February 26, 2003


Morality: Who Needs God? (Rabbi Nechemia Coopersmith, Aish.com)
God's existence has direct bearing on how we view morality. As Dostoyevsky so famously put it, "Without God, everything is permitted."

At first glance, this statement may not make sense. Everything is permitted? Can't there be a morality without an infinite God?

Perhaps some of the confusion is due to a murky definition of morality we owe to moral relativism. Moral relativism maintains that there is no objective standard of right and wrong existing separate and independent from humanity. The creation of moral principles stems only from within a person, not as a distinct, detached reality. Each person is the source and definer of his or her subjective ethical code, and each has equal power and authority to define morality the way he or she sees fit.

The consequences of moral relativism are far-reaching. Since all moral issues are subjective, right and wrong are reduced to matters of opinion and personal taste. Without a binding, objective standard of morality that sticks whether one likes it or not, a person can do whatever he feels like by choosing to label any behavior he personally enjoys as "good." Adultery, embezzlement, and random acts of cruelty may not be your cup of tea -- but why should that stop someone from taking pleasure in them if that is what they enjoy. [...]

An absolute standard of morality can only stem from an infinite source. Why is that?

When we describe murder as being immoral, we do not mean it is wrong just for now, with the possibility of it becoming "right" some time in the future. Absolute means unchangeable, not unchanging.

What's the difference?

My dislike for olives is unchanging. I'll never start liking them. That doesn't mean it is impossible for my taste to change, even though it's highly unlikely. Since it could change, it is not absolute. It is changeable.

The term "absolute" means without the ability to change. It is utterly permanent, unchangeable. [...]

If everything in the finite universe is undergoing change -- since it exists within time -- where can we find the quality of absolute?

Its source cannot be in time, which is constantly undergoing change. It must be beyond time, in the infinite dimension. Only God, the infinite being that exists beyond time, is absolute and unchangeable.

'I am God, I do not change.' (Malachi 3:6)

Therefore an absolute standard of morality can exist only if it stems from an infinite dimension -- a realm that is eternal, beyond time, with no beginning and no end.

This is pretty much where we came in.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 26, 2003 5:06 PM

This is nonsense. I'm an atheist and I've never robbed, beaten or killed anyone, and never will.

Oh there's no god? So I can do whateve I like as long as I get away with it? Cool, time to rob a 7-11 and shoot the clerk just for kicks!

I don't begrudge people their honest religious beliefs, and agree that a strong judeo/christian mythological base might be a good thing for society, but please, you're sounding like a religious bigot when you imply that without a belief in god people can't be moral. Clearly, the vast majority of secular people act with humanity and decency, as do the religious.

Though I agree with alot of what you post on your site, promoting this kind of arrogance does you no justice.

Posted by: Amos at February 27, 2003 4:08 AM

Amos - I believe he's not saying that atheist persons "can't be moral" but that an atheist society won't be just. It's not a logical impossibility for atheists to be ethical, and it's even likely that they will be on an individual or case-by-case basis, but societies in which there is no religious basis for ethical belief and faith-that-disciplines-action, it will not be possible to build that universally (99%+) shared refusal to engage in violence, refusal to lie, and willingness to cooperate and forgive offenses that is necessary for a free society to survive long. Without a firm faith in these things, the moral atheists will not have the confidence or conviction to apply sufficient social pressure to regulate their less moral peers.

Posted by: pj at February 27, 2003 7:43 AM

Of course, then, the obvious question is, can a religious society (or one that purports to be) be immoral (if one can move beyond tautology). And the fact that the answer is yes---this having been the case in the past and in some places, is still true in the present (and is always in danger of being true)---means that more than just belief in god is required.

Curiously, perhaps paradoxically, there is a stream in Jewish tradition (Orthodox, as well), which asserts that, while belief in god is clearly preferable from a religious standpoint, it is not necessarily required. However, upholding the commandments is.

(Why one would uphold god's commandments but not believe in god is an interesting question, of course, though it is certainly answerable.)

