XFiles Friday: What Apologists Don’t Know About Morality

(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 7)

Having misunderstood, denied, distorted, and outright lied about the scientific evidence that something (or somethings) somewhere might somehow have done something no one saw that might in some way have resembled Genesis, Geisler and Turek are now ready to turn their attention to the question of morality, and how it can be exploited as a possible argument for the existence of some kind of deity.

[T]here is a prescription to do good that has been given to all of humanity.

Some call this moral prescription “conscience”; others call it “Natural Law”; still others (like our Founding Fathers) refer to it as “Nature’s Law.” We refer to it as “The Moral Law.” But whatever you call it, the fact that a moral standard has been prescribed on the minds of all human beings points to a Moral Law Prescriber. Every prescription has a prescriber. The Moral Law is no different. Someone must have given us these moral obligations.

This, obviously, is the superstitious approach to morality. We observe that morality exists, and instead of exploring the real-world factors that produce it, so as to better understand where it really comes from, we simply ascribe it to some magical, unobserved Moral Law Prescriber. Let’s contrast this approach with a more reality-based explanation of where morality comes from.

The secular explanation of morality is that morality is defined by how people feel about the consequences of things. If people like the consequences, then the behavior is “good”; if they dislike the consequences, then it’s “bad.” The more strongly people like or dislike the consequences, the greater the perceived good or evil, respectively.

Is this the same as having a “moral law” written on our hearts? Only if we define “moral law” broadly enough that evolution counts as the “Moral Law Prescriber.” Ever notice how the “bad” things are usually harmful in some way? Murder, obviously, is immediately destructive, but it also harms society in ways that are less obvious, by increasing anxiety and suspicion and decreasing cooperation and trust. Most of our moral prescriptions and prohibitions are directly related to the tangible benefit or harm that is the natural consequence of certain actions. In this sense there is indeed a “Moral Law” imposed on us by the circumstances of secular reality.

Some moral prescriptions, however, are less clear. Is it immoral to use birth control? Some people think so, others don’t. How about working on Saturdays? Exclaiming “Jesus Christ!” when upset or frustrated? Using drugs to make yourself feel better? Tylenol anyone?

How about genocide? Animal sacrifice? Sacrificing your own son? All three of these cases involve Bible stories where God commanded people to do these things and/or did them Himself. If God is the Moral Law Giver, and there’s a single Moral Law, how is it that different people at different times seem to have different and contradictory moral laws written on their hearts?

It’s a situation that isn’t too consistent with Geisler and Turek’s superstitious view of morality. If “The Moral Law” (singular) is something magically prescribed by an unchanging deity and imposed by Him on all mankind regardless of belief, then we all ought to reflect that same moral law. But we don’t, except to the extent that, in the real world, some actions are harmful and others are beneficial. If Geisler and Turek were correct, we ought to see the same Moral Law everywhere and at all times, but if the secular explanation is correct then we ought to see broad general agreement in areas where there are practical consequences for certain behaviors, and isolated variations where the behavior produces consequences that are neither obviously good nor obviously bad, or that merely satisfy some local superstitious fear or custom. The latter, of course, is precisely what anthropologists do see.

Geisler and Turek waste the first half of Chapter 7 with a series of mildly interesting but ultimately pointless arguments intended to show that absolute morality does exist. While they are largely correct that it does exist, they completely overlook the fact that the reason it exists is simply because actions have consequences, including consequences that are either harmful or beneficial to the person or persons involved. And it’s a pointless discussion because they never even attempt to show that the existence of moral consequences has anything to do with the existence of one or more deities. The quote above, where they say “If there is a Moral Law, then there must be a Moral Law Prescriber,” is pretty much their whole argument on the matter. One superstitious assumption, followed by half a chapter devoted to proving that The Moral Law (i.e. consequences we care about) actually exist. Their argument boils down to simply assuming that the existence of morality must somehow imply the existence of God, just because they say so.

Apparently, even Geisler and Turek realize at some level how weak their argument is, because they feel the need to spend the last half of Chapter 7 trying to make “Darwinists” into some kind of moral scapegoats again. (Witch burning has gone out of style, so I guess “Darwinists” will have to do.) Geisler and Turek pretend that “it’s not easy to explain how there can be an objective right and wrong…unless there exists a Moral Law Giver” (as though everyone who believes in evolution must be an atheist). Then they claim that “Darwinists” ought to disbelieve in morality because “Darwinism asserts that only materials exist, but materials don’t have morality” (and never mind that Darwinism says nothing about what does or does not exist, it merely describes the origination of new species via descent with modifications from common ancestors).

Then they argue that morality cannot be instinctual (even though “instinctual morality” is exactly what we would see if some magic Moral Law Prescriber really did write some arbitrary moral code on every human’s heart), because if you see someone in danger, and you feel conflicting impulses (altruism vs. self-preservation), then “As C. S. Lewis puts it,”

…you will find inside you, in addition to these two impulses, a third thing which tells you that you ought to follow the impulse to help, and to suppress the impulse to run away. Now this thing that judges between two instincts, that decides which should be encouraged, cannot itself be either of them. You might as well say the sheet of music which tells you, at a given moment, to play one note on the piano and not another, is itself one of the notes on the keyboard. The Moral Law tells us the tune we have to play: our instincts are merely the keys.

