Tag Archives: ethics

Why Is Morality Ultimately Relational?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

Can a person be moral without knowing God? Yes, but this kind of moral life is stunted and incomplete. It is only through relationship with God that the moral life flowers. Once again, I must quote from David Baggett and Jerry Walls’ brilliant work, Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality.

If God is the source and root of morality—in any fashion close to the way that we have depicted it here—then the tug of morality within us is less like a cold deliverance of reason, and more like a warm and personal invitation to come and partake, to drink from a brook whose water quenches our thirst in the most deeply satisfying way we can imagine.

The voice of morality is the call of God to return to our only true and ultimate source of happiness. It’s not an overactive superego or a societally imposed joy-killing curfew, but an intimation of the eternal, a personal overture to run with rather than against the grain of the universe. It’s a confirmation of our suspicions that love and relationship have not just happened to bubble up to the top of the evolutionary chain, reflecting nothing, but rather that they penetrate to the very foundation of all that is real.

Reason and relationship, rationality and relationality, go hand in hand, and they weren’t merely the culmination of the elaborate process that enabled us to reflect about it all and inquire into the meaning of life; no, they were what began it all and imbued the process with meaning right from the start.

How does our relationship with God make us more virtuous?

Virtue itself is relational. Experience reveals that we grow to become like those with whom we fraternize. Relationship with God is what makes us more like him; intimacy with Christ makes us fully human. By hiding his words in our heart we become better able to resist sin; by yielding to his will we walk uprightly; by allowing the power of the Holy Spirit to animate us, we find deliverance from the bondage to sin.

Virtue, to our thinking, is not just a set of dispositional qualities; it’s a function of ongoing relationship. Intimacy with God is what engenders holiness of heart. Trust in his faithfulness and goodness manifests itself in a holy life. Morality, ultimately, for the Christian, is all about relationship, first and foremost with God, and then secondarily with others. All the law and the prophets, Jesus assured us, hang on these two commandments: To love God with all of our hearts, souls, and minds, and our neighbor as ourselves.

Yes, we can be virtuous without knowing God, but it is of a secondary quality. The path to true virtue is through relationship with Jesus Christ.

Why Is a Transcendent Moral Standard Necessary? Part 2

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

Picking up the argument from part 1, let’s recap. When we make moral judgments, we just take for granted that our judgments apply regardless of time period, place, or even species. Another way to say this is that our moral judgments transcend time, place, and species.

If this is true, then it seems to follow that the moral values to which we appeal when we make moral judgments must also transcend time, place, and species. If not, then our moral judgments would be nonsensical.

If moral values are dependent upon time periods, then we could not possibly make moral judgments that cross time periods, for each time period would be characterized by a different set of moral values.

For example, perhaps a moral value of ancient Rome was that women do not have the same legal rights as men. But today, at least in western civilization, we believe that men and women should have the same legal rights. If moral values are time dependent, then we cannot rationally criticize ancient Rome’s mistreatment of women.

Likewise, if moral values are dependent on place, then I, as an American, could not possibly make moral judgments about the actions of people living in places outside the US. I cannot criticize China or North Korea for human rights abuses, because they possess a different set of moral values than mine. To compare American values to Chinese values would be comparing apples to oranges.

If moral values are based solely upon human nature, then we could not possibly make moral judgments about intelligent, non-human agents. For example, criticizing the God of the Bible for acting immorally would be totally irrational if moral values were tied solely to human nature.

If aliens ever populated the earth and forced humans to be involuntary slaves, we could not complain that they are acting immorally toward us, as they would be working with a different set of moral values than ours. We might claim that we don’t like the way they’re treating us, but we could not say that they are acting immorally.

It seems, then, that if we take our common, every-day moral judgments seriously, we must posit a set of moral values that transcends time, place, and species. Any ontological theory which claims that the source of moral values is tied to time, place, or the human species would fail to account for the way we make moral judgments, a serious problem that should cause us to abandon that theory.

Why Is a Transcendent Moral Standard Necessary? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

When we humans make moral judgments, when we call some activity morally good or bad, we think that our judgment is universal, that it transcends time, place, and even our own human species. Let me explain each one in turn.

With regard to time, we humans believe that it is perfectly reasonable and normal for us to judge moral actions that occurred in the past. In fact, we routinely criticize the moral actions of our ancestors.

We condemn the Nazis for what they did 70 years ago. We decry American slave owners who lived  200 years ago. We excoriate ancient Romans of 2000 years ago for the unequal treatment of women. We morally reject the killing of women and children in military campaigns led by Bronze Age armies (4000 years ago).