Posted by: Barry Meislin at February 27, 2003 8:17 AM


There's a vast difference between being religious (and here we mean only, at most, the three great Abrahamic religions and maybe not Islam) and purporting to be. It's not possible to obey the dictates of Judeo-Christianity and have a truly immoral society--though we might find it a bruising morality.

Posted by: oj at February 27, 2003 8:47 AM


I suppose one coud recognise the commandments as being rules well worth following to live a happy, decent, ordered life even if one is not convinced that a Creator exists.

Posted by: M Ali Choudhury at February 27, 2003 8:53 AM

To me a stronger case can be made that if God did not exist there could be no justice
. After all, Christianity holds that God has "inscribed his laws on our hearts," including atheist hearts. Thus atheists will be moral because they are responding to their own inner nature, made in the image of God, and disposed to be good. But if God did not exist and people had evolved purely materially, what basis would there be for atheists to be good? And in a world without God, religious faith would be too thin a reed to support goodness.

Posted by: pj at February 27, 2003 9:00 AM


I have no doubt that an atheist can freeload on Judeo-Christian morality--the question is can they formulate a universal morality without God. Several thousand years of philosophy suggest not. In that sense, you're right: I'm a religious bigot.

Posted by: oj at February 27, 2003 9:12 AM


Yes, you could so recognize them, but what if the person standing next to you doesn't? A society as imbued with them as ours can tolerate atheist and others who accept them but don't feel bound, but what of a society where no one is bound? You end up, in that case, with the State having to enforce every behavioral rule and there goes freedom. The end result of atheism is not lawlessness and anarchy but Statism.

Posted by: oj at February 27, 2003 9:15 AM


But we're also disposed toward evil and entire societies, indeed all mankind, have shown themselves entirely willing to descend into it.

Posted by: oj at February 27, 2003 9:16 AM

Let's posit, for a moment, a truly athiest culture. (Although, given the failure of the USSR to establish one, with all the tools an unfettered state could bring to bear for 70 years, it may not be possible.) The problem is not, to borrow a phrase from George Will, what would be done that was unethical, the problem is the things that would be done that would be considered entirely ethical.

Our society, based upon unchanging commandments from an immutable G-d, will never entirely live up to our ideals. A society that truly believed that people were only so many meat machines, without an eternal soul or omniscient Judge, will always end up setting its ethics at an attainable level, driven, at best, by human logic but driven mostly by the majority's desires, including its desire not to be hypocritical. (With immutable moral laws, this same desire is a powerful force for good.)

This would, in effect, be Peter Singer's kingdom, as, leaving aside the idea of human value extrinsic to physical existence, his logic is impeccable. Perhaps no truer words have ever been written, though not in the way the author intended, than "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him." This is, as it happens, a large part of my motivation in deciding to believe.

Posted by: David Cohen at February 27, 2003 9:29 AM


True. We need God a lot more than He needs us.

Posted by: M Ali Choudhury at February 27, 2003 1:13 PM

oj - yes, but just think how much more we'd be disposed to evil if God had not made us in His image.

Posted by: pj at February 27, 2003 1:13 PM

David - excellent point. I think it's remarkable that, even benefiting from thousands of years of Judeo-Christian revelation and human experience, the best theory academic philosophers have been able to come up with is the simple-minded utilitarianism of people like Peter Singer. In the absence of Judaism and Christianity, how silly and weak would their moral theories be?

Posted by: pj at February 27, 2003 1:17 PM

A godless society that was violent and unfree. Who could imagine such a thing? As David says, it is kind of hard to imagine a godless society, with the exception of the Baining, who are, compared to most other societies, neither violent nor unfree.

On the other hand, we do not have to try to imagine godful societies that are both excessively violent and unfree. Spain, from the history books; or India, from a visit.

I agree that if god did not exist, humans would invent him. What puzzles me is how awful (in both senses) a god they chose to have. I could do a lot better.

Posted by: Harry at February 27, 2003 1:18 PM

To expand on the rabbi's argument, if an absolute morality must come from an unchanging source, it is obvious that it could not come from a personal source. Name one person you know that is either infinite or unchanging. Try to even imagine such a person.

corrolary to Dostoyevsky: with God, everything is forgiven. Either way, there is very little disincentive to do evil.

