The Fourth — or First — Reason for Religious Freedom

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This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Freedom of Religion


Series: Freedom of Religion

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When I wrote recently on three reasons religious freedom matters, I kept it generic, with no particular religion in mind. There is a fourth reason for religious freedom, however, which is really the first one: Christianity is both true and good. God, as Christianity knows God, is true and good. Therefore freedom to follow his way is true and good.

Today is my fifty-seventh American Independence Day, which means I have lived long enough to have known a time when this was less controversial. I acknowledge the disagreement. If you care to see my defense of my position, please read through my entire blog. Meanwhile I will direct the rest of my words here to my fellow Christians, who know it is good to follow Jesus Christ: that he is the author of life, the giver of freedom, the Prince of Peace, the source of truth, the complete expression and final standard of justice and mercy.

Biblical Principles of Freedom

The two great opening expressions of America's Declaration of Independence, “all men are created equal, and are endowed … with certain inalienable rights” both depend on the Creator who was mentioned in there. Though he was not named in the Declaration, that Creator is Christ, and had to be, in order for those statements to be credibly true.

Created Equal

That's another controversial position, which I'll attempt to support briefly here. First, “all men [and women] are created equal” — from where does that belief derive? First, what does it even mean? We're not equal in size, skills, intelligence, physical strength, opportunity, social status, or any other surface characteristic. We are, however, equal in worth. We all matter equally. Therefore justice demands that we all be treated as equal in that sense.

The Bible makes it clear we are all created, first of all, and that being in the image of God we all have worth in God's eyes. This is not found in any of the Eastern religions, and it cannot be coherently derived from naturalistic atheism, which provides no rational basis for human worth at all. Peter Singer and PETA correctly conclude that naturalism places humans on the same level as the animals, and B. F. Skinner was right to speak of “Beyond Freedom and Dignity,” on naturalistic premises.

And the Bible makes it clear we are all equal before God. “All have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift” (Rom. 3:23, 24). There is no partiality in God: see James 2:1-7 and Gal. 3:28 for starters, though it's actually embedded throughout the entire Bible.

Endowed with Rights

As for human rights, they are given us either by God or by government. The American Founders saw them as coming from God, and wisely so. For them, rights were about what persons could do without governmental power interfering. If rights come from government (court decisions, for example), there is no barrier protecting us from governmental overreach into our lives.

Again, however, only biblical religion provides any coherent explanation for God-given rights. No other major religion makes any suggestion of human rights. Secular atheism leaves us with only the government to protect us from the government. This is untenable in the long run, and will inevitably erode all freedoms.

Truth To Power

Christianity is good and true, as I have argued throughout the pages of this blog. It's the one system that provides a firm foundation for liberty, as I have tried to explain very briefly here. That means we must have freedom to exercise Christianity freely.

It does not mean that we ought to expect to have a Christian government. It doesn’t mean Christianity gets privileges above other religions. It certainly doesn't imply a theocracy. Rather it means we must have the freedom to develop and to practice our beliefs, both privately and publicly, so that the faith can thrive. To hold power institutionally as Christians is dangerous; history proves that. To hold it personally can be hugely helpful: witness Wilberforce and Kuyper, among other self-avowedly strong Christians.

Most of all, though, it is Christianity's duty to speak truth to power, as I said last time.

A Place for Christians to Stand

I write this being fully aware that non-believers are reading and will find some of it difficult to swallow. As long as I am convinced of Christianity's truth and goodness, however, I am committed to its truth and goodness in public matters. It would be wrong not to include it among the reasons for religious freedom.

But this wasn't written this time for those who disagree. It was for fellow believers, to encourage them to stand strong on the truth and goodness of Christianity, that they would know and practice it deeply and truly, and stay in close communion with our Creator and Redeemer — and support our continuing freedom to do so. It is for the good of each believer, the good of the faith, and yes, even the good of the countries in which we live.

 

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158 Responses to “ The Fourth — or First — Reason for Religious Freedom ”

  1. Thanks for the great article on freedom of religion. I think so often people use the idea of separation of church and state the wrong way. The state should definitely not endorse or enforce a particular faith, as you said, history shows how badly that always goes. But the direction our state seems to be going toward is that more and more the state frowns on anyone when they try to freely practice their religion. Thus the often pointed out distinction between “freedom of” and “freedom from” religion.

  2. Really an inspirational article on freedom of religion. Religious freedom is valuable to all people as it is one of the most essential liberty of all human liberties, . Yet it has special meaning for those groups that have at one time or another found themselves unpopular or vulnerable because of their religious convictions.

  3. Well said, Tom. You make two very obvious statements which so many seem so incapable of understanding.

    “The Bible makes it clear we are all created, first of all, and that being in the image of God we all have worth in God’s eyes. This is not found in any of the Eastern religions, and it cannot be coherently derived from naturalistic atheism, which provides no rational basis for human worth at all.”

    “Again, however, only biblical religion provides any coherent explanation for God-given rights. No other major religion makes any suggestion of human rights. Secular atheism leaves us with only the government to protect us from the government.”

    To put it as bluntly as possible. Either the Christian God exists and what He says about us in the Bible is true or we have no worth and we have no rights. There are many who want there to be no Christian God or Christian Bible. There seem to be far far fewer, however, who want us to have no worth or no rights.

  4. @BillT

    There seem to be far far fewer, however, who want us to have no worth or no rights.

    What do our wants have to do with what’s true or not true?

  5. I think David you missed my point. Let me put it this way. There are many who will deny the existance of God. There are few who will admit that position also denies their worth and their rights.

  6. Bill, Thanks a lot for clarifying that.

    I can’t speak for others who deny God, but for me, denying God does not deny my worth (I still find life worthwhile – more than worthwhile – amazing, awe inspiring, beautiful). I think human rights are a human construction that offer a useful way to think about others. So, for me, denying God does not lead to those consequences you describe.

    However, the point I was trying to make was that even if it did, that doesn’t say anything about its truth or falsity. You can want something to be true but that doesn’t make it true. People’s desires are irrelevant to the truth of the claim. Do you agree with that?

  7. “You can want something to be true but that doesn’t make it true. People’s desires are irrelevant to the truth of the claim. Do you agree with that?”

    Yes, David. Wanting something to be true doesn’t make it so. However, isn’t that more applicable to your statements than mine? You say, “I still find life worthwhile…” and “I think human rights are a human construction that offer a useful way to think about others. This worth and those rights you speak of are just your desires. However, wanting worth and rights to be true doesn’t make them so.

    You challenged me on the truth of my proposition but yet you hold these seminally important positions as mere personal desires. Those wants not only offer no assurance of their truth but, if your beliefs are correct, proof that they aren’t really true at all. For if there is no God, as you say, then worth and rights can only be personal wants which, as you correctly point out, makes them “irrelevant to the truth of the claim.”

    On the other hand, my position is just the opposite. I know, as I think everyone including yourself does, that the reality is that we do have worth. I know, as I think everyone including yourself does, that the reality is that we do have rights. But that cannot be true, as you’ve correctly pointed out, if those things are mere wants. Worth and rights exist only if there is a worth and rights giver. That worth and rights giver must be and is God.

  8. Bill,

    Let me try to clarify because we have different definitions of “worth” and mixing them is causing confusion.

    I believe that you can have self-worth that does not need someone else’s nod of approval. I also believe another way to have worth would be for humans to give each other worth.

    However, let us go with your concept of worth as absolute and God-given. I do not believe that I have that kind of worth. I have seen no compelling evidence to think it is true.

    You appear to like the idea. I do not.

    The thing is that it doesn’t matter whether we like the idea or not. It has no bearing on the truth or falsity of the idea.

    Evidence such as the size of the universe, the lifecycles of stars, artifacts of the process of evolution that brought us here, the brevity of man’s existence on the planet etc. suggest to me that we are just temporary freaks of nature and not meaningful.

    Many people would like to be meaningful and have some kind of absolute worth, but the evidence does not seem to support that notion (in my view). Wanting it to be true doesn’t make it true.

  9. Just to be clear, I am not disputing that there is much evidence for people’s desire to have meaning: the huge number of religions that have emerged throughout history, and the awe-filled, loving or ecstatic feelings some people experience through their beliefs are good examples. But evidence showing the strength and power of the desire to believe is not evidence that the beliefs are true.

  10. No, David, you miss the point. It’s not about “…whether we like the idea or not.” when it comes to our worth or rights. It’s not just about having a desire for them. We have worth and rights. You can try to deny them or say you can give them to yourself but that’s just nonsense. The worth you have you didn’t give to yourself. If it was it would be just a meaningless desire as you yourself have said. Your protestations proves the point I made above. You want to deny God but you can’t deny the reality of your own worth so you try and deny “that kind of worth” and make up some other way to have it. Your worth and the rights that flow from it are reality. Otherwise, as Dostoyevsky said, “anything is permissible” and you know it isn’t.

  11. Bill,

    In my view, you are mistaken in your analysis of my self-worth. My wants didn’t make it true directly, but caused me to take actions to make it true.

    Wanting something doesn’t make it true. Just because you want a glass of water in your hand doesn’t mean you have one in your hand.

