveness, and who gives it freely to those who will accept it for what it is: a gift of grace to be accepted on the basis of trust in him, and to be shared with others.

I close this with a note for visitors who read this without having seen my prior entry on this topic, which gave a definition of forgiveness and described (briefly) the process involved in forgiving deep hurts. Without that context, it might seem that I am saying in this entry, “Were you hurt? Well, just get over it!” That previous post will help you see that’s not what I’m trying to say at all; so I urge you to read it along with this post.

Series Navigation (As We Forgive):<<< What About Forgiveness?Interview with Catherine Larson of “As We Forgive” >>>

79 Responses

  1. Joseph A. says:

    A great entry.

    And I would agree entirely. The power of forgiveness, and the power (along with true, fallen state) of the individual is, for me, one of the most striking aspects of Christianity.

    Particularly the context of the resurrection. Not just because it shows that God is capable of making even a violent and unjust death into something good and glorious, but because (for myself, at least) it indicates a very important thing about our lives and God. No one but God can right the wrong of a murder, or a genocide. But every man and woman has the power to forgive if they choose it. And a sincere forgiveness can do amazing things in the short term, and miracles in the long term.

    Christ accomplished many things for us. Being a living example, not just dictating laws, was a tremendous gift to us.

  2. David Ellis says:

    So I take it that your answer to my previous question is “yes, forgiving the murderers of your children is morally obligatory”.

    Again, I have to reiterate that this seems to simply add an additional burden on people who are weighed with too much suffering to begin with. I doubt it is possible for many, if not most, people to sincerely feel forgiveness to someone who did that to their children. It seems likely that it simply adds an unnecessary burden of guilt to those who are christians and are led to believe its their moral responsibility to forgive even in such a case.

    As to the position that everyone is a sinner before God as a reason for this doctrine, I won’t comment on that since its a theological doctrine that I don’t share and can only say the doctrine is based on what appears to me to be a fiction. I’m more concerned with the this-worldly impact of the doctrine and whether it may tend to, unintentionally, do harm to many already suffering too much.

  3. Tom Gilson says:

    Without the theology, the rest is a matter of psychology alone. Psychology indicates that forgiveness is healing. Earlier you disputed that, but you are very badly misinformed on that. I say that on the basis of my graduate degree in psychology, but I would also invite you to test it by googling “psychology of forgiveness.” I’ve just done that, I’ve only looked at one link that it returned, but I’m very much not-worried that a simple google search would contradict what you so confidently affirm.

    This is not “research-by-google (TM)” such as I criticized you for earlier, by the way. I’ve done the formal study to attest to the accuracy of what you’ll find, in context of the entire field.

    But I don’t want to divert this to psychology. I hope you’ll take a look at it and recognize that your off-the-cuff opinion needs to be revised in light of actual scientific knowledge, and move on to the primary issue, which is who God is, how we relate to him, and how that relationship flows over into interpersonal relationships.

    If you don’t wish to discuss it on that level, that’s fine, perhaps others will.

  4. David Ellis says:


    Psychology indicates that forgiveness is healing.

    That may well be true. But my point was that when people find themselves unable to sincerely feel forgiveness telling them that they had a duty to God to forgive may well add significantly to their suffering—and when it comes to the person that murders one’s child there may be far more in this category than in the one of people able to feel forgiveness.

    Related question: are we obligated to forgive an unrepentant murderer?


    the primary issue, which is who God is, how we relate to him, and how that relationship flows over into interpersonal relationships.

    Since I have no belief in God I have little to say on that. Your beliefs about our need for God’s grace and mercy seem to me simply unwarranted (even assuming a God existed). Frankly, though, I just don’t much care about that when this whole thing derives from an issue I consider far more important—the suffering of human beings I actually know to be real. And the way they are being ministered to, be it by pastor or psychiatrists (something not available, I’m sure, in the case of most people in Rwanda), and how the views being expressed may unintentionally add to their burden.

    As to the psychology of forgiveness I don’t deny that its something I haven’t studied. I’d be interested in any resources any might suggest which would shed light on the issue I raised and whether research has been done that tells us anything about it. I’ll do some looking myself too.

  5. Craig says:

    David,
    You are correct that the answer to your question is yes. However, it is the church’s responsibility to walk with both those asking for forgiveness and those being asked. Forgiveness is a process that takes time. It’s not instant.

    As for the guilt, as I said in my comment on the last post, forgiveness is not about fixing the past or forgetting the past. It’s not like I ask for forgiveness and my guilt is suddenly gone. Guilt is there for a reason.

    The whole process of forgiveness and reconciliation is about bringing us back into right relationship with God and with each other. The act of penance plays an important act in this process. Penance is about unlearning the habits of sin, not just merely doing something because one sinned. One’s penance could very well be to continue asking for forgiveness from someone unwilling to grant it, and keep asking for it until reconciliation happens between these two people.

  6. David Ellis says:


    Earlier you disputed that,

    Actually, I didn’t. I don’t know one way or the other when it comes to issues like forgiving the murderer of your child rather than the more mundane issues of forgiveness like forgiving one’s parent for a bad childhood or one’s spouse for an affair.

    What I said when the issue of health and forgiveness was brought up was that my personal health is very low on my list of priorities when it comes to how I react to someone killing a person I love.

  7. David Ellis says:

    Craig, that doesn’t address the issue I raised. I asked a question about whether calling forgiveness morally obligatory and God’s command may simply add to the burden of suffering of those who are unable to feel sincere forgiveness to a child murderer (and I suspect there’s probably a lot of people who just could not do that no matter how they tried).

    None of your comment addressed the question I raised.


    One’s penance could very well be to continue asking for forgiveness from someone unwilling to grant it, and keep asking for it until reconciliation happens between these two people.

    I’m not sure if that was meant to be a comment on what I wrote—I don’t see how it could since I said nothing about the guilt or penance of the person committing the crime.

    But since you raise the issue it seems to me quite obscene to think a child murderer should keep coming around the parent and begging for forgiveness—doing this, it seems to me, would show enormous insensitivity to the parent’s pain and would likely only add to their suffering.

  8. Tom Gilson says:

    Are we obligated to forgive an unrepentant murderer? My prior post addressed that question already. See the paragraph with the heading, Forgiveness is Closely Tied to Repentance.

  9. Tom Gilson says:

    Thanks for the good additions here, Craig and Joseph, and thanks for the questions, David.

  10. Craig says:

    The goal is always to work toward forgiveness and reconciliation, even in the case of someone who murders a child. I never said forgiveness is an easy task. Let’s be honest here, forgiveness could very well not happen in their lifetime and might fall to future generations and I suspect that will be the case in situations involving genocide. Sometimes the practice of forgiveness is harder on the ones granting it than the ones asking for it. That’s part of living in a broken world.

    My comment on penance was a general comment because part of the practice of forgiveness and reconciliation revolves around penance. I expect that when someone is asking me for forgiveness, they are doing so with a contrite heart and that they mean what they say.

  11. Lisa says:

    Forgiveness is extremely important. I know from experience that if something happens and you don’t forgive the person that did it to you for it, all you are really doing is trapping yourself. Unforgiveness is basically imprisoning yourself.
    I once read a quote that said, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free, and discover that the prisoner was you.” I believe wholeheartedly that this quote is true. It is extremely important to forgive, even though it can be hard at times.

  12. Craig says:

    Lisa,

    Good point. I’ve heard it over and over again from my Ethics professor. Christians are a forgiving and forgiven people. There can’t be forgiveness unless we are willing to forgive. There can’t be reconciliation unless we are willing to reconcile. Refusing to forgive is a counter witness to who God is, a forgiving and reconciling God.

  13. David Ellis says:


    The goal is always to work toward forgiveness and reconciliation, even in the case of someone who murders a child.

    That would not be my goal. And, again, I think it may in many cases do more harm than good by urging something as morally obligatory which is very simply not possible for the person who has suffered the loss to achieve.

    And, quite apart from the issue of whether this approach does harm to many its intended to help, I, for one, have no inclination to find “reconciliation” with someone who’s murdered or raped or tortured someone I care about and certainly see no reason to think such a thing is something that anyone is morally obliged to pursue—if they feel the need for it for the sake of their mental health and well-being then so be it. But to sit here in my comfortable position in a safe small town in America and say its morally obligatory when I have no idea what such suffering must feel like—that seems to me to be indecently presumptious.

  14. David Ellis says:

    I’d also be interested in a response to my comment on the previous posting concerning the possibility of coerciveness in proselytizing to those in a position of both massive grief and deep poverty.

    I think we need to imagine, as best we can, the other’s position: what if it was you or me who lived in a nation that had suffered such massive violence and we had been killed? Would we want Muslims (or Mormons or Scientologists or anyone else) coming in and taking advantage of our childrens grief and terrible poverty to try to convert them to their religion?

    Probably not. Aid, certainly, would be welcome. But proselytizing under such circumstances seems almost inevitably coercive.

  15. Craig says:

    David,
    I just want to make sure I’m understanding what you are saying, so correct me if I’m wrong. To me, it sounds like you are saying that certain things are forgivable and certain things are not.

    If that is the case my question is who determines what is forgivable and what isn’t? You? Me? Therein lies the problem because it becomes arbitrary and relative. What is forgivable to me is not forgivable to you. I’m not talking just genocide, rape, murder, torture…I’m talking lying or stealing too. Humankind determined that certain sins are worse than others. Rape is worse than lying. Murder is worse than stealing. However, in God’s eyes, sin is sin. God makes no distinction between sins.

  16. David Ellis says:


    If that is the case my question is who determines what is forgivable and what isn’t? You? Me?

    We must each make our own decisions about these issues using our best judgement—-imperfect as it may be. You have made yours (mostly on a theological basis, it seems). I make mine, naturally, for other reasons (including, among others, my views on what is psychologically feasible to expect of people and my view that a society best protects its children by dealing harshly with those who deliberately harm them).

    My point is quite simply that I don’t think its reasonable to call it morally obligatory to forgive someone for raping, torturing and/or murdering your child. I don’t, for one thing, think its even possible for many, if not most, people to do so and I see little reason why they should be expected to try—the only reasons you’ve given are matters of theological doctrine which I don’t share your views on.

    If any parent chooses to forgive in such circumstances I would call it an undeserved gift rather than a moral obligation.

    And is that not, in christianity, the way God’s forgiveness is viewed? God is not generally seen as morally obligated to forgive humanity but does so out of the depth of his love as a free gift. That idea seems a far more reasonable model for how we should view forgiveness in Rwanda—not as moral obligation but a gift which can never be deserved and can certainly never be demanded of someone as their duty to provide.


    However, in God’s eyes, sin is sin. God makes no distinction between sins.

    If God fails to distinguish a substantive difference between saying a harsh word and a brutal rape/murder then he’s certainly not the place I’d turn for moral insight or guidance.

    But, again, I’m not really interested here in your theological views. I’m more focused on what seems to me unrealistic and potentially harmful demands being placed on people who’ve already suffered too much.

  17. Tom:

    Yet again, the discussion begs another, much more fundamental issue be resolved.

    If God does not exist, one can discuss and argue until the cows come home about any ethical theories one likes, and the meaning of moral acts from such a perspective will vary from having no meaning to, at best, having local subjective meaning only.

    Even “ideal observer” theory, while seemingly universal in its application, is none the less subjectivist: its proponents argue the theory doesn’t depend on the actual existence of an omniscient (in nonmoral facts), neutral, yadda-yadda, invisible little friend, but it does depend on a common agreed-to (consensus) understanding of what moral acts are and whether they are objective good or evil. (Some argue not consensus but imposition by those “in the know”… but I’m not going to pursue such blatant Gnostic totalitarian trash.)

