“Who Sez?” The Place of God in Moral Philosophy

On Tuesday, Dennis Prager made a comment on his radio program that without dogma (specifically religious dogma) there can be no rational argument against selfishness and cruelty.

A young man called into the program, describing himself as a Libertarian and an agnostic, to say that you don’t need dogma to be moral.  “I never said that”, responded Prager.  He then asked the young man a simple question, “What would you say to a rich slave owner?”  The young man answered that it causes him intense discomfort to see other human beings suffering.  Prager responded that it doesn’t cause the slaver owner any discomfort. 

“That’s a separate issue”, the young man replied.

Of course, it’s not a separate issue.  In a sense, though, Mr. Prager and his young caller were in fact talking about two different things, so I want to walk through them briefly.

Though he may not be familiar with the terminology, Mr. Prager was making a presuppositional argument.  Rather than attacking the anti-religious position head on, he was showing the inconsistency of its presuppositions.  Here is the bare bones outline of a classic moral argument:  Moral common sense tells us that it is objectively wrong (that is, wrong at all times and in all places for all people) to inflict pointless suffering on other human beings.  Non-theistic positions provide no rational basis or grounding for this moral common sense.  But if there is no rational basis for the statement “it is wrong to inflict pointless suffering on others” then it is not in fact rational to believe the statement.

Notice that this does not make non-theism itself irrational.  It’s not that sort of argument.  What it does is show that you cannot rationally hold to both non-theism and moral realism at the same time.  Put another way, a non-theist cannot make a rational argument that it is wrong to inflict pointless suffering on others (because they lack the foundation for such an argument).  This is basically how Prager put it.  A theist, however, can make such a rational argument.  It follows that in order to rationally believe that it is wrong to inflict pointless suffering on others, you must be a theist.  This is a presuppositional argument.

A non-theist can still accept moral realism, but they must do so on the basis of blind faith.  This is where the young caller’s comments come in.  There are in fact many moral, compassionate people who are not religious at all, so he was right to say that a person doesn’t need to be religious to be moral.  However, this point, while true, does not show that those people are being rational.  They are simply holding two incompatible beliefs in tension.  Why would they do that?  Because, as the young man said, he feels bad when other people suffer.  His moral belief is based on his own feelings and desires.

This is where Prager’s presuppositional argument gains all its force.  What does this young non-theist do in the face of another person who does not share his subjective feelings (in this case, a slave owner who does not care if he inflicts suffering on others)?  He cannot point to his own feelings, because then he is merely imposing his will on others because he desires to do so, and not because of any moral reasoning or law outside of himself.  That is the very definition of unjust tyranny, which I suspect our young non-theist also has pretty strong feelings against.

The practical implication of this is that non-religious moral language in the public sphere is almost always meaningless.  If someone says, for example, that it is immoral to oppose gay marriage, the proper response is simply “Who sez?”  Who declares that something is immoral?  In America, there can be only two responses.  The first is that “we the people” say so.  We live in a democratic Republic, we vote for the politicians who craft our laws, and in many states we vote directly for the laws.  If a majority says “this is now the law of the land”, it is so.  This is not the solution that gay marriage activists are interested in, because the majority of voters are still against them.  But notice that this is also not a moral response, strictly speaking.  The majority may vote to pass an immoral law.  The question of its intrinsic morality is irrelevant to how many people you can get to vote for it.

The second option is to appeal to something higher than the people, something intrinsic to nature and nature’s God.  But now we are making a religious argument.  It is no accident that those most vocally opposed to slavery in England, like William Wilberforce, were the religious fundamentalists of their day, who were rather unceremoniously told to keep their religion out of politics.  While the abolitionists were making dogmatic moral arguments, their opponents were appealing to the rights of slave owners and the negative effects of abolition on the economy.  When the abolitionists were asked “Who sez?” they had a definitive answer, “God sez.”

Appealing to nature while denying nature’s God doesn’t work either, because you will find yourself back in the position of being foundationless, with every man defining “nature” in his own image.

