Tough Questions Answered

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How Did Jeffrey Dahmer Define Morality? – Post #4 of 2011

Post Author: Bill Pratt

If morality is not grounded by a transcendent standard, a standard that is above all humanity, then it collapses to relativism.  This concept is not at all difficult to understand, but relativism retains a negative enough connotation these days that atheists, who deny a transcendent, objective standard of morality, are still squeamish about the word.

Jeffrey Dahmer, the serial killer who gained notoriety for eating his victims, understood the connection between God and morality all too well.  Dahmer’s father recounted his son’s moral reasoning in a documentary produced in 1996: “If it all happens naturalistically, what’s the need for a God?  Can’t I set my own rules?  Who owns me?  I own myself.”

Exactly.  If there is no God, you have no accountability to anyone else at all.  You own yourself and you can do with yourself whatever you please.

In an interview in 1994, Dahmer himself explained his thinking.  He wondered that if there were no God and we all came “from the slime,” then “what’s the point of trying to modify your behavior to keep it within acceptable ranges?”

The fact that we all instinctively cry out at Dahmer’s behavior does nothing to take away from the fact that his reasoning is right on target.  He embodied the atheist worldview taken to its logical extremes.  You may not like what Dahmer did, but unless you believe in an objective, transcendent moral standard, he didn’t do anything but act unfashionably.


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  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ Vinny

    By the same token, Muslim suicide bombers represent the theistic view carried to its logical extreme. If morality is the result of divine command, then our only course is to seek out a source of revelation to tell us what that command is and we are obligated to obey it even if it is repugnant to our reason.

  • Bill Pratt

    Vinny,
    This blog expounds and defends Christian theism, so I don’t feel any need to explain or defend Muslim views on morality or God. So, under Christian theism, would you say that modern-day suicide bombers’ actions are justified?

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ Vinny

    I feel very little need to defend Jeffery Dahmer’s views on morality.

  • Todd Pratt

    Bill,

    If you would choose Dahmer to explain atheistic morality, I would choose Deanna Laney as the representative of christian morality. She stoned two of her children to death and seriously injured a third. Her reasoning?

    “I felt like I obeyed God and I believe there will be good out of this,” she explained in the interview, looking wide-eyed and sometimes smiling. “I feel like he will reveal his power and they will be raised up. They will become alive again.”

    Perhaps you should make the debate on the more reasonable ground of christian morality vs. the scientific study of morality and which of these can create a better society.

  • Darrell

    Todd,

    The scientific study of morality isn’t prescriptive, it is descriptive. So all it can tell us is that Dahmer’s behavior is outside of what our society considers moral. The results of the study would be different if taken in a society of murdering cannibalists. Does that mean that whether murder and cannibalism are moral or immoral is relative based upon the society in which you live? They are not just flat our wrong? Relativism is inevitable if one chooses to approach morality from a scientific angle alone.

    Darrell

  • Todd Pratt

    Darrel,

    If the purpose of a study was to find out if morality were relative based on the society in which you lived, then that could well be the conclusion for a society of murdering cannibals. Moreover, if it extended that study to include all societies today, I think it would be obvious that the conclusion would be that different societies hold differing moral opinions. It’s obvious that Christians, Muslims, Buddhists,etc… have differing morals relative to the society in which they live.

    The question then is what morality is best to promote well-being for all of humanity? If the purpose of the study were to discern what is best for the well-being of humanity, then we could objectively approach societal behaviors in a way that clearly show them as morally right or wrong. I think Sam Harris says it best:

    “…there may be different ways for people to thrive, but there are clearly many more ways for them not to thrive. The Taliban are a perfect example of a group of people who are struggling to build a society that is obviously less good than many of the other societies on offer. Afghan women have a 12% literacy rate and a life expectancy of 44 years. Afghanistan has nearly the highest maternal and infant mortality rates in the world. It also has one of the highest birthrates. Consequently, it is one of the best places on earth to watch women and infants die. And Afghanistan’s GDP is currently lower than the world’s average was in the year 1820. It is safe to say that the optimal response to this dire situation—that is to say, the most moral response—is not to throw battery acid in the faces of little girls for the crime of learning to read. This may seem like common sense to us—and it is—but I am saying that it is also, at bottom, a claim about biology, psychology, sociology, and economics. It is not, therefore, unscientific to say that the Taliban are wrong about morality. In fact, we must say this, the moment we admit that we know anything at all about human well-being.”