    It is the appeal to an unattainable universalism that is the theory’s undoing, for it depends on consensus (because there is no invisible little friend) to consider moral claims that are allegedly true. (“Universal” here means “all similarly situated individuals” independent of culture, time, location, gender, race, nationality, etc..) “True”? “Universally”? Neither truth nor the character of moral acts can be obtained by consensus and be truly universal, can they? The window dressing makes it seem viable on first blush, but scratch the surface to push real-world acts far enough, and the “ideal observer” theory eventually slides either (1) into moral relativism because the most important question is impossible to resolve as “acceptable” to all across time, places, and cultures: who or what decides?, or it slides into totalitarian imposition: someone or something will decide. This theory claims to be universalist, but it is morally idealist and hence not only impractical but unattainable.

    Take two examples. (1) Let’s grant for the moment that “murder is evil” is a truth claim the “ideal observer” theory can legitimately make: there’s likely little disagreement over this; (2) Consider next “forgiveness is good.” That doesn’t work so well, does it… as the comments here show quite clearly. So, who decides? The “ideal observer” theorist is left with little more than appealing to the unattainable “universalism”—yet always begging the question on who or what, at the end of the day, decides. Moreover, not everyone is in a “similar situation”—unless they’re forced into such a constraint. Let’s have an honest show of hands: which of you would grant David the right to decide for you that “forgiveness” is a moral good or evil. (pause) I thought so. Here is the extreme thinness and self-centeredness of David’s position expressed in his own words:

    “We must each make our own decisions about these issues using our best judgment… I don’t think it’s reasonable to call it morally obligatory to forgive someone for raping, torturing and/or murdering your child… I’m not really interested here in your theological views.”

    Now, what if God exists? From the perspective of Natural Law, all discussions about meta-ethical theories, while interesting, fail because they avoid the really crucial questions: (1) what is the nature of a human being, and (2) can we know that some moral acts are intrinsically good or evil even without referring to God? (The more scientistically-minded supports of non-realist ethical theories reject “natures” as such, while others intentionally avoid the question of God by vainly attempting to produce theories that “don’t need” Him.) The answer is, yes, of course. But this in no way eliminates God as the basis of morality because to do so one would have to first eliminate God as the basis (i.e., the Creator of) human nature. In the realm of speculative knowledge, we can prove the existence of God and we do know some things quite objectively. In the realm of practical knowledge, we can know the existence of universal moral principles on our way to formulating an understanding (through philosophical reflections upon theological verities) of how God animates this understanding. Natural Law also provides a point of agreement. For example, both sides can reference and agree upon virtues identified as early as Aristotle, and then discuss the intersection where Christians (for example) also reference the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity—the latter which sheds light upon forgiveness.

    So, coming round full circle, this discussion, like previous ones, begs resolution of the question of the existence of God. One can, of course, choose to blow off that question by pejoratively suggesting “faith in God is irrational” and “no such being exists” (even though proving a negative is impossible or avoiding that issue by evasively suggesting a “nonsubstantive” or “side” issue is being pursued). Or, we can be critical thinkers and follow the evidence where it leads: the evidence of our senses from where we employ our reasoning capacity to knowledge beyond the senses—including knowledge of human nature. Notice that in all of this I have not discussed forgiveness as such—primarily because I refuse to do so as an abstraction. The existential aspect of forgiveness is extremely important, and cannot be reduced to whether or not it fits a meta-ethical theory’s abstract parameters or the presuppositions of atheists.

    There is one important point David makes that correctly identifies what should be the proper focus of this discussion, but nonetheless begs (at least at the level of the discussion) the resolution of the issue of the existence of God… and which, unfortunately, in the last phrase throws David off track:

    … God is not… morally obligated to forgive humanity but does so out of the depth of his love as a free gift. [Why? Because of the Cross.] That idea seems a far more reasonable model [indeed!] for how we should view forgiveness in Rwanda—not as moral obligation but a gift which can never be deserved and can certainly never be demanded of someone as their duty to provide.

    David stumbles on his last bold-faced phrase because it seems (at least to me) to clearly echo a Kantian-like moral imperative. We Christians forgive because we—all of us, in fact—have been forgiven deicide… an act infinitely more horrific than any natural or man-inspired evil can ever touch. (Where was God when the people of Rwanda suffered? On the Cross suffering with them.) God’s moral “demand” on us to be perfect is impossible for us to achieve, but God’s love and mercy freed us and enabled us to participate in Divine forgiveness by forgiving others. His death on the Cross was the price paid for our sins… but he will never rape our natures to force us to accept (to “demand as a duty”) that free gift. I will go provocatively further: ultimately, forgiveness only makes sense from the Christian perspective; it makes no sense from any other perspective.

  18. Craig says:

    I can’t help but give you theological answers…I have an MDiv (at least I will this Friday). Theology is part of what I do.

    Yes, forgiveness is a free gift of God’s grace, but forgiveness is also expected of people in relationship with God. So, yes, it is a moral obligation to forgive someone, even for the most horrific act imaginable.

  19. Craig:

    I happen to agree with you… it’s just that I was trying to tone down the moral obligation aspect—NOT to detract from it but to serve the needs of the immediate topic at hand and to highlight the fact (primarily for David’s sake) that moral obligations must, nonetheless, be animated by something objective. People these days, to a great extent, see “expectations” as something negative, and I was trying to be sensitive to that. I have no argument with you.

  20. Craig says:

    Holo,

    No worries. I totally understand.

  21. David Ellis says:

    Thank you for finally making a statement of your position on meta-ethics Holo. Your comment is lengthy so I’m not going to respond to all of it in one sitting.


    Even “ideal observer” theory, while seemingly universal in its application, is none the less subjectivist…

    I think there needs to be clarification about your usage of the terms objectivist and subjectivist in the context of morality. You call ideal observer theory a form of moral subjectivism. Personally, I dislike both terms, moral subjectivism and moral objectivism, because I think they almost always involve some rather muddled ideas about the role of the subjective (in the sense of the experiential) in questions about values.

    My position is that there is a fact of the matter about moral questions (in other words, I’m a moral realist) and that ideal observer theory provides us with best methodology for recognizing what the truth is on moral questions. The ideal observer concept, therefore, concerns the issue of moral epistemology: how we can know the truth about questions involving what is or is not right.

    The sense in which I think there is a fact of the matter about morality is that certain values, ways of living, states of being, etc, are intrinsically superior to others in the sense that they make for better lives for the people who hold them and the societies that embrace them. The central concept in my moral realist position, therefore, is the idea of intrinsic goods.

    The basis for morality is, on this view, not to be found in conformity to some external standard or set of commands handed down by an authority—but in the nature of the lives lived by those who hold it and the communities that embrace it as compared to those holding other values (not to be confused, as is sometimes claimed, with mere hedonism—there is far more that is intrinsically worthwhile than personal pleasure).

    Much of your comments concerning ideal observer theory misunderstand it. I will respond to some of the worst examples below:


    Even “ideal observer” theory, while seemingly universal in its application, is none the less subjectivist: its proponents argue the theory doesn’t depend on the actual existence of an omniscient (in nonmoral facts), neutral, yadda-yadda, invisible little friend, but it does depend on a common agreed-to (consensus) understanding of what moral acts are and whether they are objective good or evil.

    It is not to consensus that I turn as a moral realist and proponent of IOT (quite the contrary, most people make little effort to even approximate the qualities of the ideal observer), rather its to the act of working, as best I can, to exhibit the characteristics of the ideal observer when thinking of moral issues.


    The window dressing makes it seem viable on first blush, but scratch the surface to push real-world acts far enough, and the “ideal observer” theory eventually slides either (1) into moral relativism because the most important question is impossible to resolve as “acceptable” to all across time, places, and cultures: who or what decides?, or it slides into totalitarian imposition: someone or something will decide.

    You seem to be confusing, especially in that last comment, matters of law with morality. When it comes to morality, each of us decide, as our ability and judgement dictate, our own minds on moral questions. The issue of what is to be law, what are to be the rules society demand its members follow, is another question. Morality, to be sure, has its role here, but in large part law is less about what is morally right or wrong (many things we judge wrong we dont make illegal) as it is about allowing people to live together as harmoniously as possible and balancing the desires and needs of different individuals and groups where they may come into conflict. However, I don’t want to get too much into philosophy of law; for one thing I’m far from expert on it and for another we have much on our plate to discuss already.


    Take two examples. (1) Let’s grant for the moment that “murder is evil” is a truth claim the “ideal observer” theory can legitimately make: there’s likely little disagreement over this; (2) Consider next “forgiveness is good.” That doesn’t work so well, does it… as the comments here show quite clearly. So, who decides? The “ideal observer” theorist is left with little more than appealing to the unattainable “universalism”—yet always begging the question on who or what, at the end of the day, decides.

    Obviously, each decides when and where forgiveness is appropriate for themselves according to their own best judgement.

    How good their judgement on the issue is (whether they come to the correct conclusion), in my view, depends on how well they approximate the ideal observer. There is no issue here, as, strangely enough, seems to be implied, of one forcing his values concerning the morality of forgiveness on another—especially as is implied in the statement below:


    Let’s have an honest show of hands: which of you would grant David the right to decide for you that “forgiveness” is a moral good or evil. (pause) I thought so.

    I am, of course, not proposing that anyone let me decide for them what is right or wrong. I’m simply arguing that cultivating the characteristics of the ideal observer will allow each of us to judge more soundly, with a better chance of reaching the best conclusion, on moral questions.

    I will comment later on the other half of Holo’s post (the section dealing with natural law). I think that there may be at least some common ground here—many versions of natural law theory are not that different from my own position.

  22. David:

    “Ideal Observer” theory IS a subjectivist account of morality and it is (but only in the best of circumstances) a consensus-based theory–there’s no escaping that. As loathe as I am to reference Widipedia, I only offer it as a first baby step (strongly suggesting more substantive sources) that explains what “ideal observer” theory is about. What you just proposed doesn’t square with what Wikipedia offers, and (in my opinion) doesn’t square with more substantive references such as the on-line Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Admittedly, some of what I say is “by implication,” but the support is in the references for all to verify.

    When you say, “Obviously, each decides when and where forgiveness is appropriate for themselves according to their own best judgment,” you must then admit (for consistency’s sake alone) the same for murder (my first “easier” example). Are you sure you want to go there?

    Regarding Natural Law, yes, I agree with you there will be an intersection of agreement… and, in fact, you alluded to it slightly with your statement “The basis for morality is…in the nature of the lives lived…” The problem here is, of course, what is meant by nature. That term MUST be flushed out, because from my perspective it is very clear your understanding of “nature” is not the one expounded in the Natural Law. Moreover, you’re still left with the very important question of the origin of natures in the first place… which is why I so adamantly assert the issue of God’s existence must be resolved, and then the evidence and reasoning followed from that. I’m likely not going to spend time flushing out “nature” because that’s a huge job… but I will expose (which I did earlier) your view of nature as one of a reductionist collection of observable properties.

    YES, we do gain insights into what the nature of an existent is by the sensory-observable “properties,” but that is NOT what a nature is, for we must use those “properties” (dang, I hate that MES-loaded term) to reason to the quiddity or “whatness” of the existent–we understand what kind of a substance it is through its intelligible aspect (the essence) and hence what the universal aspect of all similar things are by their nature (we understand all dogs to be dogs through their “doginess” even as we know individual concrete substances (Rex vs. Fido)).

  23. David Ellis says:


    “Ideal Observer” theory IS a subjectivist account of morality…

    I note, again, that you have not explained in what sense you are using the term subjectivist. What do you intend for it to mean when you say a moral theory is subjectivist? I don’t use the term “moral subjectivism” (due to its usage often seeming to assume an equation of the subjective with the arbitrary in matters of values) so since its you that are using the term I will leave it to you to define.

