The Christian Illusion of Moral Superiority

Many Christians will maintain they have a superior foundation for knowing and for choosing to do what is good. They claim to have objective ethical standards for being good, based in a morally good creator God, and that the atheist has no ultimate justification for being moral.

Consider what Dr. William Lane Craig wrote: “If life ends at the grave, then it makes no difference whether one has lived as a Stalin or as a saint.…” “Who is to judge that the values of Adolf Hitler are inferior to those of a saint? “The world was horrified when it learned that at camps like Dachau the Nazis had used prisoners for medical experiments on living humans. But why not? If God does not exist, there can be no objection to using people as human guinea pigs.” [Apologetics: An Introduction, pp. 37-51].

The Christian claims to have absolute and objective ethical standards for knowing right from wrong, which is something they claim atheists don’t have. The Christian standards are grounded in the commands of a good creator God, and these commands come from God’s very nature and revealed to them in the Bible. There is a philosophical foundation for this claim, and then there is the case Christians present that the Bible reveals God’s ethical commands. Both are illusions of superiority. It is an illusion that the Christian moral theory is superior, and it is an illusion that Christians know any better than others how they should morally behave in our world.

There are two bases for grounding Christian ethical standards. The first is known as the Divine Command Theory. I’ll deal with this theory first. The second basis is Natural Law Theory, which I will dispense with briefly later. I will show that neither of these bases for Christian ethics offers believers a special access to moral truth that unbelievers don’t also share. Christian moral foundations are not superior ones.

The Divine Command Theory goes like this: Morality is based upon what God commands. No other reasons are needed but that God so commanded it. If God commanded it, then it is right. If God forbids it, then it is wrong. Of this theory Socrates asked a fundamental question: “Is conduct right because the gods command it, or do gods command it because it is right?” [in Plato’s Euthyphro]

Ever since Socrates asked this question every philosopher who has dealt with Christian ethics has commented on it. But most all commentators will admit that this theory has some huge intellectual problems to overcome. If we say, on the one hand, that something is right because God commands it, then the only reason why we should do something is that God commands it. It makes God’s commands arbitrary, because there is no reason why God commanded something other than the fact that he did. If this is the case, God could’ve commanded something else, or even something contrary, or something horribly evil and simply declared it good. If God is the creator of morality like he’s purportedly the creator of the universe, then he could have simply declared any act good, and there would be no moral reason to distinguish such a God from the Devil. This presents us with the “seemingly absurd position that even the greatest atrocities might be not only acceptable but morally required if God were to command them.” [John Arthur, “Morality Without God” in Garry Brodsky, et al., eds,. Contemporary Readings in Social and Political Ethics (Prometheus Books, 1984)].

Furthermore, this makes the whole concept of the goodness of God meaningless. If we think that the commands of God are good merely because he commands them, then his commands are….well….just his commands. We cannot call them good, for to call them good we’d have to have a standard above them to proclaim that they are indeed good commands. But on this theory they are just God’s commands. God doesn’t command us to do good things, he just commands us to do things. “All that could mean is that God wants us to do what he wants us to do.” [John Arthur, “Morality Without God”). And God isn’t a good God either, he is just God. For there would be no standard above God for us to be able to proclaim that God is good. He is just God.

So if God were to tell us he’s good, then that only means that he labels his character with the word “good.” The word “good” here is merely a word God uses to apply to himself without any real definitional content, apart from the fact that God says this word applies to himself—see the circularity? The bottom line here is that if there is no moral standard for us to appeal to when we’re assessing the claim that God is good, and all we have to go on is the fact that God said he was good, then we cannot asses whether or not God is good. We still haven’t been given as answer to what he means by the word good.

If we say, on the other hand, that God commands what is right because it is right, then we must ask about this higher standard of morality that is being appealed to. If this is so, then we are advocating some higher standard above God that is independent of God that makes his commands good. Rather than declaring what is good, now God recognizes what is good and commands us to do likewise. If we ask why God commands it, the answer would have to be found in some higher standard than God himself. But where did this standard come from that is purportedly higher than God? God is supposed to be the creator of the laws of nature and the moral laws we must live by.