More examples could be given, but hopefully you see the point. Most of us just naturally criticize immoral behavior, regardless of when it occurred. We believe that our judgments are timeless.

With regard to place, we humans believe that it is perfectly reasonable and normal for us to judge moral actions that occur in different places than where we live. Institutions like the United Nations simply assume that moral judgments are applicable to all member nations. There are not generally different moral standards applied to each different nation; they are all expected to uphold the same human rights.

When I, as an American living in the state of North Carolina, read about actions committed in other places in the world, I don’t hesitate to make moral judgments. When China imprisons political dissidents, I condemn them. When North Korea starves its people, I react with moral outrage.

Where an immoral action occurs is simply not normally taken into consideration by most of us. Murder and rape are wrong no matter where they occur.

With regard to our species, we humans believe that it is perfectly reasonable and normal for us to judge the moral actions of creatures with intellect and free will, but which are not human – beings who do not share a human nature with us.

Throughout human history, gods, angels, demons, and spirits have all been subjected to moral rebuke. The ancient Greeks routinely judged the acts of their pantheon of gods as moral or immoral. Christians have always praised the moral activity of angels and condemned the moral activity of demons. Non-Christian skeptics routinely denounce the alleged immoral activity of the Christian God.

Leaving aside gods, it also seems natural that we would hold alien beings who are intelligent and possess free will to our moral standards. Imagine that an intelligent alien race landed on earth and began herding together humans so that they could be used as slaves. Would we not condemn this activity as immoral?

The sci-fi genre has played on this assumption for decades. There have been countless books and movies that portray hostile alien beings inflicting damage on human beings. When those aliens are portrayed as intelligent beings capable of exercising free will, the human characters almost always morally rebuke the actions of the alien beings.

It seems, then, that our human moral judgments are routinely applied to intelligent, free beings that are non-human.

In part 2, we will pick up the argument from here. We will look at how our every-day moral judgments demand a transcendent set of moral values.

What Would Kant Say About Abortion?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Immanuel Kant is a famous philosopher who lived in the eighteenth century.  One of Kant’s most lasting contributions to philosophy was in the field of ethics.  He believed that moral laws could be derived from reason, and that all immoral behavior was, therefore, unreasonable or irrational.

Kant argued for the idea of the categorical imperative, a law of morality that all humans have a duty to obey.  His first formulation of this categorical imperative is the following: “Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”  Kant believed that all moral duties could be deduced from this categorical imperative.

What does this categorical imperative mean?  In essence, if you want to decide whether an act is morally good, then you should be able to will that everyone else would act in the same way.  In other words, the act must be universalizable.

What about abortion?  Kant would say to the woman who wants to have an abortion: “Can you will that every other woman would have an abortion when she is pregnant?”  If the woman says “yes,” then abortion is moral.  If she says “no,” then abortion cannot be moral.

It seems to me that a woman who wanted to have an abortion could not will that every other woman also have an abortion when she is pregnant.  Why?  Because in one generation the human race would go extinct and nobody could have an abortion.  To will that all women have abortions would mean that no women could have an abortion after the current generation died off.  By Kant’s reasoning, this makes abortion irrational and, therefore,  immoral.

Again, according to Kant, abortion would be immoral because it would be irrational to will that every pregnant woman have an abortion.  The act of every pregnant woman aborting the fetus inside her would, ultimately, end abortion, which is completely irrational.

You may not agree with Kant’s categorical imperative, but it does give us an interesting perspective on the issue of abortion.  Fundamentally, those who support a woman’s choice to have an abortion can only support some women choosing abortion, not all.  Presumably and ironically, if all women decided to have abortions, the pro-choice movement would have to become pro-life.

Is Science Dependent on Other Disciplines?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

The use of the scientific method as a way of learning about the natural world has yielded fantastic technologies and discoveries over the last few hundred years.  Nobody can doubt the power of the scientific method – collecting data, developing hypotheses about that data, and then testing those hypotheses with empirical experimentation.

In fact, some people are so enamored of the scientific method that they declare that this is the only way we can gain true knowledge about anything.  Philosopher J. P. Moreland was once told by a man finishing his doctorate in physics that “science is the only discipline that is rational and true.  Everything else is a matter of mere belief and opinion. . . . if something cannot be quantified or tested by the scientific method, . . . it cannot be true or rational.”

Is this true?  Does science stand on its own without any support?  Is it the only way to know anything?