    My claim is that IOT is a moral realist position. Do you disagree? If so, why?


    and it is (but only in the best of circumstances) a consensus-based theory….

    IN what sense?

    Its true that the theory holds that as people approximate more closely to the characteristics of the ideal observer they will tend to converge toward the same moral views (hardly a bad thing). But I don’t think that’s what you were implying here.


    What you just proposed doesn’t square with what Wikipedia offers, and (in my opinion) doesn’t square with more substantive references such as the on-line Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

    Not every proponent of IOT necessarily holds to exactly the same version of it. Just as not every proponent of natural law theory agrees (I’m sure you don’t share the same views as Thomas Hobbes, for example, who embraced a form of natural law theory).


    When you say, “Obviously, each decides when and where forgiveness is appropriate for themselves according to their own best judgment,” you must then admit (for consistency’s sake alone) the same for murder (my first “easier” example). Are you sure you want to go there?

    Of course I do. The fact that everyone comes to their own conclusions about moral issues is a truism. It doesn’t follow from this that they’re all correct in their opinions—nor even in the ballpark.


    The problem here is, of course, what is meant by nature. That term MUST be flushed out, because from my perspective it is very clear your understanding of “nature” is not the one expounded in the Natural Law.

    Indeed not. I defined the sense in which I was using the term earlier.

    And, since you bring it up, I think you would do well to give a brief summary of your views on natural law—since there are several variants of the theory (presumably you intend something nearer the ideas of Aquinas than to Hobbes, for example).


    but I will expose (which I did earlier) your view of nature as one of a reductionist collection of observable properties.

    Good luck with that. I find that if I want to know other people’s position I usually have to ask. It must be nice being able to just read their minds—quite a time-saver, I imagine.


    YES, we do gain insights into what the nature of an existent is by the sensory-observable “properties,” but that is NOT what a nature is….

    Rather odd that you imply that I equate a thing’s nature with its sensory observable properties—since the statement I made using the word “nature” was in talking about the nature of love.

    Hardly a thing one can observe with the senses. So I don’t know how you managed to acquire the misconception that I hold a thing’s nature to be its sensory observable characteristics.

  24. David Ellis says:


    YES, we do gain insights into what the nature of an existent is by the sensory-observable “properties,” but that is NOT what a nature is, for we must use those “properties” (dang, I hate that MES-loaded term) to reason to the quiddity or “whatness” of the existent–we understand what kind of a substance it is through its intelligible aspect (the essence) and hence what the universal aspect of all similar things are by their nature (we understand all dogs to be dogs through their “doginess” even as we know individual concrete substances (Rex vs. Fido)).

    You do realize, don’t you, that 9 out of 10 people who may happen to read what you just wrote will have enormous difficulty making heads or tails of it (and probably won’t bother trying)? It does not demonstrate one’s intelligence or learning to speak in ways your audience is not likely to comprehend when one could easily have communicated the thought in less jargon-ridden, more easily understood form. I give an example below:


    YES, we do gain insights into what the nature of a thing is by it’s sensory-observable characteristics but that is NOT what it’s natures IS, for we must use those characteristics to reason out what it is about all things of which it is an example (be it a person, a dog, a chair or whatnot) which make it an instance of that kind of thing as opposed to what characteristics are merely accidental and not essential to things of its kind—as, for example, a chair doesn’t have to be made of wood to be a chair but it does have to be designed for sitting on to be called a chair—its nature, therefore, being the things about it that it MUST have to make it a “chair”.

    Not that, even then, any of this would be particularly relevent to the discussion at hand.

  25. Okay, I’m done… again: you’re decrying the use of philosophical terms of art, and then making claims of “irrelevance” when what I’m digging out of your views are the erroneous bricks upon which your assertions rest. It’s the deflection you practice (accompanied by the baggage / presuppositions you bring into the discussions) that is the problem. Your approach distantly echoes that of Jacob “what do you mean ‘what do you mean?’?”

  26. Tom Gilson says:

    Looks like some interesting discussion has been going on.

    I just got home from Charlotte, NC, a 365 mile drive away, after a surprise weekend visit with the family to see my wife’s mom for Mother’s Day. I’ve been off the Internet all afternoon and evening, and I’m not even going to try to catch up on all this until some time tomorrow morning. There’s unpacking to do…

  27. David Ellis says:

    Getting back to the topic of forgiveness:


    I can’t help but give you theological answers…I have an MDiv (at least I will this Friday). Theology is part of what I do.

    Yes, forgiveness is a free gift of God’s grace, but forgiveness is also expected of people in relationship with God. So, yes, it is a moral obligation to forgive someone, even for the most horrific act imaginable.

    Theology aside, do you see how telling a parent of a murdered child what you say in the last sentence above may simply add to their mental suffering (I don’t think anyone who dispute, after all, that many parents would find it simply impossible for them to feel such forgiveness).

    At the very least, if such a doctrine is a nonnegotiable theological necessity in your opinion, I would suggest that any urging of people who’ve suffered this sort of loss toward forgiveness of the murderer or rapist must be handled with enormous care and that we’d need to let them come to forgiveness in their own time as they work toward psychological healing—that it not be urged upon them too quickly or too vehemently—there is great danger, it seems to me, of doing more harm than good if the matter is not handled skillfully.

    A question only tangentially related to this but which your comment brings to mind:

    does God have moral obligations? And if so, why and in what sense?

  28. Craig says:

    David,

    What I say here is not what I would say to someone in my office. In fact, I would probably refer the parent of a murdered child to someone with more experience that I do, such as a grief counselor or a psychologist. I might have an MDiv, but I’m not trained to handle something like that. I totally agree that it has to be handled with enormous care.

    I’m not sure that I understand the first part of your question.

  29. Craig says:

    I should also note that I would not tell the parents that they have to forgive during my first counseling session with them. I probably wouldn’t bring it up unless they said something first. That’s when I would start the discussion with them.

  30. david ellis says:


    I’m not sure that I understand the first part of your question.

    do you mean this:

    “Theology aside, do you see how telling a parent of a murdered child what you say in the last sentence above may simply add to their mental suffering (I don’t think anyone who dispute, after all, that many parents would find it simply impossible for them to feel such forgiveness).”

    What I mean is that its highly likely that many, if not most parents would find it impossible to ever feel sincere forgiveness toward the murderer of their child and that the doctine that such forgiveness is morally obligatory may very well tend to add a burden of guilt for their inability to forgive on top of the suffering they’re already going through.

  31. Craig says:

    I was referring to this:

    A question only tangentially related to this but which your comment brings to mind:

    does God have moral obligations? And if so, why and in what sense?

  32. David Ellis says:

    I’m not sure how to make it more clear.

    The comments made about forgiveness and moral obligation bring to mind the question of whether, for example, God is morally obligated to forgive (or morally obligated to do anything, for that matter).

    If so, why?

    If not, why not?

    It seems to me that this may have some relevence to the discussion about meta-ethics and theism.

    Also relevent to that discussion is the question of what God’s reason are for his moral commands—it seems to me that we should expect they aren’t arbitrary; that God has good reasons for such commands. If this is the case it also seems likely that these reasons would be valid whether God exists or not. That, of course, may depend on what the reasons are. For example, why does God want us to be kind to one another? Are his reasons such as any rational agent could recognize if thinking sufficiently clearly about the issue? And if so, doesn’t this mean that morality is on a solid footing whether God exists or not?

    And shouldn’t that be a conclusion we would be glad of instead of resisting tooth and nail?

  33. Tom Gilson says:

    Trying to catch up now…

    To what Craig, Joseph, and Holopupenko have said, I would add this. Does it add a very difficult burden on the parents of a murdered child, to tell them they need to forgive the killer? Yes. Therefore what? If it is right to forgive, and if forgiveness is healing, then one carries that burden with them. That means (as already noted) waiting to bring it up until the time is appropriate. It means caring for them in and walking through it with them in every way, helping share whatever load they may have upon them. It means being gentle and gracious with them. It is a matter of community.

    (Remember I asked you a while ago whether your family had experienced a murder? You didn’t answer. Would you like to know whether mine has, and whether I speak from experience on this?)

    Above all else, if there is a moral obligation to forgive, it comes from God and God carries burdens with us. Every follower of Christ with any life experience knows this to be true. I could tell you of multiple situations when God’s help was palpably evident: when I went to the emergency room with a dangerous hemorrhage, when my mother died, when I was locked in a very difficult, extended conflict with a certain person over an ethical issue, and more. This is one of the commonest experiences reported by followers of Christ: God is with us.

    Moral burdens come our way in many forms. ‘My boss has asked me to lie to a customer, and if I decline, he’ll fire me.’ ‘I just found out my best friend is doing drugs, and she told me she’ll kill me if I tell her parents.’ This not-so-hypothetical situation of murder is different in the depth of pain that accompanies the moral burden, but it’s a difference of degree, not of kind.

    If there is no God, then God does not carry burdens with his people, and there is also no real moral obligation to forgive, and you can wash your hands of it. If there is a God, and if he presents this to us as a moral obligation, then he presents himself as a burden-carrier with us. He will do this for any person who calls on him for help.

    Just because something is difficult does not mean it is not valuable, not a goal—even if it is more than a person can handle on his or her own. God never intended us to handle life on our own without him, or without the caring help of a community.

    So I have no qualms agreeing with you that this is very, very difficult indeed—and yet it is nevertheless a real moral obligation. It is an obligation imposed by God who at the same time, for those who will accept it, supplies his help in carrying it.

  34. Tom Gilson says:

    With respect to your point on IOT, David, I do not know how IOT can be compatible with moral realism, if that IO is some unreal hypothetical person. (Now, though I’ve read from Rawls, I’ll grant I’m not schooled in IOT, which I take to be different from what Rawls proposed with his “Original Position” even though it sounds rather similar.)

    One problem with what I’ve read of your position, and its coherence with moral realism, is revealed from this starting point, quoting you above:

    The sense in which I think there is a fact of the matter about morality is that certain values, ways of living, states of being, etc, are intrinsically superior to others in the sense that they make for better lives for the people who hold them and the societies that embrace them. The central concept in my moral realist position, therefore, is the idea of intrinsic goods.

    What is an “intrinsic good,” and what Ideal Observer knows what it is? With respect to marriage, is it intrinsically good that each partner be happy and fulfilled? Is it intrinsically good that they remain committed to their promises to each other and to their children? What if those two appear to be in conflict with each other? Or more succinctly, what is the primary intrinsic good of a “good” marriage? And where is the Ideal Observer who knows? On what basis does this Ideal Observer know it?

    If there is an Ideal Observer who knows, and whose interests are those that match the best possible interests, that Ideal Observer is God. If there is no such IO in the form of God, does it exist in in some Platonic form? Or what?

  35. Tom Gilson says:

    I’d also be interested in a response to my comment on the previous posting concerning the possibility of coerciveness in proselytizing to those in a position of both massive grief and deep poverty.

    I think we need to imagine, as best we can, the other’s position: what if it was you or me who lived in a nation that had suffered such massive violence and we had been killed? Would we want Muslims (or Mormons or Scientologists or anyone else) coming in and taking advantage of our childrens grief and terrible poverty to try to convert them to their religion?

    Probably not. Aid, certainly, would be welcome. But proselytizing under such circumstances seems almost inevitably coercive.

    Christianity is about the good news of God in Jesus Christ. Telling good news about God is never out of place. I don’t see any reason to suppose it needs to be coercive. Having been rather closely associated with a major humanitarian organization, I can very personally attest to the fact that aid can be supplied along with non-coercive good news. And it has been well-accepted, even in Communist and Muslim countries. Your supposition on that is uninformed.

