nice good

The Power of “Nice” and the Importance of “Good”

“Why are you always involved in these missions trips to other religious groups?” Claire’s mother stopped me after a Sunday youth service and pulled me aside. I’ll never forget our conversation. Her question was more accusatory than inquisitive. “I’m not letting Claire go on this trip. I know lots of Mormons. We have several really good friends who are Mormon. They are incredibly nice people. Why would you want to challenge what they believe when they are so nice?” I received many similar complaints and questions from parents when I first began taking students on trips to Salt Lake City. Why would we want to challenge and upset people who are that nice?

nice good

“Niceness” is a persuasive apologetic. Several years ago, on a missions trip to the University of California at Berkeley, I observed the power of “nice” firsthand. An atheist student from SANE (Students Advocating a Non-religious Ethos) impacted our group more powerfully than any of the other atheists we encountered. This student was young, attractive and incredibly “nice”. His demeanor made his worldview attractive, even before he opened his mouth to try to defend it. “Nice” can be incredibly powerful.

But “nice” is not the same as “good”, even though we often confuse the two. “Nice” is an adjective that means “pleasant,” “agreeable,” or “satisfactory”; we might use it to say, “We had a nice time”. It can also be used to describe someone who is “pleasant in manner” or “kind”. In this sense “niceness” describes an appearance based on outward performance. The young man from SANE behaved in a way that was observably pleasant and kind. He was a nice young man. Why would anyone try to persuade someone to change his or her beliefs when their worldview has clearly resulted in such a nice disposition? His behavior was a commanding advertisement for his worldview and our students were powerfully impacted by his presentation.

That’s where the question of “niceness” vs. “goodness” becomes important. “Good” can also be used as an adjective, as when it is used to describe something “to be desired or approved of”, but it can also be used as a noun: “That which is morally right; righteousness”. “Goodness” is a moral evaluation. It seeks to describe the unseen motives that drive our visible behaviors. It’s quite possible to be pleasant and kind for an underlying evil purpose; people can be pleasant and kind to accomplish something vile. I’ve seen this happen repeatedly as a homicide detective.

“Niceness” is determined by one’s personal experience. We typically declare an experience or person to be “pleasant” if we experienced personal enjoyment. Your “pleasant” might be different than my “pleasant”. It is subjective. But “goodness” is grounded in something bigger than both of us. I can have a subjective opinion about what or who pleases me, but deciding if this thing or person is “righteous” is another matter altogether. Righteousness is a standard that transcends my personal opinion; it’s not subjective, it’s objective. To be “righteous” is to “act in accord with divine or moral law.” That’s a law that transcends our personal opinion. I’ve known committed gang members who were able to be “nice” to one another or in order to fool a victim. “Niceness” is one thing, “righteousness” is another.

When we behave “nicely” because we hope to achieve something for ourselves, even when the reward is our spiritual salvation, the moral value of our actions is compromised. If I give you $10.00 because I know it will result in my receiving $100.00, my actions can hardly be called “good”, even though you might think it was “nice” at the time. I wasn’t trying to be “nice” at all; I was just trying to accomplish a selfish goal of increased income. People who are outwardly “nice” because they are convinced this behavior will earn them salvation are in a similar situation. That’s why “work-based” theological systems can produce “nice” people who aren’t necessarily “good”.

That’s also why we take the time to share the Christian truth about grace with people who are still working hard to earn their salvation (like Mormons) or who reject the transcendent source of “good” altogether (like atheists). We interact with people who seem incredibly “nice” because we understand the difference between “nice” and “good”.

J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, a Christian Case Maker, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity, Cold-Case Christianity for Kids, and God’s Crime Scene.

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20 replies
  1. Ed Vaessen says:

    I think I understand the difference between being nice and being good, as Christians see it. Nice is when you do not put women on a burning stake. Goodness is when you burn them. At least, that is what Christians did in the 18th century to women and no one will deny that these Christians were good. No one in his right mind will deny that real Christians can always tell us what is good and what is nice.