Lewis is superficially correct: the impulse which tells you to listen to one impulse rather than the other is not itself one of the two impulses competing for your attention. But this is hardly an argument for a Moral Law that tells us self-sacrifice is always right and self-preservation is always wrong. I read in the paper some time ago about a man who died trying to rescue his wife from a burning building. Did some moral law dictate to him that it was “good” to leave his three children as orphans and that it would have been “bad” to refrain from running back into the burning building looking for a wife that was already dead? Maybe, but it’s not a given. If two things compete, and one prevails, it’s not necessarily the case that some third thing intervened to select the victor. Maybe one was just stronger than the other.

Moving on, Geisler and Turek try to further confuse the issue by arguing that morals could not have evolved out of the mere survival benefits conferred by cooperation, on the grounds that “this assumes an end—survival—for evolution, when Darwinism, by definition, has no end because it is a non-intelligent process.” It’s hard to tell whether they’re deliberately trying to obfuscate the matter, or whether their understanding of evolution really is that abysmal, but it’s not that hard a concept to grasp. If an inheritable trait has the real-world consequence of improving reproduction of its owner’s genes, that trait will tend to show up in an increasing number of descendants. It’s a result, not an “end,” and it’s a perfectly reasonable possibility.

Geisler and Turek waffle on about “how can you know what ‘good’ is in the absence of a Moral Law” and so on, but as we’ve already seen, this is a red herring, since the real-world consequences (and not some superstitiously-ascribed “Lawgiver”) really do define objective standards for our morality. But their final point exposes just how bankrupt their own understanding of morality is:

Darwinists cannot explain why anyone should obey any biologically derived “moral sentiment.” Why shouldn’t people murder, rape, and steal to get what they want if there is nothing beyond this world? Why should the powerful cooperate with the weaker when the powerful can survive longer by exploiting the weaker?

Amazingly, Geisler and Turek seem completely unable to understand how something like murder, or rape, or theft, could be wrong in and of itself, or how the inevitably harmful consequences of certain actions might make them wrong. Apparently, a thing is only wrong if there’s some future existence in which some powerful being will make you suffer for doing certain things that, on a whim, he arbitrarily designated as wrong. In asking why the powerful should cooperate with the weak instead of exploiting them for his own benefit, Geisler and Turek imagine that the truth is a powerful God exploiting the relative weakness of men for His own benefit!

Geisler and Turek also conveniently overlook the fact that Biblical morality is based on powerful kings, priests, and prophets who, at the time, saw nothing wrong with ruling over the less-powerful and enjoying the fruits of their labors for their own benefit. The moral code that says this is wrong, and that democracy is a greater good, is a moral code that evolved among and on behalf of the ruled. (There’s that pesky problem of multiple competing moral laws again!)

Geisler and Turek have still lower to sink, but we’ll save the “best” for next week. It’s worth a whole post in and of itself.

3 Responses to “XFiles Friday: What Apologists Don’t Know About Morality”

  1. bacopa Says:

    I agree with you that the rightness or wrongness of an action is derived from the real world consequences on real people. This should be obvious.

    Why is it wrong for a bully to beat up a kid and take his lunch money? Well, being beat up is bad, feeling hungry is bad, the atmosphere of fear created by the bully’s actions is bad. All these bad things outweigh whatever pleasure the bully might get from his actions. The bully is a jerk. We should create rules and impartial authorities to impose sanctions to deter the bully. We should be careful about what rules we set up and who we place in authority because their power may come to impose more harm than they prevent. Duh! It couldn’t be any simpler even though the actual application of such reasoning can be problematic.

    These “moral lawgiver” types don’t really believe in right and wrong. They have no real morality. If things are right and wrong just because some super-badass sky-daddy says so then there isn’t really a right and wrong.

  2. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Which is exactly why they can claim to believe in moral absolutes while at the same time denying that there was anything wrong with the prophet Samuel saying God had ordered the genocide of the Amalekites. If they really did believe in objective moral standards, they’d say, “Wait a minute, genocide is wrong, a good God could not possibly have inspired Samuel to say that.”

    Of course, then they’d have the problem of Samuel being a false prophet, which would be bad because the legitimacy of David’s rule was based on Samuel’s supposed divine authority to anoint a king. If David is not a legitimate king, then Christ, the Son of David, isn’t either.

  3. mikespeir Says:

    Well, I haven’t read the book and need to, of course. But it looks like, like all the proofs do, they’re making the mistake of assuming their conclusion.

    Here’s the approach I take to the so-called Moral Argument.

    “What’s morality?”

    “Right and wrong.”

    “Fair enough. Right and wrong according to whom?”

    If they say, “According to God,” then I reply, “You’re assuming your conclusion.”

    But if they try to hedge, I say, “If God’s not necessary to the definition, why should I assume he’s necessary to the concept?”

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