    However, wanting it may cause you to take actions to make it happen so it does become true. When you have control over things you can take steps to turn your wants into reality. Do you agree?

    Many people want to feel self-worth, but do not. Wanting it does not mean you have it. However, as self-worth is under your control, you may take actions to turn it into reality.

    When your worth comes from something external, you do not have this luxury. You are at someone else’s mercy.

    You have a definition of “worth” that implies it is absolute and God-given and thus excludes the possibility of creating your own sense of worth. I don’t agree with this restrictive definition (nor does my dictionary!) and I have found no compelling evidence for it and significant evidence to the contrary.

    There is however evidence that supports the notion that many people strongly desire external validation from a supernatural power. That in no way supports the existence of a supernatural power though.

  12. We have worth and rights. You can try to deny them or say you can give them to yourself but that’s just nonsense. The worth you have you didn’t give to yourself. If it was it would be just a meaningless desire as you yourself have said.

    The worth I give to myself is indeed meaningless in the grand scheme of things, but that does not make it meaningless to me. The connection I have with others gives my life worth and meaning. It satisfies my human need for meaning in a way that does not require belief in the supernatural. I have seen no compelling evidence for the existence of God, and much evidence to the contrary, so that to me is the nonsense idea. I may wish to be part of some big plan, but wishes don’t make things true.

  13. Let me ask more directly. You are making a claim that we have absolute worth and rights. You make a second claim that this worth and these rights “must be” given to us by God. What evidence do you have to support these claims?

  14. @David P:

    What evidence do you have to support these claims?

    The question is addressed to BillT, but honestly, are you joking?

    From July 22, 2013 at 3:33 am:

    The worth I give to myself is indeed meaningless in the grand scheme of things, but that does not make it meaningless to me.

    So there is no such thing as inherent worth to human beings in general. It is even meaningless to ask for it. But in an act of pure wishful thinking you declare by fiat “I have worth” and then go on living as if that were true. You are playing make-believe. Fine; whatever gets you through the day. I will note however, that other people may disagree with you on your alleged worth and in *their* flights of imagination figure you as a worthless untermensch and then act in accordance with this belief to, as you put it, “make it true for them”.

    But here is what is *not* fine: to ask for evidence for *whatever* BillT claims. If you can, in a flight of fancy, figure yourself as having worth, by parity of reason BillT is within his rights to imagine there is a God that grants universal worth and rights to every human being. And then take actions to, as you put it, “make it true for him”.

    note: of course BillT does not believe in what I just wrote; I am just pointing out the irrationality of your claims.

  15. What evidence do you have to support these claims?

    If as you say “The worth I give to myself is indeed meaningless in the grand scheme of things, but that does not make it meaningless to me.” then no one has any real worth or rights. They are, as you say, human constructs and therefore hold no authority over anyone who chooses not to have them. If no real worth or rights exist then as Dostoyevsky said, “anything is permissible”. Is it? Is anything permissible? Is it ok for me to choose to torture children for my personal pleasure? If you can tell me I can then you’re right. If you can’t, I believe I have that evidence.

  16. Throughout history people have acted in ways that are not thinking of or valuing others’ needs, sometimes to devastating effect. Clearly humans do not have rights!

    Personally, I believe these people are/were short-sighted and that looking out for other people’s needs is a much better strategy for getting your own needs met. As well as the rational reasons there are also evolutionary and instinctive reasons – genes are more likely to be passed on if people aren’t killing each other left, right and center and are pulling together as a group or family. You see this in many animal communities. It’s also worth mentioning that some human children have grown up with and been looked after by apes.

  17. In terms of “anything is permissible”. There is no compelling evidence to suggest that there is an ultimate arbiter. So, in that sense, yes, anything is possible. Of course, modern societies have complex social rules of etiquette and legal systems, which establish boundaries of acceptability and penalties for transgression. So, in that sense, no, not everything is permissible.

  18. @G Rodrigues

    But in an act of pure wishful thinking you declare by fiat “I have worth” and then go on living as if that were true. You are playing make-believe. Fine; whatever gets you through the day.

    It is only wishful thinking if you apply a definition of “worth” that is absolute. I do not. My definition of worth is local and relative. Do I have such value? Yes, there are many people whose lives I enrich (and who enrich mine) my children, for example. When I go away they miss me.

    That’s the kind of meaning I care about. Real life meaning, not fantasy meaning, about being part of some supernatural plan, with no real evidence. That’s what I would call pure wishful thinking.

  19. “There is no compelling evidence to suggest that there is an ultimate arbiter. So, in that sense, yes, anything is possible.”

    So that’s it? As long a I can avoid the legal consequences of my actions you can articulate no reason that I shouldn’t torture children for my own personal pleasure. I just want to make absolutely sure that’s what you mean by the above.

    If so, I’ve got to say that’s one of the most appalling things I’ve ever heard. To be fair though, it’s completely consistent with an atheistic worldview. There are few that will so readily admit the complete moral nihilism that atheism entails. Congratulations. A point well made.

  20. You clearly didn’t read what I said. I actually said that “I believe … that looking out for other people’s needs is a much better strategy for getting your own needs met [than harming others’ needs]”.

    In my view, avoiding legal consequences is one of the last reasons for not torturing your children. I believe that people have human needs (actually desires) – physical and emotional health, security, meaning, freedom etc. In what way does torturing children help you achieve them? As far as I can see it is likely to harm pretty much all of them.

  21. “That’s the kind of meaning I care about. Real life meaning, not fantasy meaning, about being part of some supernatural plan, with no real evidence. That’s what I would call pure wishful thinking.”

    The kind of “real life” meaning that leaves you unable to articulate a reason why I shouldn’t torture children for my own personal pleasure. Yup. I’d have to say that’s about as “real” as it gets.

  22. Hang on, you’re the one who keeps bringing up the torturing of children for your own personal pleasure. Perhaps you can explain why you would find it so pleasurable?

    Are you telling me the only reason you don’t torture children is because of your faith? And if you didn’t have your faith, it’d be the first thing you’d do? You’d rush out and torture? And you’re lecturing me on morality!

    I have never even hit a child (except maybe when I was a kid and I fought with my brother). I find empathy and guidance a much more productive way to help children (and myself) to learn than imposing punishments. I spare the rod and love my children.

  23. So, I shouldn’t torture children for my own personal pleasure because not doing so “…is a much better strategy for getting your own needs met.” Wow! This is getting better by the minute. And not only is warmly sentimental view of human nature completely blood curdling but it completely misses one important point. What if torturing children for my own personal pleasure exactly meets the needs I have. Who are you to say that’s wrong? (And BTW David, this is a thought experiment not a personal confession.)

  24. David P

    My definition of worth is local and relative.

    You invented this out of thin air and this is supposed to make sense to people? You are playing make-believe, much like a child that pretends she can communicate with her dolls and stuffed animals. Her belief is “local and relative” just like yours. The sad thing is that you routinely drag others into your merry land of make-believe and ask that they also pretend that you have worth.

    It doesn’t have to be this way.

  25. @SteveK

    You’re totally right, that’s not my definition of worth. I used the wrong words. It’s part of my concept of human worth. A definition of “worth” itself from the free dictionary is “The quality that renders something desirable, useful, or valuable value.”

    In terms of my human worth, I am rendered desirable by my wife (so she leads me to believe) and valuable to my children (in terms of providing for their needs). In this case, it is not an absolute worth but a local and relative worth. That is what I’m getting at. Does that make sense?

    I am not actually denying that there is a possibility we have absolute worth. I just don’t see any significant evidence to support that idea. I’m open to it.

  26. I know it is only a thought experiment and I’m pretty sure you don’t really have any aspirations to torture children. I was only teasing. Please forgive me! I would like to answer your question:

    What if torturing children for my own personal pleasure exactly meets the needs I have. Who are you to say that’s wrong?

    I don’t think in terms of right and wrong. And I wouldn’t judge the person, only their ideas. I think in terms of helpful and unhelpful at meeting human needs.

    In my view, torturing children is not a human need. A human need is something we all desire – security, meaning, autonomy, health, excitement etc.

    Torturing children is a strategy for achieving one or more of those human needs. Perhaps the thinking is that by exerting this kind of power over the children, it makes you feel strong, or gives you excitement.

    What I would try to do is help you to think through the full consequences of your actions. And help you to find other ways to feel strong and get a sense of excitement that don’t have negative effects.

    There are people who bully others on a daily basis. This is their strategy (habit) and in some ways it works. It helps them achieve some of their needs, but they haven’t thought about the negative ramifications on their other needs, like the fact that people are scared of them which makes it harder to establish meaningful connections or that people want to “get them back” which makes life very dangerous (they don’t feel secure, which actually makes them want to bully more to feel stronger in a reinforcing loop. Being punished often also produces the same negative spiral).

    The point is by thinking of the consequences you can work out better strategies for achieving your needs. The wonderful thing is that helping others achieve their needs helps you achieve yours in a reinforcing loop that runs the other way. You don’t need the ten commandments. You can think for yourself.

  27. David P

    In terms of my human worth, I am rendered desirable by my wife (so she leads me to believe) and valuable to my children (in terms of providing for their needs). In this case, it is not an absolute worth but a local and relative worth. That is what I’m getting at. Does that make sense?

