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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Friday, June 28, 2013

How Does One Define Morality?

In my posts on natural marriage and the recent Supreme Court decision on DOMA, I had made the claim that the Supreme Court cannot define morality. There are many people in the world who will claim that simply because an action is legal it is thus moral; I argue that the former does not necessarily imply the latter. But others have been confused on how I can make such a claim. So, I'd like to back up a bit and talk about just what I mean when I speak of morals and morality.

The study of morality—what it is, how we come to know it, and its distinctions—is a field of study known as ethics. There are several ethical theories on just what morality is, but I will focus on the three main ways people define moral principles: the emotive definition of morality, the subjective definition of morality, and objective definition of morality.[1] Within the objective view, there are two more subsets: morality stemming from the nature of man and morality that transcends man's nature.

1. The Emotive Definition of Morality

The emotive definition of morality simply holds that moral statements are expressing an emotional value to an action but they hold no compulsive value. This view was made popular by empiricists, people who claim that in order for any statement to have meaning it must able to be measured through sensory experience.  They hold that since moral claims exist outside of empirical reality, they are really "pseudo-concepts". [2]  The philosopher A.J. Ayer, one of the most notable proponents of emotivism, explains that moral statements are really the same as uttering "Hooray!" or "Yuck!" and because they are just expressions of feelings they can be neither true nor false. He writes:
"In saying that a certain type of action is right or wrong, I am not making any factual statement, not even a statement about my own state of mind. I am merely expressing certain moral sentiments. And the man who is ostensibly contradicting me is merely expressing his moral sentiments. So that there is plainly no sense in asking which of us is in the right. For neither of us is asserting a genuine proposition."[3]
In Ayer's view, moral claims can be put on the same par as a young child squealing for joy at her first carnival ride. The squeal may display the child's feelings, but if you were to write it down on a piece of paper without a context it would have no meaning for the reader. Ayer holds that moral statements can be considered just as inconsequential.

2. The Subjective Definition of Morality

The second way people understand ethical statements is by considering them to be preferences, either personal preference or preferences agreed upon by a group of people, like a culture, court, or government. So, one culture can state that it is immoral to sleep with anyone other than one's wife while another culture can state that it may be moral to sleep with many different partners whether one is married or not. Morality in this sense is rooted primarily in the agreement of the parties involved.

Anyone who holds to a relativistic morality falls into this camp. The problem here, as we have discussed before, is that such a relativistic view of morality fails to do what moral statements need to do: tell us how we ought to live. Those who believe in moral relativism are stating that moral actions are akin to picking a favorite ice cream flavor: to say anything is right or wrong is merely to express your particular opinion. No moral statements provide guidelines for why a person should do thus and so.

3. The Objective Definition of Morality

The third way to understand moral statements is that they are objectively discerned from the world in which we live. This view of morality does not trade on the opinions of individuals to define what is moral, but they hold that moral values exist and we must discover them. It may be the case that we are mistaken in our moral understanding, but our opinion of what is moral and what is not does not make the action moral or immoral. It is simply our attempt to describe the moral values we believe are true.

J.P. Moreland describes it this way:
"Objectivism holds that moral statements are stating facts about the acts of morality themselves or the objects that are said to have value. The statement ‘The apple is red' says something about the apple. The statement ‘Persons have value' and ‘Murder is wrong' say something about persons and the act of murder. Just as ‘The apple is red' asserts that the apple has a property (redness), so moral statements assert that persons or moral acts have certain properties."[4]
Of the three views above, only objective morality gives us something moral statements are supposed to do: it gives us a prescription for how people should live. Ideas of good and evil carry with them value judgments on how one should behave in a gives set of circumstances. The emotive view holds that moral claims hold no more meaning than "EEEeeyahhh!", which means we can ignore them. The subjective view holds that saying slavery is evil is akin to saying tapioca pudding is evil. Only on an objective view of morality, one that finds its source outside of man's actions, opinions, or preferences, will moral statements become a true guide on how individuals ought to live.

There still remains the question of where objective morality is rooted. Some say morality is rooted in human biology, that it helps us to thrive and survive. Others feel that objective morality must be part of something even larger than mankind and his survival. We'll look at that question next time.


