Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Moral Facts, Opinions, and Suppositions

 

478px-Vitrail_de_synagogue-Musée_alsacien_de_StrasbourgDiscussing a New York Times op-ed by a college professor about how young people are taught that all value statements are matters of mere opinion, Dennis Prager blamed the problem on a lack of religious faith. He went on to say that the kids have the logic, if not the conclusion: without religion, all moral statements have no truth claim:

If God doesn’t say “Do not murder,” murder isn’t wrong. Period, end of issue… Morality [becomes] just an opinion for “I like” or “I don’t like” if ultimately, there is no moral God in the universe that makes morality real. Without religion and God, there is no moral truth…

You can say “I think murder is wrong,” and I certainly hope you do. You can say “I believe murder is wrong.” But you cannot say murder is wrong.

I agree with Prager that it’s vastly easier to argue in favor of objective morality if we stipulate the existence of a moral God; indeed, I’d list that as among the top benefits of religion. I’ll further agree that the lack of belief in objective morality is likely related to the decline in belief in God (though I wonder if we’re seeing a similar effect as with voting; i.e., people’s habits and beliefs change — often for the better — as they get older and wiser).

However, I’ve two problems with Prager’s argument, one that he’s made before. Logically, I think he’s making a false choice by sorting all things as either demonstrable facts or mere opinions. As Professor McBrayer writes in the piece Prager cited, there’s a third option:

Things can be true even if no one can prove them. For example, it could be true that there is life elsewhere in the universe even though no one can prove it. Conversely, many of the things we once “proved” turned out to be false… It’s a mistake to confuse truth (a feature of the world) with proof (a feature of our mental lives).

So while demonstrating that the intentional taking of an innocent life is objectively wrong is difficult to do if God doesn’t exist, that doesn’t actually comment on the truth or fiction of the statement. The Earth was, objectively, the fifth-largest body orbiting the Sun even before we had the means of showing it (assuming, of course, that we actually have that correct now). As such, “murder is wrong” isn’t necessarily a mere opinion, but unproven supposition or speculation — perhaps with a lot to recommend it, logically and otherwise, but supposition nonetheless.

But there’s another, more practical problem: by switching the burden from proving the moral validity of a statement to proving God’s existence — which is the effect of Prager’s objections — you leave people without a belief in God with nothing else to work with. In a civilization with an increasing number of unbelievers, is it wise to essentially dismiss all ethical philosophy that isn’t explicitly religious?

I’m not making an argument against religion, let alone in favor of atheism (I’m not an atheist). But just as we seek independent lines of evidence in other pursuits as a means of moving suppositions and hypotheses toward the realm of working theory, it strikes me as a fool’s errand to abandon an entire line of pursuit. Civilization is too important.

Vitrail de synagogue-Musée alsacien de Strasbourg” by Ji-Elle – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

There are 416 comments.

  1. TeeJaw Inactive

    Prager’s insistence that only a religious argument can explain human morality is false. Religion is too often a front for all sorts of mischief. Nonbelievers can and often are forthright and honest with no religious conviction at all. In his book Natural Right and History, Leo Strauss examines the problem of natural right and argues that there is a firm foundation in reality for the distinction between right and wrong in ethics and politics. Professor Larry Arnhart expands on the concept of natural right in his book Darwinan Natural Right.

    The mere mention of Charles Darwin sends Prager off into a windbag rant that begins with indignation and ends in nonsense.

    • #1
    • March 19, 2015, at 10:32 AM PST
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  2. EJHill Podcaster

    But you must also expand Prager’s argument beyond just terms of right and wrong. Where does freedom come from? Where do rights originate? Centering a national morality on God removes man completely from that equation. Which binds man to something nobler than his baser needs.

    • #2
    • March 19, 2015, at 10:37 AM PST
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  3. Tom Meyer, Common Citizen Contributor

    TeeJaw:

    Prager’s insistence that only a religious argument can explain human morality is false. Religion is too often a front for all sorts of mischief. Nonbelievers can and often are forthright and honest with no religious conviction at all. In his book Natural Right and History, Leo Strauss examines the problem of natural right and argues that there is a firm foundation in reality for the distinction between right and wrong in ethics and politics. Professor Larry Arnhart expands on the concept of natural right in his bookDarwinan Natural Right.

