PZ Myers has a post up about the old “objective morality” gambit popular with Chrislamic apologists these days. It seems a couple of Christian debaters managed to derail the debate by asking “is there an objective morality that determines whether you would torture a toddler?” PZ gives four pretty good criteria by way of answering that question in the affirmative, so I’ll let him cover that aspect of the issue. Meanwhile, I’m going to turn that question around and ask, “Is there an objective morality by which we can judge whether God’s commands are right or wrong?”
Let’s say God wants you to do something that hurts other people. The original question was about torturing kids, so let’s say, for example, someone told you that God wanted you to take an unsterilized knife, and go up to a boy, and cut off bits of his penis. No anesthetic, no warning, just grab some skin in the most sensitive part of his body and slice away. Do we have any standard by which we can judge the rightness or wrongness of such an act?
The secular answer is that we do indeed have such a standard: we judge how right or wrong such an act would be in terms of its material consequences. Thus, even those who defend circumcision do so on the grounds that there is some supposed therapeutic benefit that results when there’s less of your body available for infection. On the other hand, you wouldn’t go around chopping of your children’s hands just to make sure they never suffered from arthritis in their fingers, so that’s an argument of questionable merit. But the point is, whether there is or is not a reduced risk of infection, you’re still appealing to material consequences as the moral justification for genital mutilation.
From a Chrislamic point of view, that’s counterproductive, because we don’t need any gods to make our moral judgments for us. The Chrislamic fundamentalist needs to argue that God Himself is the source of morality. But that means that God’s own actions and commandments can never be judged as either good or bad. God can do whatever He wants, and can order us to do whatever He wants, whether it’s selling our daughters and beating our slaves (like in Exodus 21), or killing men, women and children in a frenzy of genocide (like in 1 Samuel 15), or taking babies and dashing their brains out against the rocks (like in Psalm 137).
This is the “might makes right” school of morality. God’s the biggest bully on the block, so whatever He says, goes. If He wants you mutilating the genitals of babies, then that’s “right,” and if He doesn’t want you to build a fire to cook with on a Saturday, then that’s wrong. We get our morals from God, which means we have no standard by which God’s morals can be judged. And that in turn means that there’s no limit on what He can or cannot ask us to do.
What’s worse, God does not show up in real life, so we can’t even have what little constraint we would get by insisting that our orders come directly from Him. We allow mere men to tell us what God’s will is—and that could be anything, because we’re not allowed to question God’s morals. Lying for Jesus, persecuting minorities, slavery, war, destroying the environment, are all perfectly possible and plausible under the theory that morality is limited only by what God wants to do. Or at least, by what men tell us He wants us to do, in His absence.
I hardly need point out that this isn’t really morality at all. This is tyranny, the strong and unscrupulous doing whatever they can get away with, without fear of moral condemnation. Torturing toddlers is only one of the evils that arise from this sort of superstitious morality. Without the reality-based constraints of secular morality and ethics, the sky is the limit. And even then, with this sort of God, who knows what Heaven would really be like?