The answer, my friends, is an unequivocal no.

Moreland explains that the statement “only what can be known by science or quantified and empirically tested is rational and true” is self-refuting.  Why?  Because this statement itself is not a statement of science but a statement of philosophy about science.  In other words, at least one philosophical statement must be true for science to even get started.  The aims, methodologies, and presuppositions of science must be upheld by disciplines other than science, for science cannot pull itself up by its own bootstraps.  Science is like the second story of a house; it cannot stand without the first story and the foundation underneath.

What are these things underneath science, supporting it?  Moreland provides several examples.

First, “one must hold that the senses are reliable and give accurate information about a mind-independent physical world.”  This is a philosophical position and there are some in academia who would deny its truth.  The scientist must take this philosophical statement to be true before he can start doing science.

Second, “science must assume that the mind is rational and that the universe is rational in such a way that the mind can know it.  Science must assume some uniformity of nature to justify induction (i.e., science must assume that one can legitimately infer from the past to the future and from the examined cases to unexamined ones of the same kind).”  For example, just because hydrogen and oxygen have formed water in the past, why should we believe it will continue to happen in the future?  Again, this is a philosophical presupposition of science.  In fact, the assumption that the universe is rational such that we can know it is a big surprise if you are a naturalist who denies the existence of a rational creator.

Third, science assumes that “the laws of logic are true, that numbers exist, . . . that language has meaning, . . . that truth exists and involves some sort of correspondence between theories and the world.”  None of these things are demonstrated by science.  They must all be true for science to work in the first place.

Fourth, “science assumes certain moral, epistemic, and methodological values.  Regarding moral values, science assumes that experiments should be reported honestly and that truth-telling is a moral virtue.  Regarding epistemic virtues, science assumes that theories ought to be simple, accurate, predictively successful, and so forth.  Regarding methodological values, science often values such things as disinterestedness, organized skepticism, and procedural rules.”

Fifth, and finally, boundary conditions are not accounted for by science.  “The mass of a proton, the rate of expansion of the big bang, the existence of the big bang itself – in short all cases of genuine brute givens not subsumable under higher laws – are boundary conditions for science.  They are givens which cannot be accounted for by science.”

The idea that science is the only way to find truth is obviously false.  Science rests on piles of presuppositions and assumptions that science-worshipers seem to forget.  Why is this important?  Because there is a whole world of metaphysics, ethics, logic, mathematics, and linguistics that must be studied and understood.  As soon as these things are pushed aside as irrelevant, and forgotten, science dies.

Why Ought I Act Morally? Part 2

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In the previous post, I explained atheist Dan Barker’s argument in a debate he had with Christian Matt Slick.  If you don’t remember what I said, please go back and quickly remind yourself, as this post won’t make sense otherwise.  Below I pick up where I left off.

What I don’t understand is how Barker jumped from telling us that morality consists of natural inclinations produced by a blind, purposeless, process of evolution (that is solely interested in how we reproduce) to a moral duty of doing less harm.  Barker has committed the classic faux pas of moving from an is to an ought.  He tells us what morality is – a natural inclination toward behaviors that promote human survival – and from there tells us that we ought to do whatever causes less harm.  But where does this duty come from?

If I am a person who is naturally inclined to lie about what atheists say in debates, why should I attempt to fight this inclination?  After all, maybe evolution needs some liars in the gene pool.  I am just playing my role in the survival of the species.  If Barker were to say to me, “Lying about what atheists say causes harm, so you shouldn’t do it,” I would say, “What duty do I have to follow Barker’s personal opinion about morality?”  What authority does he have to legislate my behavior?  If he answers that he is summarizing what Nature already is telling me, then I would want to know what duty I have to follow the commands of a mindless, purposeless, blind process?

Please notice that I have not even questioned Barker’s maxim of do less harm.  I am just assuming for this argument that he has correctly summarized our natural inclinations.  His maxim actually represents a utilitarian calculus which presents several major problems that philosophers have called attention to, but his idea of doing less harm can’t even get off the ground until he has provided a rational reason to accept it.  Many atheists seem to completely miss this point.  Atheists are able to rattle off dozens of moral theories which claim to summarize our natural moral inclinations.  But the question is why should anyone follow their theories?  What rational reason is there to let their moral theories dictate moral commands to anyone?