    Relatedly, I was more than a little disappointed when, a few months back, he admitted to never having read The Fatal Conceit.

    I love Prager; he’s one of the sharpest minds on our side and a wonderfully decent person. But he has his blind spots, like all of us.

    • #3
    • March 19, 2015, at 10:38 AM PST
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  4. Tom Meyer, Common Citizen Contributor

    EJHill:But you must also expand Prager’s argument beyond just terms of right and wrong. Where does freedom come from? Where do rights originate?

    See, I think those are all good questions, but the same could be said of anything, physical or incorporeal.

    • #4
    • March 19, 2015, at 10:39 AM PST
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  5. Bob Wainwright Member

    If God says murder is wrong, that just means that God says it’s wrong. It doesn’t mean that it “is” wrong in some independent, objective way.

    • #5
    • March 19, 2015, at 10:40 AM PST
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  6. Jamie Lockett Inactive

    EJHill:But you must also expand Prager’s argument beyond just terms of right and wrong. Where does freedom come from? Where do rights originate? Centering a national morality on God removes man completely from that equation. Which binds man to something nobler than his baser needs.

    I think you missed the point. Rights can exist in and of themselves as truths of the natural universe. Liberty is the natural condition of man regardless and requires no source. Just because one rejects a deity as the source of morality or rights does not mean that morality or rights do not exist.

    • #6
    • March 19, 2015, at 10:43 AM PST
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  7. Cato Rand Coolidge

    What does god add, in operative terms? In other words, why is the belief in the existence of god thought to encourage moral behavior? Is it simply a question of the expectation of reward and/or the fear of punishment?

    I ask because it seems to me that the fact that we can’t know god exists, or know his will or moral rules, leaves us essentially intuiting our morality whether he exists or not.

    • #7
    • March 19, 2015, at 10:44 AM PST
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  8. Jamie Lockett Inactive

    Bob Wainwright:If God says murder is wrong, that just means that God says it’s wrong. It doesn’t mean that it “is” wrong in some independent, objective way.

    Except for those that believe that the Judeo-christian God is the Alpha and the Omega then what it says is right or wrong would be objectively true.

    Of course that requires a big leap of faith.

    • #8
    • March 19, 2015, at 10:45 AM PST
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  9. Jamie Lockett Inactive

    Cato Rand:I ask because it seems to me that the fact that we can’t know god exists, or know his will or moral rules, leaves us essentially intuiting our morality whether he exists or not.

    Unless you accept that the Bible or Torah or Koran is the literal word of god and the received wisdom from such an omniscient deity.

    Of course then one would have to explain on the different versions of said books over the course of the last 3000 years.

    • #9
    • March 19, 2015, at 10:47 AM PST
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  10. Tom Meyer, Common Citizen Contributor

    EJHill:Centering a national morality on God removes man completely from that equation. Which binds man to something nobler than his baser needs.

    In theory, yes, though I think it more accurately focuses attention on our understanding of God. How do you know God exists? How do you know the Bible is an accurate telling of His commands? Etc., etc.

    If you take one’s understanding — or, at least, parts of it — as a given, then problem solved; if not…

    • #10
    • March 19, 2015, at 10:49 AM PST
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  11. Tuck Inactive

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:…Logically, I think he’s making a false choice by sorting all things as either demonstrable facts or mere opinions. As Professor McBrayer writes in the piece Prager cited, there’s a third option:

    Things can be true even if no one can prove them. For example, it could be true that there is life elsewhere in the universe even though no one can prove it. Conversely, many of the things we once “proved” turned out to be false… It’s a mistake to confuse truth (a feature of the world) with proof (a feature of our mental lives)….

    Prager’s hardly making a novel observation here. This is the whole reason we have an enterprise called “science” (knowledge), to move things from things we think are true, to things we know are true. To change opinion into fact, in other words.

    And yes, McBrayer is correct, but he’s making a meaningless distinction: without proof you have no way of knowing if what you think is true is in fact true. Functionally, it’s no different from opinion.

    McBrayer’s observation is why the enterprise called Science continues.

    But to Prager’s larger argument, he’s correct. There is no morality outside of religion. Without religion all you have is pragmatism, and there’s no difference between pragmatically deciding you shouldn’t murder someone because you fear retribution, and pragmatically deciding you can get away with it.