    Reply
  2. Ed Vaessen says:

    How many orphan houses does mr. Wallace sponsor? The answer (it will surprise no one) is this: zero. How do I know this? Simple answer: he doesn’t sound like one who sponsors orphan houses. He is far too busy with playing God and collecting your money.

    Reply
    • Kalmaro says:

      First, if I’m not mistaken, there is no rule against not supporting orphan houses. If he goes to a church he is probably putting his money there to help people in the church who needs it.

      Second, and this is in response to your first comment and witch burning, what exactly is your point? You’re right, people were burning others because of superstitions. I have a question for you though. If Christians are people who follow Christ, and Christ never once told anyone to burn people, then would that not mean that their faith in Christ had nothing to do with what they did, regardless of what they said?

      It seems to me that they just did what they did due to their own personal beliefs, what’s worse is that the Bible did not instruct them to do what they did at all so your argument does not work in this case.

      Reply
      • Ed Vaessen says:

        Kalmaro says:
        “First, if I’m not mistaken, there is no rule against not supporting orphan houses. If he goes to a church he is probably putting his money there to help people in the church who needs it.”
        Forget what I said. It is only that I saw a youtube movie where a girl addressed a christian preacher that had come to ‘save’ people. While he was ranting about his infallible truth, she made very clear that she did not see him helping other people. She was all too correct in seeing that this preacher was only making himself very big in the name of Jesus, God or whatever.
        It is exactly the same impression I get of mr. Wallace.

        “Second, and this is in response to your first comment and witch burning, what exactly is your point? You’re right, people were burning others because of superstitions. I have a question for you though. If Christians are people who follow Christ, and Christ never once told anyone to burn people, then would that not mean that their faith in Christ had nothing to do with what they did, regardless of what they said?”

        The Bible is very clear that people should not tolerate sorceresses. Exodus 22:18. Now I can already see you jumping to some explanation about what it exactly means and that in fact it is very, very friendly to women. But do you realize that this Exodus 22:18 lives a life of its own and that the words are there and that, when it comes to it, they are very convenient for people that like to burn women as they are the words of God himself?
        “No no!”, you cry to the witch burning mob. “You misunderstand the words of the Bible. In fact they …”
        Bit you will be overwhelmed. Your words will only be heard by people that are raised in a society that in no law ever uses the word ‘witch’ and ‘burn them’. That is the difference between the Bible and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And the great thing about this Declaration is that it leaves God out.

        Reply
        • Kalmaro says:

          Ouch, I can see your point with the girl having issues with the preacher. It basically boils down to the preacher looking like a hypocrite. I wont deny that those people exist and it’s a shame.

          As for the verse in Exodus, or any verse in the old testament that details the laws given to the Israelites, you’re going to run into a problem applying that to any time after Jesus since Jesus was supposed to bring in a new law and bring the old ones to a close. That’s why you don’t hear of any Christians losing sleep over not performing animal sacrifices and stoning other people. These are all laws given to a certain group of people at a certain time.

          So on one hand, you’re absolutely correct. the Bible *does* say that sorceresses (that’s a lot of s’s) were to be put to death but you have to ask who the message is being given to and if it ever applied to Christians. The fact that people even long after that period passed used those verses to justify burning supposed witches is just a product of people misunderstanding the Bible and giving into superstitions.

          However, I think it is unfair to say that the Bible tramples on human rights when we have much bigger secular examples of human rights being trampled on. This especially becomes the case when you consider that Christians follow Christ and the new testament makes a point of instruction Christians to be different than what you seem to be hinting at.

          Not only that, but the moment you take God out of the picture, you have no way to justify what ‘rights’ humans have. I’m sure we can both agree that humans have rights and I’m sure we could probably agree on most rights humans should have. However, we would have no way of proving what rights humans actually should have or if humans should have rights at all.