The Divine Command theory is in such disrepute in today’s philosophical circles that only modified Divine Command theories are being discussed today. Christian apologist J.P. Moreland actually claims, “I’m not a divine command theorist…this view implies that morality is merely grounded in God’s will as opposed to His nature. That’s not my view. I think God’s will is ultimately expressed in keeping with his nature. Morality is ultimately grounded in the nature of God, not independently of God.” [in Does God Exist: The Great Debate, with Kai Nielsen (Thomas Nelson, 1990), pp. 130-131; and also in Scaling the Secular City: A Defense of Christianity (Baker, 1987). After stating this, he refers to Robert M. Adam’s “Moral Arguments for Theistic Belief,” in Rationality and Religious Belief, ed., C.F. Delaney (Notre Dame Press, 1979)].

I’ll take a look at Robert M. Adams’ view next. But think of what Moreland is saying here. He’s saying that morality is grounded in God’s nature, not in his commands. But this is a difference that makes no difference. It does no good to step back behind the commands of God to God’s purported nature at all. For we’d still want to know whether or not God’s nature is good. God cannot be known to be good here either, without a standard of goodness that shows he is good. For unless there is standard that shows God is good beyond the mere fact that God declares that his nature is good, we still don’t know whether God is good. Again, God is….well….just God.

Furthermore, we usually call someone good when they make good choices. So an additional question here is whether or not God has ever made any good choices. To choose means there were alternatives to choose from. Did God at any point in the past ever choose his supposedly good nature? Christians will say he has always been good. Then when did he ever make a choice for this particular nature, which he calls “good” over-against, a different nature? At no time in the past do we ever see him doing this. But if he did choose his moral nature, then it stands to reason that the nature he chose is, by definition, good. God’s nature would subsequently be called good by him no matter what nature he chose, if he ever did choose a particular moral nature. Again, all we can say is that God is….well….God, and his commands are….well….his commands.

Robert M. Adams’ “A Modified Divine Command Theory of Ethical Wrongness,” in Gene Outka and John P. Reeder, ed., Religion and Morality: A Collection of Essays (Anchor, 1973), along with Philip Quinn’s, Divine Commands and Moral Requirements (Oxford University Press, 1978), are the best alternatives when discussing Modified Divine Command theories. The modified Divine Command theory of Robert M. Adams claims that God must properly command what is loving, or consistent with that which is loving, because that is his very nature. God is love. Therefore God’s commands flow from his loving nature. God can only command what is good and loving.

The basic criticism of Adams’ view has been stated adequately enough by the late Louis P. Pojman: “If we prefer the modified divine command theory to the divine command theory, then we must say that the divine command theory is false, and the modified divine command theory becomes equivalent to the autonomy thesis: the Good (or right) is not good (or right) simply because God commands it. Furthermore, if this is correct, then we can discover our ethical duties through reason, independent of God’s command. For what is good for his creatures is so objectively. We do not need God to tell us that it is bad to cause unnecessary suffering or that it is good to ameliorate suffering; reason can do that. It begins to look like the true version of ethics is what we called ‘secular ethics.’” [Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong 5th ed. (Wadsworth, 2006), pp. 255-56]. “If Adams wants to claim that it is goodness plus God’s command that determines what is right,” Pojman rightly asked, “what does God add to rightness that is not there simply with goodness…If love or goodness prescribes act A, what does A gain by being commanded by God? Materially, nothing at all.” It is at this point where both a modified divine command ethic and a secular ethic share the exact same grounding. Why? Because then with Pojman, we must ask what difference it makes whether or not the same ethical principles come from “a special personal authority (God) or from the authority of reason?” (p. 256). For this reason Kai Nieslen argues that the Divine Command Theory in its modified forms “does not meet secular ethics head on,” and consequently, “does not challenge…secular ethics.” [in Does God Exist: The Great Debate, (p. 99); For a further critique of Divine Command Theory see Michael Martin’s The Case Against Christianity (Temple Univ. Press, 1991), pp. 229-251].

