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Denying the Truth Does Not Make it Any Less True

In a prior thread mikev6 asked: “If God is required to be moral, and I don’t believe in God, does that make me immoral?”

I responded: “mikev6. Just because you are an atheist you will not necessarily act in an immoral way. No one said you would. It is a fact, however, that you are unable to ground your morality on anything other than your whim at the moment.”

Ov responded to me: “Barry Arrington, in response to mikev6, said: “It is a fact, however, that you are unable to ground your morality on anything other than your whim at the moment.”
I agree that such morality having an absolute grounding is not the case, but calling what mikev6 holds necessarily infomrmed by “whims” is nonsense.”

To which I now respond:

Ov, you misunderstand me. I do not believe that mikev6’s morality is in fact based on “whims.” I was commenting on his self-understanding of the grounding of his morality, not what it is really based on. Call it whim or, as you prefer, “deep impressions” it all amounts to the same thing. Your and mikev6’s self-understanding of the grounding of your moral impulse is fixed firmly in nothingness.

But both your and mikev6’s self-understanding of the grounding of your morality is wrong.

Both you and mikev6 know the objective transcendent morality for the simple reason that it cannot not be known. God has placed it in your heart. You deny it, but denying a truth does not make it any less true.

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22 Responses to Denying the Truth Does Not Make it Any Less True

  1. Was filing this under “Intelligent Design” intentional?

    Both you and mikev6 know the objective transcendent morality for the simple reason that it cannot not be known.

    I think this was edited by the gremlins somewhere between thought and publishing it.

    Barry writes: Heinrick, I never pay any attention to the category I post under. Therefore, all my posts are posted under the default category “Intelligent Design.” Good question and thanks for the opportunity to clear that up. The post obviously has nothing to do with ID.

    As to your second comment, I stand by what I have written. “cannot not be known” is a little more cumbersome than “must be known” but the former conveys to the careful reader a nuance that is not expressed in the latter.

  2. As proposed by W. L. Craig, our atheist friends certainly can and do behave morally, sometimes more morally than believing people. But, they have no objective basis for choosing to live this way.

  3. Shall we call it moral “denialism”?

    Anyway, aside from what was said in Rude 66, let me try to muddy—I mean clarify—things. I can think of three sources for ethical guidance:

    1) A realm of eternal verities (logical, esthetic, moral a la Charles Sanders Peirce). This may or may not be linked to theism. Einstein’s moral view was Platonic but not theistic, the Natural Law tradition, of course, is theistic but also reminiscent of the Platonic tradition (for which I suggest reading Reuben Hersh).

    2) Legislation. This could be either divine or human legislation inasmuch as it issues from mind, and it may invoke eternal verities or impose design on some ethical contingency. I find it interesting that J. Budziszewski, arguing from the Natural Law tradition, arrives very close to what David Klinghoffer comes to on the basis of our common biblical heritage. Both see the Sabbath as a moral imperative—as to precisely which day issues from a divine decree in Judaism.

    Also, remember, the rule of law works only within a commitment to truth and honesty, and because we are all fallible there must of necessity be the threat of punishment. Utilitarian ethics, of course, rejects divine legislation and tends toward statism (how else do you make the plebs behave besides religion?). Though I see no reason that utilitarian ethics must reject a Platonic Natural Law, it seems its adherents always do.

    3) The will or whim of a dictator or the populist mood of the moment. This seems to be the way materialism is headed—here Thomas Sowell writes most eloquently—it’s probably also what Nietzsche predicted and/or feared.

  4. Re #3

    A fourth source is commonly held feelings such as compassion, loyalty and fairness. While these are not universal, they are sufficiently common to provide a basis for common moral principles and also bridge the link between what is moral and why do it. All the other sources you mention suffer from the problem that the only reason for conforming to the moral guidance is “you had better or suffer the consequences”.

  5. 5

    The moral debate is not over the practical effects, whether atheists can be moral or not, but about the ontology of morality: what is the ultimate source of our moral judgements? The thesits argues they are transcendent that morality originates with God. The Darwinists must argue that morality somehow evolved naturally… What difference does this make, since the theist concedes that atheists can be just as moral as theists? As with Darwin himself, who was conventionally very moral, the effects may not be noticeable at all. However, the effects of this worldview have become can be very devastating and corrosive when it comes to future generations.