    It makes sense in the way I already stated it. You and your wife are admittedly playing make-believe and desperately want others to play along too, not because playing along has value/worth (it doesn’t), but because playing along makes you feel better.

    It doesn’t have to be this way.

  28. @SteveK

    I’m not sure I understand what bit is make-believe. Clearly, I can’t “see” my wife’s actual thoughts! I have to interpret the evidence that I collect with my senses and I may be deluding myself, but the fact we got married seems to suggest she sees some value in me, wouldn’t you agree?

    I’m not “desperate for others to play along too”. I’m merely describing the way that I have meaning and a sense of (self) worth in my life that does not require any reference to the supernatural.

  29. So you can’ tell me why or that torturing children is wrong. You said that before and I have to admit it’s at least an honest understanding of the logical manifestations of your atheistic worldview. It’s also terribly sad.

  30. David P

    I’m not sure I understand what bit is make-believe.

    You claim to know that you have no value/worth, but you are willing to play along with your wife’s belief that you do, much like a parent plays make-believe with their child.

  31. @BillT

    I find that using the words “wrong” or “bad” can easily make you start to judge the person as wrong or bad rather than their actions. I think if you label the person you only make the situation worse. You’ve called them a name. How does that help? I prefer to use empathy (building rapport and understanding why they are doing the action) and reason (helping them to see the full picture). It’s the opposite of sad! It’s wonderful.

  32. David P

    I’m not “desperate for others to play along too”.

    I’m willing to bet otherwise. Do you get hostile toward others that treat you as if you have no value/worth?

  33. @David P:

    It is only wishful thinking if you apply a definition of “worth” that is absolute. I do not. My definition of worth is local and relative. Do I have such value? Yes, there are many people whose lives I enrich (and who enrich mine) my children, for example. When I go away they miss me.

    Please, spare me your silliness. You said and I repeat the quote:

    From July 22, 2013 at 3:33 am:

    The worth I give to myself is indeed meaningless in the grand scheme of things, but that does not make it meaningless to me.

    So any worth you have is borne out of an act of your own subjective will, with absolutely *no* objective correlative, that is, in the order of reality, corresponding to it. This is the very definition of wishful thinking; of playing make-believe. And whether your children will miss you or not, it is completely irrelevant, because the very fact that they will miss you is itself a subjective act of *their* own will, but what value should anyone grant to your *children’s* feelings? None, by your own admission.

    Not only you are pretending, you are pretending that you are not pretending. And yet you have the chutzpah to talk about “Real life meaning, not fantasy meaning, about being part of some supernatural plan, with no real evidence. That’s what I would call pure wishful thinking.”

    In terms of “anything is permissible”. There is no compelling evidence to suggest that there is an ultimate arbiter. So, in that sense, yes, anything is possible.

    Discussion’s over; that is all we need to know about what your position entails. Everything is permitted, the only barrier being what a given society declares good or not. If you are living in a modern, western society you are probably OK. If you are a Jew in the Nazi society of 1930-40’s, well tough luck. Off to the gas chamber with you.

  34. @SteveK

    I don’t believe I have your concept of worth (a God-given version).

    I do believe I have my concept of worth (based on the dictionary definition) that is I believe I have qualities that render me “desirable, useful, and of valuable value”.

    It’s no more make-believe than your belief you are wearing clothes. Your senses tell you it and other (independent) people would give you strong signals if you weren’t.

  35. @Steve K

    I’m willing to bet otherwise. Do you get hostile toward others that treat you as if you have no value/worth?

    Sometimes yes, of course, but usually I try to empathise and understand why they might be treating me that way (what are they trying to achieve?). I don’t derive my self-worth from other people’s opinions of me. If I found out my wife had been pretending all these years, I would be astonished and extremely upset, but my self-worth does not actually come from my wife. It comes from my thoughts and they are under my influence.

  36. @G Rodrigues

    Discussion’s over; that is all we need to know about what your position entails. Everything is permitted, the only barrier being what a given society declares good or not. If you are living in a modern, western society you are probably OK. If you are a Jew in the Nazi society of 1930-40’s, well tough luck. Off to the gas chamber with you.

    Don’t you see that you have just demonstrated that what I am saying is the real world and what you are talking about is the imaginary world?

    The holocaust shows clearly that humans do not have rights (other humans can trample over them) and that society (humans) decide the rules. You can deny it, if you like, but that is reality.

  37. David P

    It’s no more make-believe than your belief you are wearing clothes. Your senses tell you it and other (independent) people would give you strong signals if you weren’t.

    If you are really getting sense data “telling” you that you have value/worth then the conclusion is you didn’t make it up and you are not playing make-believe. But that would mean the notion of value/worth originated, not from your mind, but from a source that is beyond your mind. It would also mean that this notion is objective. Other people’s opinions about you is irrelevant here. Who or what you are is not subject to change according to daily opinion.

  38. David P

    It comes from my thoughts and they are under my influence.

    I’m confused. Earlier you said that your senses tell you that you have worth/value. That’s how I understood your comment in #36. If that is true then your self-worth does not come from your thoughts.

    On the other hand, if your self-worth does originate from your thoughts then you are indeed playing make-believe in the same way that a child does.

    It’s one or the other.

  39. @SteveK

    My senses aren’t telling me directly that I have value, they’re giving me sounds like my wife saying “I love you” or vision of my kids smiling at me. From those kinds of signals over time, I use induction to build a mental model that says “they value me”. I test that model everyday and so far it seems to hold as a good working theory. I’m always ready to change or improve that model, though, if different evidence crops up.

  40. @David P:

    Don’t you see that you have just demonstrated that what I am saying is the real world and what you are talking about is the imaginary world?

    Sigh.

    Look up reductio ad absurdum.

  41. David P @41
    Opinions determine the reality of who or what you ARE, as if that reality is up for popular vote? You ought to rethink that and I hope this simple example demonstrates why it’s so wrong-headed.

    Suppose the opinion of most people changed overnight such that trees where thought to be dogs. As far are reality is concerned, would a tree actually be a dog (exist as a dog)? Could human opinion define the concept of ‘tree’ out of existence overnight such that trees failed to exist because people simply willed it with their mind?

  42. Yes, David, what a terrible thing it would be to judge someone who was torturing children for his personal pleasure. But as terrible as it might be I’m not sure it isn’t worse not to have the moral language and convictions not to.

  43. Words are not the objects!

    If the concept of “tree” disappeared overnight, it doesn’t affect the actual physical objects. The concept of “tree” is an abstraction that humans have created to express a set of sensory perceptions.

    All our thoughts are based on sensory data we collect. You are reading this now on a computer screen using your eyes. Your eyes are detecting light emitted from the screen and sending electrical signals to your brain. Your brain is intepreting those signals and turning them into words. The words conjure up thoughts created by previous sensory perceptions. All the vocabulary you have learned got into your brain via your eyes or your ears or other sensory perceptions.

    Your brain tries to make sense of all this data. There is so much input, it has to take shortcuts so it can easily make mistakes. However, when other people (with their own brains) independently seem to think the same way as you then you can be more confident that your mind was not playing tricks. Of course you could all be misled, the way a magician misleads an entire audience.

    So my thinking is not based on the “popular vote” but I do value other people’s thoughts because they are outside of me and have different perceptions of the world. Then I make my own decisions about how to interpret what they have said and the truth of it. A good mental model is testable, so you can go out, make a prediction, conduct an experiment and see if it was right. If not, you revise the model.

    That’s the process. Sorry this was a long post, but I wanted to explain it in more depth.

  44. @BillT

    Fortunately, I’ve never had to deal with someone who has tortured children. And maybe I would not be able to withhold judgment – especially if it were my kids he’d tortured! Empathy would be my ideal way to approach it, though, for me, because I think calling people names doesn’t help change anything. And hating only hurts you.

  45. David P @46

    My takeaway from #46 is that you subscribe to the concept of value/worth in the objective sense, but you’ve said the opposite elsewhere so I remain confused.

  46. I think we both agree that child torture is highly undesirable. What I don’t understand is what additional benefits come from calling it “evil”? Does that improve the situation?

  47. @SteveK

    Maybe the confusion is between the words objective and absolute?

    I was disagreeing with the concept of “absolute” worth determined by a supernatural being.

    I’m all for evidence and the more objective the better.

  48. I understand saying that a situation is desireable, David P. What I don’t understand is what additional benefit comes from calling a situation “improved”,

  49. I was disagreeing with the concept of “absolute” worth determined by a supernatural being.

    That doesn’t help me sort out my confusion. Do you subscribe to the concept of human value/worth in the objective sense?

  50. @SteveK

    Sorry, Steve, I’d like to answer this, but I’m not quite sure what you mean. Can you give an example?

  51. David, not being able to identify good from evil or even understand the reality that those things exist is problematic in general. What has replaced it is the moral relevancy that permeates our present culture. The kind moral relevancy that has people confused (as was widely reported) as to whether it was evil to fly planes into the World Trade Centers. Further, without being able to identify things as evil on what gounds will you “improve” the situation. If people don’t know things are wrong why would they be motivated to improve them.