Steve Lovell also defends this position that God’s commands are rooted in His essential nature (known as the “Divine Nature Theory” or DNT), in “C.S. Lewis and the Euthyphro Dilemma” (July 14, 2002) found at, http://www.theism.net/article/29. Lovell tries to explain something about the inherent circularity of this position. “The point is that any explicit justification of my belief that God is good will be circular. But that point can be happily conceded. Circularity need not be vicious, and the kind of circularity involved here is not in any way peculiar to my position. Indeed, any theory that posits objective values will face the same problem, which is essentially a skeptical one. A fair skeptical challenge is one that does not fault a position for not answering questions that no position could be expected to answer. But no position could help us to provide explicit non-circular justifications for all of our moral beliefs, and DNT is no exception here.”

But I have two questions here. One question remains to be answered is whether he’s correct that any theory that posits “objective values” will face “the same problem.” If by the term “objective values” Lovell means “ultimate objective values,” or “values objectively grounded in a divine being,” then he is indicting his own theory all over again, and so his accusation here is true by his own concession. It would also mean Lovell is not offering a fair alternative to his own theory for comparison, since there are alternative non-ultimate objective ethical systems which do not face an infinite regress of moral standards.

The second question is whether or not the circularity that is inherent in defending the DNT reveals something metaphysical about the nature of God’s existence? I personally think the inherent circularity in trying to defend the DNT points to the non-existence of God.

In an explanation to me Lovell points to an analogous case: “It might be helpful to consider the similarities of a non-moral case: trusting our senses. One theory of why we should trust our senses is that natural selection would have eliminated species whose senses weren't reliable. But why should we accept this theory? Because it's confirmed by scientific data? But that data comes to us through our senses! The justification is circular.”

But is this really an analogous case for our moral faculties? We are able to justify our senses pragmatically, but that’s all. They seem to help us live and work and play in our world. Can we trust our senses to tell us what is real? No. Reality is filtered through our human senses. With the senses of a dog, a porpoise, a snake, or a bird, reality would look and feel different to us. There is so much light and so much sound that we cannot see and hear it’s amazing. We know there is much more to see than what we can see, and we know there is much more to hear than what we can hear. But if we saw and heard it all, it might be likened to "white noise." About the only thing we can trust our senses to tell us is that we have them and that we sense something, and therefore we conclude that something is there. So in a like manner our moral faculties merely help us live and work and play in a pragmatic sense in this world. But what Lovell needs to explain is whether or not we can trust them to tell us something about God, just like I wonder whether our five senses can be trusted to tell us what is truly real.

The second philosophical basis for grounding Christian Ethics is Natural Law Theory. This is the ethical system of Aristotle as adopted by Thomas Aquinas, and it has been the dominant one in the history of the church. It’s an antiquated view of morals today, in that it presupposes the world has values built into it by God, such that moral rules can be derived from nature. [Modern virtue ethics are more interesting because these theories are distancing themselves from the older Thomistic view that moral rules can be derived from nature itself]. But if Natural Law theories are true, then, according to James Rachels, “This means that the religious believer has no special access to moral truth. The believer and the nonbeliever are in exactly the same position. God has made all people rational, not just believers; and so for believer and nonbeliever alike, making a responsible moral judgment is a matter of listening to reason and following its directives.” [The Elements of Moral Philosophy (McGraw-Hill, 1993), p. 53].

And this is exactly my point. The foundations of Christian morality are not superior ones to atheistic morality, based upon Christian assumptions. Neither of these two bases for Christian ethics offers believers a special access to moral truth that unbelievers don’t share, unless Christians are willing to grant that God could command us to do evil if he had wanted to, a conclusion that infringes on the whole notion of the goodness of God. Christian moral foundations are simply not superior ones.

