A couple weeks ago, I published an article by atheist philosophy graduate Malin Freeborn on the subject of the moral argument. His article was specifically a response to a lecture presented by Christian philosopher Stephen Meyer as part of the TrueU series.
Freeborn's article was disappointing in several respects, most notably his apparent conflation of moral ontology and moral epistemology, and his prolonged tangential detour into an irrelevant subject. I have dealt with Freeborn's arguments from Scripture in two appendices following the main text. Let's turn our attention to what he has to say.
Seeking a Definition for "Transcendental"
Malin begins his essay by asserting that the meaning of "transcendental values" is ambiguous. So, let us be clear on what we mean by this term. For moral values to be transcendental, we mean that they exist above and beyond people: That is to say, an action or behaviour possesses a given moral quality irrespective of the opinions of the person carrying out the action. For example, activities like rape and murder are objectively immoral because they fall short of a transcendent moral standard which exists beyond the minds of the people involved. Similarly, the Nazi holocaust was objectively immoral irrespective of the personal opinions of Hitler to the contrary.
Under the worldview of theism, transcendental moral values and duties find their ontological foundation in God, themselves being reflections of God's character and attributes. Under atheism, on the other hand, there exists no such ontological foundation in which to ground these transcendant and objective moral values and duties. Thus, the atheist cannot, consistently within his worldview, appeal to a transcendent moral standard. The moral argument for the existence of God may be syllogistically formulated as follows:
Premise 1: If God does not exist, then objective (transcendent) moral values and duties do not exist.
Premise 2: Objective (transcendent) moral values and duties do exist.
Conclusion: Therefore, God exists.
I would be most interested in learning which of those two premises Malin rejects.
A False Dilemma?
Freeborn asserts that Meyer "gives us a false dilemma, posing only 3 types of ethical systems when in fact many exist." Examples of ethical systems given by Freeborn include:
● Kantian Ethics.
● Utilitarianism (a form of non-relative naturalism).
● Virtue Ethics.
● Theological ethics.
Of course, Meyer responded at length to moral relativism, and few are able to maintain this position consistently. Intuitionism and theological ethics are perfectly compatible because, as Christians, we believe that God has written the moral law on each of our hearts. We thus have an intuitive knowledge of right and wrong. In the absence of the transcendentalism provided by theism, however, what is to say that one man's intuitions are more valid than another? The problem with ethical systems like Utilitarianism, which is defended by neo-atheist Sam Harris among others, is that it presupposes morality inasmuch as it assumes that the greatest good of the greatest number is to be preferred on ethical grounds. With regards Kantian ethics, Christians generally believe that Christian ethics are deontological, and so we are mostly in agreement. It would seem warranted to compare Jesus' golden rule to Kant's categorical imperative, other similarities are treating people as ends rather than means. There are Christians who are virtue ethicists as well, although Platonic virtue ethics are unable to ontologically ground objective moral duties.
Does Free Will Imply the Existence of God?
Freeborn subsequently charges Meyer with "mistakes and misrepresentations." His first point in this section is that "Free will does not require a god." I think that salvaging existential freedom of the will does require that one subscribe, at least in some form, to a kind of dualism with respect to mind and brain. I am a Cartesian dualist inasmuch as I think that the material brain and immaterial mind causally interact but are ontologically distinct substances.
On the relevance of Cartesian dualism to debates over the existence of God, I would refer readers to Angus Menuge's brilliant book "Agents Under Fire: Materialism and the Rationality of Science." Menuge differentiates between "strong agent reductionism" (which denies the legitimacy of the notion of agency, human intentionality and practical reason) and "weak agent reductionism" (which claims that, though evolution is void of any kind of agency, humans nonetheless have the real thing). Strong agent reductionism is internally incoherent. It is also corrosive to the scientific enterprise because science presupposes robust notions of practical reason and intentionality. In the case of weak agent reductionism, then, Menuge explains, "what may show that even [this] is false is a demonstration that the capacities of human agency cannot be given a materialistic explanation because these capacities are contingent on another, nonmaterial agency." I think it would be extremely difficult to explain, given atheism, how a nonmaterial mind could arise that is not contingent on some pre-existing agency. Determinism also presents a number of problems for the ethicist as if our moral decisions are the product of deterministic natural processes it is problematic to argue that people ought to be responsible for their actions.
