Naturalism and the Ultimate Good That Isn’t

Naturalism and the Ultimate Good That Isn’t

Bill R. wrote this new argument (to me at least) concerning moral realism and naturalism. I thought it was pretty interesting, especially in the way it clarifies the difficulty naturalism has in saying “this ethical duty matters to you,” so I’m posting it here for more visibility. The rest of what follows here is his.

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Say, for the sake of argument, that d’s “that which we want most of all/for its own sake” is the same as the Christian concept of “natural ends.” Let’s call both concepts the summum bonum [ultimate or highest good], for convenience. Even under this assumption (which is obviously still being hotly debated), naturalism still does not support a universal morality, while Christianity does.

Under naturalism, is there any guarantee that this summum bonum (whatever it may be) is actually attainable? What if evolution has shaped us (forgive the anthropomorphizing) so that our summum bonum is forever just out of reach, like the proverbial carrot hanging by a string before the mule? An unsatisfiable desire — one that causes an organism to be always reaching, never resting — would seem to be a highly effective tool for motivating that organism to constantly seek more and more (babies, resources, etc.): It would also explain why there are so many people whose lives seem to be going well (including successful people at the top of their field), who nonetheless report dissatisfaction with their lives.

Under naturalism, love may get us a little closer to the summum bonum than cruelty, but what if the carrot is still forever out of reach? If I, as a rational agent, recognize that the summum bonum might be unattainable, but that the object of some lesser desire (say, to inflict pain on my fellow creatures) is easily attainable, why shouldn’t I settle for the latter? Why shouldn’t I choose to pursue, as my personal summum bonum, the best thing that I can actually get, rather than the best possible thing, which is probably unreachable? And if I have no reason not to choose a different summum bonum, then in what sense am I part of a naturalistic universal morality anymore?

If Christianity is true, however, then the summum bonum is God. For theism in general, there is no reason to expect that God is any more attainable than a naturalistic summum bonum. In fact, Christianity recognizes that it is impossible for humans to reach God on their own, through any religion. Christianity, however, is not a story about man finding God, but about God coming down and finding man. God, through the life and death of Jesus, guarantees that if we seek Him at the expense of everything else, we will find Him (thus attaining the summum bonum) — perhaps partially in this life, but completely in eternity.

Thus, even if a naturalistic summum bonum exists, then there is at least one crucial difference between naturalistic and Christian universal morality: the Christian, because of who God is and what He did on the Cross, can be certain of obtaining the summum bonum, whereas the naturalist has no such assurance. I’m not citing this difference as evidence that Christianity is true, of course. It just illustrates that the naturalist may have good reason to opt out of any naturalistic “universal” morality (making it not truly universal anymore), whereas the Christian who actually trusts God has no reason to settle for anything (or anyOne) less.

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71 thoughts on “Naturalism and the Ultimate Good That Isn’t

  1. Over on the “Is It Still Wrong If Another Culture Says It’s Right?” thread, I wrote(#55):

    “The kind of advanced democratic civilization, which we have seen spread through out the world over the last 250 years, would be impossible without the belief that universal human rights are objectively grounded and transcend time and culture.”

    d replied(#57):

    “Its this type of line that scares off would-be non-theist moral realists away from moral realism, I think! Invoking the “transcendent” comes with too much holy baggage, whether its intended to or not.”

    I think d needs to review the history of how human rights evolved in Western culture and the importance of the contributions of the Jews, Christians and Greeks. Plato, as well as Moses and Jesus, believed that moral goodness needed to be grounded in something that was transcendent. Plato thought that “the Good” itself existed transcendently, while Jews and Christians thought it was God’s nature that was good.

    The founders of American democracy, like Thomas Jefferson who rejected a literal reading of Bible, recogized that a transcendent lawgiver ( “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”) was an essntial foundation for morality, law and human rights.

    Whether or not you find that idea to be offensive, naturalism, or any kind of cultural consensus based on naturalism, simply does not provide an adequate foundation for moral values or universal human rights. Before you argue that we scrap the last 3500 years of moral thinking, shouldn’t you at least make sure that your new system is as well grounded as the old system?

  2. Well, there’s no argument from me that if ultimately, your immoral behavior can result in the worst possible misery for all eternity – and on the other hand your moral behavior can result in the greatest happiness for all eternity – that’s a strong motivation to do the right thing, and that’s hard to beat.

    The naturalist, of course, without these infinite consequences, has a hard (or impossible) time assembling reasons that can be equally powerful motivators – but that doesn’t mean there can’t be sufficient motivators.

    Either way, I don’t see how the probability game can be totally escaped. On theism:

    a) Unless one makes some bold, and seemingly over-reaching claims about the internal life of others, its fair to say that some have genuinely tried to seek redemption and salvation, and failed. I don’t see how Christianity can offer any real guarantees here. But even if it can, such guarantees can actually be counter-productive in encouraging moral behavior (see c).

    b) We don’t know who actually made it to heaven, and who didn’t. So there’s really no way to verify that what you are doing, will ultimately get you there. This undermines one’s ability to plausibly claim that there are any guarantees in Christianity (naturalism has a big advantage here – we can empirically verify what types of actions are most likely to produce the most satisfied existences).

    c) Many Christians are willing to indulge in sin, with the knowledge that they can be forgiven – or will have a genuine moment of repentance later (“God make me chaste, but not today”). So rationalizations for bad behavior are still a problem, if the agent believes there is a high probability he or she will be able to genuinely “get right with God” in the future.

    Similarly, naturalism can offer no guarantees – just probabilities. It may be conceivable to beat the odds and get away with murder by escaping not only the legal consequences, but the sort of internal personal consequences you are likely to experience (dampening your ability to love, empathize, the realization that others may be morally justified in killing you, etc) – but its not a bet that any rational gambling man should take, if anything like my moral theory is true.

  3. d, you wrote,

    The naturalist, of course, without these infinite consequences, has a hard (or impossible) time assembling reasons that can be equally powerful motivators – but that doesn’t mean there can’t be sufficient motivators.

    Maybe that doesn’t mean there can’t be sufficient motivators. But Bill’s argument above does mean there can’t be sufficient motivators. You need to deal with Bill’s argument, which in short is to say that unlike Christianity, naturalism offers no person any good reason not to shift my own personal conception of what the summum bonum is to me.

    I think your (a) through (c) may have been intended to address Bill’s position, but they didn’t succeed. For one thing, they do nothing to establish anything objective as a summum bonum on naturalism. For another thing, they display a series of misunderstandings concerning theism. You say,

    a) Unless one makes some bold, and seemingly over-reaching claims about the internal life of others, its fair to say that some have genuinely tried to seek redemption and salvation, and failed. I don’t see how Christianity can offer any real guarantees here. But even if it can, such guarantees can actually be counter-productive in encouraging moral behavior.

    That “bold… over-reaching claim” is nothing of the sort. It’s well grounded in Christian theology. The guarantee is in the trustworthy character and promises of God.

    We don’t know who actually made it to heaven, and who didn’t. So there’s really no way to verify that what you are doing, will ultimately get you there. (naturalism has a big advantage here – we can empirically verify what types of actions are most likely to produce the most satisfied existences).

    Now that’s a bold, over-reaching claim! I’ll illustrate with a current hot-button ethical issue (I could have used any of a thousand issues besides). What can be shown as empirically more likely to produce satisfied existences: a culture based on two-parent households aligned toward building the current generation as well as the next, or a culture based on temporary relationships, including same-sex relationships, and personal satisfaction in those arrangements? Show me the empirical data, please. Note that this is a multi-generational issue. What produces the most satisfied existences for more than just a few years at a time?