  52. If you tell a Muslim he is evil, is he more likely to listen to what you have to say and be motivated to change his actions to meet your needs? I don’t think so. It will only make his resolve and faith stronger.

    The guys who flew planes into the Twin Towers had good reasons for doing it from their point of view. They had their own ideas about good and evil. In their minds, America is evil.

    Talking in terms of good and evil will get nowhere because each “side” has its own definitions. That is why I suggest thinking in terms of basic human needs – something that all sides can agree on – and finding ways forward where everyone’s needs can be met.

    Empathy is the key here to addressing the issue, in my view, not painting them as “evil” and thus preventing yourself from seeing things from their point of view.

  53. And there you have it. They “..had good reasons for doing it from their point of view.” And we should have “empathy” for “their point of view” even if that view involves murdering a few thousand people.

  54. I’d like to answer this, but I’m not quite sure what you mean. Can you give an example?

    You know what ‘absolute’ means but can’t seem to figure out what objective means?

    Very briefly, an objective propositional truth statement is a statement about some object in question that must either be true or false in the same way and at the same time, and cannot be both true and false in the same way and at the same time.

    Ex: The statement “that rock is rolling” is an objective propositional truth statement that is either true or false. You may first have to work out what the various terms mean, but when used in a consistent manner between different people, that statement is either true or false at any given time.

    There is only one reality so there can only one truth when we are discussing it from the same perspective (hence the need to use the same meanings)

    “David P has value” is the same kind of objective statement. The only way it can possibly be both true and false at the same time is if different people are assigning different meanings to the various terms in the proposition – but then we are working with at least two different propositional statements about truth and there is no conflict.

    Note that the requirement for objectivity has not gone away. The new statement they’ve just created using different meanings for the various terms – which are different than your terms – this new statement must also be objectively true or false the way they’ve stated it.

    Saying “from my perspective X is true” isn’t some kind of magic response that get’s you off the hook. Your perception of your perspective is either accurate or it is not.

  55. So in summary. You can’t tell me why it’s wrong for someone to torture children for their personal pleasure and there can be “good” (given you admit you don’t know the meaning of this word in this context) reasons for murdering a few thousand people.

  56. @SteveK
    Thanks for the explanation. I think that an observer could objectively determine that I provide value to my children. There is evidence to that effect, if we define value as helping to support their needs.

  57. @BillT
    Am I right that you believe that trying to understand the thought process of (say) a terrorist is a complete waste of time and no insight could be drawn from such analysis? Or is it more that you are worried that doing so would be a disservice to people who have been killed by terrorists?

  58. David P,

    I think that an observer could objectively determine that I provide value to my children.

    Agreed, but not under your current system of belief. There’s nothing to “see” in a universe completely devoid of value.

    There is evidence to that effect, if we define value as helping to support their needs.

    Agreeing to the definitions is only part of the process. The propositional statement that results must be objectively true or false within the context of those definitions.

    What do you mean by “helping to support their needs”? I hope you don’t mind me assuming a definition for you after reading your past comments. I’d say that you would define it in this context as “that which agrees with the desires of X”, where X is some person or persons (including your children). If I’m way off base then correct me.

    If I’m on the right track then we have to analyze that propositional statement. Here is is.

    “Providing value to my children is providing that which agrees with the desires of some person or persons”

    That CAN be objectively true, but I can think of many instances where that is NOT true. Clearly the propositional statement is incomplete. You’re missing something, but what? You need a way to sort out which desires are of value and which are not, which needs are of value and which are not.

    How would you alter the proposition so that it would be objectively true for everyone?

  59. @SteveK
    How about needs as in what is needed to survive – things like food, water, and shelter?

    @BillT
    You said “neither” in response to my previous question. I just want to confirm: Do you agree that we may get insight by trying to understand the thinking of terrorists? Do you agree that doing such an analysis does not necessarily do a disservice to those killed by terrorists?

    Can you also see that, from the terrorist’s point of view, he is on the side of good and the target of his terror is on the side of evil? And, if so, does this not suggest that good/evil are subjective? If not, why not?

  60. David,

    Are you concerned that if we don’t know the difference between good and evil, you wouldn’t have any way of identifying something terrible if it did happen?

  61. @Tom

    No, I am not concerned by that issue. We can easily identify when our human needs (desires) are not being met because our feelings tell us. For example, if we are feeling anxious, it indicates our need for “security” is not being met. Every feeling is a message, if we listen to it. Using empathy, we can tune into others’ feelings and understand their unmet needs behind them.

  62. These are all things you say we can do. But we cannot discern what is good, on the basis of what you have said, can we? For example: Is it good or not good to allow same-sex couples to enter into legal marriage? If the answer is “it is good,” or if the answer is, “this meets some need or desire,” then that implies that the vast, vast, vast majority of humans throughout history have been unable to discern what is good, what is needed, what meets actual and real desires.

    Or if such “marriage” is really wrong, then millions today who support such “marriage” are misguided and wrong (which I believe to be the case). Either way, your system provides no confidence that the good can be accurately identified, on the basis of needs or desires.

    Or if the question is whether slavery is a social good that meets real needs and desires, then in virtually every society where (a) economic conditions permitted slaveholding and (b) Christianity had little influence, humans were unable to do what you claim. For in virtually every such society, slavery was widely approved of. (Though it’s parenthetical to the current discussion, it’s worth noting that in societies where slaveholding has been eliminated or has become deprecated, the usual cause for that change has been biblical beliefs about the nature of humans.)

    If so many people have been so wrong for so long, then your conclusion ought to be that it’s exceedingly likely that you are just as desperately wrong about major points of ethical opinion.

    What you’re displaying, David, is a charming yet dangerous naivete that takes it as given that 21st century liberal norms for interpersonal relations are the obvious and clear conclusions of empathetic interpersonal awareness, and that such awareness will lead to knowledge of the good. The former exhibits chronological snobbery, the belief that now is always better than yesterday; the second exhibits blindness to the realities of human failings.

    And in any event, you make an unjustified leap when you equate human desire with ethical goodness. You can make a case that some event is undesired (by some humans, at least). You can’t make a case that it is therefore terrible. You have no ground for defining good and evil.

    And you also have no grounds for adjudicating differences of desires or “needs.” You can make a case that Westerners didn’t like 9/11. You can’t make a case that it was terrible. Not while thousands or perhaps millions hold that it met their needs and their desires.

  63. You ask BillT,

    Can you also see that, from the terrorist’s point of view, he is on the side of good and the target of his terror is on the side of evil? And, if so, does this not suggest that good/evil are subjective? If not, why not?

    The clear answer is this: terrorism is evil. The terrorist is wrong. To deny or to doubt that is to be morally blind.

    It seems to me that the objective evil of terrorism is so obvious that only one thing could cause someone like you to make it “subjective:” you have to make it subjective in order to fit it into a godless view of the world. But to do this is to close your eyes to what you know to be true: terrorism is wrong.

    I don’t have to argue that case. You know it’s true.

    The only thing I have to argue is this: that whatever led you to deny what you know is true, you need not hold on to it so tightly. You ought to feel the freedom to let it go, since it’s causing you to distort your view of reality so badly. There’s no need to stay in that strange and contorted ethical position. Let it go!

  64. @Tom

    You have raised a number of points, some of which I have touched on in previous comments. I’m explicitly avoiding words like “good”, “evil”, “terrible” as they tend to put blockers on empathy.

    In my view, marriage is a strategy for meeting human needs of connection, stability, meaning, sexual satisfaction etc. It may surprise you, but homosexuals have these needs too! There are lots of potential alternative strategies to meet the needs, but the needs don’t go away.

    The model is in terms of these type of fundamental human needs we all share. The aim is to achieve them for everyone, based on the realization that helping others helps us because we are all connected. If part of society feels their needs are not being met, this will sooner or later have negative consequences for the rest of society.

  65. @Tom
    Can you understand why people might resort to terrorism? I’m interested whether you can empathise or whether I am correct in my view that the label of “evil” blocks empathy.

  66. David P,

    How about needs as in what is needed to survive – things like food, water, and shelter?

    You haven’t resolved the problem I mentioned at the end of #63 – we don’t know which desires are valuable and which are not.

    We do know that there are instances where providing value to your children means denying them food, water or shelter for some period of time. There are other times when this would NOT be providing value to your children.

    Which desires do we follow and why?

  67. @SteveK
    How about we define an evaluation rule as follows: if they complain about being hungry or thirsty for more than 48 hours, I am not meeting their needs for food and water (based on the assumptions that humans need to eat and drink regularly in order to survive and will complain if these needs are not met).

  68. Arbitrary, and still doesn’t resolve the underlying problem. I’m assuming, based on your prior comments, that you think a propositional statement about value/worth is objectively true or false, but not both, as I outlined earlier. If you disagree with that, now is the time to say something.

  69. @SteveK
    I could build up a set of these kind of metrics. You might want to read Competitive Engineering by Tom Gilb. However, if you won’t allow me to use binary decision rules on the grounds that they’re “arbitrary”, I would say no! I actually tried to give a justification for that metric in terms of human survival needs.