Besides, there are several ethical systems of thought that do not require a prior belief in God, like Social Contract Theories, Utilitarianism, Virtue Ethics, Kantianism, and John Rawls’ theory of justice. Ethical Relativism isn’t the boogey man that some Christians make it out to be either, since relativism “is compatible with complete agreement on all ethical matters,” whereas “ethical absolutism is compatible with wide-spread disagreement.” [Michael Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (Temple, 1990), p. 9].

Even Christian philosopher Thomas V. Morris admits that, “It has…been argued in various ways over the past century that the evolutionary process somehow provides a framework of moral reference. Basic human instincts could be cited as loci for the moral constraints needed in society. The physical, survival, functional needs of men in society or community could act as moral matrices for the guiding of moral motions…there are many possible bases or explanations for moral motions in an impersonal universe. They could easily have arisen from evolutionary or community survival needs, for example, and consequently, when identified as a human ‘aspiration,’ the practice of making moral distinctions could be said to be ‘fulfilled’ when it is successfully functional within those contexts.” [Thomas V. Morris’ in Francis Schaeffer’s Apologetics: A Critique (Moody Press, 1976, pp. 69].

Even if Christians did have objective moral standards, they cannot be objectively certain that they know them, or that they know how they apply to specific real life cases! Just look at Christianity’s past and you’ll see what I mean. Believers will still disagree with each other on a multifaceted number of ethical issues, whether they start with the Bible as God’s revelation, or the morality gleaned from a Natural Law Theory. Just take a brief tour of Church history, or read a book like J. Philip Wogman’s Christian Ethics: A Historical Introduction (Westminister, 1993), to see for yourself. Willard M. Swartley’s book, Slavery, Sabbath, War & Women: Case Issues in Biblical Interpretation (Herald Press, 1983) reveals how people who share the same views of the Bible can vehemently disagree with what God wants them to do.

Since Dr. Craig earlier mentioned Hitler, Auschwitz, and Dachau in his apologetics book, consider this response: Germany was a Christian nation—the heart of the Lutheran Protestant Reformation! How could a Christian people allow these evil deeds to happen and even be his willing executioners? How? The Holocaust and the horrible things done to millions of Jews and various minorities is more a problem for the Christian ethic, because it was a more or less Christian nation that did these horrible deeds.

The fact is that Christian religious moralists are largely in the same boat as atheists. Kai Nielsen: “The religious moralist…doesn’t have any better or any worse objectivity. Because, suppose he says, ‘We should love God,’ and then further suppose we ask the religious moralist, ‘Why Love God…Why obey his commandments?’ He basically would have to say, ‘Because God is the perfect good, and God with his perfect goodness reveals to us the great value of self-respect for people. He shows that people are of infinite precious worth.’ But even if you accept this, you could go on to ask, ‘Why should you care? What difference does it make anyway whether people are of infinite precious worth?’ Faced with such questioning, you will finally be pushed into a corner, where you say that ‘It is important to me that people be regarded as being infinite worth because I just happen to care about people. It means to me that people should be treated with respect. So the religious moralist as well has to rely finally on his considered convictions. So if that too is subjective ground, then both the religious person and the secular person are in the same boat.” [Kai Nielsen (with J.P. Moreland) Does God Exist: The Great Debate (Thomas Nelson, 1990), pp. 107-108].
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What I wrote above reflects some additional thoughts from the responses below.

27 comments:

Soundsurfr said...

Nicely done, DJ.

In addition to what you've provided, I would also add that the inherent inability to reconcile conflicting moral decisions on the part of moral objectivists leads ultimately to only one conclusion:

The notion that a moral objectivist position has more authority in a moral decision process than any other holds about as much water as a colinder.

Victor Reppert said...

John: I'd very much like to see your response to this paper, by Steve Lovell, on the Euthyphro dilemma.

http://www.theism.net/article/29

If there are objective moral values then we have a situation in which there are two sets of facts; facts about the way things are, which are describable, perhaps, by science in naturalistic terms, and facts about how things ought to be, which, at least on the face of things, defy scientific description.