    Meanwhile, biblically there really is a way to verify that one’s faith in Christ will get one to heaven. This, too, is grounded in God’s character and promises.

    c) Many Christians are willing to indulge in sin, with the knowledge that they can be forgiven – or will have a genuine moment of repentance later (“God make me chaste, but not today”). So rationalizations for bad behavior are still a problem, if the agent believes there is a high probability he or she will be able to genuinely “get right with God” in the future.

    Sure. There are rationalizations in Christianity. But in Christianity, it’s a rationalization, and those who engage in it know they’re doing something inherently false, I assure you. On naturalism, though, is it a rationalization, or is it simply rational? Note that Bill has argued for the latter.

  4. The naturalist, of course, without these infinite consequences, has a hard (or impossible) time assembling reasons that can be equally powerful motivators – but that doesn’t mean there can’t be sufficient motivators.

    That’s incoherent based on what naturalism entails: what possible objective moral (or otherwise) content could an appeal to “sufficient motivators” have in a naturalistic vision of the world? “Sufficient” for what? To “win”? To be the strongest and to project one’s temporary naturalistic beingness into the future through progeny? To live the longest? Why?

    “Infinite consequences,” while admittedly “motivational,” are not motivators in any direct sense. One does not trust in God to avoid His wrath, one trusts in God to know Him. What a silly, immature, reductionist way to look at human beings–as if humans were puppets looking for material and physical gratification or avoidance of the pain of external “infinite” punishment.

    I repeat from an earlier comment:

    [d] doesn’t get it: he thinks Hell is God “punishing” creatures, when in fact the creatures are punishing themselves because… wait for it… they DON’T want to be themselves, i.e., they don’t want to be the creatures God made them (broken but on the way) and (more importantly) what He WANTS to make them. His Grace perfectizes nature–it never destroys our natures. WE are the ones who destroy our natures through sin. Sin is dehumanizing first and foremost to the one committing the sin. We sin (in the moral sense) since we are the only creatures on earth that can alter our natures: we can change from human to inhuman–literally.

    God is not “outside” us. Augustine’s take is beautiful: God is closer to us than we our to ourselves. Our attempts to push Him out of ourselves leads to disaster. HE is the IS that maintains us in existence; we are the ones trying to run that show… to become gods ourselves. He wants us to become LIKE him (i.e., theosis), but we cannot become Him because nothing contingent can become Existence Itself.

    The gates of Hell are closed from the inside.

    This whole canard about God “punishing” creatures because he’s pictured as an external force trying to get us in line like some cosmic drill sergeant is stupid. Really. Talk about reducing God through some emotionally-convenient anthropomorphism. Sheesh! The 10 Commandments were issued NOT as a set of rules but to impress upon us that HE made us in a certain way, and if we reject that way (err Way), we reject our own selves by rejecting Him.

    You’re fighting a silly man made of straw, d. Fight all you want, but you will never be at rest (St. Augustine, Confessions, Book I, paragraph I, sentence 3). And don’t play the silly game of thinking you understand Who God is and what our relationship with Him should be. Stop imposing your self-serving ignorance upon others.

  5. In the process of preparing a response, it occurred to me that what I understand the term “natural ends” to be might not match up to what you think (or what any other Christian philosopher thinks) it means. Could you please explain, so I don’t respond in ignorance?

  6. I’ll accept that it seems likely that naturalism cannot logically or even practically guarantee the possibility of fully obtaining what one values above all else. But, it could be that even the mere act of striving to live consistently this value, would result in a more fulfilled and self-satisfied existence than the instrumental gains one might receive from acting in ways contrary to that value.

  7. I think Bill R. would accept that “could be” proposal of yours. Do you see that? Do you understand how it doesn’t affect his argument one bit, except to affirm and possibly even reinforce it?

  8. “Infinite consequences,” while admittedly “motivational,” are not motivators in any direct sense. One does not trust in God to avoid His wrath, one trusts in God to know Him. What a silly, immature, reductionist way to look at human beings–as if humans were puppets looking for material and physical gratification or avoidance of the pain of external “infinite” punishment.

    On the contrary, there is no intelligible reason that I have ever seen offered, to seek God, that cannot ultimately be boiled down to one thing: self-interest. Not one. Even the highfalutin answers, once stripped of their theological window dressing, all must appeal to self-interest.

    I’ll gladly admit the error, if you can offer up any plausible, intelligible, rational reason why a person would or should do anything at all (like seek God), if doing that something accomplished nothing of value to him or her.

  9. Tom:

    If he accepts that “could be” proposal, then I’m fine with that. He hasn’t shown the logical necessity of the point that he raised. I’m aware there is a burden on my view to eventually demonstrate the plausibility of that “could be” or some other alternative, over his – but I’m open to the potential falsification of my view as well. I think scientific work will *eventually* get us closer to one answer or the other.

    So I don’t see how his argument is helped in any way by my last post.

  10. d,

    I think he has shown the logical necessity of his point. I don’t think you’ve shown otherwise. Your “could be” proposal, in case you hadn’t noticed, amounts to this: every person can choose their own summum bonum (“what one values above all else”) which is exactly the problem he identified.

  11. I don’t think that’s what my “could be” proposal amounts to at all. To re-summarize my view:

    Morality is “what one ought to do”

    What one ought to do is “what one would do to achieve ones goals, if reasoning perfectly, while being aware of all the relevant facts”.

    The premise involved that does the work of making this universal – there are things *everyone* ought to do, because everyone shares one common goal (or value) that they hold above all others. This, of course, is a very bold premise, and I’ll agree that its not strongly established (yet) – though, there is (some) evidence in its favor.

    Now Bill raises the possibility that this thing of value might be unreachable for some, and if so, they would be rational to settle for something of something of lesser value. But it was only a possibility, not a logically necessary fact. It’s contingent upon whether this utmost value is really unreachable or not. And its contingent upon it being true, that the quest for reaching this goal is itself, less satisfying than settling for something else.

  12. d,

    On the contrary, there is no intelligible reason that I have ever seen offered, to seek God, that cannot ultimately be boiled down to one thing: self-interest. Not one.

    This is complete nonsense. Yielding to what is believed to be true, you call that a self-serving process?

  13. SteveK:

    Yes. Why else would one yield to what is believed to be true, unless one held truth as something of value?

  14. I don’t agree with your last comment, d, but then your thinking leads to the conclusion that everything can be boiled down to self-interest. This conclusion is not a matter of logic, it’s ultimately a matter of self-interest. Logic boils down to self-interest. See where this nonsense leads you?

  15. SteveK:

    The facts about reality that underpin our abstract rules for making valid inferences (ie, logic) do not boil down to self-interest. They just are, whether we exist or not – but they don’t exist for our self-interest.

    The reason we use those abstract rules is because forming valid conclusions helps us – it helps us both attain and discover what it is that we value (ie, self-interest). Why else would we bother?

  16. «Logic boils down to self-interest. See where this nonsense leads you?»

    I agree with this statement (the self-interest part, I mean). Why would you want to accept Jesus? To avoid going to hell. Self-interest. Why be rational? It allows you to make better choices and serve your self-interest more. What is capitalism based on? Self-interest.

    It’s all self-interest.

    Ultimately, though, I think that morality comes from identifying “self” with others… if I include my definition of “self” to include others, then “self-interest” now becomes “family-interest” or “tribe-interest” or “nation-interest” or “species-interest” or even “world-interest”.