          Perhaps I’m misunderstanding you though, what do you mean by the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights”?

          Reply
          • Ed Vaessen says:

            Kalmaro:
            “The fact that people even long after that period passed used those verses to justify burning supposed witches is just a product of people misunderstanding the Bible and giving into superstitions.”

            There you go again. You being a nice guy means you will interpret the Bible in a nice way. But you do not have the last word in this.

            “However, I think it is unfair to say that the Bible tramples on human rights when we have much bigger secular examples of human rights being trampled on.”

            The wrongs don’t make one right. It is the Tu Quoque fallacy.

            “Not only that, but the moment you take God out of the picture, you have no way to justify what ‘rights’ humans have. I’m sure we can both agree that humans have rights and I’m sure we could probably agree on most rights humans should have. However, we would have no way of proving what rights humans actually should have or if humans should have rights at all.”

            You cannot claim that you have access to some higher authority. The only means to build morality are we ourselves and that is perhaps never a perfect morality for all people for all times. The reason that God is left out of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is that God doesn’t add anything to them.
            On the contrary: the God of the Old testament behaves exactly as a God that could be imagined by people with a tribal mentality. Mostly groups are punished as a whole. The Flood cruelly kills babies and toddlers that happen to belong to the wrong group. Same for the Egyptians who are collectively punished for what the Pharaoh does wrong. Ten of thousands of Israelites are killed because David wants a census. Children are killed by bears because they mock a prophet.
            You cannot get further away from individual human rights than that.

          • Terry Lewis says:

            Pardon me for butting in, but statements like this catch my attention. Ed, you said this:

            “The only means to build morality are we ourselves and that is perhaps never a perfect morality for all people for all times.”

            Can you explain a bit more about what you mean? To show where my interest lies, let me ask a few questions:

            You seem to believe that morality is something that humans “built”, or to use another term, developed. I’m curious then to know what “perfect morality” would mean. Wouldn’t it be true that if morality is a human creation and has no other source, then there is no objective standard of morality?

            And if there is no objective standard of morality, then isn’t it true that all standards are equally subjective and therefore equally valid?

            Further, you seem to believe that the moral practices that you claim were developed by the ancient Hebrews are vastly inferior to our own. But by what standard? If their standard, like our own, is subjective, and it worked for them in their day, then your claims of inferiority sound very much like claiming that vanilla ice cream is better than Rocky Road.

            Or are you claiming that all Egyptians truly should NOT have been punished for the actions of their leader?

            Additionally, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights may actually enumerate rights that humans actually have… but what GIVES them those rights? Evolution? If you believe so, then please explain how that works. I’ve heard many people claim this, but no one who can explain why animate matter should be considered any more valuable than inanimate matter.

            If the theist cannot claim access to a higher authority, how much less can the atheist do so! To what or whom do you appeal to provide you with these rights?

          • Ed Vaessen says:

            Terry Lewis says:
            ”Pardon me for butting in, but statements like this catch my attention. Ed, you said this:
            “The only means to build morality are we ourselves and that is perhaps never a perfect morality for all people for all times.”
            Can you explain a bit more about what you mean? To show where my interest lies, let me ask a few questions:
            You seem to believe that morality is something that humans “built”, or to use another term, developed. I’m curious then to know what “perfect morality” would mean. Wouldn’t it be true that if morality is a human creation and has no other source, then there is no objective standard of morality?”

            Indeed. As far as I know, there exists no such objective standard of morality, not one that the whole universe will agree upon.

            “And if there is no objective standard of morality, then isn’t it true that all standards are equally subjective and therefore equally valid?”

            Equally subjective? Yes.
            Equally valid? That depends on what you value.
            Do not mix up these things. Values is what we human beings define as such.

            “Further, you seem to believe that the moral practices that you claim were developed by the ancient Hebrews are vastly inferior to our own. But by what standard? If their standard, like our own, is subjective, and it worked for them in their day, then your claims of inferiority sound very much like claiming that vanilla ice cream is better than Rocky Road.”

