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Objective Morality Needs No Ultimate Source

December 13, 2012

In the short video below, Boston College philosophy professor Peter Kreeft goes looking for the ultimate source of morality, doesn’t find it in evolution, reason, conscience, human nature, or utilitarianism, but calls off the search when he starts talking about the laws of morality, i.e., those laws that tell us what ought be, directing and ordering right human behavior. Kreeft argues these these laws, which he says must come from a cause apart from the physical world and therefore above nature, suggest a supernatural lawgiver or moral commander. Consequently, says he, “whenever you appeal to morality, you are appealing to God,” to something religious, whether you know it or not, even if you think you’re an atheist.

Putting aside Kreeft’s neglect to grapple with the arguments put forward by evolutionary biologists and psychologists, utilitarians, and other theorists he’s supposedly rebutting—his presentation clocks at just over five minutes—he makes a foundational assumption that few if any of his imagined interlocutors would share. The persuasiveness of his argument presupposes that morality, as actually practiced, needs an ultimate source, but this presupposition is demonstrably untrue. We make objective moral arguments all the time without ever asking or answering where our morality, so to speak, comes from. We have reasons, and if our reasons refer to principles or to things beyond our likes and dislikes (e.g., human dignity, the value of life, a conception of justice), then we have at hand an objective morality and possibly a sound and persuasive one.

Kreeft speaks of moral laws and commands, and so it’s understandable that he would infer a lawgiver and moral commander to explain his morality, but outside his moral universe, people justify their morality just fine without ascending to a supernatural plane. They may appeal to axiomatic principles allegedly intuited, deemed self-evident, or taken on faith. Proving the existence of God by demonstrating the supernatural origin of morality has little appeal to those whose moral thought begs for no such origin. Besides, even if we get to the level of a divine lawgiver, the question remains why I should obey this being. Any answer given would be intelligible on purely “natural” terms. Heaven and hell, for example, make sense to us as places of happiness and misery, but happiness and misery make sense without getting into ultimate supernatural origins.

Religious thought can contribute to moral thought, but unless you’re looking for certainty and to tie up all conceivable loose ends, I don’t see why Kreeft’s line of thought here would be all that convincing.

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  1. Knab Knob permalink
    December 13, 2012 1:49 pm

    I definitely understand what you’re saying, and think Kreeft probably understands his own arguments in a naive way. Nevertheless, there is a metaphysical, if tautological, sense in which something like that is true. Namely, if you simply identify/define “God” as [the concept of] the maximal fulfillment of desire. If by God you simply mean “the Good” abstracted, the (theoretical) “capstone” towards which desire tends, then you are already admitting “God” in this sense by admitting that “happiness” or “goodness” are real features of “the furniture of reality” even if you think what specifically constitutes it for each or any individual is radically individual or subjective. In this sense, “God” is like the “organizing principle” of the very concept of morality rather than a “lawgiver” imposing it externally. If you admit that there is some form “goodness” that makes good things or good acts meaningfully similar, and that different individuals can meaningfully refer to the same thing when speaking of goodness, then you can define “God” as that “Form of Goodness” even if you think that’s a “conceptually constructed” reality; all reality is conceptually constructed!

  2. Chris Sullivan permalink
    December 13, 2012 2:18 pm

    I think a better argument is that morality flows from the nature of reality. Natural Law.

    It seems to me that Kreeft’s contention that “Whenever you appeal to morality, you are appealing to God” would be true, but in the sense of God’s creation and sustaining of the real world we live in.

    I think that Kreeft’s argument about the origin of morality is a different argument to where people might think morality comes from.

    God Bless

  3. Michael permalink
    December 13, 2012 3:14 pm

    “We have reasons, and if our reasons refer to principles or to things beyond our likes and dislikes (e.g., human dignity, the value of life, a conception of justice), then we have at hand an objective morality and possibly a sound and persuasive one.”

    And just where one wonders do such reasons ultimately come from? Just a thought.

  4. December 13, 2012 3:39 pm

    I think that the best case can be made for the assertion that morality ultimately boils downs to self-interest. We expect to be treated pretty much as we treat others, all things being equal. If I treat you well, I hope that you will treat me well. If I have treated you well, and this as been requited by you, and if either of us is mistreated by a third party, it is in both of our best interests to join together in opposition to that threatening third party; and so on.
    Where there is an imbalance of power this equation becomes more complicated, but I think that it still holds in the final analysis. The king who overly abuses his inherited power must fear the loss of his crown (and probably his head) as a consequence.
    So, morality is more a consequence of selfishness, than it is of altruism, or anything more noble than applied self-interest.