  36. Tom Gilson says:

    Does God have moral obligations? Not to some external obliger.

    He is intrinsically moral and will do what is moral, consistent with his good character, so in that sense one might say God must be just (for example), but it is not because of some obligation placed upon him. Rather it is because God cannot be other than God is.

  37. David Ellis says:


    Does God have moral obligations? Not to some external obliger.

    To be morally obligated to do something means that it would not be right to fail to do it. It does not necessarily consist of submission so someone else’s commands.

    To say God has no moral obligations would mean that there would be nothing wrong that God could do. If God has no moral obligations he is not morally obligated, for example, not to torture for his own amusement.

    That he has no desire to do that does not make that, to my mind, any less disturbing an idea.


    He is intrinsically moral and will do what is moral, consistent with his good character….

    What does it mean to say God has good character if, as so many theists claim, morality is dependent on God? Or do you not share that view?


    If there is no God, then God does not carry burdens with his people, and there is also no real moral obligation to forgive….

    I do not see how it necessarily follows that if there is no God to carry burdens with his people there is no moral obligation to forgive. Nor, for that matter, why if there is a God there is such a moral obligation. I understand this may be your opinion but I would be interested in hearing an argument in support of the claim.


    With respect to your point on IOT, David, I do not know how IOT can be compatible with moral realism, if that IO is some unreal hypothetical person.

    The ideal observer is not the basis of morality. Its simply a description of the characteristics a person needs to be able to make good judgements on moral questions (that is, the closer a person comes to this ideal the more reliable their judgement on moral issues is likely to be).

    In other words, the ideal observer is a matter of moral epistemology (how we answer the question “how does one go about distinguishing right from wrong”).

    The actual basis of morality, the thing ideal observers (and good observers—people who come closer than most to attaining that ideal) are uncovering are intrinsic goods.

    An intrinsic good is something that is worthwhile in and of itself (and which, therefore, requires no external validation).

    For example, I think most would agree that love is an intrinsic good. That to be filled with love is worthwhile in and of itself. That to live the sort of life a loving person naturally is drawn to live is intrinsically better than the alternative. That to be part of a community of loving individuals is an intrinsically worthwhile thing.

    That is, that its worthwhile because of what it is in and of itself—some ways of living are intrinsically better than others.

    Is there disagreement about what constitutes the best ways to live? Sure. But none of us are ideal observers (most of us aren’t even making an effort to cultivate those characteristics) so this fact is no objection to the theory—its exactly what the theory suggests will be the case.

    However the theory also makes a testable prediction. That as people come closer to the characteristics of the ideal observer they will tend to converge toward similar values.

    And it does seem to me that philosophies of life that place importance on the characteristics of the IO seem to have similar values (particularly in the moral thinking of the Enlightenment and humanism).


    What is an “intrinsic good,” and what Ideal Observer knows what it is?

    Intrinsic goods are things that are worthwhile in and of themselves. Knowing when something is more or less intrinsically good is, of course, not simply a matter of the intellect. One cannot understand, for example, the value of love if one is a sociopath and incapable of experiencing it. Morality is such a very difficult topic because morality is not like mathematics or empirical science—-it is a thing which involves not only objective knowledge but also breadth of emotional experience, the imaginative ability to put oneself “in another’s shoes” and see things from his perspective.

    Therefore, of course, dispute on matters of morality cannot be easily resolved—-different people will always vary in their empirical knowledge, critical thinking skills, and, equally importantly, their emotional insight.

    We can only minimize such disagreement by prizing the cultivation of these characteristics, each to the best of his ability.

    Sadly, we don’t tend to do this.

    I’d also point out that this approach is not at all inconsistent with theism. The theist is free to see the characteristics of the IO as the way for human beings to understand and recognize what Holo referred to as natural law. The idea of natural law is really not that much different from the idea of intrinsic good—its description of the relationship between knowledge of the cosmos and knnowledge of human nature dovetail quite closely with what I say about the balance between empirical knowledge and emotional insight.


    With respect to marriage, is it intrinsically good that each partner be happy and fulfilled? Is it intrinsically good that they remain committed to their promises to each other and to their children? What if those two appear to be in conflict with each other? Or more succinctly, what is the primary intrinsic good of a “good” marriage?

    In my best judgement, a good marriage serves several purposes which are intrinsic goods and which support intrinsic goods. The bonds of caring affection and concern between two individuals. The creation of an environment in which children can thrive and have the best chance of developing in ways that will lead them to the best possible lives.

    All of this is, of course, not susceptible to proofs like syllogisms or mathematical reasoning. Whether one judges rightly on such matters can always be disputed. And such disputes must be as much about attempting to understand the perspective of others as it is about purely intellectual knowledge. That’s precisely why in discussing forgiveness I am always focused on how the attitudes being expressed by those counseling victims of terrible crimes may have unintended side effects. I think there has been a tendency to approach the matter with theological doctrine in mind first and foremost and to interpret all in the light of that. This seems to me an example of one of the obstacles to moral insight that the IOT is designed to help us overcome—the tendency to approach moral questions with too many preconceptions about what will serve the well-being of those who’ve suffered.


    If there is an Ideal Observer who knows, and whose interests are those that match the best possible interests, that Ideal Observer is God. If there is no such IO in the form of God, does it exist in in some Platonic form? Or what?

    The ideal observer is simply an idea. Like the idea of a perfect circle (which none of us can draw or has ever seen) is an ideal. I am neither a theist nor a platonist. I don’t believe in the existence of ideas except in the minds of people thinking them. I see no need for them to exist anywhere else.


    Telling good news about God is never out of place. I don’t see any reason to suppose it needs to be coercive. Having been rather closely associated with a major humanitarian organization, I can very personally attest to the fact that aid can be supplied along with non-coercive good news. And it has been well-accepted, even in Communist and Muslim countries. Your supposition on that is uninformed.

    I hope very much that you are right. I fear very much that the reality often may be less that ideal in this regard.

  38. Tom Gilson says:

    That he has no desire to do that does not make that, to my mind, any less disturbing an idea.

    That you have a desire to do what may not be pleasing to God, in his goodness and greatness, may be a disturbing idea in his mind.* In the end, in a universe created by God, it will be what is in his mind that will rule. His desire is to bring all persons into a knowledge of his goodness and love, and he will do so, but some will encounter that along with his judgment for their refusal to see it when they had the chance in this life.

    What does it mean to say God has good character if, as so many theists claim, morality is dependent on God? Or do you not share that view?

    We had a discussion just a couple of weeks ago on the Euthyphro dilemma, which I prefer not to replay. You can find it by searching Euthyphro in the Lijit search box above.

    I do not see how it necessarily follows that if there is no God to carry burdens with his people there is no moral obligation to forgive.

    Well, I thought that was your point, actually. Let me put it this way, then: if your view of a godless moral realism were correct, then your view would also be correct that it would be heartless and unconscionable to place a moral obligation for forgiveness on the parents of a murdered child. If there is no God to carry the load, then the load is too awful to contemplate. But there is a God to carry the load, so the moral obligation is an opportunity to experience God’s goodness in doing so, as one also experiences God’s goodness by moving toward forgiveness.

    The ideal observer is not the basis of morality. Its simply a description of the characteristics a person needs to be able to make good judgements on moral questions (that is, the closer a person comes to this ideal the more reliable their judgement on moral issues is likely to be).
    In other words, the ideal observer is a matter of moral epistemology (how we answer the question “how does one go about distinguishing right from wrong”).

    The epistemological issue is meaningless unless there is something ontologically there to be known. Which leads to…

    An intrinsic good is something that is worthwhile in and of itself (and which, therefore, requires no external validation).

    This is a very knotty ontological problem you set for yourself, depending on the rest of your ontological views of reality. If, for example, you are a philosophical materialist, you have to find a way to set one material thing above another ontologically, as being better than another. I’d be interested to know where you stand on this.

    For example, I think most would agree that love is an intrinsic good…. That is, that its worthwhile because of what it is in and of itself—some ways of living are intrinsically better than others.

    Of course it is. But in most atheistic views of reality, its intrinsic goodness is ontologically alien. It makes no sense in a non-personal universe, a universe of matter and energy and chance and necessity (and nothing else) to say that love arises as an ontological novelty with its own intrinsic goodness.

    Again, I offer philosophical materialism as an example here, not because I know for sure that’s your position, but because it is a common one among atheists.

    *Anthropomorphically speaking of course–God is not “disturbed” in the same sense we are, but he cares: he cares for what is good, and judges that which is not.

  39. David Ellis says:


    The epistemological issue is meaningless unless there is something ontologically there to be known.

    Here, I think, we come upon the difference between our background beliefs on which, in large part, the disagreement turns.

    I find that theists typically are concerned with the question “does moral truth exist”. They tend to assume that moral truth are in some sense “things” which have an independent ontological status—that is, that they exist outside the mind of us human beings (comparable to the argument over whether abstract objects like numbers and ideas exists—either in some platonic realm of ideas or in the mind of God or in some other sense).

    My position, on the other hand, is that the question “does moral truth exist” involves a mistaken assumption. I do not believe in the independent existence of abstract objects like numbers or ideas or moral truths.


    This is a very knotty ontological problem you set for yourself, depending on the rest of your ontological views of reality.

    This comment too, assumes that moral truths are “things” in some sense that have existence independent of my thinking it.

    This assumption though, in my opinion, is just wrong. The proposition “its hot in here” doesn’t exist independently of my thinking it—but it is none the less true (speaking of which I’m going to turn up the setting on my air conditioner when I finish here). The same goes for the proposition “kindness is a virtue”. It is true and none the less so for existing only in my mind.


    If, for example, you are a philosophical materialist, you have to find a way to set one material thing above another ontologically, as being better than another. I’d be interested to know where you stand on this.

    I’m not a materialist. I’m quite thoroughly agnostic when it comes to questions about the fundamental “stuff” of which reality is composed. I doubt that the question can be answered—and even if it can I don’t think the answer has yet been found judging from what I’ve read on metaphysics.

    Of course, none of these questions about metaphysics have any relevence to the issue of morality if what I say previously is correct.


    Of course it is. But in most atheistic views of reality, its intrinsic goodness is ontologically alien. It makes no sense in a non-personal universe, a universe of matter and energy and chance and necessity (and nothing else) …..

    The universe also contains people who think and feel and love and dream and hope and suffer. This fact is indisputable and is at the heart of moral questions (besides which, as already stated, I’m not a materialist of any variety so my views cannot be criticized on such grounds).

  40. Tom Gilson says:

    David, if your position is this:

    … that the question “does moral truth exist” involves a mistaken assumption. I do not believe in the independent existence of abstract objects like numbers or ideas or moral truths.

    … and yet you are a moral realist, as you have said, then what is that moral reality?

    Also: I’m very surprised you see the two propositions here as parallel in any sense that supports your position:

    This assumption though, in my opinion, is just wrong. The proposition “its hot in here” doesn’t exist independently of my thinking it—but it is none the less true (speaking of which I’m going to turn up the setting on my air conditioner when I finish here). The same goes for the proposition “kindness is a virtue”. It is true and none the less so for existing only in my mind.

    In both cases you spoke of the proposition having no existence independent of the mind, and yet being true; but in the first case, the proposition is true by virtue of its corresponding to some condition that does exist independently of your mind. In the second case, I’d like to know what it is that the proposition “kindness is a virtue” corresponds to, by virtue of which the proposition is true.

    To put it another way: granting for the sake of argument (it might be true; I’ve never studied this one through) that both propositions exist (as propositions) only in the mind, one of them is about something external to the mind (the room, its air, its temperature, the effect that has on the body, etc.). Is the second one about something external to the mind? If so, then what? If not, then the analogy fails.