    Religion offers an answer: the latter is wrong because God told you so, and you’ll be punished for it in the afterlife by a judge you cannot escape.

    Atheists don’t worry about the afterlife. ;)

    “But just as we seek independent lines of evidence in other pursuits as a means of moving suppositions and hypotheses toward the realm of working theory, it strikes me as a fool’s errand to abandon an entire line of pursuit. Civilization is too important.”

    I observed in another thread that there are no traditional societies that are atheist. I think this is the case because, biologically speaking, religion appears to be useful because it’s a way of transmitting knowledge across generations. Some of that knowledge are the “moral” rules that allow us to live together in civilizations.

    That’s not to say that atheists can’t try to create moral frameworks, but as a practical matter all the attempts I’ve seen fall into pragmatism as above, or simply borrow the Christian framework and delete God, and with him go the consequences.

    We do have a few experiments with atheist societies going on currently. I’m interested to see how they turn out, but so far it’s not looking good.

    “A specter is haunting Russia today. It is not the specter of Communism—that ghost has been chained in the attic of the past—but rather of depopulation—a relentless, unremitting, and perhaps unstoppable depopulation. The mass deaths associated with the Communist era may be history, but another sort of mass death may have only just begun, as Russians practice what amounts to an ethnic self-cleansing.”

    But never fear, the God-fearing Muslims with their high birth rates are waiting in the wings. (There are of course other religions with high birth rates, but it’s the Muslims who are likely to repopulate Russia, due to proximity.)

    Thus does evolution deal with atheist societies, perhaps.

    • #11
    • March 19, 2015, at 10:49 AM PST
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  12. KC Mulville Inactive

    It’s a question of authority. Unless there is some authority higher than man, each man can act as his own chief moral judge, and act in ways that he sees fit.

    The role of God in moral argument is that he’s on a higher order than human reason, and therefore serves as an authority to which moral claims can be appealed. Without a higher order, all claims come down to the human order, which we normally navigate via reason. The important unstated premise is our assumption that no individual can claim to have a privileged or superior command of reason. Even a group would only have superior power, but not authority.

    The desire for an authority higher than our human grasp of reason is really the motive behind “natural law.” Natural law asserts that a thing’s nature carries an authority by itself; and that moral truth is based on aligning with man’s nature (rather than any individual man’s opinions).

    If there is no God, and there is no nature that dictates what should be done, then there is no higher authority than the individual; he can do whatever he wants to do.

    • #12
    • March 19, 2015, at 10:49 AM PST
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  13. Cato Rand Coolidge

    Jamie Lockett:

    Cato Rand:I ask because it seems to me that the fact that we can’t know god exists, or know his will or moral rules, leaves us essentially intuiting our morality whether he exists or not.

    Unless you accept that the Bible or Torah or Koran is the literal word of god and the received wisdom from such an omniscient deity.

    Of course then one would have to explain on the different versions of said books over the course of the last 3000 years.

    I’m not even asking about the ultimate truth Jamie. I’m just asking whether — for purposes of how we live and how morally we behave — it even matters? Unless he is going to intervene in a much more tangible way than he can plausibly be claimed to have in human affairs, wouldn’t we behave the same with our without god, and with or without his moral rules?

    • #13
    • March 19, 2015, at 10:50 AM PST
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  14. Mike H Coolidge

    EJHill:Where does freedom come from? Where do rights originate?

    You might as well ask where Capitalism comes from. It’s an intrinsic aspect of the universe. It’s what happens in the absence of humans doing immoral things.

    Jamie says it here:

    Rights can exist in and of themselves as truths of the natural universe. Liberty is the natural condition of man regardless and requires no source.

    There is no arbiter of the truth, God or otherwise. The truth is the truth whether or not there is a deity. 2+2 equals 4 independent of what God says.

    • #14
    • March 19, 2015, at 10:52 AM PST
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  15. Jamie Lockett Inactive

    Tuck:

    Religion offers an answer: the latter is wrong because God told you so, and you’ll be punished for it in the afterlife by a judge you cannot escape.\

    This is in no way different from the pragmatic morality you outlined other than god is the one doing the punishing.