  5. Eric Brown permalink
    December 13, 2012 5:02 pm

    The problem I have with this argument is this: Catholics do not believe that the natural law is something that is “out there.” The natural law, the moral law, or whatever we wish to call it is the “law of human nature.” In other words, as rational creatures, we may reason to or intuitively know, in varying degree, that which fulfills or is contrary to our nature and harms us. Our nature is created and it is the objective standard — whether something leads to our final end or not — against which actions are weighed.

    Since I believe in God and that our nature is created, I expect people, even godless people, to have a sense of objective morality, even if they have no logical or coherent reason for it, but it because — and only because — they are in fact created in such a fashion.

    I don’t believe that there is any actual, consistent, tenable way of upholding any consistent, universal, binding argument that there exists an objective morality for all people, at all times, and in all circumstances, without God and without a belief in a created human nature. In false anthropologies where you lose sense of human nature, or manufacture a false human nature (see liberalism in all its forms), you do, in fact, lose objective morality.

    Sure, some ethical “systems” have “objective” criteria, but utilitarianism and consequentialism and such things are fundamentally moral relativism. No one assigns the same value/utility or weighs consequences the same.

    When I’m arguing with another proponent of the natural law, we typically may disagree only on the application thereof and neither of us think we can both be right. We’re reaching toward some truth, which is not socially contrived or true because it is agreed upon.

    • Kerberos permalink
      December 14, 2012 8:42 pm

      “The problem I have with this argument is this: Catholics do not believe that the natural law is something that is “out there.” The natural law, the moral law, or whatever we wish to call it is the “law of human nature.” In other words, as rational creatures, we may reason to or intuitively know, in varying degree, that which fulfills or is contrary to our nature and harms us. Our nature is created and it is the objective standard — whether something leads to our final end or not — against which actions are weighed.”

      ## The weakness I see there, is the historical one – what seems in accord with the NL, varies. I’ve seen arguments for slavery that justify it by an appeal to NL – and there is a NL argument for exterminating heretics.

      I think that the argument is worthless, & perhaps tautological. I don’t think is there is any ultimately valid argument for good moral behaviour, because what is deemed good varies from age to age and country to country even in the same civilisation. Some texts in the Bible prescribe the total extermination of communities, some prescribe the death only of the personally guilty. The appeal to Divine authority is worthless, one reason being that this does not prevent moral variations & contradictions – as the Book of Job strongly suggests.

      ISTM that reason is a worthless basis for anything as ambitious as an exceptionless & absolute morality. For all the Pope’s distaste for relativism, his own POV is as dependent on some forms of it as that of anyone else. We can’t escape our own lack of absoluteness – but that kind of morality is an attempt to do that. The attempt is too intellectualist to be personal. The bankruptcy of arguing for an ultimate basis for morality suggests that personal encounter may show what reason cannot. To use reason as basis is as adequate as trying to demonstrate the reality of human affection by measuring the electro-physical phenomena that accompany a kiss or an embrace. Reason is worse than useless for a lot of things, so this rationalist silliness on the paty of too many Christians, including Catholics, has nothing to recommend it.

      “The thinking is so glib and self-satisfied, as if some neat little ensemble of ideas, answers the universe itself, helpfully displayed in a cosmic photograph behind. The irony is the wrench that is thrown in his very argument from the git-go, is related to the slavery issue he adduces.”

      ## Wish I’d written that. Kudos to the author.

  6. Peter Paul Fuchs permalink
    December 13, 2012 6:38 pm

    It is amazing to me that there still exist places where people go and plunk down their (or their parents’) hard earned money to take such courses for credit. The thinking is so glib and self-satisfied, as if some neat little ensemble of ideas, answers the universe itself, helpfully displayed in a cosmic photograph behind. The irony is the wrench that is thrown in his very argument from the git-go, is related to the slavery issue he adduces. Mr. Kreeft is a Thomist by description, and yet the fact that Thomas himself approved of slavery does not seem to bother him. I am well familiar with the counter-arguments against this simple fact, since I have had fun online bantering with people who are sure they have just the right way to explain Thomas in which his clear-as-a-bell approval of slavery under certain circumstances is somehow explained away. Naturally, in a way that they heard someone like this author do it. Of course, it makes no sense to anyone but those who have bought the whole thing lock, stick and barrel already.