    Of course, none of these questions about metaphysics have any relevence to the issue of morality if what I say previously is correct.

    Good point, if what you said previously is correct. I just don’t see how what you said previously could be correct, in view of the questions I’ve articulated here.

    The universe also contains people who think and feel and love and dream and hope and suffer. This fact is indisputable and is at the heart of moral questions (besides which, as already stated, I’m not a materialist of any variety so my views cannot be criticized on such grounds).

    And this is quite a puzzle, on non-theistic assumptions. I dealt with a related version of this not long ago: https://www.thinkingchristian.net/series/mary-midgley-and-ethics/.

  41. Tom:

    Just a brief note on one point: the implication by David that Christians nowadays rely on some Platonic conception of reality is without basis, and frankly quite absurd given the many varied discussions on this blog. It is–let’s call a spade a spade–a deflection.

  42. david ellis says:


    … and yet you are a moral realist, as you have said, then what is that moral reality?

    The question assumes what I just explained I consider to be a mistaken assumption (that moral truths are independently existent things). But being a moral realist is simply to assert that there are true moral claims (and, of course, false ones as well). I think statements like “kindness is a virtue” are true (making me a moral realist). I have further explained already my reasons for thinking so.

    You may disagree but I don’t think restating my position will serve any purpose unless you have specific criticisms of it for me to address; for example the following:


    In the second case, I’d like to know what it is that the proposition “kindness is a virtue” corresponds to, by virtue of which the proposition is true.

    It might have been better for me to compare “kindness is a virtue” to “2+2=4” rather than “its hot in here” since the latter describes a specific state of affairs in the physical world which is contingent (it can, and did, fail to be true later that night).

    “Kindness is a virtue” is true because what it is like to be a person filled with kindness is intrinsically superior to what it is like to be a person filled with hate and what it is like to be part of a community of individuals filled with kindness makes the lives better for those who live in it than, for example, living in a community ravaged by hate and strife (as Rwandans, unfortunately, know all too well from direct experience).


    Is the second one about something external to the mind? If so, then what?

    There are other kinds of facts than those about things external to the mind. There are also facts about subjective states and mental experience (like “agony is an intrinsically undesirable state of mind” is a true statement). Morality involves both external facts and internal facts about human nature and subjective states.

    There are facts about what it is like to be a kind person and what it is like to be cruel involving both empirically observable results and what it is like within the living experience, emotionally and psychologically, of human beings.

    These facts aren’t as simply and straightforwardly measurable as propositions within chemistry or physics but they are none the less actual states of affairs.

    And these facts seem to me more than sufficient to say kindness is worth valuing. I can’t see, in fact, any better place to look for its value than in where I’ve described—its actual effects within lives and communities.


    And this is quite a puzzle, on non-theistic assumptions. I dealt with a related version of this not long ago: https://www.thinkingchristian.net/series/mary-midgley-and-ethics/.

    My views do not appear to conform to either Midgley’s nor your views about what “non-theistic assumptions” are likely to be.

    There is wide scope for different views within the various worldviews of people who don’t believe in dieties.

    One of the most frustrating things for me in discussions with theists is that they tend to impute to me many views that they think I must inevitably have since I don’t believe in God which do not necessarily follow from Gods nonexistence (at least in my opinion, they are free to argue otherwise) and which I don’t, in fact, hold.

    Materialism is a good example. But only one of many.

  43. david ellis says:


    Just a brief note on one point: the implication by David that Christians nowadays rely on some Platonic conception of reality is without basis, and frankly quite absurd given the many varied discussions on this blog.

    I did not limit christians to that one option and do not think its likely the one most hold—rather, I doubt most have any definite opinion on the issue one way or the other and have probably never thought about it at all unless they are among the minority (both among christians and nonchristians) with an interest in philosophy. Though the language often used to talk about the matter usually seems to have some assumption of the independent reality of abstract objects built into it (even if never consciously thought about).

    What I said, specifically is:

    “comparable to the argument over whether abstract objects like numbers and ideas exists—either in some platonic realm of ideas or in the mind of God or in some other sense.”

    I suspect Tom’s position is probably that they are part of the mind of God. Naturally, when he asks me in what sense I think they are real this would not be an option—which is why I explained that I am not any variety of platonist and that I do not consider abstract objects independently existent “things” in any way (platonic, theistic, or otherwise).

  44. Tom Gilson says:

    David,

    I hold to a correspondence theory of truth, as do most persons— other than postmodernists/postconstructivists, which I do not think you are, though I could be wrong. So for purposes of this response I am going to guess that you also hold to a correspondence theory of truth, and if I’m wrong in that you will need to correct me.

    You say that

    there are true moral claims (and, of course, false ones as well). I think statements like “kindness is a virtue” are true (making me a moral realist).

    If “kindness is a virtue” is a true statement, then its truth means that it corresponds to something. What is that? Is it just opinions in persons’ minds? Then on what basis are those opinions true? To what do those collective opinions correspond, by virtue of which those opinions are true?

    “Kindness is a virtue” is true because what it is like to be a person filled with kindness is intrinsically superior to what it is like to be a person filled with hate

    “Intrinsically superior” implies a real superiority or inferiority. With respect to what measure? I suspect you will say it is human pleasure, fulfillment, thriving, desire, or some such thing. I think there is an evolutionary argument to be made against that. Let me make another educated assumption here, that you consider neo-Darwinian evolution (NDE), following upon some unknown origin-of-life occurrence, to be the sole explanation for the conditions of life now extant on Earth. On NDE, all biological causation is essentially the same as all physical causation in general: there are initial conditions of matter, energy, and natural law, which interact according to unguided, undirected necessity, and with the additional causal effects of unguided, undirected quantum chance. The causal space is 100% occupied by matter, energy, law, and chance. There is no room for other causal effects or agents.

    Matter/energy (two sides of the same coin) can own or convey no concept of better or worse. The same can be said of law and chance. Yet there has arisen, on your view, such a thing as “intrinsic superiority.” In what does that superiority inhere, and (to put it colloquially) how did it get there? What causal agency or effect is responsible for the arising of such a thing as “intrinsic superiority”?

    On theism this is answerable, and I do in fact agree that there is intrinsic superiority in kindness. I don’t know how it comes to be on unguided evolutionary assumptions, however.

    One of the most frustrating things for me in discussions with theists is that they tend to impute to me many views that they think I must inevitably have since I don’t believe in God which do not necessarily follow from Gods nonexistence (at least in my opinion, they are free to argue otherwise) and which I don’t, in fact, hold.

    Oh, calm down, calm down… you jumped to a conclusion yourself there. I said her opinions were related, not identical. The “puzzle” to which I referred may not have been clear enough. Midgley does share with you the view that, though there is no deity, still (quoting you now),

    The universe also contains people who think and feel and love and dream and hope and suffer. This fact is indisputable and is at the heart of moral questions.

    And that is the similarity I was referring to. Though I agree with both of you on your observations concerning humankind (in contrast to reductionists, eliminativists, etc.), I find it difficult to explain how what we know about being human can be true without theism as its basis. Midgley did not succeed in explaining it. I did not assume (did I?) that you would try to explain it the same way she did.

  45. david ellis says:


    If “kindness is a virtue” is a true statement, then its truth means that it corresponds to something. What is that? Is it just opinions in persons’ minds? Then on what basis are those opinions true?

    I think I already explained that it corresponds to facts about the effects of kindness within lives and communities.


    “Intrinsically superior” implies a real superiority or inferiority. With respect to what measure?

    Again, the effects within lives and communities.


    I think there is an evolutionary argument to be made against that.

    So far as I can tell, nothing in your summary of the process of evolution changes the facts about what its like to experience kindness, to be kind or to live within a community where kindness is valued and how this effects individuals and communities—nor my thinking that these effects lead to better lives.


    Matter/energy (two sides of the same coin) can own or convey no concept of better or worse. The same can be said of law and chance. Yet there has arisen, on your view, such a thing as “intrinsic superiority.” In what does that superiority inhere, and (to put it colloquially) how did it get there?

    Matter and energy. Law and chance. You seem to have forgotten to mention the fact that, however it happened, living beings with minds and emotions and intellects have come into being. And the issues about morality concern precisely these things.


    On theism this is answerable, and I do in fact agree that there is intrinsic superiority in kindness. I don’t know how it comes to be on unguided evolutionary assumptions, however.

    The living value of kindness within the life and experience of human beings is what it is in and of itself. What the origins of human beings are—whether created by a diety, evolved by natural processes, or even cooked up by alien genetic engineers to produce a slave race—do not change these facts and it is, in my opinion, only those facts that have relevence to the worth of kindness.

    And, now that you have mentioned theism, I am reminded of something I had meant to mention in my last post but forgot to. I’ve been defending my views on meta-ethics but you have said nothing about yours. It seems to me that things have been a bit one-sided, as if all burden of proof was assumed to be on me, when you have given no reason as of yet, for thinking that the proposition A) “the Christian God exists” necessarily entails B) the truth of certain moral propositions like “kindness is a virtue” or “one should not commit rape”.


    I find it difficult to explain how what we know about being human can be true without theism as its basis.

    I see no way in which theism is relevent one way or the other. Could you explain what makes you think it is?

    And I’m not even introducing the Euthyphro dilemma. Just what I see as a lack of connection between the two ideas A and B mentioned above.

  46. Tom Gilson says:

    Matter and energy. Law and chance. You seem to have forgotten to mention the fact that, however it happened, living beings with minds and emotions and intellects have come into being. And the issues about morality concern precisely these things.

    I have not forgotten it happened. Please. I do wish you had read all of what I wrote. I agreed with you and Midgley on this, remember? (And just a moment ago you were complaining that I had misread you.)

    Anyway, where were you, David, all those times in the past when supernaturalism has been equated with “magic” on this blog? What I was showing was that on non-theistic assumptions, there is no explanation for how it could have happened. Worse yet, based on the causal closure argument, it absolutely could not have happened. But it did. Did it happen by magic, or is there another causal agent or force in the universe?

    You asked about this:

    You have given no reason as of yet, for thinking that the proposition A) “the Christian God exists” necessarily entails B) the truth of certain moral propositions like “kindness is a virtue” or “one should not commit rape”.

    The proposition (A) “the Christian God exists” (thank you for capitalizing “Christian” this time, by the way) includes all of what is included in the being, nature, and definition of the Christian God, including the truth of these moral propositions. They are true by virtue of their correspondence to his nature, which is good.

    How does humanness find a more satisfactory basis in theism than in the non-theistic origins I have outlined? Simply this: that atheistic evolutionary theory understands person-ness, including emotions, drives, desires, rationality, agency, volition, moral responsibility, knowledge, etc. to have come out of origins to which they are utterly foreign, and on the basis of which their arising is an utter mystery. Theism takes person-ness to be at the very center and origin of all reality, in God; so that its appearance and expression in humans is quite in keeping with the basis of reality.

  47. SteveK says:

    If non-personness begets personness, whence doth it get that ability? We don’t need to know how it happened in order to know that it had the ability prior to deliverying the goods. It takes great faith to believe that this ability was somehow “built in” to the non-personness from the start.

  48. david ellis says:


    Anyway, where were you, David, all those times in the past when supernaturalism has been equated with “magic” on this blog?

    I was unaware of the existence of this blog at that time (at least I don’t recall the subject coming up in any discussion I’ve participated in).

    And I’ve seen too many long fruitless semantic debates about the various usages of the word “supernatural” to want to touch that topic. If you notice I rarely if ever refer to the supernatural and there’s a reason for that—there is no clear definite meaning that everyone agrees on and the term often involves assumptions about the particular metaphysical beliefs of those holding beliefs referred to as supernatural which they do not, in fact, hold.


