The Moral Argument: What Good is Christianity in Solving it?

While discussing the moral argument a while back Violetwisp mentioned in the comments “I still don’t understand why you think the Christian belief system makes this any clearer.” The problem at hand is that we feel like there is some kind of standard of right and wrong that everyone should be held to but it is unclear exactly what the standard is or how we could discover it. As I’ve said before you can believe in objective morality without being theist, and you can certainly believe in it without being a Christian. So what do you do if you’ve followed the moral argument this far and accepted that there is such a thing as moral truth? What are your options?

Well the only real non-theistic option I’m aware of is that morality exists as a kind of Platonic Form. Though they aren’t very numerous at this period in time there are people who believe in Platonic Forms today. Some people even believe that mathmatics and numbers exist as something very like Platonic Forms. If you really want to understand what a Platonic Form is you’ll have to study some Plato, but my own butchered and ridiculously simplified version is that a Form is a non-material always-existing substance that embodies an ideal. Wow, that really was butchered. Let me try again: Forms theoretically exist outside of material reality but at the same time are connected to and reflect reality. Beauty, for example, is a traditional Platonic Form. Why do we find some things beautiful and some things ugly? Because the things we find beautiful have something in them that partially conforms to the Form of beauty. If something is ugly it deviates greatly from that Form. For Plato the Forms were arguably the only really real things in existence, and our world was a kind of shadow being cast by the forms themselves.  One Platonic form is known as the Good. If an action resembles the Good then we recognize (in general) that it is good. If an action deviates from the Good then it is wrong, or evil. So it is possible that moral truth exists like this: that somewhere there is a concrete standard of good by which all actions can be judged.

Now what would happen if this absolute, immaterial standard of good was more than just a force of nature? What if Good was not a Form but a person? This leads to one of the other major options presented to us, and the option that the Christian traditionally takes. Christian theology teaches (again, I’m simplifying this a great deal) that goodness is that which aligns with the unchanging character of God. It’s important to note that the Christian believes that goodness is a property of God: just as wetness is a property of water. A human being can be good or bad, just as a dog can be wet or dry: but water by definition can’t be dry, and God by definition can’t be bad. To understand the Good is thus to understand a person: the greatest Personality of all, to be specific.

Now some Christians, and some other religions, have a different conception of how the Good might relate to God. Some would argue that good is whatever God commands: if God commands it then it becomes good. The problem with that theory is that it falls prey to what is known as the Euthyphro dilemma, which is named after one of Plato’s writings where Socrates debates morality with a man named Euthyphro. Socrates asks Euthyphro whether good is commanded by the gods because it is good, or whether it is good because the gods command it? If a god commands you to do something because it is good then that means that there is some greater standard of good that the god in question is abiding by. Thus the standard of Good must be something other than that god. However if something is considered good because that god commands it the morality is arbitrary. Perhaps the god in question will change his mind at some point: if so then suddenly what was once right is now wrong, and vice versa. If this is true then moral truth doesn’t really exist: we merely feel like it does because god told us to.

That’s why, if Christian theology has anything right at all, it must be right about Goodness being a property of God’s character if God is the source of moral truth. In this view God cannot do evil any more than water can stop being wet. He is the standard of Good itself.

So those are really the best two options that I’ve found for explaining the existence of moral truth. Either it is a Platonic Form or it is God himself. Now the Christians go one step further: they claim that Good loves humanity. The Good loves humanity so much that it became a human so that we could have a relationship with it. Christianity teaches that Goodness is not simply the standard by which actions are judged but is a living and active reality that wishes for us to become closer to it. Through such a relationship an individual flawed human can get closer to the Good and become like it.

So either Goodness is an illusion, an absolute, or a person.

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About Mark Hamilton

I am, in no particular order, a nerd, an aspiring writer, a Christian, an aspiring filmmaker, an avid reader, a male, a YEC, a GM, and a twenty something. I like learning how things are made, finding out how to do things from scratch, and I you can find more of my writing at thepagenebula.wordpress.com

Posted on March 12, 2014, in Apologetics, Christianity and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. “goodness is that which aligns with the unchanging character of God” You can’t be so blinded by your faith that you imagine there’s consistency in the genocide, stoning, slavery, rape, punishing offspring, jealousy, rage etc. depicted throughout the Bible, with the the god that Christians today believe they worship. Unchanging and absolute morals? Ridiculous assertion.