OJ, would it make you happy if us "freeloaders" would make a royalty payment to Christianity every time we did a good deed? Who should we make the check out to?

How's the patent infringement lawsuit with the other world religions going?

Posted by: Robert D at February 27, 2003 1:47 PM


Absolutely. You needn't be religious to recognize your obligation. Give generously to some faith-based charity.

Posted by: oj at February 27, 2003 2:10 PM


All comunist societies and Nazi Germany were godless. They compensated by removing human freedom. Those seem to be the options.

Posted by: oj at February 27, 2003 2:12 PM

Robert D--

If you believe that with God, everything is forgiven, you haven't read enough Torah. Moses, for a moment of doubt in a life of sacrifice for G-d, was punished by being kept from the Promised Land. How do you think you and I are going to fare on that scale?

Some of the newer religions, I understand, take a somewhat softer line, but as conservatives we must abjure them.

Posted by: David Cohen at February 27, 2003 2:26 PM


The inquisition and untold number of pogroms were carried out by deeply religious people. Additionally, the Nazi inspired Holocaust was implemented only with the thoroughgoing connivance of a predominantly Christian populace.

With such a lousy track record, why should I give any credence to the claim that belief in an infinite God is required for morality?


Jeff Guinn

Posted by: at February 27, 2003 3:16 PM


Good point! I was aiming my comments at those "upstart" religions.

Posted by: Robert D at February 27, 2003 3:22 PM


Communism is a religion--it has/had its priesthood in the Communist Party, its overarching text (Das Kapital), and its deities: Marx, Lenin, Engels.

And Communism, like all unbridled religions, showed all the evil excesses attendant with Revealed Truth.

One other proof Communism is a religion: how else can you explain the existence of believers in the utter absence of empirical evidence?


Jeff G.

Posted by: at February 27, 2003 3:25 PM


Both Nazism and Communism,, though I understand your desire to disavow them, are the products of reason and both required that Judeo-Christianity be wholly replaced as a moral system before they could work their wonders.

Reason, of course, is a revealed truth and requires fairly little in the way of evidence so long as the theory proposed is elegant enough--as witness your faith in Darwinism though you've never witnessed evolution in any way, shape, or form.

Posted by: oj at February 27, 2003 3:36 PM

There are two arguments here. The first is one empircal: will only religious, monotheistic societies be consistantly moral. The second is logical: does ethical reasoning, or the truth of ethical judgments, requires the postulation of a deity.

The former point I don't much care about. The latter, however, seems quite important. And while I am no fan of Peter Singer he, or indeed, any other academic philosopher, could make mincemeat of the poor arguments being advanced by the good rabbi.

A deity, it as alleged, is required to ground the unchanging truth of ethics. Well look, the proposition 2+2 = 4 is true today, tomorrow, and forever. Do we need divine power to ensure the truths of mathematics as well? If so, how exactly? If God did not exist would it be *false* that 2+2 = 4? Or is the truth of the proposition "2+2 = 4" in some way deeply different from the proposition "murder is immoral?"

From all the beating up of philosophy in this thread, you'd think the tradition had never touched on or examined questions like this. But of course, it has, in great detail. Indeed, it was an old question 1000 years ago. To say that Peter Singer represents the best candidate theory proffered by secular philosophy is simply ridiculous. Other candidates include, Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, and Kant. While all of these thinkers were at least theists, none of them believed their arguments for the truth of morality required the postulation of a deity to work.

Posted by: ben at February 27, 2003 3:58 PM


I assume you're kidding because that's inane. The reason that tradition of trying to come up with a wholly reasoned moral philosophy has lasted thousands of years is because they've been unable to come up with a firm ground in the absence of an Absolute.

2 + 2 = 4, on the other hand, was settled awhile ago so folks don't spend all that much effort trying to prove it.

Posted by: oj at February 27, 2003 5:26 PM

Well, let's be overly reductive. If there were no god, 2+2 would not equal 4 because "2" "+" "=" and "4" are all human symbols. No god, no humans; no humans, no symbols.

