Morality or tyranny?

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?


  1. Dave says

    I think the definition of the word “objective” is often not agreed upon by the people using it. I think the common religious meaning would be that “morality must come from an authority, so objective morality must come from an authority outside the natural order (i.e. a supernatural authority.” Whereas the secularist would say “objective morality can’t be the decree of any subjective authority (supernatural or not); it must be an impersonal property of the universe.” The religious definition doesn’t satisfy secularists for the reasons you stated above, and the secular definition doesn’t satisfy the religous because you have to qualify it by saying “This is how you ought to behave *if* we agree on what our goals are (e.g. ‘human flourishing’).” of course, the religious person must also qualify their morality by saying “This is how you ought to behave *if* we agree on what god we’re following” but that doesn’t seem to bother them since clearly their god is the right one and everyone else is just wrong.

  2. aziraphale says

    Those are very good questions, but I think Christians will have an answer – based, of course, on the premise that God exists. It goes something like this:

    Suppose your very young child has a gangrenous leg. You know that the child will die unless you amputate quickly, and you also know that this will cause a great deal of pain. The child is too young to understand the situation. Should the child trust you, and obey you when you tell it not to struggle, or should it struggle to escape?

    I think it should trust you, because (I assume) everything you have done for it up to now has been for its own good, even if it didn’t think so at the time.

    The Christian would say that we are in the same relation to God as the child is to you. God knows better than we do what is best for us.

    This is based on dim memories of reading C S Lewis when young.

    • smrnda says

      I’d say the example is pretty weak, though I’m sure that it would be made by someone. Having worked with kids for years, most kids over 2 understand that medically necessary treatments can hurt, and I’m kind of at a loss to think of anything that I might need to impose on a 5 year old that the 5 year old cannot understand at least a little bit. Kids aren’t that dumb.

      The chummy, patronizing pat on the head CS Lewis style argument only works for people who probably live in a fantasy world where they think kids will believe anything adults tell them and that kids just don’t grasp reality. Given the books CS Lewis wrote, he clearly believed that kids were more naive and stupid than they actually were.

  3. Leo says

    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.

    Eh…so many believers will say, though, that their god would never want that, because their god is good, as you noted (in similar terms). And they’ll go about making weird excuses for those things in the Bible that you mention. Some of the tougher one’s to argue (because you can tell the believer has their mind made up) are when they say “that’s meant as a metaphor; it didn’t actually happen.” (To which I think to myself, “No s&!$ it didn’t happen! But on what basis are you claiming this is a metaphor?”) Others that are somewhat easier are the ones who say that God needed to slowly bring primitive man into morality. Then maybe some of the things they think are “moral” actually aren’t and God’s still trying to make us moral. Considering that slavery is still condoned in the NT, that might be an argument that can get them to think at least a little. Maybe.

    Chrislamics (or is it just “Chrislams”?) can be a slippery bunch when it comes to moral arguments.

    • kagekiri says

      Ugh, I hate the “God compromised because we were weak” defense, which is courtesy of Jesus saying God “allowed” the Israelites divorce because they were weak, and that “real” believers shouldn’t ever divorce or even lust after someone other than their spouse.

      The Biblical God character indiscriminately struck down thousands of Israelites with death whenever he felt that a few were disobeying, and constantly punished later generations for the sins of their forefathers regardless of whether the descendants were actually making the same mistakes. That’s not “going easy” on them. He supposedly enforced his will with an iron fist.

      If he really thought slavery and genocide were bad, he’d have done something about it instead of commanding them as actions for his people to take. He’s “unchanging” and “sovereign”, so saying he changed his mind or standards for us is just stupid and definitively incorrect (which makes all the many Bible stories where God changes his mind pretty stupid and contradictory to his claimed nature too).

      It also pretty much destroys the idea of Christians having objective moral standards, if God can magically make them stricter now with Jesus adding in thought and speech crimes as damnable offenses, or suddenly decide that animal sacrifices won’t cut it and Jesus’ supposed human sacrifice is the only one that counts now.

  4. Charles says

    Surely there is a morality which allows for the killing of toddlers, you find it in the Bible. Hosea begs God to cause abortions in women. The book of Samuel sees men, women, babes and children slaughtered by the moral followers of God. Then there is the infamous passage in Psalms “Happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us. He who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks,”

    Also let us not forget all of the toddlers who would have died in the Flood, and the babes in arms burnt in the Sodom and Gomorrah

    Personally I think it is wrong to kill the innocent but God seems quite happy with the idea.

  5. Tony Hoffman says

    I love Christoper Hitchens’ defiance to this God who would command us to do that which opposes our own moral sense and reason; you are a filthy autocrat, and I will oppose you with ever fiber of strength I possess. To do otherwise would be to cower against a tyrant.

    Or something like that. Said with much more casual eloquence.

  6. Roger says

    From a christian viewpoint, surely killing (baptised) children or carrying out abortions is objectively good: it means they will get to heaven, whereas if they live, most of them will sin and go to hell. So, from an objective chrisian moral standpoint, someone who is willing to go to hell for killing children to send them to heaven is objectively good and shouldn’t go to hell.
    Even if god says something is good, that is not ‘objective morality’. It is just god’s opinion and if it is good, it is good regardless of whether god says it is good anyway. If god can provide reasons why something is good, we can examine those reasons and see if they are valid, but their validity does not depend on whose opinions they are.

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