    I believe that we began to see the effects of this morally corrosive world view, beginning at the end of the 19th century with the rise of the eugenics movement. I think it continues with the work of evolutionary psychologists who see altruism, which they believe is the result of natural selection. Invariably their concept of altruism (pseudo altruism really) is in truth a rationalized form of selfishness. Can personal relationships and society be built on such a foundation? I would argue that it would be like building your house upon the sand.

  6. 6

    John_a_designer,

    re: #4

    You disappointed me. At just the point where you were asking a question for which I was thinking of a brillant answer, you went and answered it yourself with a better answer than mine. :)

    People who espouse moral relativism tend to overlook history. The Holocaust in Germany can be attributed partly to a society’s tolerance for antisemitism. Antisemitism can be attributed to a belief that there are classes of people who have less dignity than others (usually people in a category other than one’s own). The Nazi’s placed several other groups in the lower dignity category other than the Jews – disabled people, homosexuals, races other than Nordics, etc..

    The German societal morality was not grounded in the Biblical precept of human dignity.

    For Seversky – there’s your morality grounded in social norms for you.

    Many in today’s society do not understand that those who are fighting for human dignity by opposing abortion and stem cell research are actually doing them a favor, by appealing for government to recognize the God-given dignity of every human being.

  7. Is comment #1 completely written by Heinrich and is the bolded part a quote of Barry Arrington or has the bolded part been added by Barry Arrington? If the later is the case I would like to express my appreciation for the default system in which comments by UD officials appear with a white background (at least on my computer).

  8. It is also equally true that asserting that something is the truth does not make it so.

  9. Mark Frank at 4,

    Would you not say that the question here is not feelings but logic?

    Still you’re probably right—maybe the ethics of the indigenees (whether head hunter, cannibal, or peaceful pastoralist) did derive from feelings—and though such people nearly always placated the spirits, they generally did not derive their ethics from those spirits.

    “Now let this be a lesson to you, children, don’t do as the gods!”

    When you visit Nara in Japan you are told that Buddhism was invited to the country as an ethical religion because the old gods were deficient in that regard.

    On the other hand with only a feelings based ethics people are more easily exploited by populist demigoges—as the tens of millions murdered in 20th century might attest. We need logic and institutions and an ethical religion.

  10. #9

    On the other hand with only a feelings based ethics people are more easily exploited by populist demigoges—as the tens of millions murdered in 20th century might attest.

    On the contrary. The mass murderers of the 20th century did not succeed through appealing to our compassion to towards other human beings. They invoked ideas and principles such as communism and national socialism and used these as an excuse to override our common humanity. In this respect they have much in common with the more extreme religious ethical systems. It is when we let top-down principles drive our ethics that we lose contact with our humanity and awful things happen.

  11. In the comment above, Mark Frank suggests that the atrocities of the 20th Century are a result of people having a “top down” view of morality “in common with the more extreme religious ethical systems”.

    He did not clarify which religious ethical systems he was referring to, so one might assume his point would be made stronger if he simply lumped them all together as one. Or, perhaps he was targeting his remarks at something like Christianity since that is likely what he is most familiar with. After all, if he was making a comment about some universal oddity then why bring it up at all?

    In making his case against the backdrop of the mass murders of the 20th Century, he says “It is when we let top-down principles drive our ethics that we lose contact with our humanity and awful things happen.”

    In the early days of the German advance into Eastern Europe, before the possibility of Soviet retribution even entered their untroubled imagination, Nazi extermination squads would sweep into villages, and after forcing villagers to dig their own graves, murder their victims with machine guns. On one such occasion somewhere in Eastern Europe, an SS Officer watched languidly, his machine gun cradled, as an elderly and bearded Hasidic Jew laboriously dug what he knew to be his grave.

    Standing up straight, he addressed his executioner, “God is watching what you are doing” he said.

    And then he was shot dead.