There seems, on the face of things, to be a profound tension between moral success, on the one hand, on most understandings of morality, and Darwinian success, which is measure in terms of the extent to which a person passes on his genes. Contrast this with the view of human beings as the product of a loving God, whose in which case fulfillment of human nature and doing the will of God can be identified.

John W. Loftus said...

This was a very good chapter, with some very helpful distinctions. I've highlighted some crucial sentences of his:

The position we have been defending avoids the Euthyphro dilemma by contending that God’s commands are rooted in His essential nature. The Divine Nature Theory (hereafter DNT) secures God’s commands and reasons in His character, it effectively makes the divine nature the ultimate standard of moral value.

Neilsen’s reformulated objection contends that we cannot legitimately use the beliefs and faculties that God Himself has given us to reason back to the goodness of God. Imagine that you live in a land whose ruler is an evil tyrant. Unknown to you, this ruler has implanted a microchip into your brain that dictates the kind of thoughts you are able to have. Wouldn’t this undermine your belief that the ruler was a good man?

This argument has a certain appeal, and I must grant that it has a valid point. The point is that any explicit justification of my belief that God is good will be circular. But that point can be happily conceded. Circularity need not be vicious, and the kind of circularity involved here is not in any way peculiar to my position. Indeed, any theory that posits objective values will face the same problem, which is essentially a sceptical one. A fair sceptical challenge is one that does not fault a position for not answering questions that no position could be expected to answer. But no position could help us to provide explicit non-circular justifications for all of our moral beliefs, and DNT is no exception here.


My comments:

What Steve Lovell defended is indeed circular, as he admits. I have two questions. One question remains to be defended is whether he’s correct that any theory that posits “objective values” will face “the same problem.” If by the term “objective values” he means “ultimate objective values,” or “values objectively grounded in a divine being,” then he is indicting his own theory all over again, and hence, his accusation here is true by definition. It would also mean Lovell is not offering a fair alternative to his own theory for comparison, since there are alternative non-ultimate objective ethical systems which do not face an infinite regress of standards because they do not rest upon the nature of a divine being or an ultimate ethic.

The second question is whether or not the circularity that is inherent in defending the DNT reveals something metaphysical about the nature of God’s existence? I personally think the inherent circularity in trying to defend the DNT points to the non-existence of God.

bleedingisaac said...

John,

I'm also a seminary grad (M.A.T. Fuller Theological; M.Div. Golden Gate Baptist) turned atheist. [I'm also a John W, btw).

I've found Princeton's Gilbert Harman very helpful for formulating my own metaethics.

Genius said...

I think your approach the divine command theory involves a flawed approach to the world.

Lets say water is wet. Is it wet because it is water or is it water because it is wet? This is a nonsense question - furthermore it is a nonsense thought experiment to consider non wet water (ok there might be wet stuff that is not water but that jsut points out the lack of perfection of the example).

From this perspective in a sense it is nonsense to propose "if god was not benevolent would you suport him" question has a practical implication because you believe it is fundimentally untrue.

Ie the higher standard and god's standard are fundimentally the same neither is "created" by the other any more than water is created by wetness.

Or more clearly it is a bit like saying if 1+1=2 does the 2 create 1+1 or does 1+1 create 2?

Jeremy Pierce said...

I don't think the view you're responding to is one that any serious Christian thinker has held. No one really claims that Christians have some special moral insight simply because of their meta-ethical view. Christians might claim that having the indwelling Holy Spirit might give them access to removal of the consequences of the fall that blind us to moral truths, but that's nothing like the view you're critiquing. There's also the view that scripture would contain moral truths that we might not want to believe and might need a revelation to help us overcome the tendencies of the fall not to believe the moral truths that otherwise would be obvious to anyone. But that's not having some special insight as the result of a meta-ethical theory either.

There is a view that I think something like a divine command theory is offered up as support for. That view is that other views have no grounding for ethics. Craig does in fact make this argument. He says if ethics is based in God's nature then it has a foundation. He doesn't think any other foundation will serve. This isn't a claim about special Christian access to moral truth but a claim about meta-ethical foundations of other ethical views.