Now, let's be somewhat less reductive. 2+2=4 because both 2+2 and 4 are symbols for the same concept. The statement is tautological, of the same profundity as red=red. But it is also culturally bound. I could as easily write 2+2=100 or 2+2=101. Both statements are as true as 2+2=4, they are in fact the same statement, but now I'm playing games with cultural default assumptions. I could take it a little bit further, and write that @+@=$; a statement every bit as true and only slightly more opaque.

Thou shalt not murder, as an exercise in human cultural symbology, is every bit as tautalogical. "Murder" is a symbol that denotes "wrongful killing." The commandment says wrongful killing is wrong. But what makes killing wrongful?

The idea that 2+2=4 is so ingrained, so simple, so obvious to us that we tend to mistake it for objective reality. But it is not reality, it is an attempt to model reality by manipulating symbols according to the rules of the artificial system we call mathematics or, rather, of a subsystem we call arithmatic. We believe in arithmatic because, over a couple of millenia, it has never been shown to be an inaccurate model -- but we cannot prove
that it is accurate always and everywhere because no system can contain its own proof.

Similarly, no immutable moral truth can be proven through the use of reason, logic or philosophy. We need a method to determine which instance of killing is wrong and that method cannot be left to humans. If it is left to humans, the statement wrongful killing is wrong is empty. It is not a guide, but rather a statement of a culture's power to define which killings are wrong and which are right.

The only way to have a meaningful morality is to have it imposed by a being outside of the system of human culture. Thus, we prove the necessity of God's existence. QED.

Posted by: David Cohen at February 27, 2003 5:48 PM



Posted by: oj at February 27, 2003 6:20 PM


Your sophistry is breathtaking!

Of course, everything human is not cultural symbology or tautological. If you take the statement "Fred is an alcoholic", are we defining the term "Fred" as someone who is an alcoholic? No, Fred is a real person, who may or may not be an alcoholic. Does the word "alcoholic" refer to the quality that Fred possesses? No, it is a general quality that has meaning whether or not Fred is an alcoholic, or whether he even exists. The symbols Fred and alcoholic refer to two different, independent entities. To combine them in a sentence is to establish a relationship between these two entities, which may be either true or false, but it is not a tautology.

But by your reasoning, to say that God is the source of moral truth is a tautology, and is meaningless. God = moral truth. If God wills it, it is good. It is good if God wills it. When God says to kill your son on an altar, is it wrong because killing is always wrong, or is it good because God wills it? If the latter, then there is no good, there is only God's will. God = good is a tautology.

Posted by: Robert D at February 27, 2003 7:20 PM

Orrin, as David said, the USSR was not as godless as its government wanted it to be, just as religion survived in the USA under those dastardly liberal Democrats. Same with Nazi Germany, which was enthusiastically embraced by the Lutheran clergy and most of the laity as well.

The only known godless society is the Baining, who are known for hard work and a somewhat puritan sexual code.

Posted by: Harry at February 27, 2003 7:35 PM

Robert D--

2+2=4 (i.e.
, 4=4) is a tautology. "Fred is an alcoholic" is not a tautology. I'm not sure why you think that, because I recognize the former, I would claim the latter. (Although, while I recognize that "Fred" corresponds to a person with objective existence, I might argue that "alcoholic" is mostly an artificial social construct.) But "God is good" is a definition; my whole point is that we cannot derive an immutable law of what is good, we must accept a law imposed upon us.

But I'm fascinated by your question "When God says to kill your son on an altar, is it wrong because killing is always wrong, or is it good because God wills it?" (Although note that neither G-d nor man says that killing is always wrong.) Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac is one of the seminal events in Judaism and one that gives me great pause. As a Jew, I must accept that Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son is a testament to his faith and virtue. As a 21st century man married to a psychiatrist, I'm uncomfortable with a story of a old nomad who, hearing voices no one else can hear, tries to kill his son.

How can I resolve this dilemna? By recogizing that human logic is fallible and that I must submit to G-d's commandment, the only reliable source of moral wisdom.