1. These classifications are based loosely on the outline J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig set forth in chapter 19 of Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. (Downers Grove IL.: Intervarsity Press, 2003). 397.
2. Ayer, Alfred Jules. Language, Truth and Logic. (New York: Dover Publications, 1952). 106.
3.Ibid. 107-108.
4. Moreland. 400.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Relativism Suffocates From Its Own Standards

People don't like termites in their house. They gnaw on the house's structure, causing damage and could eventually weaken supports, making the house unsafe. To rid a severely infested house of termites and other pests, people will have their houses fumigated, sealing it tight and replacing the oxygen with lethal gas to kill all the living critters. 

Fumigation is an effective technique, as it penetrates every area of the house so no pest can escape the lethal gas. However, if you lived in a large house that had no exits, would you choose to fumigate to get rid of pests? Of course not, since by being included in the house, you'd be poisoned along with everything else. But this is exactly the main problem with relativism. You see, anytime we say the way something is or isn't we are making a claim about that state of affairs. Claims have truth value. But relativism makes a claim that no claims can be true absolutely. This is known as a self-defeating statement, which is a statement so big it actually denies itself. Examples of self-defeating statements are things like "I cannot write one single sentence in English" or "Everything I say is false." These statements cannot be true on their face. Similarly, the statement "There are no absolute truths" is all encompassing, which means it is making an absolute claim about truth. By doing so, it has contradicted itself.

Relativist claim: There are no absolute truths!

In a past article, we saw that post-modernism is all about rejecting all Grand Stories — which as I said are the basic rules of how the world works. However, by rejecting meta-narratives, isn't post-modernism providing a meta-narrative itself? Isn't it telling us "All viewpoints are equally biased" trying to give us an opinion that they think is unbiased and objectively true? The relativist is trapped in a house of truth-claims, and then seeks to poison the notion that truths can exist.

Relativist: "There are no absolute truths."

Christian: "Is that absolutely true?"

Relativist: "There's no such thing as truth."

Christian: "Would you like me to take that claim as true?"
The fact that relativism is self-refuting will show up in every one if it's different flavors, so it's crucial that you understand that point. Relativism's own rules suffocate itself!

Monday, June 24, 2013

Supreme Court Decisions Cannot Define Morality

Many people are anxiously awaiting the United States Supreme Court Decisions on the constitutionality of California's Proposition 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Many supporters of same-sex marriage think that once the Court rules on the issue, they will be vindicated and anyone who views SSM as either a moral violation or a biological impossibility will be proven wrong. But the Supreme Court wasn't designed to provide good answers to either morality or biology. For a clear example of that, we need only look to the fate of Carrie Buck.

According to the Encyclopedia of Virginia, Buck was born in Charlottesville in 1906. Her father died when she was very young. When she was three her mother was committed to the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded, mostly on the basis of her ongoing promiscuity.1 Buck then lived with a foster family, developing normally until she became pregnant at the age of 16. Ignoring Buck's claims that she was raped by their nephew, her foster family foisted the charge of promiscuity and feeble-mindedness on Buck and had her likewise committed.

About this time, the state of Virginia had recently passed a law that "the state could sterilize anyone found to be incompetent because of alcoholism, epilepsy, feeblemindedness, insanity, or other factors." The lawmakers knew their legislation was a constitutional gamble. As the Encyclopedia puts it:
"Behind the law was the eugenic assumption that these traits were hereditary and that sexual sterilization could thus prevent their transmission. Uncertain that the new law could withstand a constitutional challenge, the framers and supporters of the law arranged to test it in court. They chose Buck in the belief that she had inherited her feeblemindedness from her mother and that her daughter showed signs of slow mental development as well."2
Buck's forced sterilization worked its way up Virginia's appellate courts until she appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court in April of 1927. On May 2 of that year, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., speaking on behalf of an 8-1 majority ruled that the forced sterilization law was constitutional. In the majority opinion Holmes famously wrote:
"It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11. Three generations of imbeciles are enough."3
By all accounts Holmes was a brilliant U.S. Supreme Court Justice. He served for almost thirty years and is considered a scholar "who, more than any other individual, shaped the law of the 20th century" according to biographer Albert W. Alschuler.4 But as a legal scholar, Holmes was neither a theologian nor a biologist. He was neither a philosopher nor a geneticist. So, how could that Court be the last word morally for a question that has at its basis what being human means?