    If I act in my own self-interest, but identify my “self” with a larger and larger sphere of separate identities, the more likely I am to act in ways that are in the greater good, rather than purely selfish reasons.

    You can take it one step further and act from altruism – something that I see as acting not in your self-interest, but in the interest of some other party or parties.

  17. d,
    Regarding this:

    The facts about reality that underpin our abstract rules for making valid inferences (ie, logic) do not boil down to self-interest. They just are, whether we exist or not – but they don’t exist for our self-interest.

    According to your own statment about yielding to what is believed to be true, this valid inference of yours (i.e. logic) boils down to self-interest. Contradiction.

  18. d writes,

    …there is no intelligible reason that I have ever seen offered, to seek God, that cannot ultimately be boiled down to one thing: self-interest. Not one. Even the highfalutin answers, once stripped of their theological window dressing, all must appeal to self-interest.

    It sounds to me, at least from your perspective, everything one does is out of self interest. Is that correct?

    For example, whenever anyone gives to the poor they do so out of self interest?

  19. JAD:

    A premise of my moral view is: The only rational reason to do anything, is to fulfill some desire that one holds. And generally, its considered to act “in one’s self interest”, if one is acting to fulfill a value they hold – even if the act is giving to the poor.

    Certainly, nobody gives to the poor because it accomplishes everything contrary to their values…

  20. Sault,

    Why would you want to accept Jesus? To avoid going to hell.

    Well done on continuing to flog a strawman. You can no longer use ignorance as an excuse for your behaviour so how do you explain yourself?

  21. d,

    So in your view, if flaunting your charitable giving improves your pesonal reputation is society, then you should go ahead and flaunt your charitable giving, right?

  22. JAD:

    No, not necessarily. It could be that seeking material reciprocity (community standing, praise, etc) from acts of charity is not the most fulfilling form of charity, with respect to that which one values above all else (and therefore not in one’s best self-interest). I think that’s probably true.

    It seems akin to fishing for and receiving a compliment – it never is as satisfying as one that is offered freely and genuinely.

    But perhaps one could flaunt charity in a genuinely fulfilling, character building way – to inspire others. Though, in the real world, flaunting one’s charitable giving seems as likely to build resentment against you, as it would bring you accolades.

  23. @d:

    Morality is “what one ought to do”

    Fine.

    What one ought to do is “what one would do to achieve ones goals, if reasoning perfectly, while being aware of all the relevant facts”.

    You are dead in the water here already. There are no perfect rational beings aware of all the facts, so how can you found morality on something non-existent? And even if such a committee could be assembled, what makes you believe that they would reach the same conclusions? In fact, if human history is anything to judge by (and humans are not completely irrational) this is simply false.

    And why on naturalism we ought to be rational in the first place? Why do we have a moral duty to be rational? Hume held that reason is the “slave of the passions”; but why on judging the plates of the balance should I favor such things as long term satisfaction or getting along with the community, to simply getting what I want in the here and now even if it costs me, my life say? There is absolutely no reason under naturalism because to behave rationally in regards to morality presumes a standard or a summum bonum and there is none to be found under naturalism despite your naked assertions otherwise. Related to this, what is the binding force of the diktats of these perfectly rational kommissars, that do not exist anyway? Why exactly should we agree with the komissars in the first place? Why should a moral nihilist, or a plain moral relativist as of late have graced this blog, agree with these non-existent persons? To say that they are behaving irrational is simply begging the question and in fact, under naturalism, a moral nihilist strikes me as a perfectly rational person in following through the premise that God does not exist, that objective moral values do not exist, etc. at least more irrational than these moralists desperately clinging to the scraps of Christian morality while denying its foundations. Your proposal is even more arbitrary than holding morality to be constituted by the commandments of God in divine command theories (not to speak of natural law, which is not arbitrary in the least, although ultimately, it also rests on God).

    Your efforts are laudable but completely and utterly ineffective.

    I will not go over the other points in your post, from your non-argued premises to your non-answer to the OP, I will just note that you equivocate by expanding “self-interest” in such a way that every action is self-interested in the same way as self-ish and then declare victory over theists, and at the same time you appeal to a contingent of non-existent persons on which to found morality as a supposedly rational move — and recall that God is by *definition* a perfect, rational being with none of the limitations we have! Wow, simply wow.

  24. @Melissa :

    «Well done on continuing to flog a strawman. You can no longer use ignorance as an excuse for your behaviour so how do you explain yourself?»

    Instead of going into a long dissertation about heaven and hell, I realized that I can sum it up pretty easily.

    It’s easier to avoid hell, but it’s hard to get to heaven.

    How can I say that? Well, I take some of Jesus’ statements… that it’s easier for a camel to fit through a needle than for a rich man to go to heaven and that the path to heaven is straight and narrow, and not all will make it, and I compare them to what many Christians (both evangelists, Evangelicals, the likes of Jack Chick, etc) say – that all you need to avoid going to hell is to accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior.

    So it is in both the convert’s and believer’s self-interest to not go to hell. Do that, and you therefore go to heaven. It’s pretty reasonable logic, and has been a basic staple of evangelism for… I dunno, ever?

    Basic self-interest, Melissa. Do the easy thing – accept Jesus, and don’t go to hell.

    (I’ve already ranted elsewhere about how illogical, immoral, and irrational an eternal punishment for finite actions is, so I won’t repeat that here)

  25. G. Rodrigues:

    You are dead in the water here already. There are no perfect rational beings aware of all the facts, so how can you found morality on something non-existent? And even if such a committee could be assembled, what makes you believe that they would reach the same conclusions? In fact, if human history is anything to judge by (and humans are not completely irrational) this is simply false.

    I don’t see why that’s supposed to be a problem. Everybody has this problem – on theism there is no human who can be the perfect receiver/interpreter of divine moral revelation either (except for the one special case of Jesus – but that doesn’t do help the rest of us). We all have to make the best of what we have. If we WERE perfect reasoners, we wouldn’t even have to develop a moral theory to help us make decisions – we’d just innately be moral.

    If such a committee of perfect reasoners was assembled, I think Aumann’s agreement theorem would apply: Aumann’s agreement theorem says that two people acting rationally (in a certain precise sense) and with common knowledge of each other’s beliefs cannot agree to disagree. More specifically, if two people are genuine Bayesian rationalists with common priors, and if they each have common knowledge of their individual posteriors, then their posteriors must be equal

    In other words, perfect reasoners with all the facts, will always agree with one another.

    And why on naturalism we ought to be rational in the first place? Why do we have a moral duty to be rational?

    Refer back to my definition of “ought”. What we “ought” to do, is “what we would do if were reasoning perfectly…”

    The definition of “ought” embodies what one would do to accomplish their goals if they were reasoning perfectly (ie, being perfectly rational) and aware of all the facts. That the agents value rationality, is presupposed. If someone is totally committed to irrationality – no moral theory will reach them, whether its God-centered or something else. Rationality is a pre-requisite for any intelligible discussion or decision making.

    Hume held that reason is the “slave of the passions”; but why on judging the plates of the balance should I favor such things as long term satisfaction or getting along with the community, to simply getting what I want in the here and now even if it costs me, my life say?

    Because you deprive yourself of something you value more.

    Anyhow, I have to run, so I’ll have to get to the rest later.

  26. Sault,

    (I’ve already ranted elsewhere about how illogical, immoral, and irrational an eternal punishment for finite actions is, so I won’t repeat that here)

    And yet you have conveniently ignored the response to your rants to continue flogging a straw man. It would be nice to see you attempt to grapple with some of what Holo wrote.