Practically speaking, I have found this to be the most effective form of argument.  “Who sez?” is so pathetically simple a question that when someone gives a long, complicated answer about how human beings evolved to embrace certain ethical norms rooted is mutual solidarity for the benefit of cultural survival, and they never get around to answering it, the inadequacy of their worldview to account for their own morality becomes painfully obvious.

Next week I hope to address an objection to this kind of argument:  What about religious people who use God as a cover for their own desires, saying “God sez”, when they really mean a “god” they have fashioned in their own image?

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David Nilsen

David graduated from Biola University in 2008, with a B.A. in Philosophy. He studied Historical Theology for three years at Westminster Seminary in California (his essays on Theology, Church History and Eastern Orthodoxy can be found here). David has been blogging about Philosophy, Politics and Culture since 2004. He has contributed to The White Horse Inn and The Gospel Coalition. You can also follow him on Twitter.

  • Benjamin

    You consistently confuse “rational” with “authoritative”. Rationality implies having arrived at a conclusion based on reasoning. Adhering to a dogmatic system of morals passed down from a real or imagined figure of authority in fact PREVENTS applying one’s own reasoning to said moral codes, and prevents a rational basis for any statement of those morals. Given theism, there is no rational basis for the statement “it is wrong to inflict pointless suffering on others”, only an authoritative one. One CAN form a rational basis for the statement “it is wrong to inflict pointless suffering on others” by reasoning through the pro’s and con’s of a world in which every person treats others in a manner agreeable to said others for the good of all including him/herself, but such a rational basis is quite impossible if one insists on reducing morality to adhering to a set of rules, supernatural in origin or not. Indeed, the theistic morality you refer to is much more like the legality you mention as a separate concept than it is a rational basis for moral judgment.

  • http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/ Mackman

    Really? How do you know what is a “pro” and what is a “con”? Pro’s and con’s with regard to what, exactly? Are you not merely referencing your own feelings? How is that rational?

  • Benjamin

    And now you see why it’s important to apply empirical reasoning to such a consideration, rather than just “but I’ve been taught this by religion”. Which has, in the past, justified everything from slavery to pedophilia. As, of course, has independent reasoning by individuals with something to gain from such a situation. The problem is that these two approaches are not as dissimilar as philosophers trying to paint theism as more than just another cognitive justification would like to see them; in both cases, it’s the individual’s personal preference that decides in the end, one coming to the conclusion they think is best, the other coming to the conclusion they think is best and then pointing to whichever dogma most closely agrees with them, while conspicuously ignoring said dogma in instances where it does not.

    This is why it’s vital to apply empirical reasoning to moral questions (to the best of one’s ability, which will of course never be completely perfect, merely better than the alternatives) rather than simply going by your chosen dogma or your initial feelings. It’s not a stretch to read “Both your male and female slaves, whom you shall have, shall be of the
    nations that are round about you; of them shall you buy male and female
    slaves” and think it’s alright to buy slaves. It’s also not a stretch to think that never having to do your own work might make your life more enjoyable. But by contrast, it’s really not a leap of logic to look at the situation objectively and conclude that a world in which you can enslave anyone, and anyone can enslave you, is not conducive to your own or anybody else’s wellbeing.

  • http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/ Mackman

    “it’s really not a leap of logic to look at the situation objectively and conclude that a world in which you can enslave anyone, and anyone can enslave you, is not conducive to your own or anybody else’s well-being.”

    But it is a leap of logic to arrive at the concept of caring about someone else’s well-being. You cannot apply empirical logic to morality, because you can never derive “I should do this” from “this is how things are.” Morality has to come from outside the world, outside us, or it does not exist.