Posted by: David Cohen at February 27, 2003 7:54 PM


Wrong. We have witnessed evolution in many forms:

Languages. Their history forms a b-tree in precisely the same way the fossil record does. Languages "speciate" (that is, become mutually unintelligible) over both time and distance. Languages do not have an intelligent designer, yet are very complex.

Economies also evolve, are impenetrably complex, and don't have an intelligent designer. (Adam Smith was an explainer, not a designer)

How would you explain the natural history of the horse without evolution?

In order for you to make a cogent argument against evolution, either you have to demonstrate one (or more) of evolution's principles (heritability, variability, and consequent variations in fitness) is wrong, or that their cross product with the environment can't lead to evolution's predictions.

Standing by,

Jeff Guinn

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at February 27, 2003 8:58 PM


Yes, I know, you can't except that they are rationalist philosophies either. It's strange that you never apply your skepticism to your own received truths--evolution, the necessicity of leaving the USSR in place at the end of WWII; that Nazism and communism must be religions; etc....

Posted by: oj at February 27, 2003 8:59 PM


We domesticated and bred horses just like we domesticated and bred dogs. That's intelligent design and that's the point. But at the end of the day they're still just horses and dogs.

The idea that language and economy which are wholly created by men prove that there's evolution of species is too bizarre for me to answer. Does the lack of language and economy on other planets prove that natural selection is unique to Earth?

Posted by: oj at February 27, 2003 9:03 PM


My point about Communism was that belief in it required accepting unassailable revealed truth, in just the same way that (fundamentalist) religious belief does.

Atheism is entirely separate from Das Kapital or Mein Kampf. Sometimes I think a better, or at least less pejorative, term would be "religious skepticism."

As an atheist, I accept as truth only those things which are amenable to, and survive, rational inquiry. Everything else qualifies only as an opinion. Atheists are also quite certain that since all truths are abstractions of reality, by definition they are provisional.

Which is quite different from accepting things on account of somebody said so.


Jeff G.

P.S. I'm still waiting for an explanation of how the moral bedrock of Christianity can have played a lead role in the Inquisition, pogroms, slavery...

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at February 27, 2003 9:14 PM


We don't put people in jail for driving while under the influence of an artificial social construct. The word alcoholic may be a social construct, as all words or symbols are (I'm not sure what the point of calling it artificial is). But it describes a very real human condition, which produces real, tangible consequences.

In one sense mathematical equations are tautologies, but that does not make them meaningless. By manipulating numbers using mathematical operations, you can extract meaningful, useful information. For example, if I tell you that the temperature outside is 273 Kelvin, you might not have any clue how to dress. But if I tell you 273 Kelvin = 32 Fahrenheit, you will know to wear a jacket. A simple "tautology" can provide useful, meaningful information. Our modern society is built on such artificial, meaningless social constructs.

Personally, I find the need to arrive at immutable, absolute, objective rules for morality futile, and when taken to their logical extreme, dangerous. It is such obsessive concern for objectivity, divorced of any subjective judgement, which leads to absurdities like Peter Singer. The story of Abraham is another such example. Whe you are willing to mistrust, and then abandon your innate sense of right and wrong, and obey an external voice or algorithm, you have abdicated both your free will and your right to call yourself a moral actor. You are just an appendage of the external force.

The quandary you face, when you decide that your subjectivity makes you incapable of making moral judgements, is that your subjectivity will make you just as incapable of judging the "true" source of objective moral truth. How are you to judge the external voices? Should you just assume that any disembodied voice is God? Isn't it possible that your judgement could be wrong?

Posted by: Robert D at February 27, 2003 10:34 PM


I'm afraid I don't understand what you're asking. Obviously pogroms--the indiscriminate killing of unbelievers--were inconsistent with Christian morality. The Inquisition may have been a mistake but as an attempt to impose orthodoxy within the community is understandable. Slavery is a common enough human institution, especially when used against those you judge not to be human. Blacks not being considered human at the time would not have partaken of human dignity and therefore not have been implicated in Christian morality. That's entirely rational.

It was, of course, the religious who drove the abolition movement and forced society to accept blacks as the equal of whites. That was also a hundred and fifty years ago.