    As Bill might point out, this is a blog about Christian morals, but I think the same can be said for many Christian countries in Africa that kill their own countrymen for the crime of witchcraft, so it is relevant.

  • Bill Pratt

    Vinny, how are his views of morality different than yours?

  • Bill Pratt

    Todd,
    The point is that Dahmer’s reasoning seems logical, based on his beliefs on where morality comes from. I’m asking you to critique his reasoning.

  • http://www.toughquestionsanswered.org Darrell

    Todd,

    The question then is what morality is best to promote well-being for all of humanity?

    The problem is this presupposes that the moral goal should be to promote the well-being for all of humanity. What about those who could really care less about the well-being of humanity as a whole? They only care about themselves and their family. Is that immoral of them? Or, worse yet, what about those who don’t care about anything, themselves included? Should they value human life? Why?

    Scientific study may assist us in finding out how to reach a moral goal, but it can never define what the moral goal itself “ought to be.” It always presupposes the moral standard.

    Darrell

  • Todd Pratt

    Bill,

    Dahmers reasoning is not logical, nor is your assertion that “If there is no God, you have no accountability to anyone else at all.” By his own statements, Dahmer refers to “acceptable ranges.” What Dahmer is referring to and the accountability that you are looking for to the well-being of other humans. We are accountable for our actions in how we treat others. The golden rule was established well before the bible, but even before written history I don’t think we would have survived long as a species if societies allowed murder to be socially acceptable.

    If you want an idea of how atheists view morality, picture for a moment you weren’t bound by a “transcendent moral standard”. Would you then commit rape? murder? I hope not.

    And if you did commit atrocities on your fellow man like Dahmer, in a secular society, you would be cast out, jailed, or removed for your immorality.

  • Todd Pratt

    Darrel,

    For a 20 minute answer to your question, I would recommend listening again to Sam Harris, who I see as an expert in scientific morality here:

    http://www.samharris.org/page/ted_talk/

    I would recommend this for Bill as well since Harris talks about the morality in context of another serial killer, Ted Bundy. On a quick side note, Dahmer died in prison confessing to be a Christian.

  • Trent

    Accountable to whom???

    If you are accountable for society, and the majority of the society see an issue in moral terms and most come down on one side is it moral to take the other side?

    IF the majority of a society is religious, and consider atheism morally wrong, wouldn’t someone who merely defined their morality around being accountable regarding societal norms be acting immorally by promoting atheism?

    It seems that the issue was Dahmer decided he wasn’t accountable to anyone, hence could do what he wanted. If he was to be accountable to someone, to whom was he supposed to be accountable?

  • Bill Pratt

    Todd,
    You said, “And if you did commit atrocities on your fellow man like Dahmer, in a secular society, you would be cast out, jailed, or removed for your immorality.”

    This sounds like a pretty weak form of morality that I hope you don’t subscribe to. You seem to be saying, “Don’t do bad things or you will get punished.” This is what we tell children, but we expect adults to have better reasons. In addition, it seems to imply that as long as you don’t think you’ll be caught or punished, then there is no reason to behave morally. Is that what you think? I hope not.

    Surely there are many people who commit atrocities who are never cast out, jailed, or removed. We don’t catch every criminal. Some crimes aren’t even even known by anyone except the person who committed them. Dictators often lead profoundly immoral lives and die in their old age – fat and happy.

    Why, on atheistic naturalism, was Dahmer objectively wrong? Where did his thinking go wrong? Please do not appeal to moral feelings or instincts that you may have, because that is not a rational argument. It’s like saying, “Dahmer is wrong because he makes me feel yucky inside.” Give me some rational arguments from the atheist worldview that show how Dahmer was objectively wrong.

  • Todd Pratt

    Bill,

    To answer the question, “Why, on atheistic naturalism, was Dahmer objectively wrong?” Philosophically, his logic may be sound, but quite obviously wrong for what is best for the well-being of society. I don’t think you will find many atheists that believe Darwin’s survival of the fittest theory is how morality should be interpreted in modern times. To allow humans to suffer for in the name of naturalism as perhaps a group of monkeys must suffer in the jungle is to deny that which makes us human. Indeed you are correct that we expect adults to have better reasoning.

    In addition, I am not appealing to “moral feelings or instincts” (though undoubtedly neuroscience and psychology may disagree) when I say that science can produce objective answers to moral questions using empirical data. If we were to mock up a quick scientific study, I think it would be easy to find objective answers to questions like whether or not it is moral to throw battery acid in a girls face for the crime of learning to read. So, to your point, Dahmer’s argument was objectively wrong because his idea of morality did not promote what is best for the well-being of society. Which is what morality (at least should) try to promote.

