Ethics, a fad?

Recently I posted a book review on “O God” which talks about Oprah’s spirituality. Like most of my apologetics conversations lately, the discussion quickly turned to morality. I find this phenomenon interesting and revealing. Sure, I’m still operating largely on anecdotes and personal experience, but others have attested to my theory.

No, my theory is not that German’s love David Hasselhoff (and they do, or at least some of the old female ones do). My theory is that Atheist’s love to talk about morality.

It’s true! Theists and Christians in particular seem more eager to talk about the Gospel and about sin. But I’m finding more and more atheists wanting to discuss philosophical and scientific approaches to moral systems. Last year I was on the panel for three “God-talks” at UT Arlington, UT Dallas, and Texas A&M where two atheists and two theists discussed the question of God’s existence and the relevance of that question for meaning, morality, origin and destiny. And sure enough, we spent most of the night, at all three venues talking about morality. Intelligent Design was comparatively small, as was the Problem of Evil, and other heavy topics. We instead spent most of our time talking about Objectivist ethics versus Subjectivist or Relativist ethics.

I suspect that atheists are interested in morality for the same reason creationists are interested in carbon dating–this topic could be devastating if you don’t do your homework. Some atheists try to ground ethics in objective moral values. Others bite the bullet and amputate objectivism. Moral relativism however is not an easy option though. If I can take my professor hat off for a moment, I think we have a love-hate relationship with moral relativism. We like parts of it, and dislike part of it. We hate when people are relativistic towards us, but we love to be relativistic towards others. To put it another way, moral relativisism is that girl you date or you’re friends with, but she cheats on you if you marry her. She’s fun to play with for the short-term, but there’s no hope in committment. But kept at arms length one can dance with relativism indefinitely.

Whether one is objectivist or relativist, or something in between, ethics is an inexact science. And digging out the details can take a lifetime. We sometimes have to bite our lip and just admit that some things remain unclear–no matter what side we are on. Some points of debate cannot be clarified very much at all. This means that one can easiy find “weaknesses” in any given system–whatever the sort–because none of these systems achieve the exactitude and precision we expect from math or the natural sciences.

Also, a blog site is not the right way to clarify one’s entire ethical system. But as a concession to those commentors so interested in morality. Below is a revised form of my moral argument for God, which, incidentally is an argument for objectivist ethics. What follows is only an argument, not a fully orbed explanation of Christian ethics.

Chomp away at this. . .

1) Ethics is the stuff of minds (whether minds are properties of brains or immaterial–it does not matter at this point).

2) Nature is not intelligent, does not “intend” or have “purpose”–it operates in non-mind categories. (without a God, it cannot be teleological–ie: have a telos, “end, goal, designed purpose, etc.” this incudes moral purposes/objectives such as virtues, duties, rights, etc.)

3) Yet there seem to exist moral values that non-objectivist systems are at a loss to explain. Negative evidences include: a) the problem of temporal-discrimination (calling slavery “evil” when it was “good” in its time), b) the problem of bi-culturality (people can be members of two conflicting cultures, but all ethic naturalistic systems are incomparable since there is no non-circular grounds of judging between them), c) the problem of the revolutionary (Minority ethical convictions and radicals are always immoral if “good” is a majority opinion), d) the problem of cross-cultural conflict (no culture’s ethics is better than anothers, even Hitler or Mao’s), e) the problem of subjectivism (no one can call anything anyone else does “evil” unless that person defies his/her own ethical system–even if their system is reprehensible), f) the problem of ignorance (even if many or most ethical values are subjective, there still may be objective values yet undiscovered or masked as relative values), Positive evidences include: a) Moral values are experienced by everyone reading this, b) Morality is a cultural universal, c) Our experience of morality is that there are binding rules that we should obey and others should obey even if they never get caught and even if they enjoy the contrary, d) at least some points of morality are not reducible to simple altruism and the Golden rule, e) Morality is a temporal universal (has occurred throughout time), f) our morality becomes objectivist when we are the victim.

4) but if ethics is at all objective (even in part), then the naturalistic fallacy prevents any natural grounding for ethics–ie: in human minds, or in the rest of nature. The naturalistic fallacy, also called the “Is-ought” fallacy suggests that there is some kind of circular or presumptive reasoning whenever a person argues from (non-teleological) nature that a moral ought follows from it. In other words, nature just is or is not. It knows nothing of what “ought” to be.

5) Binding moral values, which exists, requires a grounds for their existence.

6) Binding moral values then have at least some basis outside of nature.

7) This basis must be a mind sufficient to ground objectively binding moral values within our world.

8 ) By the law of conservation (ie: Ockham’s Razor) we need not postulate more than one supernatural mind to ground said ethics, unless the data set demands it.

9) We (the Christian and the Atheist) can agree from our own observations and reasoning that no other God is needed to ground ethics–so polytheism, pantheism, panentheism, deism, animism, henotheism, finite Godism, are unwarranted insertions (we just disagree over whether A God is needed at all to ground ethics).

[10) Goodness is better explained as an attribute of God than as a command of God (since the latter would be undermined by the euthyphro dilemma).]–this is a side note for Divine Command Theorist reading this.  

11) Therefore I know God is good because [see #1-10].

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