The Euthyphro Dilemma
Freeborn goes on to discuss the famous Euthyphro dilemma from Plato's Dialogues, in which Socrates asks Euthyphro, "Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?" This is a false dilemma, however, since the doctrine of divine simplicity entails that God's character is the standard for morality.
An Invalid Argument
Freeborn correctly points out that Meyer makes an argument that is technically invalid (though it's easy to fix):
‘Naturalism Take 1
P1) There is no qualitative difference between humans and animals.
P2) Humans have rights.
C) Therefore animals have rights.
‘Naturalism Take 2
P1) There is no qualitative difference between humans and animals.
P2) We kill animals when it suits our purposes.
C) Therefore it is permissible to kill humans when it suits our purposes.’
"Naturalism Take 2" is, as correctly pointed out by Freeborn, logically invalid. The argument needs an extra premise. I would revise the syllogism as follows:
1. If there is no qualitative difference between x and y, then there is no reason to treat the two differently."Naturalism Take 1" is not very well constructed either, and would benefit from an "If Then" premise. Nonetheless, Freeborn's point that some naturalists claim that there is indeed a qualitative difference between humans and animals is largely irrelevant since the real question concerns the implications of naturalism (not the views to which naturalists inconsistently hold).
2. If atheism is true, then there is no qualitative difference between humans and animals.
3. Therefore (given atheism), there is no reason to treat humans and animals differently.
4. We treat animals in way x (killing them when it suites our purposes).
5. Therefore (given atheism), there is no reason not to kill humans when it suits our purposes.
In conclusion, Malin Freeborn's essay, though at times interesting, does not succeed in refuting the moral argument. He does, however, identify a technically invalid argument on Meyer's part. He strays into irrelevant territory, such as moral epistemology which is an independent question from moral ontology, and misrepresents the views of Christians that one needs the Bible to know right from wrong. He concludes his essay by saying "As a final note I would also like to say that I am disgusted to have watched an hour of Meyer telling me that atheists do not believe in ethical standards and making illegitimate comparisons to the Nazis." Of course, that's not what Meyer said at all, and nor is it a position held by most Christians. It is not our position that atheists don't believe in an ethical standard, but rather that they have no robust ontological foundation for that standard.
Appendix 1: Looking at Scripture
A considerable portion of Freeborn's essay is concerned with providing critique of a strawman, namely, the notion that a theistic moral ontology requires that one derive one's morals from Scripture. This, however, is not the case. Indeed, it is the Christian position that we are all endowed with a conscience and an inherent awareness of right and wrong. As the apostle Paul put it in Romans 2, "the requirements of the law are written on their hearts." The Hebrews did not require that Moses deliver them the ten commandments in order for them to be able to correctly discern that murder is immoral.
Freeborn has also moved somewhat away from discussing moral ontology (the subject of the present discussion) to moral epistemology. This section, therefore, which unfortunately takes up a disproportionate chunk of his essay, is largely irrelevant. Since this portion of his essay is so off-topic, I have decided to provide a rebuttal in an appendix.
"In the first stage, the stage is set with a great multitude of texts. I would say at least a thousand at a conservative estimate, and many will have multiple versions. Christians apologists so often look only at Judaism and Islam as alternatives, but Taoism, Hinduism, the Norse Religion, Sikhism and many more contain moral frameworks. Onto the third stage; how shall the texts be sorted? How shall we reject the other texts?"Meyer actually highlighted in his lecture why pantheistic worldviews (e.g. Taoism) are not conducive to providing an adequate moral ontology -- if, as maintained by pantheistic worldviews, all dualisms are illusary, then there is no distinction that can be made between right and wrong. Moreover, polytheistic worldviews (e.g. the Norse Religions, Hinduism) also fail in this respect (in the attributes of which deity are ethics grounded?).