Dan Barker is a self-appointed ambassador for the periodic chart of elements (Nature).  The elements have spoken and Dan is translating for us.  But it’s even more bizarre than that.  Not only do non-intelligent and non-personal atoms have no authority to legislate, but they legislate contradictory things.  After all, the same Nature that produced Mother Theresa produced Hitler.  They both followed their natural inclinations, so how can I ever say which one was right and which was wrong?  Nature may need both of them for the species to survive so that it would actually be immoral to stop Hitler from doing what he was naturally inclined to do.

Barker’s world ultimately has no legitimate source for moral authority.  He could never tell us who is giving moral commands that has the legitimate authority to do so.  Based on his moral philosophy, I do not know why I should rationally be moral.

Why Ought I Act Morally? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt

This week I’ve been listening to a debate between Matt Slick (Christian) and Dan Barker (atheist) on whether humans can be good without God.  Barker’s argument during the debate struck me as illogical, and here’s why.

Barker explained that moral values are merely natural inclinations that are built into human beings due to the long process of evolution.  These inclinations vary from person to person across a statistical distribution.  Some people feel a strong inclination to help the poor and some don’t.  Some people are strongly opposed to rape and some are not.

For every natural, moral inclination there is a statistical bell curve across humanity.  Evolution has bequeathed moral inclinations to humans, but to varying degrees.  At one point, Barker even said that it may be evolutionarily necessary for this bell curve to exist.  To give an example, it may be that if everyone was strongly opposed to murdering the innocent, this may not best advance the survival of the human race.  We can’t have everyone acting like Mother Theresa or else our species might die out.  The converse is also true: a world full of Hitler’s would also kill off the human race.

I agree with Barker that some people have stronger moral inclinations than others and that some of this variation may be genetic.  What I don’t understand is the next move he made in the debate.

He then offered his definition of behaving morally: do less harm.  For Barker, this phrase neatly encapsulates the diverse natural instincts that evolution has given us.  In essence, Barker is saying, “Nature has caused us to have these inclinations and if I had to come up with a phrase to describe what these inclinations are telling us to do, it is ‘do less harm.'”  Barker is acting as Nature’s ambassador and explaining to us in a command what she actually wants from us.  From then on, Barker repeatedly stated that humans ought to do less harm, with the situation determining how that plays out.

In the next post, I will explain why Dan Barker’s approach does not work.  See you then.

What Is the Christian Worldview? Part 2

Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglica...

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In part 1 I introduced eight questions that every worldview should answer.  These eight questions are as follows:

  1. What is ultimate reality?
  2. Where did the world around us come from and what is its nature?
  3. What are human beings and where did they come from?
  4. Why do humans suffer?
  5. Is there a way for humans to be saved from suffering?
  6. How do I know right from wrong?
  7. What is the meaning or purpose of my life?
  8. What happens to me when I die?

Christianity offers profound and, what’s even more important, true answers to these questions.  The first four answers were provided in part 1, so now we will look at the answers to the final four questions.

Question 5: Is there a way for humans to be saved from suffering?

Christians believe that the only way humans can be ultimately saved from suffering is to be reconciled with God.  This reconciliation was made possible by the death and resurrection of the Son of God, Jesus Christ.  Once a person trusts Christ for their salvation, suffering in this life becomes bearable and pregnant with meaning, for the Son of God is with us in our suffering and promises to bring good out of it.

Question 6: How do I know right from wrong?

Christians believe that there exists an objective moral law that is based on the nature of God.  God reveals his perfect moral nature both through moral commands which he has communicated in the Bible, and through a common moral conscience which God has given all humans.

Question 7: What is the meaning or purpose of my life?

Christians believe that the purpose of life is to do the will of God and to enjoy God forever.  One of the beauties of Christianity is that God has given us great leeway to pursue myriad interests and passions in this life, as long as we always keep Him front and center in our lives.

Question 8: What happens to me when I die?

Christians believe that there is an afterlife for every human.  The afterlife can be spent either in the presence of God forever or separated from God forever.  God respects human freedom such that He does not force anyone to spend an eternity with Him.  Jesus Christ’s sacrificial death and resurrection provides the only means for any human to spend eternity with God.  Those who reject Jesus’ sacrifice for humanity will forever be separated from God.  Those who trust in Jesus’ sacrifice will spend a blissful eternity with the ultimate source of all that is good and the only being who can fulfill all human desires, God.

The Christian answers to these eight questions are unique among all the world’s religions and philosophies.  It is important to note that we don’t hold the Christian worldview because it works, or because it feels good, or because it’s emotionally satisfying, but because we think it is true.  We think that the Christian worldview most accurately describes reality the way it really is.