            I say that their moral practices are typical for tribal thinking and that tribal thinking is very much against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

            “Or are you claiming that all Egyptians truly should NOT have been punished for the actions of their leader?”

            First, I think that this punishment never happened and that it is fantasy of some tribally thinking people that found its way into the Bible.
            Second: had it really happened, then, to our human standards, they should not have been punished because of the actions of their leader. Not knowing about democracy. they had no control over this leader. But even if they had democracy, things would not be much different.
            Suppose we Dutch attack the French with tanks and they bomb us with nuclear weapons. Is it my fault that it happens? I am not in control of our government and the military forces. Nor were the children that died during the bombings of Coventry, London, Rotterdam, Warschau, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They had no control. They lived and died in the wrong city in the wrong time.
            Are you claiming that these children in Egypt were rightfully punished because of the actions of their Pharaoh?

            “Additionally, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights may actually enumerate rights that humans actually have… but what GIVES them those rights? Evolution? If you believe so, then please explain how that works.”

            So far as we know, only we humans can give these rights, even if we do not posses the power to enforce them for every human being, from day to day, hour to hour. Evolution (theory) does not give these rights. It cannot give them because evolution theory is no more than an scientific explanation for the diversity of life. It tells us what is. Not how things should be. It is science.

            “If the theist cannot claim access to a higher authority, how much less can the atheist do so! To what or whom do you appeal to provide you with these rights?”

            Atheists do not seek this higher authority because they think it is not here. Why therefor should we appeal to anything outside ourselves? Can you prove the existence of such a higher authority? I think you can’t.

          • Terry Lewis says:

            Ed,

            Thank you for taking the time to respond. You said, concerning an ultimate standard of morality:

            Indeed. As far as I know, there exists no such objective standard of morality, not one that the whole universe will agree upon.

            If the “whole universe” had to agree on such a standard, it would not be an objective standard… it would be a subjective standard because we chose it for ourselves. For instance, my height is an objective fact. I don’t need the universe to agree that I am 6’1″… that is true regardless of whether you (or I) believe it. When I speak of an objective standard, I refer to a standard of morality that applies to all regardless of whether they acknowledge it or not.

            You acknowledge as much here:

            Equally subjective? Yes.
            Equally valid? That depends on what you value.

            Why should what I value affect what is right and wrong? Some people find value in beheading those of different religions; some find value in loving them. Do you consider one of these to be morally wrong?

            At times, it appears that you would…

            Suppose we Dutch attack the French with tanks and they bomb us with nuclear weapons. Is it my fault that it happens? I am not in control of our government and the military forces. Nor were the children that died during the bombings of Coventry, London, Rotterdam, Warschau, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They had no control. They lived and died in the wrong city in the wrong time.

            Are you claiming that these children in Egypt were rightfully punished because of the actions of their Pharaoh?

            I’m getting confused at what you are claiming here… you speak of “fault”, and “rightful punishment”, but you seem to deny the objective, universal standard which these concepts require to be coherent.

            My claim is this: If rights are given by men, as you claim and we discuss in the next paragraph, then those rights can be taken away by men as well. So let me ask:

            * What men gave those children their right to live?
            * What men gave them the right to peace and safety?
            * Could man not also give other men the right to take their lives? If you say no, then why?
            * Who decides what men get to grant and revoke rights?
            * If rights can be granted and revoked on a whim, then are they really rights at all? Isn’t a right something that you have that others may suppress, but not revoke?

            I understand that these statements seem a bit ridiculous… but I’m working from your statement of where our rights come from. I don’t believe that statement holds up,

            Atheists do not seek [a] higher authority because they think it is not here. Why therefor should we appeal to anything outside ourselves? Can you prove the existence of such a higher authority? I think you can’t.