    The irony is that the desirable aspects of morality’s objectiveness are weakened not helped by searching for immovable ultimate sources. For me, certain things are utterly off the table of every doing in life. They are objective for me in the sense that I would rather be dead than do them. This kind of objectivity is closely connected with a more ample admittance of a gray zone for a lot else. This is what reactionaries really don’t like. They would rather trade some ultimate wiggle room on core issues, in order to get a mammoth grid laid on all of life by which to live in surety. Thus reactionaries often cozen eventually to horrors that liberals NEVER would.

    The proof to me that a lot of these folks do not have objective morality is that when some small minority actually has committed a heinous crime (say the bizarre act of raping a child) , they go on happily living after the typical obeisances towards seeking forgiveness. On a simply human level of decency, I am amazed that more of the clerics caught in those terrible scandals did not off themselves. That would have been a greater testimony to some sort of conviction, even if not the best answer. That not even one did, to my mind, proves that the “objectivity” is rather shallow for them. I know Catholic theology has a lot to say on these notions, involving sacramental valences of forgiveness too. But the simple human facts tell a tale. Kyle is right on this matter. And the Kreefts of the world are stumping for a kind of centuries long schtick.

    • dominic1955 permalink
      December 14, 2012 11:38 am

      “…that liberals NEVER would.” Yes, the concentration camps sites that dot the former Nazi empire and the gulags of Siberia can back that up. Of course, No true Scotsman and all…

      “Objective for me” is ultimately meaningless. Since it was just the feast of St. Lucy, I’ve always been fascinated by the lengths some of the saints went through to uphold truth, specifically in this case some of the ancient virgin martyrs or the more recent ones for that matter. I’d like to think I’d have the conviction and courage to be flayed alive or burned rather than take a roll in the hay in the whorehouse or burn some incense to Caesar but I know very well that except for the grace of God I’m probably going to be a traitor and sell out my beliefs to save my skin. In a more modern sense, I hope I’d rather take being shot out in the woods than be one of the einsatzgruppen, but again, save for the grace of God, I’m putting a 9mm bullet into a Jewish child’s head.

      “Having” objective morality is not the point. I am very much against unchastity, idolatry and killing the innocent on principle because these things are against natural and divine law but if put in a situation when I’m faced with my own impending cruel and gruesome end, do I punk out like a coward to save my self? If I do so, it doesn’t mean there isn’t an objective morality or I don’t believe in it, it just means I failed.

      • Peter Paul Fuchs permalink
        December 14, 2012 4:26 pm



        Do you actually have the gall to come here in a serious realm with logic gleaned from a Jonah Goldberg book?? And a picture of a smiley face liberal with Hitler-stache must fill your head. Or a Glenn Beck show harangue . As if Nazis were liberals, or Stalin was a crypto Lockean. Really your reasoning makes me wretch. There is not one serious historian who believes such things, or makes that interpretation. You are have walked the plank, over a deep ocean of fringe ideation.

        As to your idea that for those depraved creatures in clerical garb would have been trying to save themselves by offing themselves, give me a break. Allow me to make clear some more mature thinking on the matter, not a First Confession lecture for kids. And just to be always be fair let me say what I have always said. Most priests and seminarians I knew were nothing like that. And I have grieved for the good ones I knew, imagining the suffering for them while hearing about this scandal. But there was definitely a culture of deception in the priesthood, and it is really no surprise how these awful things could have transpires given that.

        Therefore, the following clerical behavior of the guilty should make people very suspicious, and I am amazed that it has not. We are asked to believe that people who manifested absolutely NO understanding of any conceivable kind of objective morality by raping an innocent child, are suddenly when caught, possessed of the most theologically profound understanding of the issues, so deep that they could endure the massive despair that would befall anyone with a real conscience, and THAT putatively profound understanding is the reason they don’t kill themselves. That seems to be your style of logic. Well if you believe that, you will believe anything. Ockham’s Razor suggests that the reason is just the same as why the committed the crime in the first place. Namely, they never really believed much of anything, and never had any deep moral compunction. This is perfectly consistent with what I observed in a lesser way, with many, maybe most, priests and seminarians I knew. Former seminarians are often united by this grim knowledge in a way that others are not, because the Catholic laity has been mightily trained to recognize this culture of deception.

