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Showing posts with label moral grounding. Show all posts
Showing posts with label moral grounding. Show all posts

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Can Evolution Produce Objective Morality?



For the most part, people intuitively understand that moral concepts are real and they produce certain duties and obligations for each of us. For example, torturing small children for the fun of it is objectively wrong. It doesn't matter in what culture or time one is living, to inflict pain for one's own pleasure is simply evil. Each person has an obligation to a) not act in such a way himself and b) to do all that's in his power to stop someone else from so doing. This is what I mean by morality being objective and carrying obligations.

But who is that obligation to? An obligation implies one is beholden to another, and if there is no God to whom I must offer an account of my actions, then how does that obligation attach itself to my actions? As I've argued before, objective moral values only make sense if God exists. There must be a lawgiver to whom we are accountable if the laws of right and wrong are to hold any force, otherwise the very concepts of good and evil make no sense.

As you can imagine, grounding morality in God becomes a problem for the atheist. When confronted with the dilemma, those who don't believe in God will choose one of two paths. Some reject the idea that morality is objective. They believe that morality is simply cultural and relative. However this kind of thinking, when pushed to its logical conclusion, produces really scary results, such as the one girl I spoke with who ultimately said it would be OK for someone to rape her sister.

Others recognize that torturing babies for fun is objectively wrong, but deny that God is necessary for objective right and wrong to exist. Usually, they claim objective moral values can arise from evolutionary means to advance the human species. Such an argument is offered by Ronald A. Lindsey here. While Lindsey is pretty careful to unpack the various issues involved and generally fair, I think he ultimately fails to make his case.

The Products of Morality

Lindsey defers to tackle the "Why should I be moral?" question initially. Instead, he ask "What is it that morality allows us to do?" then answers, "Broadly speaking, morality appears to serve these related purposes: it creates stability, provides security, ameliorates harmful conditions, fosters trust, and facilitates cooperation in achieving shared and complementary goals. In other words, morality enables us to live together and, while doing so, to improve the conditions under which we live."1

The claim that being moral improves our living in community is true. But that doesn't make moral values objective. A potentate who slays his enemies while criminalizing murder by his subjects can get a lot done. One can live just fine in a world where one set of laws applies to a small privileged class while the majority of the populous must abide by a different set of laws, such as ancient Rome where infanticide and gladiatorial games did not hinder them from becoming the most advanced civilization of their day.

The Thorny Issues of Morality

Of course, Lindsey has limited himself to the easiest aspects of moral obligation: theft, murder, and such. What he fails to tackle are the more complex aspects of moral obligation. For example, if the evolutionary survival of the human species is the primary function of morality, then homosexual unions are a detriment to that goal. Homosexual unions reduce the number of capable individuals who can reproduce. How does Lindsey's definition answer the question "should we clone human beings?" How does it answer the question of whether we should forcibly take organs from death row inmates to help the innocent? Here is where an outcomes-based morality shows its weaknesses.

Even if it may be shown that the survival value of humanity increases as our currently understood, who is to say that humanity should survive at all? I've often asked those who point to evolution as the answer to moral grounding "why do you think humanity should continue? That may be your preference It may be what you'd like, but I'm not obligated to act in accord with your desires. Maybe humanity had its run. Maybe we should detonate the nuclear bombs and let the cockroaches have their shot." The whole problem here is when one uses worlds like "should" or "improves the quality," that person is already ascribing some objective value to the proposition. It becomes question-begging.

At the close of Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities stands the famous quote spoken by Sydney Carton, awaiting his death: "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known." Being moral can sometimes mean outcomes that are not better. The outcome could be worse in terms of survival, economic impact, or by any other cultural measure. Sometimes, acting rightly is done for its own sake. If there is a God to whom we find ourselves accountable, this makes sense. But evolutionary advantage is simply incapable of giving those actions any meaning at all.