What is Social Darwinism? – #4 Post of 2009

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Social Darwinism is the theory that persons, societies of people, and races develop and evolve in much the same way that biological organisms evolve due to natural selection.  It is frequently described by the phrase, “survival of the fittest,” which was coined by British philosopher Herbert Spencer just a few years after Darwin wrote Origin of the Species.

The theory speculates that those people groups who are superior in intelligence, creativity, and industriousness would naturally overcome their weaker neighbors.  In doing so, they would become more successful as measured by wealth and prosperity.  This view led to a belief in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that human “class stratification was justified on the basis of ‘natural’ inequalities among individuals, for the control of property was said to be a correlate of superior and inherent moral attributes such as industriousness, temperance, and frugality.”

The ethical ramifications of social Darwinism are immense.  Following its logic, if nature is removing the inferior races of men in order to preserve the superior races, then mankind ought to cooperate.  Even though this is a clear example of the is/ought fallacy, the social Darwinists employed the theory to justify all sorts of behavior.  At the individual level, there was a moral obligation to not help those people who were biologically unfit.  After all, evolution is attempting to remove these people from the population pool.  If a person is born blind, let her die of starvation rather than fit her for glasses.  If she reproduces, she is weakening the gene pool.

With regard to ethnic groups, there arose an ethical basis for racism and nationalism; if a person’s society is shown to be socio-economically superior to others, then ignoring the plight of the inferior races and societies is completely justified.  “At the societal level, social Darwinism was used as a philosophical rationalization for imperialist, colonialist, and racist policies.”

Social Darwinism saw its greatest impact in the Nazi and communist regimes of the twentieth century.  According to Sir Arthur Keith, a strong proponent of biological evolutionary theory, “We see Hitler devoutly convinced that evolution produces the only real basis for a national policy. . . . The means he adopted to secure the destiny of his race and people were organized slaughter, which has drenched Europe in blood. . . . Such conduct is highly immoral as measured by every scale of ethics, yet Germany justifies it; it is consonant with tribal or evolutionary morality.”

Nazi Germany is generally thought to have exterminated about twelve million innocent people and the regime largely based its policies on the idea that the Aryan race was superior.   It was the duty of the German people to populate the world and eliminate the inferior races.

Marxist regimes also believed that Darwinism could be used to build a legitimate philosophical framework.  Karl Marx was heavily influenced by the writings of Charles Darwin and believed that the dethroning of the bourgeoisie was completely justified to bring about the evolution of mankind that he envisioned.  Marxist governments were responsible for murdering tens of millions of people during the twentieth century.  Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao Tse Tung massacred their own people in order to create a new order that they based ultimately upon the concept of “survival of the fittest.”

Although few people claim to be social Darwinists today, the ideas of social Darwinism still surface from time to time.  Our next post will analyze this theory of ethics to see whether it can be grounded in the seven aspects of morality we discussed in What Do We Know About Morality?

[quotation references can be provided on request]

“If You Don’t Like Abortion, Don’t Have One”

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Incredibly, this was the sage advice of a writer who showered us with his wisdom in the letters to the editor section in our local newspaper.  I rarely read the letters to the editor, because they almost never say anything of substance, but in a moment of weakness, I read them and was treated with this gem.

What is the problem with this statement?  Well, for starters, it betrays a complete lack of understanding of the pro-life position.  Those who oppose abortion do not do so because of a personal preference.

We are not saying that we don’t prefer abortion.  We are saying that abortion is morally wrong, and that it is, in fact, the taking of an innocent human life.  A person’s personal preference about an act is completely different from his knowledge of whether the act is morally right or wrong.  One can prefer things that are morally wrong or one can prefer things that are morally right.  Pro-lifers don’t strictly care about what people prefer when it comes to abortion.  They are arguing about whether abortion is morally right or wrong.

If abortion is the taking of an innocent human life, and we routinely pass laws that protect innocent human life, it follows that there should be a law that prevents abortion.  Not because we don’t prefer abortion, but because it is morally reprehensible.

Would it make any sense for me to say, “If you don’t like murder, then don’t commit one!”?  Or what about, “If you don’t like rape, then don’t commit one!”?

If abortion is truly the taking of an innocent life, then telling people not to have one if they don’t like it is as asinine as telling someone not to murder if they don’t like murder.

We don’t tell people not to produce acts of evil if they don’t personally like a particular evil act.  We tell them not to commit acts of evil because evil is morally wrong, and we ought not do what is morally wrong.