            I’m interested to know what evidence would convince you. But even more at this point, I have a counter question: On atheism, can you prove that the children above had the right to live in peace and safety? I think you can’t. 🙂

          • Ed Vaessen says:

            Terry Lewis:
            “Ed,
            If the “whole universe” had to agree on such a standard, it would not be an objective standard… it would be a subjective standard because we chose it for ourselves. For instance, my height is an objective fact. I don’t need the universe to agree that I am 6’1″… that is true regardless of whether you (or I) believe it. When I speak of an objective standard, I refer to a standard of morality that applies to all regardless of whether they acknowledge it or not.”

            You are right. If the whole universe agrees, it is still not a indisputable measure for objectivity.
            That leaves the things as I said. If morality is a human creation and has no other source, then there is no objective standard of morality.

            “You acknowledge as much here:
            Equally subjective? Yes.
            Equally valid? That depends on what you value.
            Why should what I value affect what is right and wrong? Some people find value in beheading those of different religions; some find value in loving them. Do you consider one of these to be morally wrong?”

            You should not misunderstand words. The word ‘valid’ means ‘acceptable’ for a person or a group, something that is regarded as important and good.

            “Suppose we Dutch attack the French with tanks and they bomb us with nuclear weapons. Is it my fault that it happens? I am not in control of our government and the military forces. Nor were the children that died during the bombings of Coventry, London, Rotterdam, Warschau, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They had no control. They lived and died in the wrong city in the wrong time.
            Are you claiming that these children in Egypt were rightfully punished because of the actions of their Pharaoh?”

            First, I think it never happened. Second, it is a typical story to be invented by people with a tribal mentality. Third: to my understanding of morality, it was bad.

            “I’m getting confused at what you are claiming here… “

            I think you are not a very good reader. It surprises me. English is not a difficult language, you know.

            “You speak of “fault”, and “rightful punishment”, but you seem to deny the objective, universal standard which these concepts require to be coherent.”

            We have no reason to assume the existence of an objective standard. We can only judge by our own standard.

            “My claim is this: If rights are given by men, as you claim and we discuss in the next paragraph, then those rights can be taken away by men as well. So let me ask:
            * What men gave those children their right to live?
            * What men gave them the right to peace and safety?
            * Could man not also give other men the right to take their lives? If you say no, then why?
            * Who decides what men get to grant and revoke rights?
            * If rights can be granted and revoked on a whim, then are they really rights at all? Isn’t a right something that you have that others may suppress, but not revoke?
            I understand that these statements seem a bit ridiculous… but I’m working from your statement of where our rights come from. I don’t believe that statement holds up, “

            I really believe you don’t understand what I am writing.
            Rights is what we define them to be. By modern standards, the OT presents us a God that does not respect human rights.

            “Atheists do not seek [a] higher authority because they think it is not here. Why therefor should we appeal to anything outside ourselves? Can you prove the existence of such a higher authority? I think you can’t.
            I’m interested to know what evidence would convince you. But even more at this point, I have a counter question: On atheism, can you prove that the children above had the right to live in peace and safety? I think you can’t. ?”

            Of course these children had the right to live in peace and safety according to our present morals.
            Do you have an objective source that tells us so? I think not. What you call an objective source (the God of the OT) tells us they had not that right. Your God killed innocent children according to the OT. If that is your standard, you have one that really sucks.

          • Ed Vaessen says:

            For those who followed the discussion a bit, here is what it is essentially about:

            1. Christians claim there exists an objective standard for morality and it comes from God;
            2. Atheists do not believe in God and see that morality always changes. They realize that we humans produce morality and since it changes with time, there is no objective morality we know of;
            3. Christians like Terry Lewis then suggest that as far as atheists are concerned, anything goes. He suggest that when an atheist sees someone murdering a child, he will stand by and let it happen because he doesn’t know if that is really bad. That is his whole silly message;
            4. At the same time, Terry Lewis praises a God that in the OT killed innocent children. Consequently, Terry Lewis thinks that the killing of innocent children is good.