    What I was showing was that on non-theistic assumptions, there is no explanation for how it could have happened.

    I’m not sure what to make of this sentence since the truth of a moral proposition is not some sort of event that occurs at some particular time. Could you clarify what you mean?


    Worse yet, based on the causal closure argument, it absolutely could not have happened.

    Again, I don’t see how the idea of causal closure (the claim that no physical event has a cause outside the physical domain)has any bearing on the topic. The truth of moral propositions is not a physical event.


    The proposition (A) “the Christian God exists” (thank you for capitalizing “Christian” this time, by the way) includes all of what is included in the being, nature, and definition of the Christian God, including the truth of these moral propositions. They are true by virtue of their correspondence to his nature, which is good.

    Including the idea that God is the basis of morality in your definition of the word “God” no more makes it so than including the idea that the universe is the basis of morality in my definition of “universe” makes it so (and, I hasten to add, I would make no such claim).

    I’m not sure if that’s what you meant to imply but some of what’s quoted above could be interpreted that way and I’ve encountered the claim several times before (if that’s not what you meant let me know).

    The last part of the quote, though, seems to involve a different claim: that the reasons moral propositions are true is because of God’s nature.

    And I don’t see why God having a nature which is X means X is morally praiseworthy. Again, there simply seems to be no logical connection between the two propositions such that one entails the other.


    Simply this: that one version, the non-theism, understands person-ness, including emotions, drives, desires, rationality, agency, volition, moral responsibility, knowledge, etc. to have come out of origins to which they are utterly foreign, and on the basis of which their arising is an utter mystery. Theism takes person-ness to be at the very center and origin of all reality, in God; so that its appearance and expression in humans is quite in keeping with the basis of reality.

    Are you making an argument concerning the plausibility of the emergence of mind in a universe with no God or one concerning morality? I see no reason why you persist in claiming that the way that moral agents came into existence has any bearing on why there are true moral propositions. You seem to keep saying that it is but I don’t see any argument to that effect being proposed.

    And a completely unrelated question about ethics which I’ve recently been contemplating:

    what moral propositions are incumbent upon ALL moral agents, no matter how radically different from us they may be.

    For example, imagine an intelligent alien species. They are of a type of species with a very different reproductive “strategy” from primates. Similarly to many species on earth they produce massive numbers of young, far more than the environment can sustain. As a result they have come to practice a form of winnowing—killing and eating most of their own young which tends to leave only the most clever and most healthy—and which reduces the numbers to a sustainable level. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that they have no technological method of reducing the number of young in each birthing.

    Is this practice morally wrong?

    Rather off-topic, I know. But its something I’ve been pondering lately and would welcome the perspectives of others on.

  49. david ellis says:

    What I find interesting is that you seem to approach meta-ethics as a metaphysical issue while I see meta-ethics and metaphysics as completely separate issues in which the answers to one have no bearing on the answers to the others.

  50. [W]hat moral propositions are incumbent upon ALL moral agents, no matter how radically different from us they may be[?]

    The First Principle of Practical Knowledge: Pursue good, avoid evil. (Try denying it: you’ll find it impossible.)

    … I see meta-ethics and metaphysics as completely separate issues in which the answers to one have no bearing on the answers to the others.

    Very incorrect… even if we accept the term “meta-ethics”: From the perspective of the Natural Law, one must know the nature of a rational being to understand what is objectively good and what is evil for it. The per se natures (quiddity or “whatness”)—as opposed to per accidens properties (“accidents”)—are not the formal objects (subject matter) of any modern empirical science but rather of a realist philosophy of nature with ontological support from metaphysics. (I’ve employed highly-technical and very exacting philosophical language, but I’m not going to water it down to risk error and misunderstanding.)

  51. Tom Gilson says:

    What I find interesting, David, is how un-curious you are about the difficulties of explaining the origin of one of the most pervasive of all phenomena, the experience of good and bad. Not only are you surprisingly un-curious, you are surprisingly unconcerned about the fact that one aspect of your worldview has been argued to be completely incompatible with another aspect, with no refutation or rebuttal even on offer.

    It’s like saying, “Reality from the beginning is nothing but straight lines and angled intersections, and it demonstrably contains within it no principle whatever that can produce anything like a curve. Human life in the last several thousands of years has been characterized by circles and arcs. So, what’s the problem with that?”

  52. david ellis says:


    The First Principle of Practical Knowledge: Pursue good, avoid evil. (Try denying it: you’ll find it impossible.)

    That’s a good one. But is it possible that the good for one intelligent species may be what would be morally reprehensible for another?


    From the perspective of the Natural Law, one must know the nature of a rational being to understand what is objectively good and what is evil for it.

    Let me put my perspective on the relationship (or lack thereof) between metaphysics and meta-ethics this way:

    no matter what metaphysical system turns out to be true, the truths about morality will remain unchanged.

    In other words I think moral truths are a matter of logical necessity—they are true in all possible worlds. And if this is the case they remain true no matter what metaphysical theories happen to be correct.


    What I find interesting, David, is how un-curious you are about the difficulties of explaining the origin of one of the most pervasive of all phenomena, the experience of good and bad.

    How it is that our species came to evolve the characteristics which make it appropriate to call us moral agents (beings capable of recognizing and making moral choices) is an interesting question—-but I do not see any way the answers to this question will result in a change to the answer of the question “what is morally right and why”.

    If you disagree I’d welcome an explanation of why you think so.


    Not only are you surprisingly un-curious, you are surprisingly unconcerned about the fact that one aspect of your worldview has been argued to be completely incompatible with another aspect, with no refutation or rebuttal even on offer.

    That’s the thing. You haven’t argued it. You’ve simply made the unsupported assertion that causal closure precludes “its coming into being”.

    But as I said I can make no sense of this comment since moral truths do not “come into being”. They are truths. Not events. If you want me to respond any further than that you’ll have to explain your position more fully. As I understand that position it appears to be incoherent.

  53. Tom Gilson says:

    Actually I have argued the point you say I have not argued. If you think there’s something lacking in the argument, it’s time for you to tell me what that is. Or you can just say you are uninterested, un-curious about the question; which I would still consider odd but it’s your right to do so.

  54. David:

    You missed the mark by a mile on the First Principle of Practical Knowledge. We don’t have to ask an alien–ask any abortionist: they will tell you it IS a good to kill an unborn child if the woman chooses. Both the abortionist and the woman pursue what they perceive to be a proximate good. It’s unavoidable. But the problem is whether it is objectively good. If the mind is not properly ordered to a truth (proximate or ultimate), then the will cannot pursue it. If the will is presented an evil act as if it were a good based on disordered reasoning, then the will is going to pursue it as a good.

    I’m sorry, but I will not pursue your confusion over meta-ethics, metaphysics, and logic… except to say this: logic is a method for obtaining truth. (It is, in fact, both a science and an art… but that’s a whole other discussion.) Thus, you cannot base the moral content of an act on a methodology per se. You MUST understand the nature of a moral agent in order to understand what is good or not good for it. It is completely unavoidable for you to operate in some philosophical vision of the world (“metaphysics,” strictly speaking, is the wrong term to use here) to understand the WHATNESS of the moral agent.

  55. Debbie G says:

    Greetings,

    I watched an interesting movie last night called “TAKE.” It was about a young man who in the commission of a robbery killed a store clerk and then kidnapped and inadvertantly killed a young boy while trying to escape. In the end, the mother showed up for the lethal injection, requested to speak to the young man and after a long silence, he says, “I am sorry, I am so sorry.” She replys, “I forgive you.” I know it is Hollywood and too simple, but the closing included a link to a concept called restorativejustice.org. It does seem to fulfill both the humanist and divine issues involved in a complicated matter such as the murder of loved ones. It would seem that this is exactly what the criminal justice system is lacking. Perhaps I am too simple for all the philisophical and theological debate that is going on, but has anybody done any work with this method? Does anybody have any information about it? May God bless you all richly…

  56. david ellis says:


    If the will is presented an evil act as if it were a good based on disordered reasoning, then the will is going to pursue it as a good.

    Do you, in fact, consider the act an evil in the case of the aliens I describe? Even though failure to commit the act will condemn their species to cycles of massive overpopulation and dieoffs which result in the collapse of civilization?


    Thus, you cannot base the moral content of an act on a methodology per se.

    I made that distinction quite clearly. The ideal observer concerns the methodology. My explanation of the concept of intrinsic goods dealt with what it means for a value to be the right, the morally correct, one to hold.


    You MUST understand the nature of a moral agent in order to understand what is good or not good for it.

    I will define a moral agent (tentatively and subject to refinement) as one who has the ability to recognize moral options and make choices about what values to act on.

    Whatever metaphysical system (materialism, idealism, etc) may be true the characteristics that make something a moral agent remain the same.

    If you disagree feel free to explain why. I certainly can’t think of any reason it would but you may have thought of something I haven’t.


    It is completely unavoidable for you to operate in some philosophical vision of the world (”metaphysics,” strictly speaking, is the wrong term to use here)….

    Then what does what you’re saying have to do with my contention that meta-ethics is independent from metaphysics? Could you explain the relevence? And explain what you mean by a philosophical vision of the world as opposed to metaphysics. I might actually agree on that depending on how you’re using the term.


    Tom: Actually I have argued the point you say I have not argued. If you think there’s something lacking in the argument, it’s time for you to tell me what that is

    OK, I acknowledge that you have made an argument (my mistake for saying otherwise). But I have already responded to that post and explained where I find it flawed. I will try again to explain. You say, in the post you referred to:

    “Yet there has arisen, on your view, such a thing as “intrinsic superiority.” In what does that superiority inhere, and (to put it colloquially) how did it get there? What causal agency or effect is responsible for the arising of such a thing as “intrinsic superiority”?”

    This, as I’ve already explained, misrepresents my position. I do not think, as you claim, that intrinisic superiority has “arisen”. The intrinsic superiority of kindness over sadism is not an event that occurs at a particular time—your argument is an effort to refute a position I don’t actually hold—and, that being the case, and me having already explained that this isn’t my position, I don’t see why you kept bringing this claim up.

  57. david ellis says:


    In the end, the mother showed up for the lethal injection, requested to speak to the young man and after a long silence, he says, “I am sorry, I am so sorry.” She replys, “I forgive you.” I know it is Hollywood and too simple, but the closing included a link to a concept called restorativejustice.org. It does seem to fulfill both the humanist and divine issues involved in a complicated matter such as the murder of loved ones.

    Debbie, do you agree with the others here (except for me) who believe a parent is morally obligated to extend forgiveness to the who has raped, tortured and murdered their child?

    And is the parent still obligated to do so when the killer is unrepentant (which at least some have claimed in this discussion)?

  58. Whatever metaphysical system (materialism, idealism, etc) may be true the characteristics that make something a moral agent remain the same. If you disagree feel free to explain why. I certainly can’t think of any reason it would but you may have thought of something I haven’t.

    The first statement is breathtakingly incorrect; the second two are arrogant and make it easier to deflect from the issue of “forgiveness”.

    First, you have a sloppy and incorrect understanding of what metaphysics is: the “systems” you describe are not “metaphysical” but “philosophical.” The distinction is NOT a minor one, for the material and formal objects studied by metaphysics are QUITE different from the world views you list. Second, I can’t believe you take seriously your claim: the world view (call it philosophy if you like) or vision of reality one espouses has a fundamental one impact on the understanding of the quiddity of a moral agent… or even if a moral agent is possible (for strict reductionist materialism, for example, there is no such thing as a moral agent). This, in turn, animates your complete (and very incorrect) separation of metaphysics from moral philosophy (please stop using the term “meta-ethics”–you’re not correct). While these are separate fields of study, the former fundamentally supports the latter because you MUST know WHAT a moral agent is before you start (put crudely) “moralizing”.