        Further, though I will stipulate that suicide would not be the most societally beneficial option to encourage in general, I think most people with a conscience and moral perspicacity would see it as the best option for wretches like those. For this simple reason. A lot of the victims who were brutalized by those guys were effectively brutalized again by being put through a trial. Victimized all over again, because the wretch feels he is “all forgiven” and now wants to defend himself. How nice. The honorable thing would have been to take himself out of the equation by seppuku, as it were. As I said, if some had done it, one could believe that people in that field actually had some deep compunction. Rather, one gets the sense that they only find a great theology of forgiveness when it is convenient. And if you doubt that most agree with my view, and not yours, consider that a jury refused to convict that handsome guy who beat the Jesuit priest close to killing him, because the cleric had abused him years ago. Society is basically is basically done, or “over”, Catholic logic on these things. And they have voted in the most definitive spot. The jury box, where lives hang in the balance.

        • dominic1955 permalink
          December 14, 2012 5:40 pm

          You can bluster and harumpf all you want, your hysterics and negative name dropping are nonsense. Did I say Hitler or Stalin were Lockean? What’s the obvious question that someone who is actually bothering to reason would come to? Maybe my use of “liberal” is different that what you obviously are meaning by it by referring to Locke. Besides, to say I’ve walked over the plank of fringe ideation is pot calling the kettle black.

          I don’t recall saying anything about priest child rapists offing themselves in order to save themselves, did I? That is an assumption on your part. Maybe you should take your blood pressure medication before shooting your mouth off.

          “We are asked to believe…”-You are asked no such thing. Anyone who believes in an objective morality that everyone is held to can completely transgress it. People do it all the time, its called sin. Maybe they never believed with conviction, maybe they only “believed” it in a intellectually dry way. As to what a conscience should or shouldn’t in regards to despair I cannot say because I cannot read hearts or minds. I personally don’t think that narcissists have much in the way of remorse as they are but considering I wasn’t talking about clerical child rapists, that is your free style profluvium on what I supposedly think. Good show, ol’ boy.

          Since we were (I guess) talking about the general idea of “objective morality”, all of the next part is irrelevant. As far as we are concerned, anything can be forgiven but that doesn’t mean that one does not have to suffer the temporal punishments due their sin. For the sake of argument, let’s assume there is either no God or there is some spiritual thing out there but it doesn’t care. If morality is just based on what we think about a situation or its “hard-wired” in us, then its unimportant what people do. In this for-sake-of-argument world, I don’t care if a priest rapes kids because it doesn’t matter what anyone does and his “job” is just imaginary so it neither adds or subtracts from anything he does. It also doesn’t matter what “society” does, we die and that’s it. If the jury fry the guy who beat up the abuser-Jesuit, if they fry the Jesuit or if that jury just devolves into a spitball fight for funsies then whatever.

        • Peter Paul Fuchs permalink
          December 15, 2012 5:11 pm


          Since I align myself quite comfortably with the philosophical tradition of the Founders of this country, it makes zero sense for you to sling the mud of “fringe ideation” my way. This mud’s for you, and the whole quicksand of faux-precise Thomistic reasoning. It is the whole labyrinthine world of Catholic reasoning on these matters that is “fringe” utterly by comparison, since it repeatedly seems to suspect the very freedoms that the Founders envisioned. And in tragic irony it seems to vex the very great use that the Founders envisioned for religion as a bolster for public morality.

          Btw, with Lisinopril you only have to take it once a day, so I almost never have forgotten.

  7. brettsalkeld permalink*
    December 13, 2012 6:51 pm

    I wonder if introducing the category of actors would offer some clarity here. I mean, we believe rape is objectively wrong . . . for humans. We seem particularly unperturbed by the frequency of rape even among the highest animals, like dolphins. In talking about something like “objective morality” we are assuming all kinds of things about actors. I, for one, think it is difficult to make the case that rape is bad for humans and good for dolphins without reference to something specifically human that is not explicable within a purely naturalistic sphere.