    • #15
    • March 19, 2015, at 10:54 AM PST
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  16. Jamie Lockett Inactive

    Cato Rand:

    I’m not even asking about the ultimate truth Jamie. I’m just asking whether — for purposes of how we live and how morally we behave — it even matters? Unless he is going to intervene in a much more tangible way than he can plausibly be claimed to have in human affairs, wouldn’t we behave the same with our without god, and with or without his moral rules?

    There I agree with you.

    • #16
    • March 19, 2015, at 10:56 AM PST
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  17. Cato Rand Coolidge

    KC Mulville:It’s a question of authority. Unless there is some authority higher than man, each man can act as his own chief moral judge, and act in ways that he sees fit.

    The role of God in moral argument is that he’s on a higher order than human reason, and therefore serves as an authority to which moral claims can be appealed. Without a higher order, all claims come down to the human order, which we normally navigate via reason. The important unstated premise is our assumption that no individual can claim to have a privileged or superior command of reason. Even a group would only have superior power, but not authority.

    The desire for an authority higher than our human grasp of reason is really the motive behind “natural law.” Natural law asserts that a thing’s nature carries an authority by itself; and that moral truth is based on aligning with man’s nature (rather than any individual man’s opinions).

    If there is no God, and there is no nature that dictates what should be done, then there is no higher authority than the individual; he can do whatever he wants to do.

    True enough, but in the effort to understand the dictates of god, or nature, aren’t we essentially left to nothing but our own moral intuition? Doesn’t that follow inevitably from the fact that “no individual can claim to have a privileged or superior command of reason”?

    • #17
    • March 19, 2015, at 10:58 AM PST
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  18. Tuck Inactive

    Cato Rand:

    Unless he is going to intervene in a much more tangible way than he can plausibly be claimed to have in human affairs, wouldn’t we behave the same with our without god, and with or without his moral rules?

    That’s why breaking the moral rules is so common.

    But in the background lurks Pascal’s Wager. Are you feeling lucky? ;)

    • #18
    • March 19, 2015, at 11:00 AM PST
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  19. Jamie Lockett Inactive

    KC,

    If morality exists in the universe a priori – why does it matter what its source is? Can’t moral laws just exist? I understand, and often agree, that as a practical framing them in terms of religion makes them easier follow and easier to apply broadly to a society – but why does morality in and of itself require a divine source?

    • #19
    • March 19, 2015, at 11:01 AM PST
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  20. Aaron Miller Member

    Bob Wainwright:If God says murder is wrong, that just means that God says it’s wrong. It doesn’t mean that it “is” wrong in some independent, objective way.

    This is incorrect. Christians believe God has a definite nature. God doesn’t choose to be good in the same sense that we humans do. God is necessarily good because that is His “personality”. Goodness is the nature of God. Good is a reference to love, and God is the source of all love.

    Right and wrong, good and evil, refer to the relationship of God’s creations and their behavior to His nature and our nature as His designs. God creates us to be good, to be loving. That means He creates us to be unified with Him in love and beauty.

    The objective measure of goodness and righteousness is whether or not something is in keeping with His constant will and brings us closer to a loveful relationship with Him. The good is constant. But it is often difficult to discern and to apply to specific, complicated situations.

    • #20
    • March 19, 2015, at 11:01 AM PST
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  21. Mike H Coolidge

    Tuck:

    But to Prager’s larger argument, he’s correct. There is no morality outside of religion. Without religion all you have is pragmatism, and there’s no difference between pragmatically deciding you shouldn’t murder someone because you fear retribution, and pragmatically deciding you can get away with it.

    It is completely and utterly wrong to think that the only reason outside God that we don’t murder perfect strangers is because we’re afraid of getting caught.

    If the only thing stopping you from opportunistically killing someone is belief in God, thank God you believe in Him.

    • #21
    • March 19, 2015, at 11:01 AM PST
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  22. Tuck Inactive

    Cato Rand:

    …we left essentially left to nothing but our own moral intuition?

    There is no such thing. There is only survival.

    John Walker wrote a review of a great book about Europe after WWII (can’t recall the title). Read that and then we’ll discuss this alleged “moral intuition”.

    P.S. Savage Continent by Lowe.