    I don’t think that science has definitive answers to all moral questions. But there are certainly questions which it can answer as being right or wrong objectively. The idea of “Don’t do bad things or you will get punished.” is how I view much of Christian morality. The idea that god has defined an objective morality and that it was written in the bible is hearsay at best. The bible provides a list of ‘bad things’ and makes you adhere to them through the punishment of hell or promise of heaven. In fact, for the lessons in the bible that do promote what is best for society, I would wager science would be able to come to the same conclusion without the need of a supernatural moral authority. I would also wager that science could demonstrate objectively that many ideas the bible teaches as moral, are not in the best interest to society.

  • TC

    Todd Pratt says: February 5, 2011 at 11:18 pmBill,

    If we were to mock up a quick scientific study, I think it would be easy to find objective answers to questions like whether or not it is moral to throw battery acid in a girls face for the crime of learning to read.

    ——————–

    No you can’t. You don’t like it (and neither do I) and you are trying to couch it in scientific terms becuase since they obviously think that it is in the best interest of their society, you need to have a standard beyond either of your opinions.

    One could make the argument that people who don’t make great marks in Elementary school should be sterilized. Why? Obviously they are slow to learn and propogating the genetics for slow learning is not what is best for our species. Is sterilizing the bottom 20% of Grade 2 classes moral? Many people think anyone who believes in theism is stupid. Is the moral thing to do to forcably spay or neuter anyone who looks like they have a religious leaning to get that out of out gene pool?

    They are acountable to their society, which condones it. Are they to be accountable to North American society? Who are we accountable to?

  • Todd Pratt

    TC,

    I don’t believe any sane person would think that throwing battery acid in a person’s eye is good for society, but I could be wrong. Even so, if we couch it in scientific terms we can objectively see that it is not what is best for their society. The problem then would be making them believe the scientific answer is better than the religious answer.

    I think you are trying to get to the point that you believe without an absolute authority behind morality, we can’t define what is best for the world. At some point, I think everyone will have to admit there is no such moral authority. Without getting into the argument about whether or not god exists, even within religion there is not a consensus on what is moral. Catholics say not to use condoms, Christians believe witchcraft is evil, Muslims routinely murder their women, and some atheists may murder because they don’t care about society. the bottom line is, there is no moral compass that blatantly points north.

    So to answer your question, who are we accountable to, I think the best answer is humanity. If Muslims are killing women and think its OK in their society, are accountable to the rest of humanity to condone their actions. And indeed they are being held so to some extent today. If a society wanted to sterilize their slow children, then they would have to be accountable to the rest of humanity to justify their actions. But when you try to make yourself or a society accountable to a god, then there is no objective basis for morality. At least with science, we can observe it objectively when, as humanity, we hold others accountable for their actions.

  • TC

    You are still defining morality as whatever you can convince people is best for society as a whole, and you can get away with without being held accountable for.

    You are also defining whatever your society believes is best trumps anything any other society defines as best. Any other view being insane. Humanity as a whole is not synonomous with western middle class.

    You are not defining morality. You are defining a good rhetoritician.

  • Todd Pratt

    TC,

    I am not. I am clearly defining morality was what is best for humanity. What morality do you adhere to?

  • Ryan K.

    What is best for humanity? This is really a very subjective standard Todd. Hitler thought his actions of genocide were what was best for humanity. And if he had been victorious and we all spoke German today, would that mean he was right?

    How do you define what is best for humanity? And if I define it differently why must I submit to your definition? After all, we are all alone in this gigantic Universe spinning on a rock for a brief moment, what obligates me to live me fleeting moments as you see fit?

    I really am curious Todd, how could it really ever matter when the Universe comes to its cosmic heat death and everything has gone silent, how I or you actually lived our lives? As if this natural, impersonal Universe actually cares about the differences between how Mother Teresa and Hitler lived…

  • Bill Pratt

    Hi Todd,
    On atheism, why should any person rationally adopt your idea of morality, which is “promote what is best for the well-being of society?” If a person told you, “I don’t want to promote what is best for the well-being of society. I want to seek pleasure and follow my desires wherever they lead,” how would you rationally persuade them, on atheism, that they are wrong?

  • TC

    I mentioned several things that a good rhetotitician could argue are for the benefit of humanity, by weeding out faulty genes. My question is, if they actually help weed out those genes, is forced eugenics the moral choice?