    What Hitler did not believe and what Stalin did not believe and what Mao did not believe and what the SS did not believe and what the Gestapo did not believe and what the NKVD did not believe and what commissars, functionaries, swaggering executioners, Nazi doctors, Communist Party theoreticians, intellectuals, Brown Shirts, Black Shirts, gauleiters, and a thousand party hacks did not believe was that God was watching what they were doing.

    And as far as we can tell, very few of those carrying out the horrors of the twentieth century worried overmuch that God was watching what they were doing either.

    That is, after all, the meaning of a secular society.

    -David Berlinski, Chapter 2: Nights of Doubt, “The Devil’s Delusion”

    Mark, I think “top down” principles should perhaps refer to those coming from a somewhat more permanent source than the political hacks and their promoters down the block and around the corner.

  12. #11

    UB

    It is hard to sustain this discussion when my comments are all put into moderation but I will do my best as I think this is important.

    As I am sure you know, it is a subject of debate as to whether the Nazis considered themselves to be Christians – but that is not my point. Clearly there have been mass murderers who did not believe in God, and there have been mass murderers (albeit not on the same scale) who believed that not only God was watching but they were acting in God’s name. These include the worst excesses of the Protestant/Catholic European wars right through to modern Islamic extremism. They all no doubt believed their source was permanent and universal.

    What seems hard to deny is that whatever principles these people were acting on, they were letting those principles override straightforward compassion towards other people and creatures.

  13. 13

    Mark Frank,

    You and Nakashima have been released from the moderation que. Please do not make me regret it.

    Mark Frank writes: “Clearly there have been mass murderers who did not believe in God, and there have been mass murderers (albeit not on the same scale) who believed that not only God was watching but they were acting in God’s name.”

    Mark, I very much admire your frankness (pun intended; I am so ashamed). Truly it is refreshing for one of our adversaries to come onto this site and admit that religion is not the well from which springs all evil. David Hart articulates this point very well:

    Some [men] kill because their faiths explicitly command them to do so, some kill though their faiths explicitly forbid them to do so, and some kill because they have no faith and hence believe all things are permitted to them. Polytheists, monotheists, and atheists kill – indeed, this last class is especially prolifically homicidal, if the evidence of the twentieth century is to be consulted. Men kill for their gods, or for their God, or because there is no God and the destiny of humanity must be shaped by gigantic exertions of human will . . .
    Men will always seek gods in whose name they may perform great deeds or commit unspeakable atrocities . . . Then again, men also kill on account of money, land, love, pride, hatred, envy or ambition.
    Does religious conviction provide a powerful reason for killing? Undeniably it often does. It also often provides the sole compelling reason for refusing to kill, or for being merciful, or for seeking peace; only the profoundest ignorance of history could prevent one from recognizing this. For the truth is that religion and irreligion are cultural variables, but killing is a human constant.

    So we have reached some common ground. I am very pleased.

    But I would like you to answer a question: Oliver Cromwell allowed his army to massacre thousands of non-combatants at Drogheda. “The curse of Cromwell on you” remains an Irish curse to this day. Even though Cromwell may have sincerely believed he was acting at God’s behest, he was wrong. I can say without qualification that what Cromwell did was evil. And on what ground can I say this? Because the objective transcendent moral law says “Do not commit murder,” and what Cromwell did was murder.

    Now, I am certain that you will agree with me that what Cromwell did was evil. On what ground, however, can you justify your assertion if your metaphysical premises are correct? According to your own self-understanding, you are merely matter in motion, and Cromwell was merely matter in motion. I am asking this in all sincerely. On what basis can one lump of matter in motion say of another lump of matter in motion, what he (it?) did was wrong? Matter and energy are both value free as far as I can tell, and if that is all there is, then there is no basis for morality.

  14. Mr Arrington,

    Thank you. I hope you have never regretted my participation at UD.

  15. #13

    Barry – thank you for releasing me from the moderation queue.

    Let us assume that

    (a) You and I both agree that what Cromwell did was wrong

    (b) Cromwell thought he was doing God’s will

    You believe that it was wrong because he broke a transcendent law. I believe it was wrong because I read the details and am revolted by it.