References

1. Lindsey, Ronald A. "How Morality Has the Objectivity That Matters-Without God." Council for Secular Humanism. Council for Secular Humanism, 14 July 2014. Web. 25 Jan. 2017. https://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php/articles/5640.

Monday, June 06, 2016

For the Naturalist, Why Die for an Idea?



I'm writing this blog post on June 6, which is 72 years to the day that the Allied forces, led by the United States, invaded the beaches of Normandy, France. By all accounts, the Allied invasion proved to be the decisive turning point in the war, giving the Allies the upper hand. It also proved to be one of the costliest in terms of casualties with 2,500 Americans dying in the initial invasion, and most of those at Omaha beach. The British and Canadian troops saw about 1900 fatalities.1

It was no surprise that the invasion of a German stronghold would inflict heavy casualties. That's one reason why the invasion force was so large; the Allies knew they would lose a lot of men. But, why would those men—most of whom were less than 20 years old and had their entire lives ahead of them—assent to participate in something with such a high chance of death? How does this benefit them? Wouldn't being alive be better, even if it was alive with a dishonorable discharge or perhaps spending a few years in a military prison?

Freedom is the most common response given for the sacrifice made by these brave men. Both the veterans who survived the invasion and those who remember their deeds say they sacrificed their lives to allow others to live freely. Denis van den Brink, communications officer of the city of Carentan, France, a city that was an immediate beneficiary of the Allied efforts, put it well:
The allied army, more specifically, the American Army, they came to liberate, not to conquer. That's what it says in the Coleville cemetery, where 10,000 Americans are resting forever. That says it all, for the very first time in the history of mankind, they came to fight, die, win, victory, and then go home. That's the one and only example in the history of mankind and we had all these foreign Soldiers coming and dying and to fight for our land and then to free our land and then instead of staying they just went away. 2

How Does a Naturalist View of Life Make Sense of This?

The heroism of the soldiers at Normandy is beyond doubt. It is recognized by the theist and the atheist alike and I don't doubt the sincerity of either. However, how does a worldview such as naturalism make sense of fighting and dying for someone else for the sake of an idea? How does upholding the value of liberty, especially for a people you don't even know, become more valuable than life itself on a purely evolutionary paradigm? Why would freedom be so important?

I've heard some atheists try to explain away this difficulty by saying it is simply the law of reciprocity in action. You wouldn't want to be enslaved, so you act as you would have others act if you were the subjugated. I've shown why this claim fails before. If we evolved a sense of reciprocity, it may not benefit our survivability but it may in fact increase the number of individuals who die because they place themselves in life-threatening situations just because they see another person in a life-threatening situation. It would be very easy to see how such an instinct would lower then subsequent populations instead of bolstering them. And on a side note, it sure seems like such an instinct is pretty repressed especially when one considers experiments where witnesses do nothing other than watch when a person is being victimized.

Of course, the second question one must ask is by what criteria does one measure whether ideas such as freedom and liberty are truly valuable at all? As I said above, wouldn't survival be better? If the primary driving force for the advancement of human beings is their evolutionary growth, then they must be able to survive and reproduce. That would means survivability would be the highest moral calling, not massive self-sacrifice for an abstract concept like liberty. But we place ideas like freedom, liberty, and self-sacrifice above survival. Why? Who says these should be valued more highly? Where did that idea come from and how does it integrate within a naturalist worldview?

The sacrifices of D-Day can teach us much. It provides a stark contrast between human beings as rational, moral beings, and all other animals, whose highest motivation is only to survive. It shows that humans are different in kind and not simply by degree. And it shows there are values that naturalism cannot explain. I for one thank God for those who provided that sacrifice, and it makes me more confident that there is a God to thank.

References

1. Phipps, John. "Cost of the Battle." D-Day Revisited. D-Day Revisited, 2012. Web. 06 June 2016.
2. Mack, Christa. "72nd D-Day Liberation of Normandy Observed." www.army.mil. United States Army, 6 June 2016. Web. 06 June 2016.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Confusion of Atheistic Moral Grounding



Is morality evidence for the existence of God? At first blush, the answer seems to be no. Certainly there are many moral people who don't believe in any kind of God just as there are people who are strong believers, yet perform some of the most vile, immoral acts. Christopher Hitchens famously dared believers "to find one good or noble thing which cannot be accomplished without religion." This is usually the way such exchanges progress.