  27. d,

    I don’t see why that’s supposed to be a problem. Everybody has this problem – on theism there is no human who can be the perfect receiver/interpreter of divine moral revelation either (except for the one special case of Jesus – but that doesn’t do help the rest of us). We all have to make the best of what we have. If we WERE perfect reasoners, we wouldn’t even have to develop a moral theory to help us make decisions – we’d just innately be moral.

    You are confusing what something is with how we know it. It is a problem for you because under your system morality is determined by something that you acknowledge is non-existent, that is not so for the theist.

  28. «what possible objective moral (or otherwise) content could an appeal to “sufficient motivators” have in a naturalistic vision of the world?»

    The sentiment “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” has been echoed time and time again throughout history in many different societies in various forms. The recognition that how you treat others will affect how they treat you is an excellent motivation.

    «“Infinite consequences,” while admittedly “motivational,” are not motivators in any direct sense.»

    Could’ve fooled me. Heaven is painted as both a pleasurable place with eternal worship and Oneness with God and a place that lacks the ills that plague our world – no suffering, no hunger, no strife, no pain. To someone who suffers, or has lost, or yearns for justice, what a wonderful thought!

    Hell is depicted as the diametric opposite – a place of eternal pain and suffering. To someone who has already suffered, or is afraid of suffering, the concept is terrifying.

    Not direct motivators? Please. Even Jesus said that it would be better to cut off body parts than risk going to hell!

    «What a silly, immature, reductionist way to look at human beings–as if humans were puppets looking for material and physical gratification or avoidance of the pain of external “infinite” punishment.»

    Yet in many ways that is exactly what humans are – it’s not all that they are, but it certainly is a large part. If they weren’t, then the threat of “hellfire and brimstone” (ie the “turn or burn”) would have been abandoned by evangelists a long time ago. Its used because it works – we instinctively want to avoid pain and suffering.

    Anyways, I’ll pop back to one phrase that caught my eye…

    «Sin is dehumanizing first and foremost to the one committing the sin.»

    1. Sin removes our humanity (dehumanizes us).
    2. The greater the sin, the less human we are.
    3. It is impossible for us to not sin.
    4. Without God’s grace, our sin accumulates.
    5. Therefore, non-Christian senior citizens are likely not human at all.

    Poor Grandma…

  29. d writes:

    “But perhaps one could flaunt charity in a genuinely fulfilling, character building way – to inspire others. Though, in the real world, flaunting one’s charitable giving seems as likely to build resentment against you, as it would bring you accolades.”

    You seem to be saying that flaunting or not flaunting our charitable acts is more a matter of manners than it is of motives. Are you saying then that motives are irrelevant when it comes to charitable acts? I don’t see how on the basis of self interest how they could be. In other words, if self interest the ultimate basis for our ethical choices then there no such thing as good or bad motives. However, according traditional Christian ethical teaching motives do matter.

    For example, Jesus warned his followers in Matthew 6:1-4 that they should, 1 “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

    2 “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

    Is Jesus talking about just manners here, or is he talking about something deeper?

    I would argue that since Jesus taught that you should “love your neighbor as you love yourself,” that he was thinking in terms of motives. Afterall, to honestly love another person means you ought to honestly care about him.

  30. JAD:

    I don’t see how you could come to that interpretation while taking into account the first two paragraphs of my previous comment.

  31. Melissa:

    You are confusing what something is with how we know it. It is a problem for you because under your system morality is determined by something that you acknowledge is non-existent, that is not so for the theist.

    My moral view doesn’t depend on the actual existence of some ideal reasoner, I don’t see why this is a point to struggle over.

    Really, what’s the argument? Clear premises and a conclusion might help see what this is driving at.

  32. d,

    Really, what’s the argument? Clear premises and a conclusion might help see what this is driving at.

    I agree. Maybe if you wrote out your argument for naturalistic morality with clear premises and a conclusion it will help you see the flaws.

  33. Sault,

    Yet in many ways that is exactly what humans are – it’s not all that they are, but it certainly is a large part. If they weren’t, then the threat of “hellfire and brimstone” (ie the “turn or burn”) would have been abandoned by evangelists a long time ago. Its used because it works – we instinctively want to avoid pain and suffering.

    You’re experience of church is obviously completely different to mine. You haven’t given any us any reason to think that the avoidance of hell Is the primary motivator for the majority of Christians.

    Of course we want to avoid pain but that doesn’t mean that the primary motivator for the Christian is to avoid God’s punishment.

    As to the rest of your comment, are you proud of what you’ve written there. Do you think it’s a good example of rationality?

  34. d,

    The definition of “ought” embodies what one would do to accomplish their goals if they were reasoning perfectly (ie, being perfectly rational) and aware of all the facts

    Pity the rest of us if that perfectly reasoning person’s goal was to inflict suffering.

  35. // You’re experience of church is obviously completely different to mine. //

    Sounds like you’ve never been exposed to as much of it as I have. Never been given a good ol’ “turn and burn” sermon, hmm? It’s good times.

    Try approaching Christianity from the outside, sometime. Go to a new church and introduce yourself as an atheist, for instance, and see how you’re treated. The variety of reactions are interesting.

    From being born into the Mormon church to giggling my way through a Catholic Mass to running sound for the nicest, most kind-hearted group of non-denominational Christians a fellow could ever ask for (and all of the colorful adventures inbetween), I’ve had a decent exposure to the varieties of Christianity.

    // You haven’t given any us any reason to think that the avoidance of hell Is the primary motivator for the majority of Christians. //

    Oh, not the primary motivation. After all, there is heaven as well. One might say that you need both a carrot *and* a stick to get the donkey cart rolling.

    Seriously, though, this isn’t the “be-all, end-all” model of humanity. We are more complex than that, for sure.

    Anyways, the point that I was trying to make is that to say that the concepts of heaven and hell and the eternal consequences of them aren’t significant motivators is blatantly false.

    // As to the rest of your comment, are you proud of what you’ve written there. //

    Quite possibly some of the finest literature written in the latter half of this century, I’m sure.

  36. Sault,

    Try approaching Christianity from the outside, sometime.

    I didn’t grow up in the church. For me anything to do with the after life barely rated on my radar during my conversion.

    I have a question for you though: what do you think is the motivator for most people who don’t abuse drugs?

  37. «For me anything to do with the after life barely rated on my radar during my conversion.»

    I’m a little skeptical of this comment… but then again, sometimes the strongest motivators are the ones that we aren’t even aware of. You’ve seriously never gotten a “turn or burn” sermon? Man, you haven’t lived until you’ve gotten a few of those. Maybe you haven’t lived or acted in ways that are condemned by the Christians around you?

    «I have a question for you though: what do you think is the motivator for most people who don’t abuse drugs?»

    While I think that the question is a little overly broad and vague, after a bit of thought I can say that for most of the people I know who don’t abuse drugs, the answer comes down to a desire to avoid the negative consequences of abuse – could be anything from an abusive relationship to the financial burden to the health effects to legal troubles.

    Consider the negative press that drug abuse is given – you don’t even have to have personal experience with abuse to have a vague negative impression about it. The message isn’t “Say yes to every other good thing in life”, it’s “Say no to drugs”, after all.

    I’d also have to point out that there are many people who no longer abuse drugs because they have shifted their addiction from drugs to something else – religion, for instance. Religious ecstasy (whether from meditation, worship, prayer, dancing, or even self-torture ie flagellation) is incredibly euphoric, and we have no social stigma against being addicted to Jesus.