    There is an interesting difference here. Imagine you made a mistake and you discovered that the transcendent law did not forbid this action or someone was able to show you that this particular action did not fall under the law? After all we all make logical errors, sometimes about the most fundamental things (in your professional life you must be familiar with difficulties in deciding whether a particular act falls under a law) and Cromwell was a clever and competent man who did not think his action broke a transcendent law. Maybe he was better at determining the transcendental law than you are. Then once this error was demonstrated to you then presumably you would have to accept it was right all along – however emotionally upsetting you might find his actions.

    However, I cannot make a mistake of that type because I work from my feelings. I find the action revolting and therefore conclude that murder is wrong. I hope and believe that you and others share my revolt. I might be mistaken about the facts of the case and therefore change my mind. But I cannot find myself in a position where I find it a revolting thing to do but actually it is morally good. For me a moral law is inductive not deductive. It is an attempt to summarise what I (and I hope most people) find right and wrong. Not something that determines what is right and wrong.

    The phrase “merely matter in motion” is a bit loaded. Yes we are all matter in motion – but I take issue with the word “merely”. Obviously I believe that matter when organised in certain ways can have emotions, intentions, feelings etc. This is an issue in the philosophy of mind which is rather beyond the scope of this comment.

    Yours

    Mark

  16. 16

    Mark Frank,

    “However, I cannot make a mistake of that type because I work from my feelings. I find the action revolting and therefore conclude that murder is wrong.”

    I find this interesting. I’m not certain what you are meaning by this. Do you believe that morality is based upon a feeling of revulsion? So is eating certain foods immoral because I find eating them revolting? Some people find certain sex acts revolting. Does this make them immoral then?

    Murder is not wrong simply because it is revolting. It is revolting because it is morally wrong. We sense that it is wrong, and our reaction is revulsion. I don’t think it’s the other way around. We are still faced with the question of the grounding of murder as immoral.

    For a Christian, murder is wrong because it is the killing of a person with dignity – as created in the image of God, and because God said not to do it. For certain the Christian is revolted by the act, but that reaction is not what makes it wrong for the Christian.

    If morality is based on this mechanism, then the murderer who does not find his/her actions revolting at all, is in his/her right to commit such acts.

    I’m not certain if this is what you are subscribing to. I suspect that perhaps Mr. Dawkins subscribes to such a basis for morality. Clearly he finds Christian acts revolting, and therefore, immoral.

  17. #16

    The feeling is more specific than revolting. There are many kinds of revulsion. It is a kind of abhorrence which I express by saying “this is wrong”.

    The murderer who does not find his acts revolting lacks normal human feelings and is a psychopath (such people exist). The majority of people find his or her acts abhorrent and therefore agree he or she is wrong and not right.

    You believe God said not to murder people and that is what made it wrong. But suppose one day you discovered you had made a major error and actually God said it is good to kill atheists? Would you therefore conclude that murdering atheists is good?

  18. 18

    Mark Frank,

    “You believe God said not to murder people and that is what made it wrong.”

    Well, that’s not exactly what I said. I said it is wrong because human beings have dignity as created in the image of God, but also because God said not to do it. God said not to do it because of the first grounds. We don’t obey God simply because He said so, but because God has set up conditions whereby obeying Him is right – not only beneficial, but leading to the best of conditions. So not only is murder immoral, it’s opposite is also required – treating human beings with dignity.

    Look, morality is not something that is emotion-based. It is law based. The Christian view is that there are benefits not just to the person being moral, but to all of us. When we treat each other as though we have dignity we will not murder each other. Not just because we find murder revolting, but because our desire is the best for each other.

    Do you read the Proverbs? They are filled with the moral format – “if you do this, this will happen.” It’s not a guarantee, but a law that works in most situations. The backbone of the format is that in general if we do what is good, it will not only bring us honor, but it will show benefits beyond ourselves.

    The opposite of this is that if we incline ourselves to do evil, it will not have good results for ourselves, nor those around us. It will not bring honor, and there are dire consequences.

    So Judeo-Christian morality is not based simply on “God said don’t do this.” It is based on the character of God. It is God’s character to be good, and as a result of His goodness, good things came about – Creation, Salvation, etc. If we follow this insight, and seek to do what is good, the end result will be something very good and beneficial for us and for those around us.