    • I’d just like to point out that in the other post you yourself defended stoning as being an appropriate and moral punishment given certain historical circumstances, and by doing so you specifically made the point that something which would be immoral in our modern situation (like stoning) could be moral in a different situation. I feel that the same argument can be made for the Biblical passages on slavery. Notable is the fact that basically all of the old testament commands about slavery involved treating slaves well and the proper method for freeing a slave. Not to mention the year of Jubilee. In a time and place where slavery was an economic reality and other societies treated slaves like garbage the Israelites were commanded to treat slaves like people instead. Given the time and place, I see nothing particularly inconsistent.

      Much can be said for many of your remaining objections, though genocide provides a particularly needlesome one. However, why stick to the interpretation that God really did command genocide? Though I fall under more of a conservative approach to the Bible there are millions of Christians who reject that God ever actually commanded the Isrealites to perform genocide (for more information, I’d check out this fellow’s site, as he’s an evangelical theologian who rejects genocide and has written on it numerous times: http://randalrauser.com/2014/03/celebrating-the-publication-of-my-1500th-article-with-a-look-back/).

      When reading the Old Testament we see time and time again that the Israelites are being held to a higher standard than the people around them: child sacrifice is forbidden, women have legal protections, slaves and foreigners have rights, even draft animals need to be well fed and well kept. With this perspective I really don’t see any disconnect. Your interpretation of the Old Testament is one of many, and not a particularly robust one at that. Perhaps you should try examining other perspectives.

      • Natural humanitarian progress as societies stabilise surely can’t be confused with a notion of ‘absolute morality’. What pleasant deity would hand out rules like this?

        Exodus 21:20-21 “Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property.”

        You’re deluded beyond reason with regards to the Bible if you think this is about treating people well.

      • That verse looks pretty bad, but mainly when it’s taken alone and out of the greater context of how slavery worked among the ancient Isrealites. First it’s important to note that this verse is upholding the idea that a master should be punished if they kill one of their slaves. Compare this to slavery in more enlightened America or Britian during the early 1800s where masters could kill as many of their slaves as they would like without legal repercussions. Another interesting point that you left out is that just a few verses away the scriptures state that if a master beats a slave in a way that causes permanent damage, even damage as minor as knocking out a single tooth, then the slave gets to be set free. Compare this to contemporary societies around them where slaves could have their eyes poked out or their limbs cut off if their master’s wished. Or, again, compare it to the slavery practices of an age far more recent than our own, where American and British slave owners could do the same.

        It’s not the only way that the ancient Israelites were commanded to do things differently. The western powers of the 1800s traveled to Africa and took slaves by force, kidnapping them from their homes and taking them across the sea. In the Old Testament the Israelites are forbidden from making anyone a slave without that person’s consent (Exodus 21:16, Deuteronomy 24:7). But wait, why would anyone ever voluntarily become a slave? Because in those days a slave was someone who had sold themselves into slavery in order to pay off a debt. Slaves exchanged their freedom for money, essentially. They get free room and board, their debts get paid off. What’s more, while they were slaves they had the right to own property, make money, and participate in politics and the legal system. But that’s not all: when the western powers took Africans as slaves those slaves remained slaves until the rest of their lives unless they could somehow scrounge up the money to buy themselves free: and the master could always refuse to sell. Their children too would be born into slavery with no hope of freedom. In contrast the Old Testament commands this:

        “If any of your people—Hebrew men or women—sell themselves to you and serve you six years, in the seventh year you must let them go free. And when you release them, do not send them away empty-handed. Supply them liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to them as the Lord your God has blessed you. (Deuteronomy 15:12-14)”

        This ensured that someone’s financial debts would not haunt them forever, but only for a maximum of six years! If only the American and British slaves had lived in ancient Israel instead of during the Enlightenment.