  • Todd Pratt

    This will be my last reply on the subject, as the most current blog looks like it will continue the debate. So…

    Ryan,
    Morality is subjective, it will never mean the same thing to all people. There is no objective moral authority in the world today, claiming otherwise it simply wishful thinking. Hitler was held accountable to humanity for his actions. I define morality as that which is best for the well-being of humanity. I hear plenty of dissent, but no alternatives. Ultimately morality matters while we are alive and to those who come after us. There is a lot of time before our sun gives out, have some hope for humanity!

    Bill,
    I suppose that would be someone’s prerogative. So long as that life of self fulfillment did not interfere with the well-being of society, live and let live. There is no ultimate judgement.

    TC,
    To my point, that is a great question that science may be able to help answer. We even have some precedence on the matter in the WWII days where eugenics was the early form of planned parenthood. If you asked me personally, I would say it is not moral and if science observed its impact on society, I think would come to the same conclusion.

  • TC

    Then morality is merely another term for personal preference.

  • TC

    I find it hard to understand how you can condemn someone for not adhering to your own personal preferences.

    If society isn’t happier, but genetically it is “purer” from an evolutionary point of view isn’t humanity better off? After all it is survival of the fittest and not survival of the happiest.

    And no Hitler wan’t held accountable for his acts. He killed himself in anticipation that someone would hold him accountable. From a materialist point of view he was no more held accountable than if the world loved him and he slipped down a flight of stairs. Even then if he hadn’t started a second front with Russia or had a treaty with Japan he may not have lost and been considered a hero. Since not being held accountable is being held up as moral, the morality of the death camps is a question decided by a bit of poor judgement and fluke of history.

  • Bill Pratt

    Todd,
    It seems you have conceded that morality is relative on atheism, and I think you are right. As TC has said, though, you have no grounds to criticize anyone else’s moral choices. It is incoherent for you to judge any other person’s moral choices, but…I’m guessing you still do that every day, like the rest of us. I don’t believe that real moral relativism is liveable. There are honest atheists, like you, that admit that they are relativists, but you will also constantly act as if morality is objective by calling out those moral behaviors you think are wrong. Does this inconsistency not bother you?

  • godfodder

    Bill, take a listen to the episode entitled “Faith of the Fatherless” of ‘Reasonable Doubts Podcast’. They are atheists and they talk about your article. The relevant section starts at 34:50.

    Go here…
    Doubtcast.org

  • Andrew Ryan

    Bill Pratt: “This sounds like a pretty weak form of morality that I hope you don’t subscribe to. You seem to be saying, “Don’t do bad things or you will get punished.” This is what we tell children, but we expect adults to have better reasons.”

    Bill, I take it then that you reject as childish anyone who tells people “Don’t do bad things or you will go to hell”? Because that’s exactly the same argument.

    Positing a God makes no difference to the problem you see in secular morality. It just moves the problem along one position. Why does ‘God says this is wrong’ make it objectively wrong? It is still subjective – it is wrong SUBJECT to the fiat of God.

    Where is God getting the standard from? If it’s himself and his own preferences, then it’s as arbitrary as anyone else’s morality. If it’s from somewhere else, then his existence is not required for morality to exist.

    Is it wrong because God says so, or does God say so because it is wrong? Is ‘God is good’ an objective truth? If so, how does one test it? Is there an act that God could conceivably commit that would stop him being good? If not, if he would be good REGARDLESS of what acts he committed, then what meaning does the assertion ‘God is good’ actually have?

    Until you have answered these questions, you cannot accuse atheists of relativism or inconsistency.

    Finally, I didn’t notice if you answered Todd’s question. In a Godless universe, would YOU, Bill Pratt, see no problem in raping and murdering? If no, then that suggests you don’t actually have any love for your fellow man, and in fact only refrain from heinous acts for the selfish reason that you want to avoid hell.

  • Andrew Ryan

    “Hitler thought his actions of genocide were what was best for humanity”

    How do you know? He might have thought it was what was best for the non-Jewish portion of Germany, but that’s not the same thing.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Trent: “If society isn’t happier, but genetically it is “purer” from an evolutionary point of view isn’t humanity better off? After all it is survival of the fittest and not survival of the happiest.”

    What do you mean by “It” is survival of the fittest? What is the “It” to which you refer? Survival of the fittest is simply a description of what is observed in nature. You’re trying to get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. Given that this is a well-known logical fallacy, Trent, your argument falls down. That’s aside from the fact that you also use the word “purer”, which is pretty subjective in this context.