You advocate treating fetuses as not human today and support killing them on a whim. Slaveholders and Inquisitors would consider you to be barbaric. what has your reason achieved?

Posted by: oj at February 27, 2003 10:50 PM


Suppose we accept everything you've said. Why should you, susceptible as any individual to the false voice, set aside the social construct that's been created over thousands of years. Your personal judgment likely is wrong, which is why you should obey the external judgment that our ancestors have handed down to us. We follow the objective rules precisely because we're not competent to formulate our own subjective ones.

Posted by: oj at February 27, 2003 10:55 PM


I am not abandoning those social constructs - just the appeal to the outside voice. The social constructs that make up our cultural heritage have not been handed down unaltered. Each generation tested them by their own experience, and found them either useful, irrelevant or harmful. Sometimes the changes they made were harmful. Sometimes they were beneficial. Over time the truly indispensable constructs were maintained (Thou shalt not kill), the harmful discarded (slavery), new constructs were tried out and added to the cultural inheritance (democracy). It is the judgement of history, not the revelation of God, which ties me to this inheritance.

Posted by: Robert D at February 27, 2003 11:14 PM


And it is precisely because I am susceptible to the false voice that I reject any tendency to see my own thoughts, feelings or instincts as divinely inspired. I recognize them as subjective manifestations of my own mind, and never put them beyond question or doubt.

Posted by: Robert D at February 27, 2003 11:20 PM


That suffices--that kind of freeloading atheism which accepts the morality of the absolutists without the Absolute.

Posted by: oj at February 27, 2003 11:36 PM


My point regarding languages and economies is that any system possessing characteristics of variability, heritability, and consequent variations in reproductive fitness will evolve. Additionally, the complexity of the evolved system will be related to the breadth and depth of the relevant environment.

You said no one has ever witnessed evolution. By citing the above example, I seek to demonstrate that the principles of evolution hold realms analagous to the natural environment. Economies and languages operate with sufficiently quick cycle times so evolutionary processes are far easier to observe.

I am quite certain you will find no intelligent designer for, say, English (if there were, it would be the devil incarnate for kids learning to spell). So, if you can find a non-evolutionary explanation for languages, I am all ears.

Does that mean evolutionary precepts operate in the natural sphere? No. But it does suggest that you should be able to point out which of the precepts breaks down.

The fact that man has bred domestic animals doesn't vitiate evolutionary principles: Change in the environment (man's intentions) crossed with variability, etc... led to genetically distinct lifeforms.


Jeff G.

Posted by: at February 28, 2003 7:56 AM


My point regarding pogroms, the Inquisition, etc (and there is plenty of etc. to be had here), is a fairness issue. You tar atheism with the brush of Communism. How is it you let off Christianity given its bloody history?

Many of Communism's worst evils were the result of imposing orthodoxy. Ditto the Inquisition.

Regarding slavery, there were many religious people on both sides of the issue. That gave Christianity all the moral guidance of an arrow with feathers at both ends.


Jeff Guinn

Posted by: at February 28, 2003 8:09 AM


I'm perfectly willing to accept language and economics as precise parallels for evolution. In language in our lifetimes we've seen such things as the creation and general acceptance of rap/hip-hop lingo. In economics we've seen the rise of computers and software.

In evolution we've seen; as you like to say, (crickets)..

Posted by: oj at February 28, 2003 8:10 AM


I don't advocate killing fetuses, I advocate the ability of women to choose the outcomes of processes happening entirely
within their bodies.

The alternative is government diktat. I'll take freedom of choice anyday.


Jeff Guinn

Posted by: at February 28, 2003 8:18 AM


I don't value fairness as between ideas. Some ideas are better than others. Thus I'm relatively unbothered by the Inquisition, McCarthyism or rounding up Islamic extremists. Societies are entitled to require that people share the core beliefs that undergird them. I choose Ferdinand and Isabella's Spain over the USSR and Puritan New England over today's Massachussetts.

All slaveowners wanted was for people to recognize their right to dispose of their property as they saw fit, with no government diktats. The comparison is precise.