    • #22
    • March 19, 2015, at 11:02 AM PST
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  23. Jamie Lockett Inactive

    Cato Rand:

    True enough, but in the effort to understand the dictates of god, or nature, aren’t we essentially left to nothing but our own moral intuition? Doesn’t that follow inevitably from the fact that “no individual can claim to have a privileged or superior command of reason”?

    This is where the religion argument breaks down for me too. Given that our only source on morality is human interpretation of an alleged deities alleged morality how is it functionally any different from human reason derived moral systems?

    • #23
    • March 19, 2015, at 11:02 AM PST
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  24. Tom Meyer, Common Citizen Contributor

    KC Mulville:It’s a question of authority. Unless there is some authority higher than man, each man can act as his own chief moral judge, and act in ways that he sees fit.

    I’m not sure that works, unless it also works for any other fact claim that can’t be demonstrably proven.

    How many bodies with enough mass to reach hydrostatic equilibrium orbit the Sun is a question of fact. That there is disagreement over the matter because of our incomplete knowledge does not make it a matter of opinion.

    I’m not sure morality needs a source to be understandable any more than gravity does.

    • #24
    • March 19, 2015, at 11:03 AM PST
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  25. Cato Rand Coolidge

    Tuck:

    Cato Rand:

    Unless he is going to intervene in a much more tangible way than he can plausibly be claimed to have in human affairs, wouldn’t we behave the same with our without god, and with or without his moral rules?

    That’s why breaking the moral rules is so common.

    But in the background lurks Pascal’s Wager. Are you feeling lucky? ;)

    So then it is merely the threat of punishment and the promise of reward. That’s fine. Now how do I know what to believe, and how to behave, to avoid the former and achieve the latter?

    • #25
    • March 19, 2015, at 11:03 AM PST
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  26. The Question Inactive

    It seems to me that if you acknowledge moral truths that are beyond any human’s power to change, that effectively means you see yourself as responsible to a higher authority. That higher authority is, by whatever name you want to call it, a god that you worship. That doesn’t prove that any particular religion is true, nor does it prove that God is a person that has intentions and can hear prayers. Thus, I agree with Prager, with that caveat that we can’t prove that God is a person. Perhaps atheists define God as being a person, in which case I guess they could believe in morality without believing in God.

    • #26
    • March 19, 2015, at 11:05 AM PST
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  27. Cato Rand Coolidge

    Tuck:

    Cato Rand:

    …we left essentially left to nothing but our own moral intuition?

    There is no such thing. There is only survival.

    John Walker wrote a review of a great book about Europe after WWII (can’t recall the title). Read that and then we’ll discuss this alleged “moral intuition”.

    I think you might be making my point, and if you don’t see that, it is probably because I’m not making it very well. Although I’d be curious to know the title, if you happen to remember it.

    • #27
    • March 19, 2015, at 11:05 AM PST
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  28. Mike H Coolidge

    Tuck:

    Cato Rand:

    Unless he is going to intervene in a much more tangible way than he can plausibly be claimed to have in human affairs, wouldn’t we behave the same with our without god, and with or without his moral rules?

    That’s why breaking the moral rules is so common.

    But in the background lurks Pascal’s Wager. Are you feeling lucky? ;)

    Yeah, I’m not going to believe in something out of fear. Better to be honest and wrong than being “right” because you’re an intellectual chicken.

    • #28
    • March 19, 2015, at 11:06 AM PST
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  29. Cato Rand Coolidge

    Jamie Lockett:

    Cato Rand:

    True enough, but in the effort to understand the dictates of god, or nature, aren’t we essentially left to nothing but our own moral intuition? Doesn’t that follow inevitably from the fact that “no individual can claim to have a privileged or superior command of reason”?

    This is where the religion argument breaks down for me too. Given that our only source on morality is human interpretation of an alleged deities alleged morality how is it functionally any different from human reason derived moral systems?

    Precisely.

    • #29
    • March 19, 2015, at 11:06 AM PST
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  30. Tuck Inactive

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:

    I’m not sure morality needs a source to be understandable any more than gravity does.

    Gravity has weight because it has consequences.* Morality without consequences has no weight.

    *Yes, that was intentional. Sorry. ;)

    • #30
    • March 19, 2015, at 11:10 AM PST
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