    Now, of course, an atheist is perfectly free to say that rape is only bad because of the social consequences and therefore human societies have fairly consistently proscribed it. But then I wonder what exactly is meant by the term “objective.”

    • December 13, 2012 11:21 pm

      Humans are more concerned with morality in fellow humans because we are evolutionarily wired to have an invested interest in our own species. There are several books on the subject of morality without God that show that morality is rooted in our evolutionary past. Michael Shermer’s The Science of Good and Evil and Robert Buckman’s Can We Be Good Without God? immediately come to mind.

      • brettsalkeld permalink*
        December 14, 2012 12:39 am

        So, in such a construction, “objective” means “evolutionarily wired”?

        Don’t get me wrong. As a Thomist, I have no problem with finding scientific explanations for such things. Primary and secondary causality and all that. I’m just not sure that people are using the terms in the same way and so may well be speaking at cross purposes.

        • December 14, 2012 4:35 pm

          I’m using “objective” in this sense that a universal moral code does, indeed, seem to exist. I suppose you are using “objective” to mean that a universal moral code does exist AND comes from some sort of thing outside of humans themselves (genetics and socialization).

          I simply don’t understand the need for this metaphysical something outside of material reality, which has great explanatory power on it own. I understand why someone would want to believe in primary and secondary causation, as I was once there myself. What I don’t is how this explains reality in any tangible and meaningful way apart from wishful thinking.

          From my perspective primary/secondary causation is simply a way to tack on God in light of a scientific explanation. Science explains so-called “secondary causes,” but the primary cause (God) can in no way be proved. It is simply believed. The same goes for something like the essence and accidents in the Eucharist. One can test the so-called “accidental” properties of the bread and wine, but the so-called “essence” can in no way be tested or verified. It is believed because the church says it is there. In my view, this is where such discussion loses its explanatory power. It moves from discussing physical reality to discussing imaginary constructs.

        • brettsalkeld permalink*
          December 14, 2012 4:43 pm

          I actually wasn’t using “objective” in any sense at all. I was merely asking the question. You are free to say “objective” = “seems to exist,” but that strikes me as a far weaker claim than most people intend when they say “objective,” and so I would not be surprised if Christians (or others) accused you of not believing in “objective” morality because, by “objective,” they mean something much more than “seems to exist.”

          In any case, we could probably debate primary/secondary causality ’til the cows come home, but to me it is simply a matter of the contingency of all the reality we put in the “secondary” category. None of it, individually or in sum, is self-explanatory. I find that very compelling.

      • dominic1955 permalink
        December 14, 2012 12:01 pm

        I too have no problem with primary and secondary causality and all and welcome scientific discoveries. However, I find it more than a little amusing when scientists, whose field deals only with what is temporally measurable, start going off the reservation into philosophy or even better, metaphysics.

        In recent years, “science” is always so sure of itself but looking back we see how far off it can be and can reasonably infer that when our descendents look back after another couple centuries they will think the same about us. The nature of scientific discovery is just that-discovery. We learn, and the more we learn we should be understanding that we (scientifically) know very little about the natural world. Thus, the comedy of the Scientist condemning our witchdoctoring and dogmatism with one hand and issuing his own dogmatic pronouncements and fatwas with the other.

    • Peter Paul Fuchs permalink
      December 14, 2012 4:41 pm


      This is no kind of logic for someone serious to be using. To put it in a sense with some comic relief for this very serious topic, there’s this. All animals are naked. Should we go around naked?? Isure wouldn’t want to at my stage of decrepitiude. Have you seen some of those guys going around naked in San francisco that caused them to change the laws there?? As Rilke wrote “Tiere will ich nicht schreken.”

      But seriously, the only reasonable thing for us (humans) to be doing morally is make our moral deductions in dialogue with the actions of our animal friends on the planet. not necessarily taking lessons. (Calling all Flawells and Bill Donahues who love the “gay animal” issue, this is your moment. I’m ready with other deductions!) Because a leopard tears an lioness limb from limb obviously has no direct meaning for us. We can make an objective morality for us humans. This far and no farther. this is not a dress rehearsal everyone should know. this is the performance, for all of us. If you cannot participate in the moral drama as a human being, we ought not shrink from a sense in which it would be arguably better for some to not be here at all. After the terrible events in Connecticut today, I feel more strongly about this than ever. Either people take responsibility for themselves and get medicated in the right way if the need it (no shame in it!!) , or it is better for society to encourage those without any objectivity to vamoose. To the extent that religion blurs these realities, they are hindering healing for society.