  38. Sault,

    I’m a little skeptical of this comment… but then again, sometimes the strongest motivators are the ones that we aren’t even aware of.

    At uni I had a friend who told me church was important to them. My first response was to laugh – I had no personal experience of someone who felt that way. After a couple of days I was curious and went along to a small group then later church. What I experienced challenged my preconceptions but you need to be open to that. It seems to me that you are conveniently skeptical of anything that doesn’t fit into your preconceived notions. Wouldn’t it be more honest to accept the likelihood that your experience and knowledge of Christianity is not normative.

    While I think that the question is a little overly broad and vague, after a bit of thought I can say that for most of the people I know who don’t abuse drugs, the answer comes down to a desire to avoid the negative consequences of abuse – could be anything from an abusive relationship to the financial burden to the health effects to legal troubles.

    Agreed. They recognize that abusing drugs is not the way to the good life. Also I think many people would recognize that the long term drug abuse is dehumanizing. ie we lose something of what it means to be human and instead of experiencing the full human life we would be reduced to looking for the next hit. That gives us a tiny look into the effects of all sin, if we reject what is good and choose what is bad the effect can only be tragic.

  39. The sentiment “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” has been echoed time and time again throughout history in many different societies in various forms. The recognition that how you treat others will affect how they treat you is an excellent motivation.

    Really? It didn’t seem to motivate Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Ghengis Kahn, the Roman Emperors or any of the dozens of other sociopaths that have reigned havoc and destruction on humankind throughout history. In fact, they were rewarded handsomely for their efforts. “Do unto others” indeed.

  40. «It didn’t seem to motivate Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Ghengis Kahn, the Roman Emperors or any of the dozens of other sociopaths that have reigned havoc and destruction on humankind throughout history. In fact, they were rewarded handsomely for their efforts. “Do unto others” indeed.»

    Ha ha ha, Godwin rears its ugly head!

    (Then again, perhaps that’s how they wanted people to treat them – there’s nothing saying that it has to be in a good way, after all! A sociopath may want others to treat them “sociopathically”. Perhaps they are so damaged that that is all they can perceive as good.)

    Seriously though, you reject the sentiment that even Jesus voiced? His second greatest commandment??? If you are a Christian, you are indeed a hypocrite of the highest order!


    36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
    37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

    — Matthew 22:36-40 (NIV)

  41. Yes, yes, let’s rattle off a litany of mass murderers, as if that proves anything. At least this time its so non sequitor that it doesn’t even make sense!

    (I know, Tom, that Godwinisms don’t bother you – I think we’ve had that conversation before… but seriously? I mean, if it made sense at all this time I’d at least grudgingly give you that much…)

    If you’re a Christian, BillT, and you reject this moral principle, you are a hypocrite. Are you so desperate to out-argue me that you’d go against Jesus himself? If you’re not a Christian, then I would have to take a bit from Holopupenko and for the reason of a complete non sequitor must compare your intellect, sir, to a bag of hammers (apparently that’s a bad thing).

  42. @Sault:

    Honestly, how thick can you be? You managed to completely misunderstand the thrust of BillT’s argument and then even suggest that he is an hypocrite. Step back and read again. He is not rejecting Jesus’ teaching, he is just pointing by example the very obvious fact that acting out in the expectation of reciprocity is a very poor motivator for a number of reasons: you are a sociopath and are devoid of empathy or you wield power and people bow down to your will and lick your boots anyway.

  43. If the Golden Rule was not a reasonable motivator, then why would Jesus posit it as His second greatest commandment?

    The mistake is that BillT, and apparently you too G, seem to think that I’m saying that the Golden Rule is the only naturalistic motivator. I’m not, and it isn’t. However, it’s a pretty reasonable one for many people in many circumstances. It also dovetails right into the theme of self-interest that we’ve been discussing.

    “But oohhh, it didn’t work for Hitler!” [paraphrased]

    No s*, Sherlock. I mean really… Okay, let’s pull out the dictionary…

    Sociopath –
    a person, as a psychopathic personality, whose behavior is antisocial and who lacks a sense of moral responsibility or social conscience.
    http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/sociopath

    A sociopath by definition has no sense of morality… so using sociopathic people to prove or disprove the validity of some moral motivator is freaking dumb! (there we go, now I’m getting into the spirit! Now who shall I compare a bag of hammers to…) As I said, totally fallacious, total non sequitor…

    Sometimes the Golden Rule isn’t the best motivator… of course. Sometimes it isn’t the most reasonable motivator. Sure. However, it is a sense of morality that doesn’t require a single shred of the supernatural, and it works pretty well for many people in many situations.

    It may not be the “be all, end all” moral approach, but it is probably the simplest. One of the reasons why so many cultures (including the Jewish culture) picked up on it.

    Is it that it’s too simple for you? It doesn’t require a discussion about Platonism, or need an in-depth analysis of Aquinas, or to even know the name of a single philosopher (Augustine? We don’t need no stinkin’ Augustine!), so maybe that’s the problem.

    I remembered yesterday why I stopped talking to Philosophy majors in college – if you didn’t understand the nuances of their arguments they often became very arrogant, very bitchy people very fast. Nothing like the sense of smugness roiling off of one of those guys. After seeing some of the language and attitudes here, I can’t help but draw a parallel.

    Sometimes…. just sometimes… it can be so simple that it might actually work.

    They recognize that abusing drugs is not the way to the good life.

    Aaaaannd that’s the point – people don’t do bad things to avoid bad consequences. Like, if you don’t sin, you don’t go to hell.

    See? She gets it!

  44. Ok Sault, I’ll try and explain it using small words so you can understand it, too. You’re the one who said that the golden rule provides “excellent motivation”. Your the one who said it didn’t require a shed of the supernatural. The truth is just the opposite. It doesn’t provide any motivation at all. The golden rule only provides “motivation” if there is intrinsic value in those to whom it refers. It only matters if the people it refers to matter.

    If there is no God and we are all no more significant than the ant you unknowingly squashed on your way in your door then the golden rule is utter nonsense. That is what Mao, and Stalin and Hitler believed. Why treat anyone in any way that isn’t a direct benefit to you. Murder them, persecute them use them in any way necessary for you to achieve your end. All you have to do is figure out a scheme to get away with it.

    Why is it ok for big fish to murder smaller fish just to get a meal. Because it isn’t murder. It’s just survival of the fittest. If there is no God then why are we any different than the big fish? Should the big fish “Do unto others as they would have others do unto them”? No, they should eat whatever they can to survive. Why shouldn’t we?

  45. Sault,

    @ last few comments … wow … was your goal to provide a demonstration of the truth of Romans 1:21-22?

    Aaaaannd that’s the point – people don’t do bad things to avoid bad consequences. Like, if you don’t sin, you don’t go to hell.

    No one is arguing that people don’t do bad things to avoid bad consequences, our disagreement is that the main consequences Christians are trying to avoid is some externally imposed carrot and stick. Remember what started this discussion:

    What a silly, immature, reductionist way to look at human beings–as if humans were puppets looking for material and physical gratification or avoidance of the pain of external “infinite” punishment.

    The point is that contrary to your assertions what we seek to avoid is the bad consequence of dehumanising ourselves.

  46. // Romans 1:21-22 //

    Of course you must presuppose that I “know” God and simply am an atheist out of supposed “hatred” for Him. My reasons for being an atheist at this point in my life do not involve hatred at all, just as your reasons for being a Christian might not involve the concept of heaven/hell at all.