By the way, Thomas Aquinas is generally thought to be the earliest person to argue that God's nature grounds ethics. It's purely a semantic debate whether you want to call that divine command theory. You seem not to want to. William Alston, Robert Adams, and Norman Kretzmann have defended it as a divine command theory.

Regardless of what you call it, it's clearly a third view from the standard Euthyphro horns. One grounds ethics merely in God's commands, and virtually all philosophers since Plato have viewed that as an arbitrary and inadequate account. The only major exceptions I know of are Ockham and Locke (with the possibly exception of Descartes, though he only clearly takes a divine command theory about logic and mathematics, not ethics). The other horn places ethics as completely independent of God. More Christians have adopted this sort of view, including Richard Swinburne, who takes morality to be necessary but not grounded in God's necessary nature. But the main theistic philosophers have grounded morality in God's nature, and this includes Thomas Aquinas, Leibniz, and in my experience most contemporary philosophers of religion who deal with this issue.

Genius said...

One argument might be that in complex world with complex concequences if there are a set of competing theories (no need to consider non competing theories) and one is backed up by a super intelligent being - then, that is likely to be the only "functional" plan.
A christian/religious person could then claim moral superiority because it was simply implausible that anyone else would have considered even a fraction of the information required to deal with the side effects of their actions and thus are at a massive disadvantage.

Just liike if you are a passanger in a plane the most important question is "does the pilot know how to fly" not "where does he want to go". And if you had to pick a pilot and if only one person knows how to fly - you would probably pick him.

I.e. gods plan is right for the most part due to omniscience as opposed to anything else.

The Jewish Freak said...

I thought I was the only one who noticed that the argument in "Euthyphro" can be used effectively to counter christian claims. I thought of it as a way to show that the christian definition of sin - what God hates - is nonsensical.
BTW, I think that Plato's argument is stronger than you describe. It is more than just a practical point - that it makes God's commands arbitrary. It actually renders the divine command theory into a logical impossibility. In other words, you can not say that God loves something because God loves it. If you say that you will be stuck saying "because God loves it" all day. You are therefore forced to say that it is God-beloved because of a quality it posesses. Then you are free to say that it has that quality whether or not there is a God.

Pat said...

Genius, I think you miss the point of the Euthyphro argument.

It is fundamentally a claim about definions.

The question is not "Is God good?" but, "What does 'God is good' mean?"

Appealing to the essential nature of God as being good does not answer that question.

Anonymous said...

The question is not "Is God good?" but, "What does 'God is good' mean?" Appealing to the essential nature of God as being good does not answer that question.

Not exactly, "Genius." I think the proper phrasing is, "What does 'God is good' mean if God is supposed to set the standard of goodness?"

Now that's a question that hits to the heart of what's problematic. That's like letting all students set the standard of "A" in your courses. What happens to the evaluation of the claim: "I got an A in John's course?"

More problems can be found here: http://gods4suckers.net

Genius said...

Pat,
> "What does 'God is good' mean?"

Well my first point was that divine command could be defended my second post suggested a rational answer to the above.

anonymous,

> "What does 'God is good' mean if God is supposed to set the standard of goodness?"

What sort of meaning are you looking for? It is one of these questions where I sugest one needs to ask oneself "what is a satisfactory answer?"

Anyway, I guess if one says "god is good" one could be using a slightly different more colloquial definition of "good".

E.g. defining a package of "good" things as determined by some pannel of human experts and measuring god's results against a set of other rules. Of course if you accept god is good by definition and good is god then saying god is good is obviously a tautology.

> That's like letting all students set the standard of "A" in your courses.

If my students were all worthy of A's it wouldn't matter!

Anonymous said...

If you actually check out the Plato, I think it's clear that he's focusing on the nature of the pious. In other words, I don't think it's primarily a semantic issue, one of analysis or definition. Rather, it's primarily a metaphysical issue, one of the identification of moral properties.

In any case, if you take a look at contemporary metaethics, it's hard to find anyone who thinks that theism provides a good account of the foundation of morality. All the tough talk from Christian apologists, as near as I can tell, is just bluffing.