      • brettsalkeld permalink*
        December 14, 2012 11:18 pm

        Well it seems we’re back at definitions. “We can make an objective morality for us humans,” really does beg for a definition of “objective.”

        • Peter Paul Fuchs permalink
          December 15, 2012 12:32 pm


          There’s the rub precisely. If you are uncomfortable with the idea that ultimate reality is incomprehensible (or better with a cap Incomprehensible) then the collateral idea that the only reasonable and sane things for us humans to do is to decide what our morality will seem question-begging. And those questions will naturally be out “foundations” and the failure to find them will open an existential abyss. Thence a whole spirituality explaining these well-nigh inevitable abysses will be required. I actually heard a priest on EWTN who had worked with Mother Teresa say the following: “Mother experienced God mostly by not experiencing Him” and so on, and so on.

          The irony is that in this (to me at least) very rigid grid for spiritual ideas the very need for “foundations” (even in the utter absence of any real day-to-day experience of them, is somehow not supposed to an impediment to morality in life, but a help? How’s that? Even by the logic of the RC notion of sainthood, it is not common. But somehow the following is supposed to still obtain: Even if you experience no foundation day-to-day (dry bones, etc.) you are supposed to preach that to the those who are most vulnerable morally (the young) who will naturally eventually mostly turn away from something with so little real experiential umph to it. Just in terms of societal common sense how is this a bolster to public morality?? It is not in my view.

          The fact is that for most of its history the masses of Catholics had close to zero sense of the contours of the above described spiritual conundrum. Preaching was often poor, and certainly the minutiae of saints lives existentially was not something masses of folk were going to base their moral resolve on. It was based on “popular piety” which was a lot more basic. Yet now these conundrums are emblazoned by fast communications and much more media savvy clerics for the whole huge RC community to grapple with. It is hard to argue that it is a boon to a commonweal in terms of support for behavior. What it means personally to people, and I have no doubt sincerely for you Brett, is an utterly different question. But that that very difference almost never appears in such discussions shows that ironically that all this talk and academic discourse on foundation definitions happens with little regard for the public benefit. And I consider that pretty solipsistic and selfish. And a bit kooky– though I mean that in a good way! Recondite spiritual corners fascinate me. No offense.

  8. December 13, 2012 11:22 pm

    Kreeft’s argument sounds very much like the presupositionalists found in the Reformed tradition.

  9. Ronald King permalink
    December 14, 2012 9:54 am

    I suppose my comment would be filed under evolutionarily wired. Many years ago I attended a training on couples therapy based on attachment theory and interpersonal neurobiology. As a foundation for understanding intimate adult relationships we reviewed research based on parent-child attachments and the effects of secure versus insecure attachment styles. We reviewed 7 particular primitive neural pathways within the limbic system of the brain which form the basic emotional responses to our earliest sources of human interaction which begins within the womb when the brain is formed. We also watched a film of a mother and her infant communicating in a style which was creative rewarding for both of them as they mirrored each others facial and body expressions of happy interactions. Then the mother just began to look at her child with a blank expression while her child attempted to use expressions which had been previously rewarding. Soon he began to show distress, then fear followed by anger. Finally when none of this worked to change her response to that which was previously rewarding, he simply turned his head away from her and essentially shut down. These neural pathways can be identified as rage, fear, separation distress, nurturance, fun, lust and drive. Depending on how these pathways are genetically predisposed and the environment which they are exposed to will determine our basic primitive response to human relationships and it is from these primal responses which we seem to form our relationships and social systems along with our sense of morality.
    We know that we thrive as human beings when we are in a safe nurturing environment begin to build a system driven through the value of empathy, but, when that does not exist then we slip into a survival mechanism which leads to unhealthy human relationships built on competition and a morality which is based on giving and receiving “commands” from an authority.
    We are created to be loved first of all and then to give love as we develop. Where that begins is unseen and is its comprehension is limited by our “reason”.