Freeborn subsequently suggests that there is no real means by which to evaluate the alternative theistic worldviews and determine which of them is most likely to be true. He writes,
"One way often used is appeal to ridiculousness. The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster? Ridiculous! How about the Prose Edda, wherein the valorous deeds of Odin and Thór are portrayed? Nonsense and myth! Yet however strong these sentiments of ridicule are, it is not open to Christians to say that alternative religions are false simply because they seem ridiculous. Of course I’m quite happy to allow the move - when supernatural claims appear ridiculous I can happily agree that they are not true. However, no Christian wants this move to be allowed, because they know exactly what the muslim community would make of their religion. ‘A god begetting a son? Ridiculous!’."Leaving aside the obvious fact that, contrary to the Qur'an, Christians have never claimed that God begot a Son, surely the historical evidence can serve as a means to evaluate competing theistic worldviews. I have given numerous reasons (e.g. here) why I do not think Islam stands up to scrutiny. I have also given numerous reasons in my posts on this blog and elsewhere why I think Christianity is true.
Freeborn further writes,
"Many apologists have also attempted to show scripture to be true by saying that the factual accounts of what happened are accurate. Sometimes they say that something happened, and when they think the event in question (say, Noah’s ark) was too far-fetched they either modify the statement (saying, for instance, that the flood was smaller than originally stated) or they say that the story is a metaphor (though what the story is meant to be a metaphor for is so often left to the reader’s imagination). The problem with this approach is that even if Mohammed existed, it does not show that his injunctions were true. Even if Jesus was resurrected, it is not enough to show that (a) he was the son of god and (b) by extension he was correct in all teachings."Leaving aside the fact that the evidence for the historical existence of Muhammad is very strong and the case for the resurrection is also compelling, Freeborn is taking the resurrection as a singular event with no prophetic background or context. According to Old Testament prophecy and Jesus Himself, the resurrection is God's divine vindication of Jesus' messianic credentials. It is thus of huge significance if Jesus really did rise from the dead on the third day following his death by crucifixion. Freeborn proceeds to mention that there are miracles performed in other theistic worldviews -- but in doing so he assumes that the historical likelihood of all of those miracles taking place is equal (which it demonstrably isn't).
Freeborn continues his essay by pointing out that there are various laws in the book of Leviticus that we would today consider strange (e.g. “‘Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard," Leviticus 19:27). This point, however, completely misunderstands the three-fold division of the law (see my article here for a full discussion).
"Christians want to keep the part where the meek inherit the earth, but are not so sure if they like it when Yeshua said that he came to divide people and turn family members against each other. They can accept the resurrection, but are not so sure about the part where half of the saints of Jerusalem came back from the dead to talk with people. Many people think that they can argue for the passages which they want to keep, but on what basis shall we keep passages? If the passage is factual, shall we keep what we think is realistic? Who shall decide what is ‘realistic’? Which if the passages concerning morality shall we keep? Who decides which ones really are moral? And once again, if we are to decide what is moral by our intuitions then we must admit that we can know what is moral by our intuitions, and so no scripture will be necessary."Freeborn here makes reference to Matthew 10:34-39. The full context, however, is not disclosed. The passage reports Jesus as saying,
Jesus is teaching here (consistent with his other sayings) that the immediate result of the gospel is frequently conflict. Indeed, conversion to Christ can often result in strained family relationships, persecution and martyrdom. For the first few centuries of the early Christian movement, followers of Christ suffered extreme persecution at the hands of the Romans, many of them being fed to wild animals in the Colosseums, burned or crucified. Persecution of Christians is frequently seen around the world, even today, where, under Sharia law, the penalty for converting from Islam to Christianity can be death in some countries. Jesus is teaching that, if we truly want to be His followers, our love and commitment to our closest friends and relatives needs to pale in comparison to our dedication to Christ.34 “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to turn“‘a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
36 a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’37 “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.
Freeborn also mentions the incident, reported only by Matthew, in which "The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people," (Matthew 27:52-53). Scholars are divided on whether this incident constitutes apocalyptic imagery on Matthew's part or whether he intended to be taken literally. But even in the event that this passage is intended to be taken literally, the point Freeborn is making here is unclear.