Posted by: oj at February 28, 2003 9:38 AM

No, actually, the use of "2+2 =4" wasn't a joke. I really think there's some bad philosophy going on here. So let me restate.

If you think 2+2 =4 is inane, we can imagine so very hard proof, like fermat's famous theorem. That though simple to state is very, very hard to prove. There are other theorems of mathematics, currently unproven, where no one knows if they're true or false. I take the view that, if they are true, they're absolutely true. After all, the truth of something does depend on when some human finds out. If everyone who knew about Fermat' s theorem were to die, it would still be true, right?

The point here is that we have other models of "absolute" truth. If every truth of math is a tautology, I think perhaps I need a refresher on what a 'tautology' is. At least, we'll know that there are lots of non-obvious tautologies that may brilliant minds spend decades trying to answer.

It seems that the existence of G-d is being used promisciously as a trumping argument. Orrin, you seem to believe that a rationalist who posits that human have dignity is in big trouble because he hasn't grounded that position, but that a theist who says humans have dignity because G-d gave it them has made some substantial advance in the argument. I don't see it, but let's stipulate for now that tihs is true. Even so, we'd still want to know how we reason ethically. How do we deduce what actions are right from the fact of human dignity. There are religious philsophers who disagree about the nature of our ethical demands. We can't just adduce the existance of G-d to explain the exact specifications of our preffered ethical theory. The way we reason from our ethical premises -- does that require G-d as well at every step in the deduction, or all they all tautologies? I suspect we'd find religious philosphers advancing arguments. And the model of mathematics would not be a bad guide here...

Posted by: ben at February 28, 2003 11:30 AM

To anyone who suggests that, say, KE=1/2MV*V is a tautology, I suggest walking, no, running into a wall.


I thought the core value of our society was individual life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Which, I hope, puts paid to religious orthodoxy.

Why should we adopt that as a core value? You would say because God created us that way.

I would provide the utilitarian argument: Because it works.

Until another organizing principle comes along that outperforms this one, we (or someone) will continue blundering towards that value because nothing else can keep up.

Its an evolution thing.


Jeff Guinn

Posted by: at February 28, 2003 12:40 PM


So 2 + 2 = 4 therefore we shouldn't kill?

Posted by: oj at February 28, 2003 1:10 PM


No, the core value is the attempt to create a decent society. To that end we recognize certain means--the protection of life, liberty, and property from government.

However, you don't even believe in protecting life, so there you go.

Posted by: oj at February 28, 2003 1:12 PM

Orrin, you choose societies in which you would have been an overdog. A good test of whether a society is desirable to live in is whether you would want to be an underdog in it.

As to skepticism, I have applied my test (first, does it kill me?) to things like the desirability or otherwise of making war on the USSR in 1945. The math says the USSR would have won. Why start a war you are going to lose? (As an aside, though, most wars inthe 20th c. were started by people very likely to lose; an curious insight in how people order their lives.)

As to observing evolution, while I have not done so personally, not being a professional, I know people who have. Professor Rosemary Gillespie, who I interviewed last year, has observed speciation among happyface spiders on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Confident assertions that evolution has not been observed are less credible than confident assertions that God's interference in human affairs has never been observed.

Posted by: Harry at February 28, 2003 1:19 PM


No, I do respect life. I also respect that there are significant, strongly held, differences of opinion as to when life begins (conception? implantation? blastocyst? development of cerebellum? etc.) In the face of those differences, I am unwilling to impose my belief on anyone else, and do not particularly welcome the efforts of anyone else to impose their beliefs on me.


Jeff Guinn

Posted by: at February 28, 2003 3:13 PM


There were also significant strongly held differences over the humanity of blacks. In point of fact, atheism, like pragmatism, appears to be nothing more than an attempt to avoid the controversy and tensions that arise when people have strongly held views. And because the adherents refuse to take responsibility for the results of their indecision it's just moral cowardice.


Posted by: oj at February 28, 2003 4:02 PM


That's idiotic. I wouldn't want to be an Islamic fundamentalist in America right now. Has that proven America a bad place?