    // The point is that contrary to your assertions what we seek to avoid is the bad consequence of dehumanising ourselves. //

    So you’re saying that we’re attempting to avoid the negative consequences of sin rather than the negative consequences of hell? That’s not unreasonable. If you believe that certain actions will “dehumanize” you, then of course you will act to avoid them.

    I would suggest, though, that the association between sin and its consequences would not be as strong as they were without the threat of hell behind them, and that these consequences are never far from many, or possibly even most, believers’ minds.

    These concerns, these fears, are brought out of the subconscious in times of emotional extremes – when laden with guilt, when full of righteous anger, when attempting to evangelize. I gave the example of hate mail as an example of this – hatred, anger, and righteous anger really bring out the hellfire! (I could give “turn or burn” sermons and Jack Chick tracts as two more examples – these impassioned pleas lead naturally to reflections of heaven and hell)

    We saw this most recently on the #GodIsNotGreat hashtag on Twitter – Hitchens dies, the tag trends, and you’ve got half of the people talking about how they’re missing Hitchens, and the other half talking about physical threats and promises of hell for those that dared to popularize such a sentiment (many not realizing that it was the name of one of his books).

    I follow Dusty Smith (Cult of Dusty) on Facebook, and it’s amusing to read the hate mail that he receives… again, people full of outrage threatening him with hell if he doesn’t convert. Likewise, the Flying Spaghetti Monster or any number of similar people and websites.

    The threat of hell is very real in the mind of many believers, and for a great deal of them, it provides a sometimes-subconscious-sometimes-not motivation to not sin.

    I’d say about as many people act in hope to avoid hell that act out of hope of reciprocity. The concepts are not very different.

  47. // Ok Sault, I’ll try and explain it using small words so you can understand it, too. //
    .

    Oh, condescension! Hooray, I love condescension!

    .
    // It doesn’t provide any motivation at all. //
    .

    I’d like to suggest that if it had absolutely no motivational ability, then it wouldn’t be so widely espoused.

    “Raising a moral child means teaching your child to live by the Golden Rule. ”
    AskDrSears.com

    .
    // That is what Mao, and Stalin and Hitler believed. //
    .

    I’m honored to be conversing with an expert on the psychology of mass murderers… but this is such a poor forum for discussing the particulars – you should totally write a book so I can fully appreciate your expertise in the matter.

    .
    // If there is no God then why are we any different than the big fish? //
    .

    We are different because we recognize the consequences of our actions. We can’t level our forests without suffering the environment impact, we can’t murder or cheat or steal without facing the threat of our legal system, and we can’t abuse drugs without the physical consequences thereof.

    We also have the intellect to socially organize ourselves and recognize that if we sacrifice some of our personal freedoms that we can provide greater happiness for others.

    So… Empathy. Intellect. Responsibility. Accountability.

    If you aren’t a sociopath, and are a reasonable human being, you will have one of more of those attributes, and your personal ethics will be based on your understanding of the consequences of your actions.

    Many cultures have done just fine without the Christian God – some without any theism at all.

    (Of course, if you claim that they were moral only because they believed in one or more gods, you weaken the case that morality requires the Christian God)

    I don’t claim to say this the best possible way – for other perspectives supporting the concept of morality without God, see this, this (including an observation of primates’ sense of morality), this, etc.

    I especially like this quote from the last one – “I am putting the issue very plainly, because it is only by avoiding plain speech that the Christian can “get away” with his monstrous and foolish propositions.”

    It seems odd that on an intellectual forum like this, from someone who has what is presumably well-deserved condescension, that you wouldn’t be familiar with the precepts of humanism.

    Of course, acknowledging that non-Christians (and God forbid, atheists!) can be moral does eliminate the moral superiority that you feel that you can safely enjoy.

  48. There’s a strange either-or dynamic going on in this discussion. Is religious belief and morality all self-interest or not? Sault stated it most clearly a while ago when he wrote,

    «Logic boils down to self-interest. See where this nonsense leads you?»

    I agree with this statement (the self-interest part, I mean). Why would you want to accept Jesus? To avoid going to hell. Self-interest. Why be rational? It allows you to make better choices and serve your self-interest more. What is capitalism based on? Self-interest.

    It’s all self-interest.

    Let’s be honest: there’s self-interest in Christianity. A lot of the language of the Bible is intended to motivate us based on how our actions will affect our own outcomes. That kind of message is everywhere in the Bible.

    But Sault’s conclusion that “it’s all self-interest” does not follow, and in fact it’s wrong. Self-interest is a piece of it all, but it is not all.

    I think part of the problem is comes from centering the discussion on motivation theory, which by its nature focuses on the contingencies that accrue to us from the decisions we make. That’s what motivation theory is about. When it comes to the question, “Why should I do the good?” motivation theory highly relevant. For Christianity, however, it has almost nothing to say about what the good actually is. To tie motivation theory to meta-ethics is a naturalistic move, not a theistic one. Only naturalism could say something like, “The good is what we would want if we all knew what would produce the best outcomes for all of us.” Theism says the good existed before there were human selves to have interests.

    I said motivation theory is highly relevant to “Why should I do the good?” Note however that I did not say that it is the whole story, or the only way to look at it. There is also the draw of love toward God. This is not an internal push toward doing the good but an external pull toward the experience of the good. This too could be expressed in terms of motivation theory, but it’s a clumsy and incomplete fit. I come to God, and the experience of God seems good to me, but the reason I come to him is not that, so much as it is that God is good and attractive in himself.

    I think there is also a motivation of aligning oneself with truth regarding the nature of reality, of self, of relationships, and so on; which again could be stated in terms of motivation theory, but only in a loose and clumsily-fitting manner.

    Finally, what is self-interest, biblically speaking, and from God’s perspective? It is the experience of life in its fullest, deepest, richest, most true, most loving, most giving, most trusting, most worshiping, most joyful. God wants that for us! Self-interest is not an inherent evil, when it is understood in a godly sense, which is to say when it is understood in the sense of giving up our lives so that we may gain them anew through Christ’s work.

    So I’m fine with Sault saying that we’re motivated by heaven and hell. I strongly disagree that it’s “all self-interest.”

  49. It’s hard to understand how even a barely sentient humanist could fail to see how self contradictory the following statement is.

    “We also have the intellect to socially organize ourselves and recognize that if we sacrifice some of our personal freedoms that we can provide greater happiness for others.”

    “Greater happiness for others”!!! Who cares about greater happiness for others. Why should you or I or anyone else care about the greater happiness for others. The greater happiness for others you propose as a basis for action is a statement of objective morality and you don’t have any basis to claim any objective moral standards. Why is greater happiness for others any better than greater misery for others as long as it suits my goals.

  50. Tom wrote, ‘Sault’s conclusion that “it’s all self-interest” does not follow, and in fact it’s wrong. Self-interest is a piece of it all, but it is not all.’

    I agree. @ #31 above I wrote that ‘Jesus warned his followers in Matthew 6:1-4 that they should, 1 “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

    2 “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”‘

    However if self interest is the primary reason for any of our moral actions then why would giving to the needy to bring some honor or recognition to yourself be wrong? Indeed, why would it be wrong if that was the only reason?

    We could make the same point with the story of the “Good Samaritan” (Luke 10:25-37). In the story a priest and a Levite pass by a man who has been robbed, beaten and left for dead. Only a Samaritan stops to help the man.