    Your last question sounds like a setup for a strawman, because we believe that God’s character is good, and that murdering atheists is not good, because it is not honoring their basic dignity as having been created in the image of God – even if they don’t believe in God. Again, we don’t base our morality simply on what God said – rather, what God said to do and / or not to do is a reflection of His character, which makes what he said to do or not to do morally binding.

  19. 19

    Incidentally, I find the radical Islamic practice of killing infidels out of step with the stated Islamic character of God as being merciful. It is therefore a moral contradiction.

  20. 20

    Re 19: Ditto for Cromwell if he believed in a merciful God.

  21. 21

    Darwin’s attempt to describe how human morality evolved by natural selection actually serves to undermine the foundation of morality.

    Consider the following passage from his Autobiography, written in 1876.

    “A man who has no assured and ever present belief in the existence of a personal God or of a future existence with retribution and reward, can have for his rule of life, as far as I can see, only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best ones. A dog acts in this manner, but he does so blindly. A man, on the other hand, looks forwards and backwards, and compares his various feelings, desires and recollections. He then finds, in accordance with the verdict of all the wisest men that the highest satisfaction is derived from following certain impulses, namely the social instincts. If he acts for the good of others, he will receive the approbation of his fellow men and gain the love of those with whom he lives ; and this latter gain undoubtedly is the highest pleasure on this earth.”

    Notice Darwin’s conclusion here:

    “If he acts for the good of others, he will receive the approbation of his fellow men and gain the love of those with whom he lives ; and this latter gain undoubtedly is the highest pleasure on this earth.”

    In others words, behind all our moral acts is self interest.

    This is why I think a “Darwinian morality” destroys virtue. Ideally moral virtue is selfless. Darwin’s view, on the other hand, is basically selfish. You are not going to act in a moral and ethical manner unless you gain something from it– praise, honor or love.

    The Christian view of ethics, on the other hand, is illustrated by the story of “The Good Samaritan.” Consider how revolutionary this story is, especially for the time of Jesus. Jesus is telling us that we ought to help our fellow man even if he is not a member of our family, tribe, or religion. For example, because the Jews and Samaritans, who were not only religiously, but ethnically distinct, hated each other, the good Samaritan actually risked ridicule and condemnation, not praise, from fellow Samaritans for his compassionate act. In other words, Jesus’ teaching here is that we ought to act compassionately towards our fellow man without any consideration of how it is going to benefit us personally.

    I don’t see anything like that in Darwin’s view, and that is a significant difference.

  22. #18

    morality is not something that is emotion-based. It is law based.

    That is exactly what we are debating. Some philosophers would agree with you, others would not. Hume famously wrote that “reason is the slave of the passions”.

    My last question is not really a straw man. It is making what I think is a key point about rule based morality. I will take your point that God telling you something is wrong is not the key premise and try to rephrase it in terms of the premises you lay out.

    You believe that “murdering atheists is not good, because it is not honoring their basic dignity as having been created in the image of God”

    I believe this can be rephrased as a deduction from these premises (please correct me if I am wrong):

    1) It is good to honour anything with dignity.

    2) Atheists have dignity because they were created in the image of God.

    3) Murdering people does not honour their dignity.

    Therefore murdering atheists is wrong.

    Now you are fallible. Maybe you got one of the premises wrong? After all many intelligent people, Cromwell for example, have sincerely believed that it is good to murder some types of people and that it is actually part of God’s will to do so. So they must have rejected at least one of these premises (in Cromwell’s case substitute Irish for atheist).

    So if someone was able to show you that actually one of these premises were wrong (just as they might convince you that Euclid’s fifth axiom was wrong); wouldn’t you then have to concede that murdering atheists was actually OK? Because your morality is based on the rule, not on the emotional reaction, then your emotional reaction to the deed is irrelevant.

    In general any rule approach to morality has to ignore arguments based on our emotional reaction. We may find the action of the Nazi stormtroopers deeply obnoxious but that is irrelevant – all that matters is did that they failed to conform to a rule. If at some stage we realise we made a miscalculation and they did conform then the action is OK.

    This is the kind of thinking that allows Pol Pot to massacre intellectuals, Protestants to torture Catholics and vice versa, and some types of Muslims to fly planes into buildings. They got their logic wrong – or maybe we got ours wrong?

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