  • Benjamin

    Well, no, that’s just a necessary condition of the worldview that EVERYTHING has to come from outside the world or it does not exist, which is the assertion that most philosophical arguments for religion eventually boil down to. There’s no actual reason to believe this, except that people are more comfortable claiming they’re right because *authority that they think people should respect* says they’re right than having to rationalize such things themselves. While being able to skip the difficult step of rationalizing and justifying one’s assertions (above summarized as the question “who sez”) is of course easier, it does not necessarily result in better answers, just easier ones. Morality does not have to come from outside the world to exist; indeed, it is fairly obviously a product OF the world, as morality does not arise in any situation beyond those that living beings create in their interactions with each other. (Two asteroids collide, one shatters and one does not… was the intact one evil or justified?)

    Caring about someone else’s wellbeing is not a leap of logic when one has the cognitive capacity to recognize similarities between oneself and another and thereby feel empathy for other feeling animals or people. Even the fairly obvious need for agreed-upon behavior standards purely for self-preservation aside, caring about someone else’s wellbeing is an inevitable consequence of being able to feel pain and abhor it while simultaneously being able to recognize emotions in other people; the inability to empathize with others (psychopathy) very commonly results in a lack of morality as well, and is a clearly diagnosable psychiatric condition. The lack of a dogmatic system of morals, however, does not, as Nilsen even admits above.

    Further, the reliance on dogma for morality rather than rationality makes it easy to justify obviously immoral behaviors if they are beyond the scope of said dogma. While one from outside a dogma can clearly recognize that it’s unnecessary and cruel to forbid women to learn or show their faces, forbid gays to marry their lovers, or to cut pieces off a newborn’s genitals, one who bases their morality instead on dogma can simply point to the Quran, the Bible, or the Torah telling them to do so, and so leave the actual (read: rational) morality of their actions entirely unexamined.

    Although, leaving things unexamined is just fine if all you’re concerned with is avoiding the uncomfortable question of “Who sez” with a default response, but one wonders why avoiding critical thought and the risk of self improvement is considered a worthwhile goal to begin with.

  • http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/ Mackman

    But you’re making a host of assumptions that go unquestioned. You’re assuming that self-preservation, for instance, is an unqualified good. You’re assuming that the act of causing pain is often an unqualified wrong.

    Morality must be based on something. We say, “Morality is an expression of God’s character: It is objective and absolute.” You say, “Morality comes from the need for self-preservation, or from empathy, or from…” but when we ask why self-preservation is to be attained, or why unnecessary pain is tt be avoided, you can arrive at no rational or logical answer: You can only say that you feel that way.

    You, as a person, seem to be better than your philosophy. You still believe that morality is important. But if atheists ever truly achieve their goal of destroying religion’s influence on morality, morality will no longer exist. Read C.S. Lewis’ “Abolition of Man” for a more in-depth look at this argument.

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  • Benjamin

    Argument from adverse consequences is a logical fallacy. People have been claiming that society would fall into ruin if they and theirs were no longer the dominant force behind it since we’ve had societies; so far they’ve all been wrong. I find it highly unlikely that the loss of your chosen dogma will destroy fundamental human morality; that, my friend, is vanity and nothing more, and demonstrably false, as broadening your horizons beyond your own culture and looking around the world at non-religious societies can tell you right away. Many of their systems of morals are different (as strong a proof that morality does not originate from a single source beyond this world as should be needed) but there are none that lack it altogether.

    Furthermore, I make no such assumptions, because I don’t need to. Our every instinct demands that self-preservation is a good… “unqualified” is the realm of dogma. This is not unique to any dogma or indeed to any species, as every. living. thing. has a vested interest in self-preservation. This is not an assumption; this is the way the world works. That there’s a magical source for all of this beyond the world: THAT is an assumption. Really, I don’t know how you can confuse these two.

    The act of causing pain as a wrong is of course a bit murkier, as most everything in competition for resources or with a carnivorous diet is called upon to inflict pain at some point or another, but the human capacity for imagination and thereby empathy generally leads, in healthy individuals, to avoid unnecessary infliction of pain, if for no other reason than we know it’s a negative if it were inflicted on us.