Posted by: oj at February 28, 2003 4:04 PM


I would rather be an Islamic fundamentalist in America than Christian fundamentalist in an Islamic country. So that makes America a better place. Especially since, to the extent the Islamic fundamentalist doesn't go around pestering his neighbors, he can continue living as he sees fit.

Regarding blacks. I would be willing to bet that lots of Christians have been on both sides of every controversial ethical issue since Christ. Blacks, Jews, Slavery, name it.

Never mind that devoutly religious people have a very offputting habit of viewing those of any other belief in distinctly offputting terms. Moral coward, for example. Or worthy of execution, for another.

That makes Christianity roughly as useful as a two-tailed arrow in terms of ethical direction.


Jeff Guinn

Posted by: at February 28, 2003 4:47 PM

Jeff stuck up for me pretty well, but in fact, if "Islamic fundamentalist" includes antisocial whackjob killer in its definition (as I believe it does), then there is no decent nation for him anywhere.

A purely theoretical antisocial whackjob killer will do OK here, which is one of the reasons the U.S. is better than, say, Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella. (You might want to read Michael Kamen, "The Spanish Inquistion," about exactly who got hauled off to the dungeons. It was not, as you seem to think, people for whom there was evidence of heresy. Most victims were descendants of conversos and good, orthodox Christians.)

Posted by: Harry at February 28, 2003 5:01 PM

sigh. orrin, i don't think math makes ethics true. never said that, never would, doesn't make sense. rather, i think we all admit that the truths of math are permanent, and objective, but don't depend in any obvious way on the existence of G-d. do you deny this? if not, it seems we agree that some absolute truths don't depend on the existence of G-d. good so far?

Posted by: ben at February 28, 2003 5:29 PM

If there were no Man there would be nio such thing as 2 + 2 = 4. It may not be true elsewhere, for instance in other universes. It's useful, but not "true"

Posted by: oj at February 28, 2003 7:24 PM


exactly. The Inquisition wasn't about religion it was about race.

Posted by: oj at February 28, 2003 7:26 PM


There is, of course, no such thing as morality if, as you propose, no one has morality imposed upon them.

Posted by: oj at February 28, 2003 7:34 PM


Quite. But isn't morality essentially an elaboration of the Golden Rule? Whether you buy into the God thing or not, the vast majority of us get along quite well with simple reciprocity. (Although, that majority does go down once people get behind the wheel, precipitously so in Boston)

For those who can't understand reciprocity--children, criminals--well, yes, it is imposition time.

But reciprocity is a concept independent of God, be he hairy thunderer or cosmic muffin.

Reciprocity exists as a civil religion in the US. It applies to everyone (leaving aside the prepartum controversy), regardless of belief. or race.

Of course, that sort of morality doesn't require invoking a deity.



Posted by: Jeff Guinn at February 28, 2003 10:06 PM

That's special pleading, Orrin. There were

other Inquisitions in which the victims were

not the descendents of conversos.

It was about religion, and also about class, but

what does that tell us about morality? It

tells us you won't find it in religion.

Posted by: Harry at March 1, 2003 4:39 AM


You seem confused about even the basic claims of Christianity, which holds not that Christians will be good, but that all men are Fallen. Some religious persecutions are justified, some are not. Big deal.

Posted by: oj at March 1, 2003 6:52 AM


How does your advocacy of abortion square with reciprocity?

Posted by: oj at March 1, 2003 6:54 AM


I don't advocate abortion. I recognize there are significant, widespread disparities in belief as to when a fetus becomes an individual.

Therefore, I don't advocate imposing one particular belief. Which leads me to advocate choice.

Would you please describe to me a justified religious persecution?


Jeff Guinn

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at March 1, 2003 8:42 AM


Surely you recognize how mealy-mouthed that is. If you accorded slaveowners a similar right to determine for themselves who is human and who is not and stood silent on the issue of slavery, would that not be objectively pro-slavery?

A justified religious persecution: I believe that the inability of atheists to accept the very basis of our Republic could be sound grounds to deprive them of suffrage, though I don't think it's necessary.

Posted by: oj at March 1, 2003 2:25 PM