Genius said...

> it's hard to find anyone who thinks that theism provides a good account of the foundation of morality.

Before one gets all sanctimonious
Does atheism provide a good account of the foundation of morality? Who thinks it does - and can you define how that works? And if not what sort of form would an acceptable answer take?

Jeremy Pierce said...

This last point is worth paying attention to. The problems raised in Euthyphro-like questions can be raised about any meta-ethical view. If morality is based, for instance, on whatever rational people would agree to follow if they were concerned only about self-interest (which many contemporary social contract theorists of morality believe), then we have to ask a Euthyphro-like question. Is it good merely because rationally self-interested people would prefer it, or would they prefer it because it's good? The same line of questioning could very easily be raised about any meta-ethical grounding for ethics.

I should say that the Aquinas model doesn't seem quite as bad as the straw man divine command theory that this discussion has assumed. The Aquinas model grounds ethics in God's nature because God is good, but it isn't fair then to ask what makes God's nature good, because Aquinas is talking about two different kinds of good. Moral good ends up being grounded in God's metaphysical perfection. That's the good of God's nature that he intends ethics to be based in. That doesn't sound anywhere near as arbitrary as the view that just says that whatever God was like would make it good, because that view then makes it empty to praise God for being good. Aquinas' view isn't like that.

John W. Loftus said...

Jeremy:
This last point is worth paying attention to. The problems raised in Euthyphro-like questions can be raised about any meta-ethical view.

Yes, this is true, and yet Aristotle claimed that happiness is the one "end which we wish for on its own account." "Thus it seems that happiness is something final and self-sufficing, and is the end of all that man does."

Genius said...

> And yet Aristotle claimed that happiness is the one "end which we wish for on its own account."

1) I think Aristotle is probably wrong (what a simplistic view!)

2) Is sounds like "the thing I believe explains itself" so I guess there is an impasse.

3) Related to (1) does hedonism create morals at all? In theory anything could make a person happy. In a sense we pick the things that make us happy. For example I am happy if I win a competition - but only because I declare it to be something I want - if I decided I didn’t want it I wouldn’t be happy if it happened.

4) Hedonism has some interesting limiting cases usually involving lots of drugs that most people don’t like (underlining the contradiction).

John W. Loftus said...

Genius, Aristotle is more complicated than that, and I don't have the time to type his whole theory here for you. Just do a search for it.

Suffice it to say he spoke of holistic happiness and not hedonistic happiness. Read him before you comment back to me. Several modern moral philosophers are coming back to him as the foundation for Virtue Ethics.

Anonymous said...

Me personally, I don't think there's any good account of the foundations of morality. I don't think one can be given, because I'm an anti-realist about morality. (If you want a good introduction to the issues from the realist perspective, I'd check out Russ Shafer-Landau's Moral Realism: a Defense.)

But I doubt it's just morality's problem. I think the same problems plague prudential norms, means-end norms, epistemic norms, anything with normativity in it.

In any case, I find it quite farcical when Christian apologists to blithely assert the superiority of theism as a foundation for morality, without even addressing the must basic, 2400-year old problem with the view.

Genius said...

John,

Woah there.
I was going to write a longer post adresing the fact that he might be using a "wholistic" definition of happiness (which was what I assumed initialy because that was how I could force the sentance to make sense) but if that was not how you understood it then I would have just confused the discussion so I opted for the track using the normal definition of happiness.

Anyway I determined that my point 1 was not dependant on any specific definition (unless your definition is meaningless - which I figured I could tackle if that arose) - so I said it anyway.

basically two things
1) a wide definition of hapiness that resembles "any end which we wish for on its own account" reduces the statement to a tautology.
and
2) I think there are more fundimental ways to understand how minds work than this - but I'm really likely to get off track if I try to explain that.

Anyway off to read some aristotle as commanded.......

--------

Rigtio.. done
Basically as I first guessed
Lucky I read fast.

Rightio off to the beach now.

