More on natural moral law

[UPDATE: the post to which I was replying seems to have disappeared from the original blog it was posted to, so there’s not much point in following the link below, I’m afraid.]

Samueljames seems to want to keep the discussion going on the subject of CS Lewis’s “Natural Law” argument. Unfortunately, he’s morphing it into a subjective philosophical exercise about what a good moral system should be, which strays quite a bit from Lewis’s point and my discussion of it.

[T]he question still remains unanswered; on what basis does history have to condemn any man, dictator, or tyrant who actually gave power and prestige to himself and elite others by the suppression of human freedom?

This is the direction that samueljames would like to take us. Which system of moral values is the correct and defensible system? It’s an interesting question, but it’s not a question that really comes into Lewis’s argument. Lewis’s argument goes like this:

These, then, are the two points I wanted to make. First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about the universe we live in.

Lewis wants to make an observation about the way morality is, and then use that as the basis for a conclusion that only a universal lawgiver can account for the universal sense of moral standards we all seem to have. Samueljames, on the other hand, wants to critique my description of moral standards on the grounds that my system isn’t everything that it should be. Discussing what an ethical system is, and what an ethical system should be, are two different discussions. I wasn’t attempting to describe what an ideal moral system should be; I was addressing Lewis’s point by showing that no, it is not necessary to invoke a universal/supernatural lawgiver in order to account for the common perception that moral standards exist.

Moral standards are simply the codification of the social consequences of certain behaviors, and thus will arise spontaneously whenever behaviors have social consequences. I’m not saying this is right or wrong, and I’m not saying that this is how we should decide what right and wrong are, I’m simply pointing out that in practice this is where moral standards come from.

For example, in certain subcultures in the West, it is considered “wrong” to snitch on a friend to the authorities. If you know someone who stole a purse, and you turn them in to the police, the other members of your group will judge that what you did was worse than what the purse snatcher did. Your actions will have social consequences within your group, and the members of the group know this, and construct their moral code accordingly (and problematically). The existence of this moral code is, I submit, not the result of Jesus sitting up in heaven issuing moral strictures designed to make it harder for the police to enforce the law. Moral codes can and do arise spontaneously; their existence is not a reflection of some heavenly law-giver.

That’s the point I wanted to make with regards to Lewis’s “Natural Law” argument, but having made it, I think it might be interesting to consider some of samueljames’s points. It’s a lengthy post, so I won’t go through all of it, but I will hit a few highlights.

“[W]hat basis does history have to condemn any … tyrant who [benefited] by the suppression of human freedom?” History doesn’t. People condemn tyranny, and the people who judge the tyrant as being wrong are people who identify with the many individuals whose freedom was suppressed. The sense of “wrongness” comes from our sense of empathy, from feeling that their oppression was, in a sense, ours as well. The real-world social consequences of the tyrant’s behavior are what drive our perception that his behavior is wrong. We don’t need to refer to some arbitrary and external dictionary of “right” and “wrong,” and even if we did, no such dictionary is available.

Both the judge and the criminal differ in their ethics but not in the fact that they have them to begin with. We are then faced with questions like where do the criminal and judge get their definitions of just, why is it important to be just, what’s so bad about injustice? The answer cannot be reduced to whatever helps the group or individual, because in the judicial you often deal with justice being meted out to parties whose well being are inversely related (what may be safer for society may be very unhelpful to the criminal).

I like to quote this part because it highlights one of the major flaws in Lewis’s argument: different people develop different ethical systems. If there were one universal lawgiver, and we were all responding to some innate sense of what the One True Universal Ethical Standard was, then both the judge and the thief would have the same set of ethics, because they would come from a common source. But in real life, we find that this is not so. People in different subgroups, with conflicting interests, often develop conflicting ethics (like the moral code against “snitching”).

Samueljames had a very interesting reaction to my point about whether it would be immoral for a deity to declare something “wrong” if it was not inherently wrong.

If the deity in question is anything that resembles the God of Christianity, then His mind is what creates, sustains, and embodies the essence and morality and truthfulness of all things…

The second, more critical point I want to make is that you are proposing (hypothetically, I realize, but still it’s an error in logic) that the supreme being can still be tyrannical and in the wrong when the being claims to be in the right. You therefore are introducing a third party, a nebulous standard of morality and is supreme even to the deity.

Correct, and let’s have a look at the interesting thing that happens when you suppose that this is not the case. Let’s suppose that nothing is innately right or wrong in and of itself. “Good” means simply whatever God desires or thinks of as good, and “evil” is whatever runs counter to what God wants. We often hear that God works in mysterious ways, and that His thoughts are not our thoughts. The Bible tells us that at various times it has seemed “good” to God to commit genocide, to order that pregnant women be ripped open and and their babies smashed on the rocks, and to command the slaughter of animals for no purpose other than to satisfy Him and turn away His wrath. And none of that, by definition, is wrong.

Think of it. God can lie to you, and if it’s His will to lie to you, then there’s nothing wrong with that. God can promise Christians heaven, and then torment them forever in Hell, laughing at them for all eternity for being so gullible–and that would not be wrong, by definition. There is no deception, no brutality, no horror so wrong in and of itself that we can say with any certainty that God would never do that. God does what is good, but if good, by definition, means whatever God does, then there is no possible distinction between a “good” act of God and an “evil” act of God, because they’re all “good,” even when they harm and destroy people.

What’s even more striking is that this kind of unconstrained relativism inevitably percolates down to men as well. God has worked in mysterious ways in the past, including telling people to do some pretty nasty stuff (according to the Old Testament), and if some believer thinks that God is telling him to do something–lie under oath, or murder a clinic worker, or cheat people out of their hard-earned dollars–then who are you and I to declare that God can’t or won’t do that? If “good” means “whatever God feels like,” then the term “good” ceases to be a meaningful distinction, and by extension God’s “good and perfect will” for any believer’s life is under no constraints whatsoever to abide by any inherent or objective standard of right and wrong. Whatever immoral act a person might commit, it would not be “wrong” if it was according to God’s will.

When Osama bin Ladin watched the World Trade Center fall into dust and ashes, taking thousands of innocent lives with it, he repeated over and over, “God is great, God is great.” Osama’s ethical system is based on the idea that God is sovereign, and whatever God wants, by definition, is good and right and pure and just. Even if it means murdering thousands of innocent civilians. You ask me if I think that we, as mere mortals, have the right to judge whether or not this kind of “divinely-mandated” ethic is immoral?

Yes. Yes we do have that right, and yes that ethic is immoral, whether or not its God’s will.

One Response to “More on natural moral law”

  1. Mike Says:

    “God does what is good, but if good, by definition, means whatever God does, then there is no possible distinction between a ‘good’ act of God and an ‘evil’ act of God, because they’re all ‘good,’ even when they harm and destroy people.”


    I disagree, however, with part of your closing statement. We do have the right to judge; we have the right to do whatever we do, because all things are necessary (This post may clarify that idea: We have the right to call something immoral, but that does not make it so. We have the right to deny and ignore the fact that there are no opposites such as “good” and “evil.” We have the right to make bad arguments; the right to call them “bad,” and the right to make them anyway.

    As for “whether or not it’s God’s will,” no matter what you believe about God, all things are God’s will. The good news is, God isn’t the all-powerful human sitting up in heaven watching and judging everything we do, saving some and condemning others.

    If I don’t make enough sense, which is quite likely, this post has some incredible insight:



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