        You pointed out before how stoning might be justified considering there was no prison system. Well they also did not have a system by which someone could declare bankruptcy. If you can’t pay your bill at the diner you might have to work it off washing dishes, and if you fell into debt that you couldn’t pay in ancient Israel you might have to sell yourself into slavery. It’s a tough break, but the Old Testament laws ensured you had legal protections and that you would be free after at least six years of labor. This is a progressive and enlightened economic system that we have no need of today because we have other outlets for dealing with massive, unpayable, debt.

        I’d like to end by pointing something out. You mentioned that societies have experienced “natural humanitarian progress.” However, doesn’t the concept of moral progress assume that there is an objective standard of morality that such progress is judged by? If there is an objective moral standard then it makes sense to say that society has progressed closer to it, or wandered farther away from it. But if there is no actual objective goal that we are progressing towards then how can we say that we’ve gotten closer to it?

        I’d like to leave with this quote by G. K. Chesterton:

        “We are fond of talking about ‘liberty’; that, as we talk of it, is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. We are fond of talking about ‘progress’; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. We are fond of talking about ‘education’; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. The modern man says, ‘Let us leave all these arbitrary standards and embrace liberty.’ This is, logically rendered, ‘Let us not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide it.’ He says, ‘Away with your old moral formulae; I am for progress.’ This, logically stated, means, ‘Let us not settle what is good; but let us settle whether we are getting more of it.’ He says, ‘Neither in religion nor morality, my friend, lie the hopes of the race, but in education.’ This, clearly expressed, means, ‘We cannot decide what is good, but let us give it to our children.'”

  2. I’m not going to argue with your wonky Christian history of slavery, it’s obviously a story that does the rounds with people who realise the words in the Bible are unacceptable. Slavery is ‘wrong’ in all contexts, we now understand that owning another person is repugnant, and an omniscient, benevolent being would never command people to take slaves (or murder and rape for that matter). The justification through a false rose-tinted historical lens is lazy and rather tedious.

    “doesn’t the concept of moral progress assume that there is an objective standard of morality that such progress is judged by?” No, it doesn’t. In 1000 years time, they might conclude that the school system we’re used to in our society is harmful; they might conclude our treatment of older people is repugnant. Who knows? Most of us do our best at the point of time we exist. We’ll never have every piece of evidence required to evaluate the least harmful approach to any situation, but we always have our best guess based on what’s available. We don’t have all the information, and there’s so clearly not an invisible creator deity in the background magically transmitted information about ‘truths’ that patently don’t exist.

    • And again we come to our great conflict. In one hand you tell me that slavery is always wrong, no matter what the context, and thus that the God depicted in the Old Testament is evil. Then with the other hand you tell me that progress is an illusion and that moral truth doesn’t exist. And somewhere in the middle of telling me that there is no real right and wrong we can judge progress by you say that “we never have enough evidence required to evaluate the least harmful approach.” Does this mean that you do believe in some moral truths, that we can reason our way to find evidence to understand those truths, and that finding the “least harmful approach” to life is one of those truths? The very same truths you immediately reject the existence of just a couple sentences later?

      Which way is it going to be violetwisp: are some things wrong and some things right irrespective of culture and individual brain chemistry (“Slavery is ‘wrong’ in all contexts”), or is it all just an illusion and we do the best we can to try and follow our instincts?

      • It’s interesting, you seem to be looking to read your pre-programmed answer to ‘how atheists view the question of morality’ into everything I write. Given our current understanding of life, slavery is wrong in all contexts – almost all humans at this point in our evolution will agree with me. If you have any evidence you’d like to present that suggests it’s acceptable, I’ll have a look – but I sincerely doubt anything exists. That doesn’t make it a moral truth, it makes it a no-brainer. It’s a nasty, cruel and vile practice and the Bible you believe is written by a benevolent being, condones and encourages it. Which way is it going to be Mark: are some things wrong when the god God feels like it and right when his absolute morality compass gets tipped upside down? I don’t believe in absolute truths, and you don’t either.