  10. December 14, 2012 12:06 pm

    Alasdair MacIntyre–no Peter Kreeft he–affirms Dostoevsky’s claim that, “Without God everything is permissible.” MacIntyre, though, claims that what this means is *not* what Kreeft says it means–i.e. that every moral action is only grounded ultimately in belief in God. Rather, MacIntyre says that, without belief in God, it is hard to affirm *exceptionless* moral precepts in particularly tough cases: i.e. the prohibition on murdering the innocent falls away if we *really* need to end the Japanese war machine (his example). (Now, this is consistent with holding that many people who do believe in God and do believe in these exceptionless moral precepts violate them anyway: that’s called sin.) So it’s not that every action is moral only if grounded, implicitly or explicitly, in belief in God; it’s rather that *no* action can be held as impermissable “come what way” without such a belief.

    • dominic1955 permalink
      December 14, 2012 4:39 pm

      “…it’s rather that *no* action can be held as impermissible ‘come what may’ without such a belief.”

      Of course, because otherwise what is it based on? If morality is relative, then one persons revulsion at rape or murder is no more moral than my revulsion at immitation raspberry flavoring.

      • trellis smith permalink
        December 16, 2012 6:27 am

        Which may explain why anyone might feel the need to develop such an overarching theory of morality such as NL in the first place.Tobias Haller reflects that ” this stems from a desire for objective standards, rather than a willingness to live in a conditional moral universe that is subjective at its heart. The evident problem with such a desire for objectivity lies in the fact that morality itself is necessarily relative — that is, it deals with the interrelations between various entities, and how they interact with each other. This necessitates an inescapable degree of subjectivity. Even behaviors of an individual in relation to some nonhuman entity — the state, the church, or even God — are by definition relational. The desire to declare a given act as moral or immoral divorced from the relation of the actor to the act and to that which is acted upon leaves precious little with which to deal,”

        The greatest problem with natural law: that the supposedly self-evident truths to which it appeals are themselves philosophical constructs that even if widely shared still reflect the cultural prejudices of those who share them.
        In short, natural law, as a system, is hopelessly guilty of begging the question. It assumes as its necessary premises answers to some of the very issues it purports to address.
        The clear demonstration of this prejudice is manifest in yet another anti gay marriage screed by the Pope as seemingly declaring it the greatest threat to civilization. These remarks are an embarrassment not only for the church but an affront to his own intelligence,

    • Kerberos permalink
      December 14, 2012 9:58 pm

      Alasdair MacIntyre–no Peter Kreeft he–affirms Dostoevsky’s claim that, “Without God everything is permissible.”

      ## So is everything with belief in God. That imprisoned Dostoevsky was Orthodox Christian. The Tsars ruled as Christian “Autocrat[s] of all the Russias”.

      Christianity has long sanctified & encouraged baser instincts, and still does. Thanks to it, pagan Roman anti-Judaism became theologically-defended and NT-justified hatred of Jews, pogroms, very busy Inquisitions, the blood libel, and a poison that has infected Christianity for 16 centuries. The blood libel is still alive – the preachers of the atheist POV AKA Islam still rely on it. Orthodox Jews in Israel have said things worthy of Hitler about the Palestinians. These two religious groups hate each other bitterly – or are suicide-bombing & military assault new forms of religious love ? The worst crimes have become morally obligatory: kidnapping of children, child molestation, enslavement of Africans, the massacre of Protestants in their thousands, the rape and torture & murder of Protestants by Catholic dragoons after 1685 in France, treason, invasion, the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Orthodox Serbs by the Fascists of the Ustasha, the massacres of Sabra & Chatila by the Lebanese Phalange, the massacre of the Samaritans by John Hyrcanus, the slaughter of thousands of Rhineland Jews by the barbarians of the First Crusade, the slaughter of Catholics in Constantinople in 1182, the “return match” (with interest) in 1204,

      The iniquities and barbarities of religious people prove, if any proof were needed, that belief in God is the greatest possible help to every species of vice and cruelty. One small sample must serve:

      “At the height of the state’s offensive, Cardinal Primatesta refused to meet with mothers of the disappeared who, in the face of violent intimidation and media silence, were seeking help in finding out what had happened to their missing loved ones. He also prohibited the lower clergy from speaking out against state violence, even as death squads targeted Catholic priests critical of the regime.”