  • Ajzeig

    Euthyphro’s dilemma has been utterly destroyed Andrew. It fails as a dilemma in the fact that there are more than the two offered choices.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Not good enough I’m afraid. Whenever I hear people posit ‘other choices’, they’re always the same two in disguise. WLC offers “It comes from God’s nature”, which just leads us to ask where the nature comes from – Himself or some other source. And then we’re back where we started.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Can you critique Deanna Laney’s reasoning?

  • Ruthie

    Per Todd’s comments…I think Deanna Laney was (is) probably mentally ill, if she killed her children for their “good,” so Christian morality doesn’t have a great deal to do with it. Meanwhile, I am not “excusing” Jeffrey Dahmer, but look at his background: His parents divorced and he was basically abandoned. When I saw Jeff’s father on TV, I got the impression that the dad was mentally ill. So it may have been a case of both nature and nurture. And/or if Jeff did not receive love as a child–especially from his father–maybe he was seeking relationships with other males, and then “took out” the anger he felt toward his father by killing his victims. I know, those are “pscyhological”-type comments.

    I do not believe that “science” can give us the “answers” (or “guidelines”) to moral issues. Besides, didn’t Hitler and the Germans perform torturous and deadly “experiments” upon the Jews in “the name of science”? That is where Christian morality comes into play. What was done during the Holocaust was clearly evil and demonic, though that wasn’t the only case of attempted genocide.

    Some atheists might claim that the Holocaust and Jeff Dahmer are “prime” examples that “there is no God” (or how else could there be such slaughtering of innocents?). But I would use those as two prime examples of why people need the Lord!

    Yes, I realize my comments are simplistic compared to you theologians and other doctorates, but…I felt the need to add my two bits, regardless.

    And while humans are born with a sin nature, do we not also have an innate sense of right and wrong? Where does that “sense” come from, if it’s not from God? And I mean Jehovah God!

  • Andrew Ryan

    You may as well say “you may not like what Timothy McVie or the 9/11 murderers did, but if you’re following the idea that anything a God says is moral regardless of how heinous it is, then the most you can say about them is they followed a different God to you – they were otherwise perfectly moral.”

  • Jeremy

    (on a slight tangent)…I wonder if Dahmer changed his mind in the end as suggested in his chaplain’s book _Dark Journey Deep Grace_ ??

  • Nogod

    lol you’re a funny woman (I think you are a woman), I love how you call a woman who claims to talk to god because you think she did something heinous and bad (which she did) and you turn around and you say she’s probably mentally ill because she was mentally ill? Really and what about Abraham of the bible, was he not mentally ill for hearing voices in his head from god to slaughter/sacrifice/murder his own child because of a damn voice in his head “supposedly”. What’s the lesson, you better be damn obedient! You call Christianity morality, based on what? If you use the standards of morality nowadays you’re nothing more than a self-serving hypocrite

    Yeah I really need a Lord that tells people it’s ok to commit mass genocide on every little thing (including cattle..?) literally,

    Behold, with a great plague will the LORD smite thy people, and thy children, and thy wives, and all thy goods. And thou shalt have great sickness by disease of thy bowels, until thy bowels fall out.–21:14 2 Chronicles

    3:6 And we utterly destroyed them, as we did unto Sihon king of Heshbon, utterly destroying the men, women, and children, of every city. — Deuternomy

    What a find funny also is that, and you need to actually take some time to read not only your bible properly…more but history. Genocides have happen in all cultures super religious and not so religious, but the biggest theme is submission to and obedience to authority. A lack of criticism, questioning and accountability leads down a destruction and a path of heinous genocide, it has nothing to do with “THE LORD” no there none to do with that.

    I’m wondering do you have children? Has it ever crossed your mind to “smite” your child pretty much stone them to death if they curse or speak ill of you, Ex.21:15, Lev.20:9, Dt.21:18-21 if it’s not you haven’t been a good Christian, these are just some of the absurdities that don’t even make for a good argument on Christian morality. Amazing Jesus essentially saying those who don’t believe should be brought before him and slayin’ – Luke 19: 22-27

    You want a Jeffrey Dahmer like morality read non other than Judges 19:22-30. I’m baffled that someone like the writer of this blog would even hint at the lack of belief in god makes someone like Jeff Dahmer possible because of his lack of accountability. Someone can do everything J.D did and claim they were listening to god but of course the pious quickly want no association and say he’s mentally ill, but if he doesn’t it’s suddenly look see, you need god look how evil…. WHAT????

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