    Anyway, it doesn’t particularly worry me whether my value relationship with my kids is formally objective. If I asked any of my friends and family whether they believed it existed they would think I was mad to even ask. There is significant evidence to support it. In the real world that is all we can go on: evidence arriving through our senses and the brain’s remarkable ability to make sense of it.

  70. I may be misguided but my impression of Jesus is of a compassionate individual who taught us not to judge but to have compassion for everyone – our “enemies” included.

    Romans 12:20 … if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink;

    If that isn’t about empathising with others’ needs and taking actions to help meet them, I don’t know what is. This is all I’m trying to say. I don’t think it contradicts the teachings of the Bible.

    Matthew 6:14-15 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses

  71. David @71,

    Of course I can understand why people would commit terrorism. They’re angry, they feel blocked in accomplishing their objectives by other means, they want their cause to gain attention, they have a mistaken belief that their god wants them to do it — there are many potential reasons.

    Can you understand why committing terrorism is wrong? You say you’ve been avoiding certain words like “wrong.” I say that the reason you’re doing that is not because you don’t see the wrongness of terrorism, it’s because you’re trying to force-fit your godless, ethically relative map of reality on top of a world that exhibits real good and real evil anyway. The only way you can try to do that is by ejecting certain words from your public vocabulary. Inside, though, you know that terrorism is wrong.

    It’s wrong — and you know it — even though terrorists can list reasons for their actions.

  72. Your second paragraph in #70, David, misses the point entirely. Please re-read what I said about gay “marriage” in #69.

    It’s not about whether your view is empathetic or mine is not. (It’s also not about how condescendingly you can communicate with me about it.) It’s about whether persons like you and me can have any confidence whatsoever today concerning our ethical opinions (on your system of ethics, that is), given that so many people seem to have been so ignorantly wrong for so long. Why think that you’re any better than they were?

  73. David @#76: of course that’s true of Jesus. Do you believe, however, that it is the whole truth about Jesus? Do you believe that his empathy precluded him reaching the conclusion that some things were wrong?

    If so, then I suggest you go back to the original source materials.

  74. I was just reflecting more on what you have been saying, David, and I want to express my empathy toward you. You live in a world from which “good” and “evil” have been ejected. Nothing “terrible” can happen, nothing “good.” This seems terribly sad to me. One who cannot experience good or evil for what they are is one whose experience is leveled out to the point it seems it must be bland.

    You accept that there are experiences “desired” and “undesired.” This is a poor substitute for good and evil: it dehumanizes us. The same thing could be said of the animals, who can also have desired and undesired experiences. I think it’s fairly common to conclude that animals have no ethical dimension to their actions: the lion is not murdering the antelope, it’s just killing it to eat. You’re bringing our ethical lives down to the same level.

    The word “empathy” is no escape, for it is only your chosen means of accomplishing “desire.” “Desire” remains the ultimate goal. You have eliminated the ethical dimension, you have (tragically) leveled out good and evil, you have replaced them with the same kind of thing that describes animal amorality. Leveling and dehumanizing. I think that must be sad for you to live life that way.

    Except for this: I am quite sure that this is only your public doctrine. Inside, David, I am quite sure your life is much more rich than that. I only wish you wouldn’t try to squash that richness down from the outside.

  75. I’m sorry you took that remark as condescending. It was supposed to be facetious!

    I’m glad that you can empathize with terrorists. Maybe I don’t need to be so careful about my use of the words “right” and “wrong” after all!

    Let me suggest a rough direction of a definition of a “wrong” action: an action that compromises your human needs or others’ human needs. I know this is not a perfect definition because it still requires some level of judgment as to what is a human need and when a need has been compromised. In practice, our feelings and empathy of others feelings can guide us here. We can imagine how we would feel in their position.

    Under this definition, it is obvious that slavery is wrong as it severely compromises the human need of autonomy for the slaves. Terrorism is wrong too because it severely compromises the human need for security.

  76. David P,
    You and Tom are discussing the same thing as you and I, and Tom is doing a much better job at getting to the point and making the same points I eventually wish to make.

    For example, this from Tom

    You say you’ve been avoiding certain words like “wrong.” I say that the reason you’re doing that is not because you don’t see the wrongness of terrorism, it’s because you’re trying to force-fit your godless, ethically relative map of reality on top of a world that exhibits real good and real evil anyway. The only way you can try to do that is by ejecting certain words from your public vocabulary. Inside, though, you know that terrorism is wrong.

    and this

    You accept that there are experiences “desired” and “undesired.” This is a poor substitute for good and evil: it dehumanizes us.

    and this

    The word “empathy” is no escape, for it is only your chosen means of accomplishing “desire.” “Desire” remains the ultimate goal. You have eliminated the ethical dimension, you have (tragically) leveled out good and evil, you have replaced them with the same kind of thing that describes animal amorality. Leveling and dehumanizing.

    In my own convoluted and roundabout way, I have been trying to say the same thing. Your moral system leaves you unable to distinguish between a morally good desire and a morally evil desire – because you’ve defined “the good” in terms of desire.

    But not all desires are good and not all undesirables are evil!! You have competing desires with no objective way to sort them out.

    The good news is that you KNOW that some desires are objectively good and some are objectively evil. I know this because you said that we can “see” the evidence for this and that we didn’t make it up (we aren’t playing make-believe). But how are you going to make room for objective good and evil in your moral system? That remains the challenge.

    For now, I will mostly stand to the side and not comment very often (I hope) so that you and Tom can continue.

  77. We all share the same ultimate desires for meaning, security, freedom, autonomy, health, connection, dignity, and excitement. Different people may have different strengths of desire for each of them, but all humans share those desires to some extent.

    Do you agree with this?

  78. “We all share the same ultimate desires for meaning, security, freedom, autonomy, health, connection, dignity, and excitement.”

    Why do you think that is David? I mean many of those things have nothing to do with the propagation of the species. Many are of a metaphysical nature. You take a lot of “human nature” for granted without being able to account for it. What makes us all desire these same things?

  79. The question of why is an interesting one, but can we start with whether the observation seems to ring true at least in a general sense. Or, if you find it easier to answer, in the specific case of your own life:

    Do you feel, or have you ever felt, any of these desires: to feel secure (not to feel in danger), to have meaning (not to feel your life is meaningless), to have connection to other people (not to feel isolated), to have a sense of freedom and autonomy, to be healthy, to be treated with a certain amount of dignity, to have some fun and excitement in your life?

    Which of these desires have you felt and which have you not felt?

  80. I have felt all of these, obviously. Just so you are made aware, David, you are not aiming this in any new direction, at least not so far.

  81. @Tom
    True, but it may be new to some. I was actually addressing SteveK’s comment where he tells me:

    The good news is that you KNOW that some desires are objectively good and some are objectively evil.

    With regard to these desires (meaning, security, freedom, autonomy, health, connection, dignity, and excitement) which of them are objectively good and which are objectively evil? If he believes, as he seems to be suggesting, there are objective criteria then presumably it’s possible to determine this?

  82. They’re all good. They’re all part of the package God created us in, when he created us in his image.

    It’s possible to express or to pursue them in a corrupt manner, but it’s not the desire that’s evil in that case, it’s the corruption thereof.

    C.S. Lewis has some great thoughts on this in his Screwtape Letters. Perhaps you already know this, but these are Lewis’s fictional letters from the experienced demon Screwtape to his nephew, the demon-in-training Wormwood. “The Enemy” here is God, and “Our Father” is Satan:

    Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s ground. I know we have won many a soul through pleasure. All the same, it is His invention, not ours. He made the pleasures: all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one. All we can do is to encourage the human to take the pleasure which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden. Hence we always try to work away from the natural condition of any pleasure to that in which it is least natural, least redolent of its Maker, and least pleasurable. An ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure is the formula. It is more certain; and it’s better style. To get the man’s souls and give him nothing in return — that is what really gladdens Our Father’s Heart.

    Better yet, see here.

    I think you can see that the same thing is true of your list of needs and desires as is true of pleasures.

  83. I hope I’m not getting in SteveK’s way. I happen to know that he’s probably not up yet in his time zone. I’ll step aside in a bit.

  84. Exactly! It’s not the human desires that are the problem, it’s the way we go about achieving them that causes problems.

    Personally, I don’t see compelling evidence for a God having had a hand in creating these desires. But I’m not going to try to change your mind on that topic as I suspect that will go nowhere very fast!

    I think the nice thing about a model of compassion based on these human desires is that we can agree on it, regardless of whether we believe the desires were created by God or not (or which flavor of god). Do you think this could be a step in a direction for people of different faiths and no faiths to work together for the benefit of everyone? I imagine the devil’s in the detail!

    [By the way, I know that you like God to be capitalized, should “devil” also be capitalized or do you prefer not? I’m assuming not.]

  85. “Devil” should be capitalized when it’s being used as a proper noun, which it wasn’t in this case. Thanks for asking.

    We can agree on “a model of compassion,” but to base it just on these desires is impossible. It has to be based also in truth. Otherwise you will have, for example, Hindu Brahmins believing that the best thing to do for the Dalits is to leave them in their oppressed condition, since (so they think) the Dalits are living out their lot in this life as they ought to be. Or you will have some Muslims thinking that their God is glorified and great good is done by their killing the infidels. You’ll have others thinking that the human race would be best served in the long run, and human flourishing would be maximized, by giving evolution a hand through eugenic manipulations: sterilizing the “feeble,” eliminating the “lesser races,” and so on.