Of course, the pro-eugenics crowd testified with their experts as to Carrie's diagnosis. The Court's decision, though, did not turn on whether Carrie Buck's diagnosis was accurate, even though Holmes believed it was.  In the majority opinion he wrote, "There can be no doubt that so far as procedure is concerned the rights of the patient are most carefully considered, and as every step in this case was taken in scrupulous compliance with the statute and after months of observation, there is no doubt that in that respect the plaintiff in error has had due process of law. The attack is not upon the procedure but upon the substantive law"5 (emphasis added).

Holmes was a lawyer; as such he ruled on the legality of the laws set before him. In order to declare eugenics acceptable, the justices would have to reason on legal grounds. Therefore, the majority agreed that "compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes." Eight Supreme Court Justices had to change the definition of what a vaccination is in order to legally include forced sterilization. Only then could eugenics practices gain traction. But in so doing the Court made the claim that the state rather than God can decide how human reproduction should work in the lives of certain individuals.

In fact, Aubrey Strode, the attorney arguing on behalf of Virginia made this explicit. According to Scott Polirstok:
"Strode argued that a feebleminded individual will benefit from having his/her lost liberty ‘restored' following a sterilization procedure. In other words, a feebleminded individual who had not as yet been sterilized, did not have any liberty as a sexual being because of the fear of producing children who would be mentally deficient. However once sterilized, the individual and society could be free of the fear of producing defective children and hence liberty would be ‘restored'."6
Holmes' decision in this case was neither morally upright nor biologically accurate. Today we see such a decision as abhorrent, and rightfully so. But it was always abhorrent, even when the court ruled that it was legal and a decision that was "better for the world" or that the individuals would be "restored" to sexual liberty. It didn't matter that eight very intelligent and well-schooled justices saw fit to allow such atrocities to American citizens. They were wrong and their ruling did not make forced sterilizations moral.

When we try to claim that simply because something is legal that makes it moral, we fall victim to a type of pragmatic moral relativism that will blow to and fro with the whims of the culture. But that's not what morality is. Real moral values and duties don't change. They are objective, based in God and who we are as human beings. The circumstances of how those values and duties play out may differ, but the principles remain unchanged. So, don't think that any court decision means the death knell for morality.

Carrie Buck was forcibly sterilized in 1927 and Virginia perpetrated the same cruelty on over 8,300 others for nearly fifty years. Nationally, the number of forced sterilizations is estimated at 60,0007 and sterilizations continued through most of the 1970's. Many of the victims are still alive and seek reparations from the state. And if you're wondering, the Buck v. Bell decision has never been overturned. Does that make it the right thing to do?


1. Smith, J. David and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "Carrie Elizabeth Buck (1906–1983)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 31 May. 2013. Web. 24 Jun. 2013.<>
2. Ibid.
3. Russell, Thomas D. "BUCK v. BELL, Superintendent of State Colony Epileptics and Feeble Minded, 274 U.S. 200 (1927)." American Legal History – Russell. 18 November 2009. ,> Accessed June 24, 2013.
4. Alschuler, Albert W. Law Without Values: The Life, Work, and Legacy of Justice Holmes. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000). 1.
5. Russell. Ibid.
6. Polirstok, Scott. "Buck v. Bell: A Case Study" Binghamton Journal of History. Binghamton University. <> Updated 6/3/2012. Accessed 6/24/2013
7. Stern, Alexandra Minna. Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005). 84.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Using Hollywood Blockbusters to Share the Gospel

Plato said, "Those who tell stories rule society." Hollywood movies are powerful tools that shape people's viewpoints. People love to watch them and talk about them, especially those that move them in some way. They can also spark conversations about some of the "big questions" of humanity.

 In this latest podcast series, I show you how you can leverage people's love of movies and the ideas they contain to start God-conversations with friends and family. I also discuss how we must be careful with our entertainment selections, as Hollywood easily makes anti-Christian ideals seem appealing to the unwary moviegoer. Here's how to approach your entertainment choices more thoughtfully. Listen or download all four parts below:
To subscribe to the Come Reason podcast, click here.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Monkey Business: Stop Excusing Sexual Deviance

An article entitled "Face it: Monogamy is unnatural" was featured yesterday on the CNN site. Written by Meghan Laslocky, her thesis is that "a greater tolerance toward the human impulse to experience sexual variety is needed."[1] Laslocky bases this on the fact that "Biologically, we humans are animals. So it makes sense to look to the animal kingdom for clues as to what we are built for." She then throws out examples from the animal kingdom of how monogamy is a sham. "The evidence shows that monogamy is a rarity among mammals. Only 3% to 5% of all the mammal species on Earth 'practice any form of monogamy.' In fact, no mammal species has been proven to be truly monogamous."