  3. Terry Lewis says:

    Ed,

    That leaves the things as I said. If morality is a human creation and has no other source, then there is no objective standard of morality.

    Thank you for clarifying.

    You should not misunderstand words. The word ‘valid’ means ‘acceptable’ for a person or a group, something that is regarded as important and good.

    So given this, you hold that in society A, it is moral to behead a person because they are homosexual, but in society B, that same action is immoral, and both of these statements are true in the same way at the same time?

    We have no reason to assume the existence of an objective standard. We can only judge by our own standard.

    Rights is what we define them to be. By modern standards, the OT presents us a God that does not respect human rights.

    Who, specifically, is this “we” to whom you keep referring?

    And for the record, I’ve not argued for any God/god/gods. But since you brought it up, wouldn’t it be true that given your statements above, then at the time the OT was written, the God presented there may have perfectly respected human rights… as the men of that day defined them?

    Of course these children had the right to live in peace and safety according to our present morals.

    But you can’t judge by our present morals, any more than you can condemn the movie “Dracula” from the 1930’s for having poor special effects.

    But beyond that… says whom? You say their rights, including the right to life, must have been granted them by men… what exactly do you mean by this? Wasn’t it MEN who TOOK their lives?

    What you call an objective source (the God of the OT) tells us they had not that right. Your God killed innocent children according to the OT. If that is your standard, you have one that really sucks.

    Nowhere in my posts have I made any claim to how objective moral truths might be grounded. I’ve only asked you about your position, and I still don’t understand it. Ad hominem attacks against my reading ability are not arguments.

    3. Christians like Terry Lewis then suggest that as far as atheists are concerned, anything goes. He suggest that when an atheist sees someone murdering a child, he will stand by and let it happen because he doesn’t know if that is really bad. That is his whole silly message;

    Consequently, Terry Lewis thinks that the killing of innocent children is good.

    Please quote where I have said any such thing. Not only have I not said this, I do not believe it is true. Please try to understand what I’m actually saying before you mischaracterize it.

    But as you claim to believe that “morality always changes… with time”, must you not admit that it is at least possible by your own logic that “the killing of innocent children” may have been moral at that time, but then morality changed to make that an immoral act?

    If you say “yes, it’s possible”, then what is your argument against anyone (God or man) in the past who would kill an innocent child? Perhaps morality permitted such, at that time. I don’t think you would want someone 20 or 2000 years from now judging your actions by their different moral standard. How then do you judge our ancestors?

    If you san “no, it’s not possible”, then your assumption that morality always changes is flawed.

    Reply
    • Ed Vaessen says:

      Terry Lewis:
      “Ad hominem attacks against my reading ability are not arguments.”

      There is no ad hominem attack. It is a friendly way of telling that you are needlessly wearing out a discussion. Though I am very clear in expressing my position, you go on asking questions and I do not doubt that it is not because you are interested in the answers at all.

      So I ask the questions now and they are simple.
      1. Do you believe this God of the OT, known as YHWH, exists and that through his actions he killed children in Egypt as reaction on the decision of the Pharaoh not to let the Israelites go?
      2. Do you condemn this killing?

      Reply
      • toby says:

        Ed and whoever else is reading:
        Apologists have their morality argument just the way they like it—confusing and aggravating. It’s riddled with emotional appeals. They set up a false dichotomy that there is objective morality or there is moral chaos. Their view of morality is incredibly short sighted and overly simplistic, often leaving out any consideration of knowledge or reasoning or circumstances behind moral actions. They want to portray things as being absolutely wrong or right because its easier to understand than the complex calculations that go into most every moral decision. They quibble with language such as with killing vs murder. That’s almost as close as they ever get to addressing intentions and reasoning and knowledge behind morality. They load their points will emotional triggers such as, “If there’s no objective morality, then YOU can’t say that Hitler was wrong.” Or “Is it wrong to torture babies for fun?” relying on the biological revulsion that most people have to harming babies. It’s why they don’t phrase it, “Is it wrong to torture middle aged islamic terrorist murderers for fun?”
        They try their hardest to hide behind an imaginary morally perfect being to justify slavery and violence in the old testament, saying that those were the rules that god gave to that culture and time, a tacit admission of the subjectivity of morality.
        Apologists ignore the fact of our dual nature of being both aware individuals and being part of a larger society. “A psychopath loves to torture and kill,” they’ll say, “what makes that wrong?” It’s another appeal to that false dichotomy of objective morality or moral chaos. If pressed they’ll admit that subjective morality can work and even provide benefits for a society, but bemoan that it has no grounding, while not being able to provide any evidence that it needs grounding or that grounding is relevent in any way.
        There is no support for the second premise of their moral argument, “Objective values and duties do exist.” They never can provide any beyond, “Well . . . everyone just knows this,” and then throw out a few emotional appeals such as above.
        They can’t even admit that morality is anything other than doing what they’re imaginary moral provider decrees. They’ll even question whether human flourishing or happiness is justified as being part of morality. A perfectly reasonable definition of morality could be “a set of social rules within a group that allows the most individual autonomy while balancing the well being and prosperity of both individuals and the group.” Apologists would possibly admit that is a good secular definition of morality, but I think it’d be hard to get them to voice it.

        Reply
        • KR says:

          Great post. The false dichotomy of objective morality or moral chaos should be blindingly obvious but it still gets trotted out – in confusing and aggravating fashion – by people who should know better. Do they not see that they’re living their lives within exactly the kind of system of moral rules that they claim is impossible – a system built on subjective opinions that doesn’t descend into nihilism and chaos? It’s called democracy and it needs no supernatural grounding, just the empirical experience that it tends to produce better results for the majority of people than the alternatives (one of many reasons the study of history is so important).

          Just once, I’d like to see a proponent of objective moral values follow his own reasoning to its unavoidable conclusion: if he’s being consistent in his belief that these objective moral values exist and that society should be guided by them, then he cannot accept a democratic system of lawmaking. An inherently subjective political process can never be guaranteed to produce laws that align with any particular moral position. Even when you get a result that’s to your liking, there’s no guarantee that it won’t be reveresed at some later date.

          The only system that can provide such guarantees of adherence to these (alleged) objective moral values is of course a theocracy. I can see why there would be some reluctance in advocating it, though. There are of course real-life examples of theocracies that we can observe. Trying to implement them in a society that has experienced a democratic system would probably be a hard sell.

          The moral argument clearly falls apart on its second premise. As you note, what we’re usually presented with in the way of evidence are appeals to nazi atrocities or the torture of babies. These examples certainly constitute clear evidence that there is a broad consensus on certain moral issues. What the proponents of objective moral values never seem able to explain, though, is how they get from consensus to objectivity. Is a majority always objectively correct if it’s big enough? How does that work and how big does the majority need to be?

          It doesn’t seem very difficult to explain why people would not particularly like the idea of being robbed, murdered or subjected to violence so why would the existence of moral rules against this kind of behaviour be some kind of mystery that needs a supernatural explanation? We are social creatures that need to get along with each other, it’s hard to imagine how a society without such rules of conduct could even exist.

          What would actually qualify as evidence for objective moral values would be an example of a moral conflict that was resolved by one side demonstrating that their position was the objective one. I can’t think of any such example but I’d love to see one. If no such examples can be found, I’d say the whole question of the existence of objective moral values is moot. If objective moral values are powerless to resolve moral disagreements (and there’s no shortage of those), then they clearly cannot serve as guides for our behaviour – which means they’re irrelevant whether they exist or not.

          Reply
          • Ed Vaessen says:

            Nice posts!
            I’ll summarize the highlights.

            “They set up a false dichotomy that there is objective morality or there is moral chaos.”

            “Do they not see that they’re living their lives within exactly the kind of system of moral rules that they claim is impossible – a system built on subjective opinions that doesn’t descend into nihilism and chaos?”