    Does your philosophy have the moral and ethical resources to tell them they’re not being compassionate? Don’t answer too quickly: they have reasons for thinking they’re doing the right thing. Are their reasons wrong? If you think so, then you’re moving from a compassion model to a truth-and-compassion model.

    And what is it that’s true about humans that ought to undergird our ethics? You can’t skip that step.

  86. Tom said

    It’s possible to express or to pursue them in a corrupt manner, but it’s not the desire that’s evil in that case, it’s the corruption thereof.

    I’ve never considered this before and don’t think I can agree that desires are not ever evil. The Bible speaks of a man’s heart being wicked and impure, not just the outward expression or pursuit of his heart.

    For example, Colossians 3:5 – “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.”

  87. David P

    With regard to these desires (meaning, security, freedom, autonomy, health, connection, dignity, and excitement) which of them are objectively good and which are objectively evil?

    There’s nothing necessarily evil about any of these on your list. The desire to abort your baby because the child will make life inconvenient for you – that is an evil desire. The desire is evil the moment you embrace it as good and worthy to be pursued. Living it out is the outward expression of your evil desire.

  88. David P

    Exactly! It’s not the human desires that are the problem, it’s the way we go about achieving them that causes problems.

    Huh?

    What you’re saying is that killers don’t hope to murder their victims before they do it. Murder is the result of something the killer never wished for or hoped for. You’re saying that there’s no moral difference between desires that are expressed verbally – that “I hope you die a miserable death” and “I hope you have a great day” are both morally good desires.

    *sigh*

  89. I would say that the “desire” that leads to murder is a corruption of a good desire, say the desire for personal freedom, or for sufficient goods to live upon, or for love. It is an extreme corruption. But it is not a desire that’s associated with a novel pleasure invented by humans or Satan. It’s a desire for a true pleasure, but a false — extremely — method of approaching that pleasure.

    Desires then can be associated with false pursuits of true pleasures. In that sense, desires can be false, evil, wrong, or whatever you want to call it. I’ll agree with SteveK on that. I was careless in mixing the terms desire and pleasure earlier.

  90. Right, the word desire can be used to talk about lower-level actions (strategies) such as having a desire to kill. The desires I was talking about and listing are higher-level desires (at one point I called them “ultimate desires”). They’re essentially desires we all share and all our actions can be connected to them. A desire to kill may be motivated by a desire for excitement or, in the case of terrorists, perhaps a desire for freedom. The ultimate desires are not “wrong”, but the strategies are when they trample over other people’s desires. The ideal situation in this model is to find a way that everyone’s ultimate desires can be met. That job is much harder when people are wedded to specific strategies.

  91. How about this model, David: love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul and love your neighbor as yourself?

  92. That may be a great model for a Christian believer, but it’s not so useful for someone who doesn’t believe God exists or has a different faith! I like the part about loving your neighbor, especially if that really means all humans on the Earth, even the “evil” ones. The “love the Lord your God” part is the religious freedom that the First Amendment to the Constitution protects, as Tom alluded to in the original article. Personally, I’m not a believer in the supernatural but I would strongly defend your right to believe whatever you want.

  93. David P,

    I would suggest that our “higher order” desires are actually a reflection of the ends for which we were created (although you missed the highest end – to know and glorify God). If this is the case then it makes sense to control our desires for those things that might frustrate our natural ends because the only way to live the truly good life is to live in a way that is consistent with reality and fulfils our natural ends.

    For the atheist there is no objective meaning of the good life, and therefore I think it is a bit premature for you to declare that disagreement over morality are just due to the wrong strategies being deployed to attain our desires. It is also premature to declare that some desires are higher-order and should be given precedence and be called ultimate.

    The ultimate desires are not “wrong”, but the strategies are when they trample over other people’s desires. The ideal situation in this model is to find a way that everyone’s ultimate desires can be met.

    What is you reasoning behind this statement?

  94. The process that corrupts good things is our taking those good things and making them into ultimate things. This can be seen the the Biblical understanding that tells us that the love of money is the root of all evil. The word love in that verse is the Greek word epithumia literally translated as over desire. It’s the over desire for money that is the root of all evil. It’s the over desire for any of the good things that have been mentioned that lead us to bad behavior. When we take those good things and make them the ultimate things in our life, something that only God should be, those things inevitably fail us and lead us to bad results or behaviors.

  95. Melissa, I would suggest that “to know and glorify God” is a strategy for achieving meaning, security, dignity and connection. If you prefer to place that strategy above the other desires in your personal model that is fine too, but it is not a goal or desire we all share. I have no desire to glorify God, as I don’t believe He exists.

    In terms of the reasoning behind the ideal situation. It just seems obvious to me that the world would be a better place if we all felt secure, and so on. – i.e. win/win and not win/lose. It is my view that when situations are win/lose they sooner or later deteriorate into lose/lose. I am also not talking about morality, but compassion and empathy – being able to see things from other’s point of view.

    @BillT
    Perhaps “fundamental” is a better word than “ultimate”. The only thing I’m trying to get across is that we all share those desires. Money, for example, is not a fundamental desire as some people don’t share the desire.

    Still, I agree that we can desire too much of any of the desires if doing so compromises other desires. For example, if you desire so much “security” in your life that you don’t go out of the house because it’s too risky then that may compromise your ability to connect in meaningful ways with other people. In practice, I believe there is a wide “good enough” level of each of the desires, beneath that band of “good enough” there are negative consequences and beyond it there are also negative consequences. The exception is perhaps “meaning” for which there may be no upper limit to the “good enough” band.

    (Melissa, perhaps you can mentally translate my abstract concept of “meaning” into your more specific version “to know and glorify God”).

  96. The assertion about “the ideal situation” is my own view – potentially my own moral compass telling me that – and, as you point out, it may not be a universal belief.

    The model itself does not require you to believe that. The model is only to help understand why people might be doing things – that if you look hard enough you can find there are positive intentions behind all actions, even actions you might deem to be evil. I find it makes it easier to think well of people and not to rush to judgment of the person, only their actions.

    It is still only a theoretical model, but I find it helps me not only to understand people’s actions and reactions but also to predict how people might react to something – e.g. if their security or dignity is severely threatened then the model predicts they will be resistant to it. If you have a model that offers better predictions then I would be very interested to hear about it.

  97. David P,

    My first paragraph in #103 was to give you a quick sketch of how our common desires fit into a theistic description of morality.

    The model itself does not require you to believe that. The model is only to help understand why people might be doing things – that if you look hard enough you can find there are positive intentions behind all actions, even actions you might deem to be evil. I find it makes it easier to think well of people and not to rush to judgment of the person, only their actions.

    And the Christian understanding of morality certainly doesn’t preclude that happening either, and without the inherent weaknesses of your model. How do you judge someone’s actions when there is no good or bad, right or wrong? Your model gives understanding, and possibly predictive power in a very limited sense, because it is close to the truth about reality but is missing important parts of the full picture.

    But that is a slight change of subject because moral theory isn’t a science and as such is not about making predictions but about what is good for human beings. You claim there is no good and yet you still admit passing judgement on people’s actions. Now, I’m presuming you mean you are judging them as good or bad according to your personal desires, but I also presume that you support preventing people from acting on certain desires, such as the desire to murder. For the Christian protecting the weak is a moral good and also by preventing someone from acting on desires that are bad we do them good too. You on the other hand you seem quite happy to impose your own personal desires on to other people for no clear reason. Arguing that the majority agree with you is no help because that just amounts to the tyranny of the majority.

    You see clearly that there is good and bad, but they don’t fit into your model of reality. Why don’t you relook at your model of reality, instead of denying what you know to be true?

  98. Sorry, Melissa, I don’t know what you are getting at. I explained previously (#81) how I judge a person’s actions “good” or “bad” in terms of the consequences on the fundamental desires of everyone affected by it. And yes, I would support intervention to prevent someone acting in ways that are harmful to others. Not with the intention of punishing the person, but with the intention of protecting people’s needs, including that person’s.

  99. Might makes right? Can you give an example because this sounds like the opposite of what I’m trying to say. In my thinking, it is critical for mighty people / groups / nations to consider the effect of their actions on others and find actions that help others as well (win/win).

  100. Who decides what is “harmful”? (Recall the discussion above concerning how controversial this can be.) And who intervenes to prevent harm being done? Turns out in every practical situation the answer looks like this:

    The one who has the power to intervene is the one who intervenes. That person or group is of course also the one responsible to decide what is “harmful.” So the power to decide what is harmful or not (or, wrong or not) has no association with wisdom or truth, but rather with power to intervene.

  101. David P,

    There is no right, therefore in practice what the powerful prefer is what will be deemed right and will be enforced. Take for instance the potential murderer, you admit you support the enforcement of your preferences and felt needs to the exclusion of the murderer’s. To justify your position you cannot appeal to objective needs or objective good, there is only personal desires. ie. Your desires trump the potential murderer’s desires for no good reason.