    It’s clear there is a LOT you haven’t considered or know about. This time, I really am through here.

  59. david ellis says:


    The distinction is NOT a minor one, for the material and formal objects studied by metaphysics are QUITE different from the world views you list.

    Thank you, Holo, for your corrections. But since you cite no sources of any kind for your contention I’m afraid I must take them simply as your opinions and say that I respectfully disagree.


    This, in turn, animates your complete (and very incorrect) separation of metaphysics from moral philosophy (please stop using the term “meta-ethics”–you’re not correct).

    Meta-ethics is the central topic Tom and I are discussing. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy say of it that “metaethics investigates where our ethical principles come from, and what they mean. Are they merely social inventions? Do they involve more than expressions of our individual emotions?”

    And that is precisely the sense in which I have been using the term.

    So, again, thank you for expressing your opinion but I beg to differ.

  60. Paul says:

    David, in light Tom’s (respectful) critique of some of your approach to discussion (in another thread, I think), I’d like to weigh in and say that I think you have shown admirable respect here for those with whom you disagree, sometimes through difficult issues and contentious to and fro. You show a remarkable ability to keep your responses on the issue, addressing substance. Maybe you haven’t done this all the time, but I make note of those times in which it must have been difficult for you to do so, and applaud you for it.

  61. Debbie G says:

    David,
    I believe that God has given me the ability to forgive anyone, anytime, anymore for anything. I am not intellectually capable of understanding the discourse I have read on this thread. I would say if a person is a Christian, “yes,” they have a moral obligation to forgive. Did God have a moral obligation to forgive mankind? His Son was tortured and killed, yet, He still forgives all those who will accept His free (dorean) gift. I pray that I would be able to respond as the Amish did toward the murderer and his family after six of their children were brutally murdered. As a Christian the answer is “yes.” As a sinful human being, I don’t know what I would do in that situation. Peace and grace…

  62. MarineVetMom says:

    This blog started out “Why Forgive”- and as I read many of the entries it became more like The Encyclopedia Britannica. It seems like a back and forth cerebral battle that is way too much for me to want to get involved in.It is too time consuming but I understand that some people love to debate about what they know. Since really coming to understand grace and being “en fuego” for the Lord I have let all of that type heavy philosophical debating stuff not matter anymore.What’s the point???
    I am about knowing God and having a deep relationship with Jesus- keeping it simple but letting Him show me what I need to do with His life in me.
    Now back to the topic of forgiveness.A couple at my church lost their daughter and her best friend to a drunken driver that was racing someone.This was about 7 yrs ago.It was a horrible crash that happened late at night. He was an upstanding young man in college that just got really drunk after having fun at the beach bars.He was sentenced to many years in prison. My friends visted him in prison and as a result he became born again. They offered complete forgiveness.They were instrumental in having his sentence reduced and he got out of prison and now speaks to teens about what he had done.To show their love for him, my friends legally adopted him! Now that’s true forgiveness!They were able to do that because of what Christ did for us.They walk the walk.I want to be that kind of Christian.

  63. MarineVetMom:

    Permit me to gently criticize the first portion of your message.

    You are truly blessed to have been graced with the gift of faith. From that vantage point, I can understand why it is sometimes difficult to accept some of the cerebral exercises that occur on this blog. Nonetheless, please keep the following in mind:

    (1) An exclusive dependence on faith runs the very real risk of fideism. Rather, one would be wise to adopt St. Anselm’s vision of fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding”. We are, after all, rational animals, and this blog is about thinking through difficult issues as we bask in the light of faith.

    (2) We are admonished not just to explain but to defend our faith: I Peter 3:15 “… always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you…”

    (3) Another danger of an exclusive dependence on faith when responding to criticisms or questions from the “loyal opposition” is that it plays into their hands. You’ve seen the blatant arrogance and intellectual dishonesty behind David’s assertion that faith is irrational. Faith is anything but irrational, but it is also “beyond” mere rationality. It is also a trust, and one cannot trust in things one doesn’t know anything about.

    (4) Never be intimidated by the mental gymnastics of the loyal opposition: once you scratch the surface, you see it’s really built on “intellectual” sand.

  64. Tony Hoffman says:

    Interesting conversation. And Mr. Ellis, let me say that you’re a great addition to the dialogue here. I admire both your acumen and the humble way in which you deflect rancorous comments back towards issues worthy of discussion.

    Regarding your question about the morality of the alien species killing and eating a majority of their young I think that cuts to the heart of my own dilemma regarding moral realism versus relativism. (I don’t have a fully formed opinion, or even half-formed opinion, on this topic; I just don’t know.)

    My problem with moral realism is that it seems that one can always invent a scenario that demonstrates the relative nature of moral decisions. Your aliens who eat their own species example, Sophie’s choice, euthanasia for a patient in torment, etc. All of this implies, to me, that affirming the existence of a Morality (that always affirms “kindness is a virtue, et al.) is improbable.

    My question is, because I am not very familiar with IOT, are you suggesting that there are moral propositions based on axioms, such as kindness is a virtue, that just exist or that we can productively assume as axiomatic (which seems circular to me)? Or does kindness is a virtue exist as the unavoidable result of groupishness and empathy?

    Clumsy questions. I’ll be surprised if you can see what I’m trying to ask. If you need me to rephrase let me see if I can think it through and express a nagging question more clearly, or see if the question is just a result of muddled thinking. (Also, if you have a site you recommend for explaining IOT I would be grateful for that.)

  65. Tom Gilson says:

    @Holopupenko, with regard to MarineVetMom:

    I would add this: the reason for the discussion is because the questions have been asked, and the questions have answers that must be given.

  66. MarineVetMom says:

    Thank you, Holo, for the gentle criticism. I know this is way over my head and I am not always able to really express what is in my heart and head. I found this blog from another blog that was on “Living Waters” Newsletter (Ray Comfort’s blog).
    I know it would be wise for me to just read and learn and not comment.
    I do not think I am all about faith and not reasoning.I still struggle with total surrender at times. I know that because my father and husband told me I was always too argumentative and analytical.I am in my 50’s and have lived a life of cultural Christianity- up until 4 yrs ago.I also have a graduate degree in education and then a bit after that. I am always about learning- but now it is focused on the things of God. I am still a work in progress though. The Iraq war made me re-evalutate my so-called Christian beliefs.When my son went to Iraq it brought me to my knees in constant prayer. I have been saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.I also found a church that has shown me how to check out what God says and read the Bible every day.It’s like mining for nuggets of gold.Reading the Bible prior to 2005 was something I hardly ever did. You quoted part of 1 Peter 3:15- but there is the part after that that says, ” do this with gentleness and respect.” Also, prior to that is says “to everyone who asks you to give a reason for the hope that you have” NIV Has David asked what is the reason for your hope that you have? I have not read way back through this whole blog to see if he asked you or the others. It is good that David is here and has questions and he deserves our heartfelt respect- as does everyone here.
    Earlier today in my first blog entry, I stated something about this being time consuming- I tend to procrastinate what I really need to be doing and I stay too long on the computer and getting off on tangents about anything Christian.
    So please, forgive me for interrupting this ongoing blog- I will look forward to learning from y’all.
    My life verse- “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” Proverbs 3:5
    PS- Please,anyone here, go check out Louie Giglio’s DVD “How Great is Our God” you can see it on You Tube. It is so awesome…’nuff said. >

  67. david ellis says:


    Did God have a moral obligation to forgive mankind? His Son was tortured and killed, yet, He still forgives all those who will accept His free (dorean) gift.

    That’s not really analogous. Quite the contrary. Christianity doesn’t teach that God forgave us despite the fact that human beings tortured and killed his son. It teaches that God himself required this of his son (and apparently would not have been reconciled to us had it not occurred).

    A very bizarre doctrine and one I have never heard an explanation for which does not ether make God sound like a monster or simply not make any sense at all.

    But that’s a whole other discussion.

  68. david ellis says:


    You’ve seen the blatant arrogance and intellectual dishonesty behind David’s assertion that faith is irrational.

    I’m going to let the “arrogance” comment go as simply your opinion—which you have every right to—-with only the comment that I personally feel it best, and certainly more civil, to refrain from commenting on the character of those I debate ideas with unless their behavior is completely unconscionable (and sometimes not even then).

    But intellectual dishonesty?

    Its my honest opinion that belief in christianity is not well supported rationally and that belief on faith is a basically irrational concept (depending partly on how the concept of faith is defined, CS Lewis, for example, defined it as, paraphrasing, simply rationally justified confidence in God and Jesus and said one should not embrace belief in those things if one has no rational basis for the belief—-I wouldn’t call that version of faith irrational—I simply disagree that there are good rational grounds for believing in christianity so I don’t think that variety of faith actually exists; at least not in regard to christianity).

    I may be wrong. But I’m not lying about my position and holding that position does not constitute intellectual dishonesty. At worst it simply constitutes error.

  69. Not only is the characterization true, but if I could turn “chutzpah” into an adjective, that neologism would precede “intellectual dishonesty.” Why? In the face of 2,000 years of Christian thinking about and experience of faith by many, many people in many, many cultures–not to mention Jewish reasoning and commentaries, Muslim, Buddhist, etc., etc., etc.–your personal conclusion that “Christianity is not well supported rationally and that belief on faith is a basically irrational concept” may possibly fulfill some emotional need or whatever, but to characterize it as an “honest opinion” (at least you’re correct on “opinion”) stretches incredulity to the breaking point. I didn’t claim you were “lying,” but would I be incorrect to wonder (if you still claim to have an “honest opinion” about faith as “irrational”) whether self-deception might not be playing a role in all this? “Dishonesty” doesn’t necessarily mean being that way to others.

  70. david ellis says:


    your personal conclusion that “Christianity is not well supported rationally and that belief on faith is a basically irrational concept” may possibly fulfill some emotional need or whatever, but to characterize it as an “honest opinion” (at least you’re correct on “opinion”) stretches incredulity to the breaking point.

    Do you deny that religious belief, in general, is not based on empirical evidence or reason but on other factors?

    Do most Mormon’s believe in their religion because they carefully studied the evidence, trying their best to avoid personal bias, and concluded that, of all the religions and philosophies in the world, Mormonism was most likely to be true?

    No. It is clear that most people simply believe in the religion their parents raised them to believe. Rational reflection rarely has anything to do with religious belief—where its sought at all its usually something pursued after belief has already taken root.

    No doubt there are exceptions. But few and far between.

    William Lane Craig provides us with a good example of “reason” from a religious perspective:


    The ministerial use of reason occurs when reason submits to and serves the gospel. Only the ministerial use of reason can be allowed. … Should a conflict arise between the witness of the Holy Spirit to the fundamental truth of the Christian faith and beliefs based on argument and evidence, then it is the former which must take precedence over the latter, not vice versa.

    Craig holds a position in which reason and empirical evidence are required from the outset to be incapable of unseating his religious beliefs. What he feels in his heart to be a communication from God takes precedence over any evidence that might exist or come to light (as if he is incapable of error in his belief that God is communicating to him—unlike the Hindus, Jews, Muslims and others who think the same thing but believe God is communicating something quite different).

    If that isn’t an example of irrationalism I can’t imagine what WOULD qualify.

    Of course, the fact that Craig holds such a view does not entail that you or other christians necessarily agree—but its a perspective I find extremely common among christians.

    And I suspect most here probably agree.

    So where am I wrong in thinking this a variety of irrationalism?