She culminates her argument with a look at the biology of pair-bonding in prairie voles, a small rodent native to North America. Stating that hormones and receptors are the cause for such behavior, Laslocky concludes:
"Among humans, here's the rub: we have the chemicals and the receptors, but it varies from person to person how much we have. Based on brain wiring alone, inclination toward fidelity can vary dramatically from one individual to another. In other words, 'once a cheater, always a cheater,' might have as much to do with brain wiring as with a person's moral compass, upbringing or culture. "
I'm sure everyone who has walked in on their spouse in the act of infidelity is comforted by that fact.

Arguments like the one Laslocky proposes are not new. Many times I hear from homosexual advocates that homosexuality must be natural because zoologists have observed animals performing homosexual behavior in the wild. This type of reasoning is as preposterous as it is inconsistent. No one would say, "Chimps fling their feces and we are so close genetically we should, too." Or to take a more mundane example, it isn't uncommon for a host to be horrified when his or her pet dog mounts the leg of a guest. Even in the article, one image of elephant seals is accompanied with the note that males "protect harems of more than 100 females from other males thinking of moving into their territories." I'm sure such a "natural" relationship model will be not considered acceptable by women!

No, these appeals to the animal kingdom as a way to understand our sexual actions make one of two egregious errors. The first is they assume humans are slaves to our biology. While prairie voles may not be able to rise above their responses to chemical hormones, part of what it means to be human is to NOT react to our base stimuli. We don't want a man threatening to kill at the mere presence of another male. We don't want a person to simply take whomever he or she desires. We have this capacity for reason that makes us--let's choose this word wisely--civilized.

In fact, that's the argument that women's groups have relied on when talking about rape and provocative dress. It doesn't matter how it makes you feel, you don't have to act on it. So, to dismiss infidelity as people who are victims of biology opens up a much larger issue and gives sexual predators an out.

The second way these kinds of arguments err is by blurring actions and assuming animal motivations are the same as in humans. This anthropomorphizing animal behavior is a common plague in animal behavioral research. The case of Koko is a perfect example.

Koko is a famous gorilla who supposedly mastered over 1,000 signs and uses American Sign Language to communicate in complex sentences. However, as Steven Pinker in his book The Language Instinct documents, the handlers were interpreting actions as signs, interpreting one sign to mean something else, and basically superimposing what they wanted Koko's behavior to mean onto the ape's actions. [2] Similarly, no animals form homosexual relationships for pair-bonding. They auto-stimulate themselves with whatever they may find. That's why the dog mounts the guest's leg.

One thing not mentioned by proponents who liken human sexuality with animal behavior is acts of sexual gratification between species. Peter Singer writes that while visiting an orangutan refuge in Africa with a group, one of the women "was suddenly seized by a large male orangutan, his intentions made obvious by his erect penis. Fighting off so powerful an animal was not an option, but Galdikas (the refuge's director) called to her companion not to be concerned, because the orangutan would not harm her, and adding, as further reassurance, that ‘they have a very small penis.' As it happened, the orangutan lost interest before penetration took place."[3] Such a scenario is scary, but not as scary as Singer's conclusion. He says such an action is an example of why sex across species should "cease to be an offence to our status and dignity as human beings."[4]

Regardless of which error is committed, you can see how judging sexual actions by observing animal sexual behavior leads to dangerous consequences.  Human beings are not merely animals. We have minds and we have a moral compass. Bestiality is wrong. Rape is wrong. And excusing infidelity on the basis of biology is itself inexcusable.


1. Laslocky, Meghan. "Face it: Monogamy is unnatural." <> Accessed 6/22/2013.

2. Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language.
(New York:William Morrow & Co. 1994). 345-347.

3. Singer, Peter. "Heavy Petting." Nerve, 2001. < > Accessed 6/22/2013

4. Ibid.

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