      More such delights here:

      As for the occasional good done by the religious: that is the result of their not being as ruined by religion as they might have been; as a result, they retain some kindness and goodness. Militant atheists are good people poisoned by the lie that is religion; their aggression is religious, because they have been unable to get religion out of their system.

      The idea that belief in God is not consistent with utter depravity in conduct was blown to smithereens by Pierre Bayle over 300 years ago. The only way to be good, is to forget religion. It may be interesting & it has produced some attractive artifacts; but the same plea could be made for many religions no present-day religions bother with. Religious credulity is merely the religious version of the same failing in the religionless – further proof that religion makes people worse & not better.

      • Kerberos permalink
        December 14, 2012 10:00 pm

        That imprisoned Dostoevsky… = the state that imprisoned Dostoevsky…

      • December 15, 2012 11:15 am

        I’m sorry, but neither Kerberos nor dominic1955 get the claim right. (I won’t respond to Kerberos historical account of Christianity–the high moralism he/she espouses is unintelligible except as a result of Christianity itself, and certainly I agree that Christianity/belief in God is no guarantee, in itself, of moral behavior, and that it has often been used as an ideological support for various atrocities. All intelligent people on the left (I don’t mean “liberals”) recognize their demands for universal political and economic emancipation as historical outgrowths of a secularized messianism, such that their often substantive and necessary criticisms of historical depravities perpetrated by Christianity/theists are themselves dependent upon an ethical stance that has its roots in Isaiah, or Jesus Christ, or Paul, etc. This is all old hat and not worth running through in detail.)

        MacIntyre’s claim is *not* that you need belief in God to state that rape is bad. It’s rather that, without belief in God, you will be willing and think it justifiable to commit rape when to do so looks necessary to avoid some further evil (i.e. the death of many innocents, etc.) Basically, the claim is that belief in God is the only thing that can resist a utilitarian calculus of moral action in extreme circumstances.

      • Thales permalink
        December 15, 2012 11:36 am

        The iniquities and barbarities of religious people prove, if any proof were needed, that belief in God is the greatest possible help to every species of vice and cruelty.

        Hhm, but considering Stalinism, Nazism, etc…. perhaps the iniquities and barbarities of non-religious people prove, if any proof were needed, that non-belief in God is the greatest possible help to every species of vice and cruelty?

        No, I don’t hold this position — I’m just saying it’s overly think that vice and cruelty is caused by belief (or non-belief) in God. Our own sinful natures are the cause of vice and cruelty.

      • Peter Paul Fuchs permalink
        December 15, 2012 5:24 pm


        If history is our guide, then it is just not the case that religion has done no good. In virtually every period is very easy to point out many ways in which religion supported great virtue and great beauty. It is just that it is also possible to easily find the opposite as well. I guess my point to you would be do not forget the see-saw of this issue in human affairs. One thing the twentieth Century proved without a doubt is that if anything, forgetting the good side is potentially more disastrous for the human race than the other way around. There is a kind of crypto-hyper-sanguine view of human nature at work it seems in denigrations of religions entirely. A more sober view tells us that humanity is not up to even the basics without some encouragement from its religious springs. What is helpful and what is not is another question. But that humanity needs it, or mostly does, is not debatable. Thence, the corollary is often ignored. That it is the extremes of religion that do the most damage, and do anything good. The road is simple; discourage extremism.

  11. Mark VA permalink
    December 15, 2012 9:55 am

    Kyle R. Cupp:

    The only thing that comes to my mind regarding your post, is the difference in the exposition of an argument between a master, and an apprentice.

    For example, you wrote that:

    “We make objective moral arguments all the time without ever asking or answering where our morality, so to speak, comes from. We have reasons, and if our reasons refer to principles or to things beyond our likes and dislikes (e.g., human dignity, the value of life, a conception of justice), then we have at hand an objective morality and possibly a sound and persuasive one.”

    True, we also drive cars everyday without ever asking or answering where our automobiles, so to speak, come from. I believe they come from a place called “Dealership”, and they go as along as I make a weekly offering to the Gas Pump Goddess, and an occasional one to the Repair Shop Gremlin.

    These four things objectively exist, function as I described them, thus I’m persuaded by them. You’re right, my car needs no other “ultimate source”. Q.E.D.

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