    Jesus is clearly using the story to teach us that we have a moral obligation and duty to help our fellow man if we find him in crisis. But if it just self interest how can we condemn the priest and the Levite. Afterall, maybe it wasn’t in their self interest to stop and provide aid.

    If only self interest is the basis of morality and ehtics then the only ought we have is to do what is in our self interest.

  51. JAD:

    You’re simply conflating one type of material gain with genuine self-interest. Why would reputation be better overall and more self-interested, than the level of satisfaction and fulfillment one would probably get from anonymous charitable giving?

  52. @Sault:

    A sociopath by definition has no sense of morality… so using sociopathic people to prove or disprove the validity of some moral motivator is freaking dumb! (there we go, now I’m getting into the spirit! Now who shall I compare a bag of hammers to…) As I said, totally fallacious, total non sequitor…

    To quote Dr. Johnson (from memory): “I found you an argument, I am not under the obligation to find you an understanding.”

    Sometimes the Golden Rule isn’t the best motivator… of course. Sometimes it isn’t the most reasonable motivator. Sure. However, it is a sense of morality that doesn’t require a single shred of the supernatural, and it works pretty well for many people in many situations.

    You have just conceded the whole point, even if unwittingly. How will you convince a rational sociopath (sociopaths tend to be eminently rational people)? Appeal to consequences? He can get away with it and even if he does not, so what, we will all die anyway so carpe diem and all that. Justice? Morality? Those are just hollow words referring to abstract concepts living solely in the mind and with no objective existence outside of them; they are biological and cultural fictions evolved out of necessity, the contingent product of biological and cultural evolution, so why should we follow them? In the name of *what* are you going to say that he ought to behave in this or that way? Sociopaths are not reasonable human beings? That of course just begs the question against the sociopath, because sociopathy is a medical category not a moral one.

    And you fail to get the gist of the argument in another sense. Because if you say that you do something (e.g. do not harm others) in expectation of reciprocity (not be harmed) then *if* you can get the desired result in some other way, why not do it? If you can get physical safety (or whatever) by trampling and maiming, in the name of *what* are you going to declare it unjust? The Golden Rule works for you? Congratulations, you are a decent human being. But the fact is, that it is useless for others (e.g. sociopaths) and you have *no* basis to judge them; all you can do is keep your fingers crossed and hope they do not win out in the end.

    And motivators for what, Sault? If purposes are all in our minds, how can they justify anything whatsoever? Greater happiness for others? To quote BillT:

    Why should you or I or anyone else care about the greater happiness for others. The greater happiness for others you propose as a basis for action is a statement of objective morality and you don’t have any basis to claim any objective moral standards. Why is greater happiness for others any better than greater misery for others as long as it suits my goals.

    Proceeding.

    Is it that it’s too simple for you? It doesn’t require a discussion about Platonism, or need an in-depth analysis of Aquinas, or to even know the name of a single philosopher (Augustine? We don’t need no stinkin’ Augustine!), so maybe that’s the problem.

    I remembered yesterday why I stopped talking to Philosophy majors in college – if you didn’t understand the nuances of their arguments they often became very arrogant, very bitchy people very fast. Nothing like the sense of smugness roiling off of one of those guys. After seeing some of the language and attitudes here, I can’t help but draw a parallel.

    Fine sentiment you express here. Imagine the gall of those majors, complaining that you do not understand their arguments? Pfft! What arrogance, what presumptuousness of them, asking you, you of all people, to actually understand what they are saying before passing on judgments. What’s a few straw-men between friends hey? You attack a position that no one here defends, but so what? You have not bothered to know what we actually think and that’s that; the problem is obviously ours, because things after all are *that* simple and we need no frigging Augustine or Aquinas to tell us otherwise. And so the great Christian intellectual tradition, 2000 years old, can be chucked out and you get to have your victory: Heaven is the carrot and Hell is the stick and by God, we are all donkeys. Congratulations.

    So we don’t need no stinkin’ Augustine because willful ignorance is so much better. But why don’t we level the playing field? After all, if you can criticize straw-men by making appeals to ignorance on matters of divinity the same must be true about other fields like say Evolution. So if tomorrow I start defending a literal 24-hour six-day creation period and a universe a handful of thousands of years old don’t you *dare* to say that Galileo said this, or that Newton or Einstein shows that. After all, thinks are *really* that simple. Say, Sault, what came first, the chicken or the egg? Ah Ah Ah, those pathetic evolutionists can’t even answer that and I need no friggin’ Darwin to tell me otherwise.

    One last thing, do not even *dare* to whine and complain about being the target of condescension, when by your own admittance you are not only ignorant but willfully so. With appologies to our gracious host, dumber than a bag of hammers. Proof?

    Of course, acknowledging that non-Christians (and God forbid, atheists!) can be moral does eliminate the moral superiority that you feel that you can safely enjoy.

    I do not deny that some (many?) Christians like to pass off as morally superior. What is so surprising in that? Or have you forgotten the illustration of the pharisee and the tax collector? Why exactly do many atheists get so ticked off about this? Why do they gleefully slam Christians with the charge of hypocrisy? Is it because deep down, they realize that to be a hypocrite one actually has to believe certain things as objectively better than others? I have an answer but I will spare you this cunning piece of psychology. But the real issue is not if atheists can or cannot behave morally; St. Paul is very clear on that, they *can*. But hey, what is another straw men among a whole field of them? And after all, we do not need no friggin’ St. Paul, because things really are that simple.

  53. d wrote:

    You’re simply conflating one type of material gain with genuine self-interest. Why would reputation be better overall and more self-interested, than the level of satisfaction and fulfillment one would probably get from anonymous charitable giving?

    I am not sure what you are saying here, d. Are you saying that the focus ought to be on the person who is being charitable? (How the charitable act fulfills him personally, for example.) Or, should it be on the person who is in need? What exactly do we mean by compassion?

  54. «How will you convince a rational sociopath (sociopaths tend to be eminently rational people)?»

    I never claimed that the Golden Rule was sufficient to motivate everyone, much less people with no moral responsibility or moral conscience.

    What I did give was one way that people can be motivated to be moral without having to plead to the supernatural.

    Is it perfect? No. Is it as good as a morality that might be handed down by a perfect being? No. Is it immune to a degree of relativism, in some circumstances? Nope.

    I know you guys love to argue, but arguing the validity of the Golden Rule is just odd. Hate it all you like, but it works for some people, and requires no belief in God.

    Look at my original response at #30. Look at BillT’s response at #42. Complete tangent, complete non sequitor…

    ….but now I’m interested. So since I have no idea how to do it, how would you go about motivating a sociopath?

  55. «But Sault’s conclusion that “it’s all self-interest” does not follow, and in fact it’s wrong. Self-interest is a piece of it all, but it is not all.»

    My initial line of reasoning was something like this –

    If I’m happy, I want to make others happy. I can act in ways to make myself happy. Other people are like me. If I act in ways to make others happy, they are more likely to act in ways that make me happy, too. It maximizes my potential happiness (ie is in my self-interest) to make other people happy, too.

    As soon as I make the leap that other people may be like me (empathy), I can transform the selfish actions to ones that are more beneficial to the common good… more moral.

    It was a very convoluted thought to then say “Oh yeah, so it’s all self-interest”, but that’s the general idea of what I was getting at. It is in my self-interest to act in ways that make many people happy rather than just myself.

    Happiness here can also mean a lack of negatives… ie, if I don’t hurt you, then you’re more likely to not hurt me, etc.

    Wikipedia suggests to me that this is called “utilitarianism”. Does that sound correct?