But framing the debate in such a manner makes two fundamental mistakes: it begs the primary question while creating a biased set of assumptions. We can look at each of these in turn.

Atheists Acting Morally Begs the Question of Moral Grounding

It doesn't seem to be a grand claim to say human beings are built to be moral beings. By that I mean the vast majority of humanity is inherently sensitive to the concepts of right and wrong, even if their understanding of what constitutes right and wrong are debated. The quip that the young cannibal is still instructed by his mother to clean his plate demonstrates this. It is human to understand actions can have moral implications.

The problem comes in when we begin asking "how do we know which actions are moral and which are not?" What is the "thing" that moral actions share but is missing from immoral ones? It cannot be something as simple as  survivability, for there are many scenarios where people have freely chosen to die for a moral cause. Take abortion, for example. Certainly, if  survivability is the only guideline, then abortion clearly diminishes the survival function of the species and is thus immoral.

This is worse if the natural world is all there is, for we never claim rape or murder for a male lion seizing a female to copulate or a black widow eating her mate.

When one claims that God is necessary for morality to be real, he is not claiming no one can act in ways recognized by a society as moral if they don't believe in God. Rather, he is asking what grounds choices as right or wrong intrinsically? What is the fundamental thing that anchors right and wrong? What is it that stands above and beyond all human beings and even all nature that is at the core of morality? Morals must transcend nature to be prescriptive. What is it on an atheistic worldview that does this transcending?

Slipping in Moral Assumptions

One possible counter by non-theists would be it isn't something as crude as  survivability only that grounds morality. One must consider human flourishing, the quality of life we would experience if we deemed immoral acts moral. But such a move doesn't help them in their quest, for terms like flourishing are loaded with moral implication. To flourish beyond  survivability means to advance toward some goal. What is the goal to which we are advancing and why should human beings objectively be the ones to advance? They say cockroaches will be the only ones left after a nuclear war; perhaps homo sapiens have had their run and it's time for the cockroaches to take a turn.

To claim that one's quality of life is the judge or that morals evolve from a concept of reciprocity ("I wouldn't like it if someone did that to me so we shouldn't do it to them") falls into the same trap. Why does it matter whether you like it or not? There's a big difference between preferences and the oughtness of moral values and duties. Moral quandaries are not about what one likes or doesn't like. Situations like the Heinz dilemma show just how problematic these become.

By appealing to one's actions ("I act morally"), to survivability, or to reciprocity, the central question of moral grounding remains unanswered.  None of these responses nail down the foundation of morality; they never answer what makes moral values different than preference or cultural convention. Of course, one could hold that there is no other moral grounding, making objective morality a useful fiction. But if morality isn't real, then no one is really moral at all, including the atheist. It seems the only coherent foundation allowing morals to be real is a transcendent God.
Image courtesy Dean Hochman and licensed via the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) License.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

The Moral Argument for God's Existence (podcast)



Atheists claim the God of the Bible is evil, but what makes an action good or evil? Are right and wrong simply what we all agree upon or must they originate in something bigger than humanity? In our latest series, Lenny explores what morality requires and why the existence of right and wrong means God must exist.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Star Trek, Saving Private Ryan, and the Problem with Evolutionary Morality



Morality is real. There are ways one should or should not act. There are values and duties that attach to being human, such as killing babies for no reason other than pleasure is always wrong. Some people don't agree with this view, holding morality as a useful fiction, but I will place them to one side for the moment. I think most people would agree with me that morality is a real thing; good and evil are real concepts.