    These are rational reasons. Notably, the reason you point to: that morality is an expression of God’s character, is not. No rationality goes into that reason, because it allows for none. It simply ascribes, and then relies on the circular assumption that the supernatural creature in question is good because good is a supernatural creature in this worldview. It is, at it’s core, no different than a system of laws: “that behavior is illegal because it is against the law, and law determines legality because legality is determined by laws.” “That behavior is evil because it is against my chosen interpretation of god, and my chosen interpretation of god is good because goodness is determined by the character of my chosen interpretation of god.” Again, it helps to avoid uncomfortable thinking, but that is it’s only advantage, and it comes with a host of drawbacks, most damning among them that it resists questioning and improvement.

    Of course, my morality’s not perfect because I’m not perfect, but if I can admit that and you can not, then mine’s better if for no other reason than because it can be improved upon, while dogma resists any attempt at betterment.

  • http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/ Mackman

    “[At this point, the Innovator is likely to give up the quest for a “rational” core and to hunt for some other ground even more ‘basic’ and ‘realistic.’ This he will probably feel that he has found in Instinct. The preservation of society, and of the species itself, are ends that do not hang on the precarious thread of Reason: They are given by Instinct… It looks, in fact, as if an ethics based on instinct will give the Innovator all he wants and nothing he does not want.

    In reality, we have not advanced one step. Instinct is here being used in a fairly definite sense, to mean an unreflective or spontaneous impulse widely felt by the members of a given species. In what way does Instinct, thus conceived, help us to find ‘real’ values?… it looks very much as if the Innovator would have to say not that we must obey Instinct, or that it will satisfy us to do so, but that we ought to obey it.

    But why ought we to obey Instinct? Even if it were true that men had a spontaneous, unreflective impulse to sacrifice their own lives for the preservation of their fellows, it remains a quite separate question whether this is an impulse they should control, or one they should indulge. For even the Innovator admits that many impulses (those which conflict with the preservation of the species) must be controlled… Our instincts are at war. If it is held that the instinct for preserving the species should always be obeyed at the expense of other instincts, whence do we derive this rule of precedence? … By the very act of listening to one instinct rather than to others we have already prejudged the case…

    We grasp at useless words: we call it the ‘basic’, or fundamental’, or ‘primal’, or ‘deepest’ instinct. It is of no avail. Either these words conceal a value judgement passed upon instinct and therefore not derivable from it, or else they merely record its felt intensity, the frequency of its operation and its wide distribution. If the former, the whole attempt to base value upon instinct has been abandoned: if the latter, these observations about the quantitative aspects of a psychological event lead to no practical conclusion.”

    C.S. Lewis, “The Abolition of Man”

    You grasp at straws. You describe our imagination, our sense of empathy, our instincts… and yet by describing these mere phenomena, you do not advance one step closer to morality: By describing what “is”, you do not get any closer to “should.” At the end of the day, it really is a question of “Who sez?”

  • Benjamin

    Yes, precisely. And going with the honest truth of “we say” invites examination. It’s a quandary, and requires quite a bit of thought, some of it uncomfortable, to sort out what’s best. And even when one has exhaustively examined it from every angle they’re capable of, there’s still always the possibility that there’s some perspective they haven’t considered, and may have to launch into the whole process again when some new question arises. If, of course, one cares about actually being correct.

    Or, “God dunnit, don’t make me think.” I understand the appeal, but it’s weak, and I don’t respect the laziness or the unwillingness to discomfort oneself for the good of their fellow man.

  • http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/ Mackman

    Ah, I see how this works. Those who agree with you are intelligent and discerning, but anyone who makes an appeal to absolute morality is weak, lazy, and unwilling to discomfort themselves. Good to know.

    Are you uncomfortable? Really? With most people in America now bowing to the doctrine of relativity, of changing, secular morality, are you really that uncomfortable being in the majority?