    It would seem that it has to be in my judgement concerning the plausibility of error as to christian religious experience vs those of other religions (and, of course, the conclusion that follows from this). I can see nowhere else many christians are likely to be in disagreement.

    So why do you think christians beliefs about what they feel to be communications from God are more likely to actually be from God than those of other faiths?

    Or is your disagreement at some other point? If so, where and in what way do you disagree?

  71. Tom Gilson says:

    Mormons’ beliefs are not the topic here, because this is not a religion blog, it is a blog about Christianity. I do not understand how “religion” gets to be considered some monolithic thing, as if Christianity, Mormonism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and tribal religions are all pretty much the same kind of thing. It’s irrational to view them that way.

    Now, what is the point of saying that most people believe what they were raised to believe? It’s the genetic fallacy at play, that’s all. Even if it were true (which is far from well established) it would mean little; for Western secularism is subject to exactly the same charge, and counter-examples are as few and far between for one as for the other (or as frequent).

    Your quote from Craig is way out of context, and in particular it omits his arguments for belief in the witness of the Holy Spirit, making it seem as if he just picked it out of the air. That belief in itself has a historic, philosophical, and rational set of thoughtful underpinnings. It’s not the Holy Spirit versus thinking. It’s belief in the work of the Holy Spirit, in concert with thinking.

    Further, by pulling his statements on arguments and evidence out of context this way, you hide the fact that Craig relies on arguments and evidences for showing the rationality and credibility of Christianity. You distort his entire approach to the faith. You are not arguing in good faith when you do that, my friend.

    Craig employs reason and empirical evidence. He also takes it (as do I) that God can impart knowledge of himself to us through the Holy Spirit, and that this counts as trustworthy knowledge. But like Craig, I have reasons supporting that opinion, and this is not so irrational as you present it to be at all! Alvin Plantinga’s book Warranted Christian Belief provides several hundred pages of reasoned, rational, logical argumentation showing otherwise. Frankly, if you think this is irrational it is because you do not understand it. I’ll have to do some more work on this soon on the blog, to give you a better chance at it.

    So where am I wrong in thinking this a variety of irrationalism?

    You are wrong right from the start, in the way you misrepresent it. Or misunderstand it. Whichever.

    So why do you think christians Christians [it’s a proper noun] beliefs about what they feel to be communications from God are more likely to actually be from God than those of other faiths?

    Because other faiths lack the rational, evidential corroboration that Christianity has, and which you are pretending is not ever taken into consideration by Christians.

  72. Do you deny that religious belief, in general, is not based on empirical evidence or reason but on other factors?

    Incredible… It’s rare that I’m surprised by the ignorance over what religious faith is, but this… holy cow. It’s like asking, “do you deny that the moon, in general, is not made of green cheese?”

  73. david ellis says:


    Mormons’ beliefs are not the topic here, because this is not a religion blog, it is a blog about Christianity. I do not understand how “religion” gets to be considered some monolithic thing, as if Christianity, Mormonism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and tribal religions are all pretty much the same kind of thing.

    The opinion I stated I think is true of religious belief in general. There are, after all, things that most religions have in common.


    Now, what is the point of saying that most people believe what they were raised to believe? It’s the genetic fallacy at play, that’s all.

    I would be committing the genetic fallacy if I were saying that their religious beliefs are untrue because of the way they formed their beliefs.

    That, though, is not what I was saying. My position is simply that “that’s how I was raised” is not a rational reason for believing a particular religion.


    Your quote from Craig is way out of context…..

    Feel free to quote whatever you think is necessary from his book REASONABLE FAITH to provide any context that could make his position sound less, to be blunt, flat-out crazy. The whole book can be viewed online at Googlebooks.


    That belief in itself has a historic, philosophical, and rational set of thoughtful underpinnings.

    Again, I welcome you to argue this position or quote the arguments of Craig or others in defense of this position.


    Further, by pulling his statements on arguments and evidence out of context this way, you hide the fact that Craig relies on arguments and evidences for showing the rationality and credibility of Christianity. You distort his entire approach to the faith. You are not arguing in good faith when you do that, my friend.

    I am talking to two people I consider knowledgeable enough about religious apologetics to know that Craig is the author of many original arguments for christianity and an active apologist—it did not seem necessary to point this out. Nor did I think the quote from Craig fails to imply this….after all, he didn’t advocate the abandonment of reason. He said it must serve, rather than judge, the claims of christianity—and that seems a pretty fair summary of most christians approach to apologetics.


    He also takes it (as do I) that God can impart knowledge of himself to us through the Holy Spirit, and that this counts as trustworthy knowledge. But like Craig, I have reasons supporting that opinion, and this is not so irrational as you present it to be at all!

    I think it is a textbook example of irrationality. But I am perfectly capable of being mistaken. You are welcome to argue (or to quote Craig arguing) for the contrary opinion.


    Alvin Plantinga’s book Warranted Christian Belief provides several hundred pages of reasoned, rational, logical argumentation showing otherwise. Frankly, if you think this is irrational it is because you do not understand it.

    To be honest, I’m even less impressed with Plantinga than with Craig. But I’d welcome discussing one of his arguments as well. Whether it be his argument for proper basicality in GOD AND OTHER MINDS or his “evolutionary argument against naturalism” or whatever else from him you would care to discuss.


    Because other faiths lack the rational, evidential corroboration that Christianity has, and which you are pretending is not ever taken into consideration by Christians.

    As I said, by the time most christians examine such “evidence” they are already committed believers on other grounds. I strongly doubt it plays any role in why they actually came to believe in christianity in 99 cases out of a 100.

    Would you disagree with Craig when he states that people are still obligated to believe the Gospel if they have no access to such evidence?

    Now to Holo’s comment:


    Incredible… It’s rare that I’m surprised by the ignorance over what religious faith is, but this… holy cow. It’s like asking, “do you deny that the moon, in general, is not made of green cheese?”

    I will let this substantive analysis of my position stand without further comment.

  74. Tom Gilson says:

    The opinion I stated I think is true of religious belief in general. There are, after all, things that most religions have in common.

    What you stated is true of worldviews in general, certainly including secularism. It’s not specific to religion, and it’s misleading to speak of it that way.

    That, though, is not what I was saying. My position is simply that “that’s how I was raised” is not a rational reason for believing a particular religion.

    Of course! Same goes for secularism, of course.

    Feel free to quote whatever you think is necessary from his book REASONABLE FAITH to provide any context that could make his position sound less, to be blunt, flat-out crazy. The whole book can be viewed online at Googlebooks.

    Now, isn’t that a nice way to argue: you bring out a completely misleading quotation that completely misrepresents him, and you make me responsible to show what he really meant.

    I’ve read Reasonable Faith quite closely. I’ve had conversations with Craig, I’ve heard him lecture and debate, and I can assure you that if you had any regard for the entire context of what he affirms, you would not have pulled the stunt you tried to pull with that quote.

    I’m not going to accept the burden of proof that what I have said about him is accurate. I’m not the one who quoted him out of context. I will say this much, however: if you listen to anything he says or read anything he says, just about anything whatsoever, you will very quickly discover he gives very high regard to reason and to evidence. That’s all the argument needed, I think. More than that, would be to participate in an illicit game you’re setting up, and I’m not going to play it with you.

    You’re also playing the same game of shifting the burden of proof in this:

    I think it is a textbook example of irrationality. But I am perfectly capable of being mistaken. You are welcome to argue (or to quote Craig arguing) for the contrary opinion.

    How is it irrational? What’s your argument? Or shall I just respond, “I think it’s a textbook example of rationality, you’re welcome to argue (or to quote someone arguing) the contrary opinion”? It’s your claim that started this discussion, not mine.

    Same for Plantinga, by the way.

    I’d like you to recognize, David, that when I write a blog post on something like “Why Forgive?” I am not committing thereby to state the reasons behind everything I believe, and to explain every rational argument behind every belief that Christians hold. In particular I am not committing myself to answer every objection on every topic that any commenter might raise. That’s just ridiculous.

    There’s a real asymmetry in what you seem to be asking of me. “Craig is irrational. Prove he isn’t!” That’s about six words (you used a few more than that, but not many.) A proper answer would require me to write a thousand or two. And then you can say, “Oh by the way Plantinga’s even more of an idiot. Prove otherwise.”

    That’s a nice little game. I can play it too. Atheism is irrational: prove otherwise. Evolution is wrong: prove otherwise. There is no basis for morality without God: prove otherwise. There is no basis for rationality based on evolutionary assumptions: prove otherwise. If you fail to prove all these things to my satisfaction, then maybe I’m wrong still, but probably not; more likely you’re wrong and everyone you agree with is irrational or worse.

    By the way, I could argue all those points I just mentioned, but why bother, when all I have to do is spout them out, sit back, and make you do all the work?

    So this is what I’m going to do: I’m going to measure my responses to yours. If you offer me some actual reason to believe your quote is an accurate portrayal of Craig’s overall intellectual approach, I’ll deal with it as such. Until then, well, it’s still your turn.

  75. David:

    That’s an interesting attempt at foisting the fallacy of turning the table upon us, but it won’t work. It is your question (Do you deny that religious belief, in general, is not based on empirical evidence or reason but on other factors?) that is utterly lacking in substantive analysis. It is little more than a rhetorical trick that deflects from your problem: in fact, it poses your personal (and very ignorant) view of Christianity and faith in general as an unquestionable, self-evident truth… and then, as Tom correctly exposes a general thread throughout your comments, parades itself as something substantive. Come on… your MO is very clear at this point… and your credibility is going under for the third time.

  76. david ellis says:

    I did not distort or misrepresent Craig’s position and I invite all to read Craig for themselves—don’t take my word for it;the entire book can be read by anyone at Googlebooks for free—he states his position on the role of reason in clear, unambiguous language.


    There’s a real asymmetry in what you seem to be asking of me. “Craig is irrational. Prove he isn’t!” That’s about six words (you used a few more than that, but not many.) A proper answer would require me to write a thousand or two. And then you can say, “Oh by the way Plantinga’s even more of an idiot. Prove otherwise.”

    Actually, the hard work would mostly be mine. All you’re really required to do is cut and paste an argument from one of them that you find persuasive. Its me that would have to carry out the task of analyzing and attempting to refute it in my own words.

    But I’m not demanding even that. The truth is that, after weeks of debating various things with you and others, I’m probably as weary of it for the moment as you seem to be. Nonetheless, its been interesting…..even if contentious at times.

  77. Tom Gilson says:

    We can certainly drop it–but it wouldn’t be because I’m “weary of it.” I wouldn’t mind a bit responding to an argument if you made one. Telling me to copy and paste is rather disingenuous, as if you hadn’t noticed I wasn’t accepting the burden of refuting an argument you haven’t made. You can’t copy and paste out of Google books anyway, but that’s not the point. The point is that it’s still your turn, if you choose to take it, though if you don’t that’s okay.

    One last thing: you did distort and misrepresent Craig’s position. As I said, I’ve read the book and more. But I don’t feel the need to argue that point. You made a bare assertion, I’ve made one back, and it’s still (if you wish to take it) your turn.

  78. david ellis says:

    I didn’t simply make a bare assertion. I quoted the person I was making the assertion about in support of what I said as well as pointed out where any who fear I may be quoting out of context can go to read the entire text to see for themselves whether I misrepresent him (the part quoted is from page 36, by the way, for any who want to see the context of that particular quote).

    Regardless, I feel this conversation has pretty well run its course and I’m content to let what I’ve said so far stand without further elaboration.

  1. May 11, 2009

    […] After a lengthy discussion on Thinking Christian on “Why Forgive?”, I decided to post a paper I wrote concerning penance, forgiveness, and reconciliation.  […]