  56. @Sault:

    I know you guys love to argue, but arguing the validity of the Golden Rule is just odd. Hate it all you like, but it works for some people, and requires no belief in God.

    Pay attention, please. I, Tom Gilson, BillT, Holopupenko, Melissa, etc. are all Christians so no one is disputing the validity of the Golden Rule. What we are asking you is to give us an *objective*, rational reason why under naturalistic atheism should we follow it? Until now, you have given us none; and no, your latest post #59 does not count as a rational reason — but this has already been said many times in different ways by may people using different arguments. Utilitarianism (yes, it is essentially correct) is powerless in providing an objective, rational foundation for morality.

    Since we have been talking about sociopaths, suppose there is an eminently rational sociopath pointing a gun at your head. You have an afternoon to convince him (this particular sociopath *really* wants to be convinced) why under atheistic naturalism he should not pull the trigger.

    Now under theism, we could for example, start by arguing that the good is convertible with being and evil is a privation. We would also argue that humans have an essence or nature and thus they have certain purposes, certain potencies and perfections. With these metaphysical foundations in place we could then proceed by appealing to natural law; that murder is not only dehumanizing, being directly contrary to our natures of rational animals as created by God, and thus an objectively wrong act, but also that in robbing the victim of the ability to fulfill his own goals as a human being, it is an objectively unjust act, and this is true whether the sociopath “feels” it or not, whether he gets caught or not or whether it advances his interests or not. Assuming he accepted the theist’s premises, if he were rational, he would conclude that murder is wrong as a matter of objective fact. He would also understand, that given that human nature is what it is, that he himself, being a sociopath, is objectively sick (meaning, he lacks some ordinary human perfections like empathy) and in need of some real help — both medical and spiritual. If it was enough or not to *motivate* him, well, that is another story — as we all know, the heart and the mind tend to go their separate ways, but the scenario does assume that he is a rational being.

    Your turn.

  57. Since we have been talking about sociopaths, suppose there is an eminently rational sociopath pointing a gun at your head…

    A video is worth a billion words. I give you, Cruel Logic.

  58. @d:

    If only somebody have given that serial killer some compatibalist philosophy to read.

    Since your comment was somewhat tongue-in-cheek (at least that is how I read it) you will not resent me if I say that your illusion that compatibilism is not rationally bankrupt is endearing.

  59. «You have not bothered to know what we actually think and that’s that;»

    Meh. I’ve tried, and I’m still trying.

    «And so the great Christian intellectual tradition, 2000 years old, can be chucked out and you get to have your victory: Heaven is the carrot and Hell is the stick and by God, we are all donkeys. Congratulations.»

    Why thanks, I…. hey, I see what you did there!

    «Imagine the gall of those majors, complaining that you do not understand their arguments? Pfft! What arrogance, what presumptuousness of them, asking you, you of all people, to actually understand what they are saying before passing on judgments. »

    I know, right?

    But seriously, you guys aren’t really that bad, all things considered, so I’m letting it slide.

    (In actuality, my wording was “the nuances”. I understand the basic concepts, but not many of the nuances brought to bear.)

  60. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, gives an interesting, though somewhat extreme, hypothetical case that illustrates weaknesses of utilitarian ethics. He writes that a…

    “problem for utilitarianism is that it seems to overlook justice and rights. One common illustration is called Transplant. Imagine that each of five patients in a hospital will die without an organ transplant. The patient in Room 1 needs a heart, the patient in Room 2 needs a liver, the patient in Room 3 needs a kidney, and so on. The person in Room 6 is in the hospital for routine tests. Luckily (for them, not for him!), his tissue is compatible with the other five patients, and a specialist is available to transplant his organs into the other five. This operation would save their lives, while killing the “donor”. There is no other way to save any of the other five patients…

    We need to add that the organ recipients will emerge healthy, the source of the organs will remain secret, the doctor won’t be caught or punished for cutting up the “donor”, and the doctor knows all of this to a high degree of probability (despite the fact that many others will help in the operation). Still, with the right details filled in, it looks as if cutting up the “donor” will maximize utility, since five lives have more utility than one life…
    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/consequentialism/#ConWhaRigRelRul

    He goes on to add that…

    “Most utilitarians lack such strong stomachs (or teeth), so they modify utilitarianism to bring it in line with common moral intuitions, including the intuition that doctors should not cut up innocent patients. One attempt claims that a killing is worse than a death…”

    Do you see the problem here? Over and above utilitarian theory we have “common moral intuitions.” But what are those? Where do they come from?

    It appears to me then that utilitarianism is not sufficient to tell us what is moral and what is immoral, or right and wrong. But isn’t that what a moral theory is suppose to do?

  61. One can engineer the epistemic conditions in all sorts of thought experiments and end with rather counter-intuitive results with respect to any moral theory. All moral theories tend give us weird results when the agents in question have epistemic powers that are so bizarrely enhanced, yet so bizarrely constrained at the same time.

    Going the other direction, a strict form of moral absolutism would seemingly make it impermissible to ever kill, in order to save the lives of others.

  62. Still, with the right details filled in, it looks as if cutting up the “donor” will maximize utility, since five lives have more utility than one life…

    I apologize for this, but this will be my last comment on this thread. The page is starting to render incorrectly on my browser and is becoming unreadable.

    As I understand it, utilitarianism allows for free will. If the donor chooses not to, he may be immoral, but cannot be forced.

    I will continue to read comments that are delivered to me by email, though.

    One last thought – an eminently rational sociopath would understand that the consequences of his actions could entail legal punishment. If the chance of those punishments are reduced, then I think you’ve gone to an entirely too hypothetical argument, designed solely to discredit me.

    It’s not like I can stop you, though –

    “And when we were all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice speaking unto me, and saying in the Hebrew tongue, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.” – Acts 26:14 (KJV)

    I chose my name very intentionally – this being one of the reasons. Interpret that however you like. =)

  63. I don’t really need to invent any Tom – many affirm the absoluteness of human rights. And its trivially easy pose thorny ethical dilemmas somebody who affirms the absoluteness of human rights, that might lead them to reject those absolutes in certain instances (and often times, cause them to rely on utilitarian-like calculations) given similarly bizarre epistemic abilities.

    What if the only way persuade a terrorist to give up the location of his nuclear bomb, planted somewhere in NY, for instance, is to torture his innocent child in front of the him?

    Or what if the only way to stop a crazed gunman from shooting into a crowd of people was for a sniper to take a shot to kill him, but will also assuredly kill the innocent person this gunman is using as a human shield?

    In any case, I think given the agents such bizarre powers, we aren’t talking about anything realistically human anymore, and so don’t offer much relevance for the moral decision making of human beings.

  64. Consequentialist calculations can be tripped up by engineering all of the kinds of probable bad consequences we would expect, out of the equation.

    Deontologist intuitions can be tripped up by piling heaps of horrible consequences on top of the steadfast adherence to some moral principle.

    For a naturalist consequentialist, one might reason that, in part, our deontological intuitions give us such strong warnings, is because we live in a world where certain actions are extremely likely to come with really bad consequences, even if we can’t actually see them from our epistemic vantage point.

    And it seemingly takes less time to evolve urges in the form of intuitions in an organism, than it does to evolve a brain, capable of accurately computing the possible outcomes of their actions.

    This actually helps us make decent sense of human rights, or many other seemingly moral absolutes. One would view them as useful heuristics that act weights that will strongly move our choices in a beneficial direction, in the absence of information, in our moral calculus. We have evolved these intuitions because, in general, they provided immense utility.

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