I would think that most people would agree that there are certain oughts to which people should adhere. One ought not to enslave another human being, for example. The point of disagreement is rooted in where these kinds of oughts come from and why we should follow them. Atheists and humanists feel that moral laws came about because they conferred a certain evolutionary advantage to the group, as Herbert Gintis, et. al writes:
From an evolutionary viewpoint, we argue that ethical behavior was fitness-enhancing in the years marking the emergence of Homo sapiens because human groups with many altruists fared better than groups of selfish individuals, and the fitness losses sustained by altruists were more than compensated by the superior performance of the groups in which they congregated.1

A Utilitarian Morality

In the evolutionary view of morality, it is the survival value of the altruistic act that becomes the crucial thing. Those societies that encourage helping one another, even to one's own detriment, will be "more fit" than others, increasing the survivability of the group as a whole.

Such a scenario makes some sense. If one is to save others at the cost of even one's own life, it is easy to see how survivability is increased. This is a utilitarian concept of morality that philosopher Jeremy Bentham pioneered, but most people would be more familiar with how Leonard Nimoy's character Spock voiced it in the movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. There, Spock heroically exposes himself to lethal radiation levels to save the ship, then pronounces "It is logical. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one."




What if Morality Contradicts Survivability?

While a utilitarian view of morality seems plausible and fits within an evolutionary framework, it runs into problems in other circumstances. For instance, let's take a different scenario of altruism, the one offered in Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. There, a platoon of soldiers is sent deep into enemy territory in order to extract one man—Private Ryan—whose three brothers had already been lost in combat. A real-life scenario similar to the film played out in the Niland family, and their four sons Robert, Preston, Thomas, and Joseph. The Canisus library reports:
Robert was killed on D-day while manning his machine-gun post in Neuville, a city not far from the beaches. Preston was killed the next day near Omaha Beach. Fritz, meanwhile, had been dropped between Omaha and Utah beaches while Thomas was involved in a glider unit that landed in France. Joseph, 25, was not involved with the invasion.

When the Army heard of the tragic story, they determined that the Nilands would not suffer the death of their last child.2
In the film, the Army seeks to do the right thing in removing Private Ryan from potential harm and restoring at least one son to the family. However, the cost is high. In order to save one person, many in the company are lost. Also, significant resources such as these battle-hardened soldiers are not spent engaging the enemy, but rescuing this one young soldier. In any analysis, it seems this situation is all about the needs of the few or the one trumping the needs of the many.

So, here's the question: does the Army act morally in the Saving Private Ryan scenario? Was this the right thing to do or was it evil? If the utilitarian ethic is all there is, that is if survival value is all morality boils down to, then sacrificing so many for the life of a single man is not only not morally good, it is the opposite. That makes it evil of the Army to order Tom Hanks and company to go save Matt Damon.3 But I think people will intuitively understand to call the actions in Saving Private Ryan evil simply doesn't work. There's more to morality that the result of survivability which means that morality cannot be as simple as an evolutionary mechanism.

In order for morality to be real, God must be real, too.


References

1. Gintis, Herbert, Joseph Henrich, Samuel Bowles, Robert Boyd, and Ernst Fehr. "Strong Reciprocity and the Roots of Human Morality." Social Justice Research 21.2 (2008): 241. Web. 8 Mar. 2016.
2. "The Niland Boys." The Niland Boys. Andrew L. Bouwhuis Library, July 2006. Web. 08 Mar. 2016. http://library.canisius.edu/archives/niland
3.As an aside, just how many times is Matt Damon going to need to be rescued? He's rescued from a poor life in Boston, from enemy territory, from Mars, from a planet on the other side of a black hole, and even from himself in The Bourne Identity.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Illogic of Atheist Christmas Billboards

It's that time of year again; Christmas is coming. You will see all kinds of people decorating their homes, shopping for presents, and attending company parties as they do every year. Another yearly event now seems to be the anti-theist billboards put up by groups like the American Atheists. Fox 21 reported on the billboards appearing on Interstate 25 in Colorado Springs. They carry the message "Go ahead and skip church! Just be good for goodness sake. Happy holidays!"1 Here's an example:



What should Christians make of these billboards? Is it an attack on Christianity? It clearly holds a message contrary to Christian teaching, but the American Atheists claim they aren't trying to undermine Christmas. According to the channel, American Atheists spokesman Randy Gotovich said "We're trying to be inclusive of everyone in Christmas and saying that anyone can celebrate it. It shouldn't be viewed strictly as a Christian holiday."2

What?