  102. Tom,

    I’ve just finished reading a book which is relevant to the OP and the calls to exclude religious reasons from the political arena which I thought you and your readers may find worth reading (if you haven’t already). Miroslav Volf’s “A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ should serve the common good.” It’s not too long but has some quite insightful comments on secular culture, how the exercise of Christian faith can misfire and how we might constructively engage with others.

  103. I freely admit that it may not always be easy. The aim is never to exert force over people to get your own way but to find solutions that help them get what they need without harming your interests. To do this you need to empathize with yourself and then and be flexible: don’t get wedded to particular positions and strategies; instead, determine what higher-level objectives you and they have and come up with a strategy that achieves all those objectives (in many cases, you don’t have to do this on your own – you can talk to other people and discover their needs). In my view, win/win is the only way that works in the long-run, and imposing a win/lose always backfires and causes lose/lose eventually.

    There is “right” and it is never when one side wins against the other, but when both sides win – in their own perceptions.

    The chief difficulty is when a side takes an inflexible position (e.g. for traditional or religious reasons, such as the Brahmins you mentioned) and loses empathy with others; that makes a win/win harder or impossible to achieve.

  104. Your desires trump the potential murderer’s desires for no good reason.

    On the contrary, the good reason for intervening is that the murderer’s actions have severely harmed the fundamental desires of another person and others in society may also be severely harmed (they may fear for their security).

    I’d argue for a criminal justice system focused on helping the murderer to become a functional member of society – a system based on empathy and rehabilitation (teaching people how to find win/wins) and not punishment.

    Punishment-as-justice comes from a lose/lose mentality. Wishing a murderer would “rot in jail” harms not only the person who rots in jail but also the people who wish it because they have lost touch with their humanity and compassion. It won’t bring the victim back to life. It just causes more lives to be harmed.

  105. On a smaller scale, a parent might intervene in a fist-fight between two kids, not to punish but to protect the participants, to give them time to calm down and think clearly, to help them see the longer-term consequences of their actions, to help them empathize with each other’s needs, to help them learn how to find mutually beneficial solutions. If we do this early enough in childrens’ lives perhaps we will not have to deal with so many murderers?

  106. David P

    On the contrary, the good reason for intervening is that the murderer’s actions have severely harmed the fundamental desires of another person and others in society may also be severely harmed (they may fear for their security).

    The point you repeatedly miss is that you lack an objective basis for the existence of “the good” reason. If “the good” only really exists in the form of expressed human desire then that’s all you have – expressed human desire. You have no ability to sort out which human desires are good and which are not- which desires ought to be pursued and lived out and which ought to be avoided.

    In your reality, the desire to achieve peace and happiness via the destruction of life is equal to the desire to achieve it via empathy and working together.

    On the other hand, if “the good” really does exist as something other than expressed human desire, then you need to somehow account for that. You worldview cannot do that.

  107. The basis for categorizing desires is: do essentially all humans have the desire or only some? Desire for money is not shared by all, so it does not fall under the category of “fundamental human desire” whereas a desire to feel secure (at least to some degree) is shared by all.

    In your reality, the desire to achieve peace and happiness via the destruction of life is equal to the desire to achieve it via empathy and working together.

    I do not understand this. The desires to achieve peace and happiness are shared human desires. You seem to be saying that one person’s strategy to achieve this is the destruction of life (I am not sure how that would work, but I guess a twisted mind might think like that) whereas another person’s way is via empathy and working together. You seem to be saying that these are equal in my reality.

    However, this is not the case because of the simple rule, I explained previously, that says “harming other people’s fundamental desires in the process of achieving your own fundamental desires is ‘wrong’.” It is win/lose and will come back to bite you. Therefore, you need to rethink and find an alternative strategy that achieves win/win.

    Do you not think that a world where people work together and empathize with each other and help each other achieve security and meaning and connection and peace and happiness would be good?

    If not, well, perhaps respectfully we’ll have to disagree on that.

  108. David P

    You seem to be saying that these are equal in my reality.

    I am. They are. See below.

    However, this is not the case because of the rule I have introduced that says harming other people’s fundamental desires in the process of achieving your own fundamental desires is “wrong”. It is win/lose. And therefore you need to rethink and find an alternative strategy that achieves win/win.

    On your worldview, this rule of yours is NOTHING more than an expressed human desire – one of many. That’s it. Your notion of “good” is ultimately grounded in your desire to live your life a certain way – and your hope is that most people will agree. The idea that there actually IS a wrong way to live has NO CONNECTION to the reality that you subscribe to, none.

    Wrong is synonymous with “I don’t desire that”. You TRY without success to label certain desires as “good” and “wrong”, but those categories don’t exist beyond the confines of your vivid imagination (in your worldview). You desparetly want those categories to exist independently of your vivid imagination (they really do), however your worldview doesn’t allow that.

    Can you not see that a world where people work together and empathize with each other and help each other achieve security and meaning and connection and peace and happiness is good?

    Of course I can, and I’m glad you can too. We aren’t arguing over what we both can see as plain as day. We are arguing over how to ground that reality.

    If not, well, perhaps respectfully we’ll have to disagree on that.

    That’s all you can do. Nobody has a wrong desire or a good desire to live a certain way. They are just different.

    Wouldn’t it be nice to take on a worldview that actually makes logical sense out of this rather than the one you have now?

  109. Steve, you seem to believe there is an objective definition of good and bad. How do you know? I mean, how do you know that your brain is not deceiving you? This is not a rhetorical question. I would be interested to know your answer.

  110. @David P:

    I mean, how do you know that your brain is not deceiving you? This is not a rhetorical question.

    Maybe you should answer that question for us first.

  111. David P,

    You seem to be changing the subject to avoid dealing with the implications of your position.

    How do you know? I mean, how do you know that your brain is not deceiving you? This is not a rhetorical question. I would be interested to hear your answer.

    How do we know our brain is not deceiving us about any of our beliefs? (That is a rhetorical question).

  112. I just want to correct a couple of misunderstandings.

    I have never labeled fundamental human desires as “good”. At one point I asked whether they were good or evil and someone said “good”. My view is that they are neither good nor evil. They just are.

    I also do not enjoy using the terms “good” and “bad” to describe strategies but I changed my vocabulary because when I used my preferred terms “helpful” and “unhelpful” they were derided.

  113. Maybe you should answer that question for us first.

    I’m not claiming that there are objective definitions!

  114. David P,

    I also do not enjoy using the terms “good” and “bad” to describe strategies but I changed my vocabulary because when I used my preferred terms “helpful” and “unhelpful” they were derided.

    That’s because helpful and unhelpful are just as value laden.

  115. Melissa,

    How do we know our brain is not deceiving us about any of our beliefs?

    That may be a rhetorical question, but I would like to answer it: We don’t.

  116. David P,

    You seem to have missed the point. What reasons does Steve K have to doubt his belief that murdering is really bad and compassion is good? If you have no reasons to doubt it that do not equally apply to your other beliefs, then what you are left with is hyper skepticism. You have no reason to trust that your brain is not deceiving you about any of your beliefs.

  117. Melissa,

    That’s because helpful and unhelpful are just as value laden.

    They weren’t derided for being “just as value-laden”, they were derided for not being severe enough (e.g. to describe terrorism).

    I find “helpful” and “unhelpful” more helpful words because they are more strongly associated with actions and less associated with labeling people.

  118. I’m not claiming that there are objective definitions!

    LOL. You seem to think “helpful” and “unhelpful” have solid definitions. Are they objectively different and objectively tied to “good” and “wrong” or do they mean whatever anyone wants them to mean?

  119. You seem to have missed the point. What reasons does Steve K have to doubt his belief that murdering is really bad and compassion is good? If you have no reasons to doubt it that do not equally apply to your other beliefs, then what you are left with is hyper skepticism. You have no reason to trust that your brain is not deceiving you about any of your beliefs.

    This is where the scientific method helps out. We look at the evidence, we build a model to describe what we see, we make a prediction, we test it, gradually we improve the model. We can never know anything for sure. Every scientific theory and law is open to be challenged by new contradictory evidence. But the more confirming evidence that builds up the stronger can be the belief that is true.

  120. @SteveK:

    Are they objectively different and objectively tied to “good” and “wrong” or do they mean whatever anyone wants them to mean?

    Are you sure you have read correctly, and it really is the case that David P used the words “helpful” and “unhelpful” instead of “ldnslanzlazh” and “kddkhsqhws”? How do you know your brain is not deceiving you? According to David P we can not know. Are you wearing a tin foil hat? I am going to.

  121. This is where the scientific method helps out.

    This is going to be very difficult without there being any objective definitions and without being able to know that our senses are reliable.

  122. LOL. You seem to think “helpful” and “unhelpful” have solid definitions. Are they objectively different and objectively tied to “good” and “wrong” or do they mean whatever anyone wants them to mean?

    Right, they are not objective. I never claimed that they were. They are useful for judging actions to achieve the goal I have stated, namely to help everyone to achieve more of their fundamental human desires.

    That goal also is not objective, but we can judge actions against that goal. I would prefer to go further and qualify the judgments, e.g. “probably helpful” and “probably unhelpful”. They are rules of thumb based on the theory that win/lose tends to deteriorate into lose/lose.

