There is a common line of attack Christians use in debates with atheists, and I genuinely detest it. It’s to ask the question, “where do your morals come from?” I detest it because it is not a sincere question at all — they don’t care about your answer, they’re just trying to get you to say that you do not accept the authority of a deity, so that they can then declare that you are an evil person because you do not derive your morals from the same source they do, and therefore you are amoral. It is, of course, false to declare that someone with a different morality than yours is amoral, but that doesn’t stop those sleazebags.
I witnessed an excellent example of this irrational and contemptible behavior at a debate on Friday, in which Christopher DiCarlo and Matt Dillahunty debated a couple of forgettable Christian philosophers on the subject of the existence of gods. At one point, the Christians derailed everything by going after DiCarlo with a ludicrous question: is there an objective morality that determines whether you would torture a toddler? I don’t think DiCarlo addressed it particularly well — he’s got a whole book that discusses ethics, and it’s tricky to distill a book down into a few seconds that fit into a debate format — but the upshot was that our dim little Christians openly accused the atheists of being “MORAL NIHILISTS!” because they do not accept the imaginary words of a god that say that killing babies is wrong.
If I were confronted with such a question, I would say that no, I would not torture toddlers because I do live by an objective set of moral principles that allow me to assess whether an action is moral or not. It is not a subjective morality; I do not reject torture of toddlers or anyone else because I think it is icky (although, of course, I do), but because it breaks my moral code.
Here’s my objective, ungodly moral reasoning that I use to assess the rightness of an action. Let’s call this the basics of an objective humanist morality.
Interest. Am I even interested in carrying out a particular action? There’s a wide range of possible actions I can take at all times, and all of them have consequences. In this realm of possibilities, most options never come up: I have never been in situation where I desire or am compelled to torture a toddler, nor can I imagine a likely scenario for such an activity. It is a non-decision; my default choice is to not torture, and the only time the choice comes up is in bizarre abstract questions by not-very-bright philosophers.
Consent. If I’m contemplating an action, I’d next consider whether all participants agree to engage in the action. If it isn’t consensual, it probably isn’t a good idea.
Where does this value come from? Not gods, but self-interest. I do not want things done to me against my will, so I participate in a social contract that requires me to respect others’ autonomy as well. I also find a non-coercive, cooperative culture to better facilitate human flourishing.
Harm. I avoid behaviors that cause harm to others.
Again, this is not done because an authority told me to do no harm, but is derived from self-interest and empathy. I do not want to be harmed, so I should not harm others. And because I, like most human beings, have empathy, seeing harm done to others causes me genuine distress.
Stigma. This should be the least of my four reasons, but face it, sometimes we are constrained by convention. There are activities we all are interested in doing, that do no harm and may be done with consenting partners, but we keep them private or restrain ourselves to some degree because law or fashion demand it.
These are human and social constraints, not at all divine, and are also not universal or absolute — they can and do change over time. And sometimes, when cultural biases cause harm, I think we have a moral obligation to change the culture.
My rules are not perfect, of course. Sometimes they can conflict. Imagine a situation where consent can’t be obtained, but inaction will cause harm; a child getting a vaccination, for instance. Conversely, you can have cases where there is consent to do harm to some degree: a sadomasochistic sexual relationship, or a prophylactic mastectomy for a woman at high risk of breast cancer. But many decisions, especially the simplistic gotcha games of shallow Christian philosophers, are objectively resolved very easily. Torturing toddlers, for instance, violates all four of my principles hard. I have no problem at all in explaining that I have very good, non-subjective reasons for not abusing children, and that Jesus doesn’t come into play in any of them.
The Christians, on the other hand, also have a protocol for deciding the rightness of an action: they consult their bible or their priest. I’d agree that they also have an objective morality — it’s just not a very good one, because I think most Christians also implicitly follow my four rules, and unfortunately, biblical morality often directly contradicts humanist morality. For instance, the bible endorses killing children and raping virgin girls: it literally tells believers that there are situations in which it is permissible to torture toddlers, making the Christian debaters’ question remarkably ironic. Vox Day, for example, has explicitly said that if the voices in his head (which he calls “God”) told him to kill people, he would do so. He apparently lives by a different moral standard than ethically more advanced human beings do.
These Christians, though, are simply taking my fourth point, the very least of the criteria I use to make moral decisions and the one I most feel comfortable about opposing, and making it the whole of their ethics.
In another example of the dishonest Christian gotcha, lately a thick-skulled Christian idiot name Rick Warden has been pestering me with email and comments demanding that I justify support for bestiality. Seriously, dude? What the fuck is wrong with you?
Mr Warden is so obsessed with bestiality that he even claims the Friday Cephalopod is a “weekly animal sex post” in one of his incessant whines about my odious imaginary support for bestiality. He’s a shockingly dishonest asshole; he does fit my expectations of Christian liars for Jesus, though, who think nothing of accusing atheists of being moral nihilists who approve of torturing toddlers, or of being promiscuous goat-rapers.
I do not support bestiality. No one I know does. But we are capable of assessing it objectively, unlike these wretched Christians and their brains full of lies and disgust. Let’s apply my moral tools to the problem.
Sorry, I have no interest at all in having sex with animals. I think sexual behavior is a fascinating subject and enjoy the diversity of sexual patterns I observe in nature, but I have never had the slightest desire to join in. Of course, since there are so many different ways that human beings have sex that I also have no interest in sharing, that I have to say that my disinterest is not an argument against allowing it.
Most animals will not consent to sex with a human (and vice versa), and will respond with violent opposition to any attempt to do so. Consent is much more complicated with animals, though: cows do not consent to be turned into hamburgers, but we do it anyway.
It’s also the case that some domesticated and intelligent animals seem to be willing to participate in sexual activity with humans — dolphins and dogs, for example. It is possible to find animals who demonstrate a willingness to participate in sex play. Within that narrow band of possibilities, I’d have to say that this criterion doesn’t provide an argument against sex with animals in all cases.
I oppose causing harm to animals unless there is an opportunity for significant gain (sorry, while I can be absolute in opposing harm to humans, I do not make the same argument for animals.) Having recreational sex with an animal is not a gain significant enough to justify causing it harm, however. So most instances of bestiality must be opposed for the same reason.
Some forms of animal sex play do not cause harm to either participant, though, so again in that limited domain of behavior, I cannot make an objection.
Zoophilia has strong cultural stigma and is against the law in many (but not all!) states and countries. Given my total lack of interest in sexual activity with animals, this is more than sufficient incentive to avoid such activities. Also, given the absence of any vocal lobby arguing for the their right to participate in bestiality, I’m not feeling any need to change cultural taboos. I do feel that bestiality is adequately addressed by laws against cruelty to animals.
So, to answer clueless thick-skulled Christian idiot’s question, I don’t object to bestiality in a very limited set of specific conditions, but do not support it in any way. My position is rooted in objective moral principles other than the dogma of the bible, and is defensible as a reasonable approach based on improving the welfare of all participants in an activity. I also reject his question as a clear ploy to label critics of his dogma as goat-fuckers — and as such, his whole game is fallacious and deeply dishonest.
So what else is new? He’s a fundamentalist Christian.