Perhaps Gotovich missed the common referent in the words Christ mas and Christian—the word Christ. While people who are not devout or even Christians may celebrate Christmas, the concept of Christmas falls apart without Christ. The holiday makes no sense. The refrain of "Peace on earth, good will toward men" is a call for every human being to replicate the selflessness and mercy that God showed by sending his son to save sinners. That's why taking the entire quote of Luke 2:14 is important: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!" (ESV). Only in the Christian worldview does this kind of selflessness make sense. It certainly doesn't work in a world based on survival of the fittest.

Gotovich's statement unwittingly displays something. Atheists ideals cannot exist on their own. Imagine if the American Atheists were more honest and sought to abolish Christmas entirely. Why not say, "We don't need this holiday infused at every turn with religious implications and mythicism. We have Darwin Day. Let's celebrate that instead." How many followers do you think they would attract?

The Confused Message of "Be Good for Goodness' Sake"

Instead of promoting atheism by its own virtues, the American Atheists want to keep Christmas, but corrupt it. AA President David Silverman tried to redefine the holiday on their website by saying "The things that are most important during the holiday season—spending time with loved ones, charity, and being merry—have nothing to do with religion."3 Again, what? Where did he get that from?

First off, ideas like spending time with loved ones should not be seasonal. Charity and altruism are good things. But atheists don't think so if the altruism carries religious implications. In instances such as those, they'd rather shut down food pantries than allow a church the freedom to help the needy.

But the biggest problem with the billboard is whose idea of "being good" is being adopted here? What standard or scale are the atheists using to weigh whether an action is in itself good or bad? They obviously believe that skipping church is a good thing and going to church is a bad thing. But what if they're wrong on that point? Then how can they "be good for goodness' sake" when telling someone to skip church, which is bad?

When the atheists borrowed that line from the song "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," they misrepresented it. The line is using "for goodness' sake" as an emphatic device, just as you might hear a mother say while scolding her son, "Why do you have to take your brother's toys? For goodness' sake, you have plenty of your own to play with!" By changing the meaning to try and make it say that goodness has its own ontology, that is that goodness exists outside of anything else, they beg the question.

One cannot be good for goodness' sake without knowing first what defines goodness. And therein lies the problem. Atheism has no grounding for goodness. There is nothing to give their pronouncements about what is good or bad any value at all. Everything becomes subjective, like Silverman's claim that "being merry" is an important holiday value. Being merry is nice, I guess, but it isn't a virtue. All it takes to be merry is an open bar at the company Christmas party.

Without the transcendent source of God to anchor goodness, there is no way anyone can be good for the sake of goodness alone. Where does one start? By seeking to leverage the inherently religious principles of Christmas (in which God establishes the foundation of sacrificial love) to try and undermine the practice of religion, the American Atheists have set up a contradiction.

Let them present their own worldview. Let them hold their own holidays. For goodness' sake, why do they keep trying to take the Christian ones? That's simply naughty.

References

1. Fisher, Kody. "Controversial Billboards along I-25." FOX21Newscom. KXRM-TV, 07 Dec. 2015. Web. 10 Dec. 2015. http://fox21news.com/2015/12/07/controversial-billboards-along-i-25/.
2. Fisher, 2015.
3. "Santa Says ‘Just Skip Church' in Atheists' Holiday Billboards." American Atheists. American Atheists, 7 Dec. 2015. Web. 10 Dec. 2015. http://news.atheists.org/2015/12/07/santa-says-just-skip-church-in-atheists-holiday-billboards/.
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