  123. This is going to be very difficult without there being any objective definitions and without being able to know that our senses are reliable.

    Yes, it is difficult. But you must be aware that our brains are fallible and our senses are very unreliable? I’m not saying anything ground-breaking here am I?

  124. David P,

    They are useful for judging actions to achieve the goal I have stated, namely to help everyone to achieve more of their fundamental human desires.

    So when you label something helpful or unhelpful you are labelling them according to your goals. Which means you can’t label the action of someone else as the wrong strategy – I mean they might not be wanting to achieve the same goals as you. As we have argued all along, you are quite prepared to prevent other people achieving their goals so that you can achieve your own.

  125. @David
    I’ve been following the conversation for a while now, without commenting, but…
    (a) You spoke of a moral compass as a guide – how do you know that your moral compass is working properly? If your moral compass points you in one direction and mine in another direction for the same situation, which one should be followed, and why?

    I agree that we do have a ‘moral compass’ – a conscience, put there by God, but that it is badly in need of repair ( Paul’s argument in Romans 1-3 has a lot to say about that), and in some cases, the conscience of a person is so damaged that it cannot function properly at all.

    re #131 – how do you know that our brains are not deceiving us when you try to apply your ‘scientific method’ and abductive inferences?
    Perhaps you are the one whose faulty reasoning leads to a belief that God does not exist.

  126. David P,

    They are rules of thumb based on the theory that win/lose tends to deteriorate into lose/lose.

    It’s easy to “win” every time when the term has no connection to a reality beyond your vivid imagination. You win every time you feel you win and you lose when you feel you lose, Easy peasy.

    Right, they are not objective. I never claimed that they were.

    Right. The scientific method isn’t actual helpful – because that term isn’t an objective term. It’s “helpful” because you feel it is.

    Is ANY of this stuff sinking in yet?

  127. Melissa,

    At some level they are wanting to achieve the same goals as me and all humans. We all want meaning and a sense of security. None of us wants to feel worthless or to have our freedom drastically curtailed.

    I’m surprised how difficult it has been for me to get this concept across to you. I got the impression that Tom understands it, even if he doesn’t fully agree with me. Perhaps he can help explain it to you better than I can, as he may be more on your wavelength? (Are you there Tom?)

  128. But you must be aware that our brains are fallible and our senses are very unreliable? I’m not saying anything ground-breaking here am I?

    My brain and my senses are very unreliable therefore I should rely on them to verify they are reliable by employing the scientific method to help me figure out if I can rely on them.

    This is beyond comical, David.

  129. David P,

    Yes, it is difficult. But you must be aware that our brains are fallible and our senses are very unreliable? I’m not saying anything ground-breaking here am I?

    It seems to me that every time an atheist wants to avoid the evidence they resort to this kind of skepticism. In practice we generally operate as if our senses were reliable unless we have evidence to the contrary. Your skepticism in this case is selective and arbitrary.

    Also in reference to rather patronising explanation of the scientific method @131, do not assume that, just because you are on a Christian site, your interlocutors are ignorant of science.

  130. David P,

    At some level they are wanting to achieve the same goals as me and all humans.

    You are right that every one does ultimately have the same goals, that’s what happens when you are created with a purpose, but whether they are wanting to achieve those goals is another matter. The problem is that according to you they only have the goals they want because those are the only goals that exist.

  131. How do you know that your moral compass is working properly?

    I can’t be sure. I can ask others if they agree with my model and whether they can see problems with my actions. Beyond that, I have to test it in reality and get feedback: does it seem to improve my life and other people’s lives or not? So, far in my own life, I am finding this process is improving my quality of life and those around me every day. I often make mistakes, but that’s part of the learning process.

    How do you know that our brains are not deceiving us when you try to apply your ‘scientific method’ and abductive inferences?

    Again, we don’t know anything for certain. But there is a lot of evidence to show that the scientific method is a successful way to drive our understanding of reality.

  132. My brain and my senses are very unreliable therefore I should rely on them to verify they are reliable by employing the scientific method to help me figure out if I can rely on them.

    I know it sounds mad, but I can assure you it isn’t.

    The scientific method is a brilliant way to figure out when your thinking is out of kilter with reality or your senses have deceived you.

    Have you ever been in a situation where you saw someone you thought you recognized and then as you got closer, you realized it was someone else? Moving closer is the scientific method in action. You built a mental model, you tested it, you updated it based on the new evidence.

  133. @David
    And what if, as I said, other peoples’ moral compasses are broken too? In that case, if they disagree with yours, then what do you do?
    If they agree with you, then both of you have the same view of reality, which itself could be incorrect.

    Again, we don’t know anything for certain. But there is a lot of evidence to show that the scientific method is a successful way to drive our understanding of reality.

    Why don’t you enlighten us as to the epistemology of this? Your worldview can’t support a correspondence model of truth, only a utilitarian one.

  134. @David
    Suppose I say to you that your thinking is out of kilter because you have an incorrect belief that God does not exist? If you examine the evidence as we have, then you would be persuaded of His existence?

  135. In practice we generally operate as if our senses were reliable unless we have evidence to the contrary. Your skepticism in this case is selective and arbitrary.

    I agree with the first sentence, but seeing as the topic has turned into being about objective/subjective nature of reality, it seems pretty pertinent to the discussion to talk about how we perceive reality.

    Also in reference to rather patronising explanation of the scientific method @131, do not assume that, just because you are on a Christian site, your interlocutors are ignorant of science.

    I’m sorry you found it patronising. It was aimed at SteveK’s question.

  136. Suppose I say to you that your thinking is out of kilter because you have an incorrect belief that God does not exist? If you examine the evidence as we have, then you would be persuaded of His existence?

    I don’t want to go down this path. I defend your right to believe in God. I hope you will allow me not to believe.

  137. And what if, as I said, other peoples’ moral compasses are broken too? In that case, if they disagree with yours, then what do you do?

    All I can do is try to show them the possible consequences of their actions not only for other people, but also for themselves. If, as I suspect, win/lose deteriorates into lose/lose then I should be able to connect their actions to a negative consequence for themselves. If I can present that in a sufficiently convincing way, perhaps they will take it into consideration.

    I can’t force anyone to do anything. If they choose a different path, I will have to accept the situation and do the best I can.

    I will also try to monitor how things turn out to see if my predictions match or diverge from reality and whether I can uncover a wrong assumption and improve my model.

  138. David P,

    @147 Maybe you could explain how your skepticism is not entirely selective and arbitrarily so?

    Do you subscribe to some level of scientific realism, and if so, how do you justify that? Do things really exist or are they just the projection of our minds onto undefined matter? None of these questions are “scientific” questions.

  139. I was quite surprised at the antipathy towards the scientific method and my questioning of human perceptions. I guess these have been used by atheists in the past to attack your beliefs? I don’t want to attack your beliefs. I apologize if that is how it came across. I was only trying to explain and defend my own beliefs. I hope you can appreciate that.

  140. The skeptics modus operandis:

    1)Employ selective skepticism to dismiss inconvenient evidence.

    2)Enlarge the domain of science to include any conclusions that you agree with.

    David P,

    I was quite surprised at the antipathy towards the scientific method and my questioning of human perceptions. I guess this has been used by atheists in the past to attack your beliefs?

    No antipathy here towards the scientific method or science (would be rather strange given I have a PhD in chemistry), the antipathy is towards the misuse of science to illegitimately support philosophical positions and, as I have already stated, selective and arbitrary skepticism.

  141. @David
    There is no antipathy to the scientific method here (both Melissa and I have PhD’s in the physical sciences). We know how to do science, and we also understand its scope and limitations. The questions before us here have more to do with Metaphysics than Physics.

  142. @Melissa

    I completely disagree with this (#152). However, we’re going to have to agree (or disagree) to disagree on this topic because it’s not something I have a desperate urge to get into.

    In fact, this will be my last post for the time being. Thank you all for the discussions. I really appreciate the time you’ve spent discussing and challenging my ideas. I’ve learnt a lot from it.

  143. David P,

    I can understand why you wouldn’t want to get into that topic. I hope maybe you will reconsider at some stage. Keep in mind that the Christian conception of morality is much richer and more involved than “God commanded it therefore I should do it so I get a reward not a punishment.” It’s very much focused on what it means to live a truly good life – and who doesn’t want that?

    Edited to add: It’s morning here and I had an 5:20am swimming dropoff so I had some time to kill before the sun came up, hence my prolific posting. 🙂

  144. If I can present that in a sufficiently convincing way, perhaps they will take it into consideration.

    To rationally convince others of an objective truth requires many things that you have denied – an objective meaning of terms like “helpful” and “good” and a brain and senses that are reliable enough to rationally interpret various concepts.

    But maybe your only goal is to convince others of a truth that only exists in the mind of the other person. If that’s the case, you are wasting your time with rational arguments. Emotional rhetoric is the only tool you have.

  145. David, you asked if I was there. My post this morning tells where I’ve been.

    I do have some clarifying thoughts on this, which I hope to write on the airplane I’m about to board toward home. We’re about to board right now.