            “They try their hardest to hide behind an imaginary morally perfect being to justify slavery and violence in the old testament, saying that those were the rules that god gave to that culture and time, a tacit admission of the subjectivity of morality.”

            “They can’t even admit that morality is anything other than doing what they’re imaginary moral provider decrees.”

            “If objective moral values are powerless to resolve moral disagreements (and there’s no shortage of those), then they clearly cannot serve as guides for our behavior – which means they’re irrelevant whether they exist or not.”

  4. TGM says:

    Hi Terry, welcome back. I have not seen you post here in a while. Do you mind answering a couple of questions…

    1. What is ‘morality’, insofar as you use the word in conversation?
    2. Why does it matter that there be objective moral values? Nobody on this site has been willing to take up this question and I don’t know why. There must be a reason that Frank et. al. speak with such commitment to objective moral values, yet nobody has explained why OMVs matter.

    Thanks.
    TGM

    Incidentally, a web search reveals this definition:
    Morality: Principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior.

    Would you characterize this definition as adequate, insufficient, vague, perfect, something else?

    Reply
    • Terry Lewis says:

      Hey TGM It HAS been a while! Hope you’re doing well!

      I want to address this question fully, but you’ll have to give me a bit of time. I’m wrapped up at work, and don’t have a lot of time at any one sitting. I’ll try to respond more fully in a day or so.

      Perhaps in the meantime, you would spend some time considering why/whether subjective moral values (SMV’s) would matter?

      Regards,

      Terry

      Reply
    • TGM says:

      Terry, please take your time in answering. I would prefer a carefully reasoned response. And if you don’t mind granting me the same consideration in answering your question, I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.

      But, as a precursor, I would posit that I may not be as committed to SMVs as you think (though I will still attempt a response). This would depend on what we mean by ‘morality’ so I’d prefer to withhold fuller commentary until we agree on what we’re talking about (hence my first question to you). Too much time is wasted when disputing parties discover they are speaking a different language.

      And I am doing well, thanks for asking!
      TGM

      Reply
    • TGM says:

      And…crickets. Well I’ll hold up my end at any rate…

      “…spend some time considering why/whether subjective moral values (SMV’s) would matter”

      The short, short version is that SMVs do not matter to me. I could not care less about the source of morality as my worldview does not demand one. To me, it is enough that we achieve consensus on moral perspectives sufficient to continually improve well-being or maximize it, regardless of whether they are right/wrong from some objective viewpoint. I argue for SMVs because I can demonstrate they exist, but I do not see evidence of OMVs. Nor do I know of a method to detect how a stated moral view is objective in the way I think you mean.

      But here is where usage starts to matter and I need some definition of morality that we can agree upon. My definition above: “principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior” is probably one you would support. But good/bad are meaningless to me without some underlying value. Good/bad with respect to what, I’d ask? You probably believe that good/bad have implicit value, but what I would hear is ‘good/bad with respect to God’s nature’. It just looks to me like you are sneaking in the value (God’s nature) in your usage of ‘morality’. This has two obvious flaws, 1) you have not demonstrated God yet, and 2) when you use the Moral Argument with this implicit valuation of good/bad, you’ve created a circular argument for the existence of God.

      Now, here is one way that I can get on-board the idea of OMVs. I believe this is from Sam Harris in The Moral Landscape which argues the underlying value described above is ‘well-being’ or ‘human flourishing’. Even if we cannot, in practice, identify which is good or bad for flourishing, any behavior will, in principle, increase or decrease well-being. Thus, objective. The only subjective component of this perspective is whether ‘flourishing’ is the appropriate underlying value. But as Harris explains, what else is morality about, if it’s not about well-being? In any case, this is good enough for me. I’ll take OMVs under some definitions and SMVs under others.

      Your move. Why is it so important to you that there be an objective standard of right and wrong?

      Reply

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