Inerrancy is not our topic. But, just for the record, I do not endorse "cherry picking" the Bible. I accept all of Scripture as divinely inspired and equally authoritative. To quote 2 Timothy 3:16-17, "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work." Now, of course there are different genres of Scripture (including poetry, law, apocalyptic literature, and historical narrative), and one of the goals of the discipline of hermeneutics is to elucidate the literary intent. Not all of Scripture is intended to be read literally and not all of Scripture is necessarily applicable to our current situation today.
Freeborn is simply mistaken here when he asserts that there is no passage in which slavery is condemned in Scripture. In 1 Timothy 1:10, slave traders are grouped with liars and perjurers, as well as the sexually immoral, as being among those things that are "contrary to the sound doctrine." Moreover, selling Joseph into slavery in Egypt is seen as being a bad thing, as is the Hebrew slavery in Egypt from which God delivers them in the book of Exodus."Further, we must remember the issue of slavery. Meyer cites this in his video as a moral evil. However, we cannot draw this conclusion from the Bible. The Bible gives instructions on the proper use of slave, and they are not kind instructions. If other passages say not to keep slaves then the Bible is inconsistent and so cannot be used as a moral code, so it will not do for the Christian apologist to look for places in the Bible which say that slavery is wrong (though of course there is no such passage). Such passages give the Bible a lot to answer for."
It is true, however, that there are cases in the Old Testament where the Hebrew people kept slaves. There is no parallel, however, between this kind of slavery and the slave trade of Africans. The Bible outlines the rights of slaves, and how they are to be treated (Deuteronomy 15:12-15; Ephesians 6:9; Colossians 4:1). From this it does not follow that the Bible condones all forms of slavery. Indeed, in Biblical times, slavery was largely a matter of social status. Someone might have sold themselves into slavery because they were unable to provide for their families or pay their debts. People even chose to enter into slavery so that they could have all of their needs provided for by their masters.
Unlike the Negro slave trade, slavery in Biblical times was not based on race or skin colour. Indeed, "man-stealing" is explicitly condemned in Scripture. Exodus 21:16 states that “Anyone who kidnaps another and either sells him or still has him when he is caught must be put to death.”
Appendix 2: Hermeneutics and Interpretation
Freeborn continues with further irrelevancies relating to the historicity of Adam and Eve (which I accept) and Christian tendencies to re-interpret Scripture. If there is strong evidence to indicate that Christianity is true, however, there is no problem with concluding that one's interpretation of Scripture may require revision in light of new information. Moreover, although I am a Biblical inerrantist, I do not think that the doctrine of inerrancy is necessary for Christianity to be true. If someone were to document some unequivocal errors in the Bible, I may have reason to revise my understanding of inspiration and inerrancy -- but I would not for that reason cease to be a Christian. A demonstration that Jesus did not exist or that He did not die on the cross or rise from the dead, would suffice to show that Christianity is false.
Freeborn mentions a parable given by Jesus in Luke 19, in which a man goes to a distant country to be appointed king. His subjects do not want him to reign over them. Freeborn mentions verse 27, which concludes the parable with the new king saying, "But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and kill them in front of me." Again, however, the verse is significantly de-contextualised. The king is not strictly analogous to God. In any case, the parable is speaking about future judgement. Those who reject Jesus in this life will face judgement in the next as a consequence of their sin. Those who put their trust in Him and repent of their sin, on the other hand, will be saved by virtue of Christ's sacrifice on the cross, bearing the sin of God's elect so that we could be justly pardoned. There is also a parallel of this passage in Matthew 25:14-30 in which the the master commands that the servant be thrown "outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
Freeborn subsequently lists four verses, allegedly detailing commands of God, from the old testament. These are Leviticus 19:27, Exodus 21:15, Exodus 31:15 and Hosea 13:16. With regards the first three, I would refer him to my article entitled "Cherry Picking the Bible: Are Christians Expected to Follow the Levitical Law?". On the last one, the verse (contrary to what Freeborn suggests) is not a command at all but rather a prophecy of coming judgement on Samaria at the hands of the Assyrians. The shocking atrocities there mentioned are in keeping with the brutalities which were characteristic of the Assyrians.