      • “That doesn’t make it a moral truth, it makes it a no-brainer.”

        followed by

        “I don’t believe in absolute truths, and you don’t either”

        kind of makes the point I’m trying to get across. I don’t have anything in particular to say about how “atheists” view the question of morality: I’m just trying to understand how you view it. It mostly seems like a muddle of contradictions to me: something is obviously and logically wrong, but at the same time the concept of “wrong” doesn’t actually exist. You state that morality is subjective and then ask me if I have any objective evidence that shows that slavery is morally acceptable. If morality is subjective then asking for evidence is a nonsensical statement, akin for asking me to provide hard evidence as to why mayonaise doesn’t taste gross. So which is it: is morality subjective or objective? Is the statement “slavery is wrong” true, or merely a matter of shared opinion?

        I believe that God embodies the concept of Good, and that to be good is to be in line with the absolute Good and to be evil is to be in deviation to it. The commands attributed to God about slavery in the Old Testament strike me as maintianing the value of human life, compassion, and forgiveness (especially in regards to the commands to never make someone a slave against their will, to never kill or seriously injure a slave, and to set your slaves free with a pile of gifts after six years of labor), and must be read with the understanding of what the Isrealite situation was (no bancruptcy courts, for one thing, and surrouned by nations who took slaves involutarily and treated them as if they had no rights). Though situations change, what is right does not, as you yourself have admitted as far as stoning is concerned.

  3. Thought you might be interested to see another angle on the slavery/benevolence issue:

    It doesn’t occur to him that at least half of “God’s” chosen were slaves, property — women and girls. I have no desire to have discourse with what appears to be a hyper-religious, dopamine addict. Based on what I’ve seen with the dialog between you two, it’s a waste of time. But did he miss Numbers 31, one of many, many inhumane scriptures? What happen to the 10 Commandments? Moses (by the blessings from the god God) told his army to kill all the married women, men, and boys (the enemies of the god God), and steal all their property, but keep the girls for themselves. I don’t recall this god allowing women or girls to be set free with a pile of gifts after six years of labor, nor protected from serious injury (mostly by their slave masters (husbands). Did these girls owe a dept, and did they give consent to be slaves?

    “The social and legal position of an Israelite wife was inferior to the position a wife occupied in the great countries round about… all the texts show that Israelites wanted mainly sons to perpetuate the family line and fortune, and to preserve the ancestral inheritance… A husband could divorce his wife; women on the other hand could not ask for divorce… the wife called her husband Ba’al or master; she also called him adon or lord; she addressed him, in fact, as a slave addressed his master or subject, his king.

    The Decalogue includes a man’s wife among his possessions… all her life she remains a minor. The wife does not inherit from her husband, nor daughters from their father, except when there is no male heir. A vow made by a girl or married woman needs, to be valid, the consent of the father or husband and if this consent is withheld, the vow is null and void. A man had a right to sell his daughter. Women were excluded from the succession.”

    -Roland de Vaux, archaeologist and priest
    http://www.nobeliefs.com/DarkBible/darkbible7.htm

    • violetwisp, I can see we’re going to keep disagreeing about the Old Testament. But as I’ve said before, you don’t have to accept the Old Testament as being morally binding to be a Christian. Many denominations don’t (Episcopalians come to mind). People from different situations and perspectives can look at the same passages and come to different conclusions about how horrible they were or not: if you decide that they are undoubtedly horrible than I would suggest you join with those who do not believe the Old Testament is accurate or was inspired by God. Christianity is a big tent: there are more than just fundamentalists, you know. 🙂

      Still I think all this is dodging the point a bit. You’re objecting to Christianity on moral grounds (the God of the Old Testament is immoral) while at the same time denying that any objective standard of morality exists (there are no absolute truths). I’m fine if you pick a side and stick to it, but jumping back and forth is simply dizzying. Is morality subjective, in which case nothing in the Old Testament about anything was really “wrong” but was simply “different” then your own morality, or is morality objective, in which case we can reason and evidence our way in to discovering whether the things in the Old Testament were right or wrong. If you have a third way, explain it to me.

  4. How about classic philosophy? Eudaimonia? Isn’t that more efficient than arbitrary dogma?

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