CalvinDude said...

John,

I commented on the euthyphro dilemma here for you -->

http://calvindude.com/dude/blog/2006/05/the-euthyphro-dilemma/

jdlongmire said...

John, so did one of my team:

http://christianskepticism.blogspot.com/2007/01/euthyphros-dilemma.html

Anonymous said...

don't you think that anyway the christian moral is not defined ?

Ask a christian to give you the specific list of the rules to follow.

Ask him why there are 3 different 10 commandments

Ask him why he retain exodus 20 and not 21 (where there is slavery ...

THobbes said...

Aristotle uses "that which we wish for on its own account" to describe eudaimonia (happiness, though the term in English does not mean the same as in Greek) as an empirical observation. Much of what he describes are empirical results from looking at people, as Aristotle meant for his ethics to be practical, above all.

Very nice treatment of the Euthyphro dilemma, btw, John.

Paul said...

Hello. I just thought you might like to read this article:
"A Christian Answer to the Euthyphro Dilemma" (link).

Jig said...

The Bible does not seem to agree with the view that Christians have a superior moral standard or that atheists have a lack of or an inferior sense of morality, whether most Christians believe it or not. On the other hand, the Bible completely agrees with your view that all people, whether or not they have had a divine connection to or revelation from God regarding morality, do have a sense of what is right and wrong.

The story of Adam and Eve, whether to be taken literally or not, accounts for an explanation when our supposed ancestors ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. From that point on, every human was endowed with this knowledge, and so whether through "random accident" we were raised in India with Hinduism, or raised in China during the time of Confucianism, or as a native American Indian before the Europeans took over, we all have a basic understanding of what is good or evil, which may explain the reasons for the similarities in moral standards and lessons on ethics among not only the many various religions that exist in the world and throughout history but also among cultures in general.

Paul also makes reference to this knowledge or "concscience" as we call it. In his letter to the Romans, he says the following:

"for when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them) in the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, according to my gospel."
Romans 2:14-16

These people that Paul are referring to are people who have not heard the gospel, nor the "law" as written by the Jews, nor had any explicit revelation from God regarding morality. These people have simply, according to Paul, obeyed a unwritten, not even verbal, "moral standard", according to their conscience. This knowledge of a "moral standard" (or the "moral standard", which begs another a question) is inherent, internal, and present within a person, as it seems Paul indirectly describes it. So, the judgment of a person's life is according to this knowledge of good and evil (or "conscience") and how we act and react in accordance to this knowledge (or "conscience", I will reiterate again). Hey, maybe there's a chance for unbelievers according to the Christian world view! Better listen to our consciences....

Please respond. Thanks.

Jig said...

That translation of Romans 2:14-16 is confusing. Here is hopefully a less confusing translation of the verse.


"When Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.

Jig said...

The realization just came to me that this post is three years old and does not warrant a response for my comment. Nevertheless, I would like to make an additional point to further the basis of the above assertion.

The Old Testament provide additional evidence that supports a Biblical view that Christians and atheists should not differ in their sense of right and wrong, but have equal access to the same moral and ethical standards by which to live by. According to the Bible, people acquire access to these morals not by divine revelation, nor by supernatural or spiritual realization, but by listening closely to their understanding of what is right and wrong and what is good and evil or simply by thinking!

Proverbs 8:1-4 states the following:

"Does not wisdom call? Does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries aloud. To you, O men, I call and my cry is for the children of man."

Wisdom is based on the understanding of basic commonly known morals and, using this basis, to discern and apply these set of morals to everyday situations. Solomon directed these proverbs not to just the Jewish people, but toward all the "children of man". The visit of Queen of Sheba attests to this acknowledgment of a wisdom shared not by the Jewish people alone but by peoples of different cultures. And he also says that wisdom can be heard anywhere, whether you are walking down the street or entering the city gates. Basically, Solomon is saying that any person anywhere at anytime has access to the same set of moral and ethical standards. It is just a matter of listening, figuratively, but of simply thinking, pondering and understanding, literally.