    It’s not comfortable being a Christian. It’s not comfortable proclaiming Truth to a world that doesn’t want to hear it. To say that proclaiming unchanging Morality, as dictated by God, is a comfortable position to be in, is to reveal that you know very little about our position.

    You fight for the “good” of your fellow man. I applaud you. But your foundation is flawed, as is the foundation of all secular morality. At the very base of your argument lies the assumption that some things are good and some things are bad, and when that assumption itself is questioned, really questioned, made subject to the same burden of proof that you subject Christian morality to, then all the empirical evidence and argument in the world will not save it.

    I feel that this conversation has run its course. I hope you continue to frequent EO, and have a great day.

  • Benjamin

    Oh, seriously? You’re going to pull “Christians aren’t the majority” as a difficulty? In 80% Christian America, no less, and call my 5% the majority? Alright man; having a fraction of the people you meet not take your superstitions as fact must be waaaay more uncomfortable than having to find and patch the inherent flaws in human-created morality and come to terms with the fact that you’ll die some day and no longer exist in any discernible form. One can only imagine the constant stresses of not only believing that you’re immortal but that the omnipotent creator of all things and all the hosts of heaven have your eternal back. Must be horrible, I can see why such a bleak worldview only appeals to the most brutally honest intellectuals among us.

    But, to summarize; yes. Clinging to automatic justifications that allow one to wander through life with their eyes closed and never have to question or improve their own morality or think through the difficult thoughts required in sorting out one’s own perceptions is lazy. Sorry you didn’t know that.

    Choosing one’s dogma is a product of human thinking as well, though most are only too happy to give up even this burden to their parents or society. The only difference between human-created morality and human-chosen dogma is that dogma precludes improvement by future generations that may know more than it’s writers. Which is all well and good if you’d rather not do the work, but it means that it will never approach the utility and objective accuracy of secular morality done correctly. Most shortcuts don’t.

  • http://www.facebook.com/michael.john.7311 Michael John

    Does the writer of this post not realize that slavery is sanctioned in the Bible, and that the slave owners in the South used the Bible as their argument justifying slavery? Why do Christians always forget this?

    I can ask a question to a confederate in 1860, “Who sez slavery is moral?” And he’d say, “God sez”.

    To say that appealing to nature is futile because of differences of opinion in the definition of nature, it can also be said that no two people have the exact definition of god and what he wants. Grounding your morals in god is like grounding your morals in a certain version of a holy book. It is still a matter of opinion of what your god wants.

    For all of you who think there are no rational arguments for morality without god I ask you to answer these questions:

    1. If Biblical morality is indeed right, why is it right? By what basis is this justified?

    2. If Biblical morality is indeed right, shouldn’t we still be practicing it now? What are the justifications for doing so or not doing so? (By Biblical morality I mean allowing slavery, fathers selling their daughters into slavery, indentured servitude, forcing underage girls into marriages with older men, stoning to death all homosexuals, adulterers, witches, unruly children, those who worship false gods, those who work on the Sabbath, allowing the rape of female captives in war, and throwing war captives off cliffs. You get the picture.)

    3. Is something good because god commands it, or does he command it because it is good?

    4. If something is good because god commands it, then couldn’t he command murder to be good?

    5. If god would never command murder because murder is inherently bad, then murder must naturally be bad in and of itself, and couldn’t this be a natural foundation recognized by human beings without the requirement of god?

  • http://www.facebook.com/michael.john.7311 Michael John

    Mackman, don’t give up!! Please have faith!!! Let Jesus give you strength!!

    Since you believe in unchanging moral absolutes given by god, please explain to me why Christians today (and presumably you) are not fighting to allow slavery, fathers selling their daughters into slavery, indentured servitude, forcing underage girls into marriages with older men, stoning to death all homosexuals, adulterers, witches, unruly children, those who worship false gods, those who work on the Sabbath, allowing the rape of female captives in war, and throwing war captives off cliffs.

    Is it because of the horrible moral progressives that made Christians not practice this morality anymore?