Atheist Morality: A House Built on Sand, Part 1

“Without God…everything is permitted.” -Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Philippe de Champaigne, “Vanité”, circa 1671.
Philippe de Champaigne, “Vanité”, circa 1671.

As the name of this blog suggests, there is no such thing as neutrality. To be a Christian is to hold a worldview in which God’s revealed Word is our ultimate authority and the starting point of our reasoning. To be an atheist is to hold a worldview in which human reasoning is this authority. In this way, the Christian and the atheist start all reasoning assuming their ultimate authority is the correct standard. Each also assume that a correct view of reality can only come to those who share the worldview each has assumed (for more on this topic, go here).

How then, can we ever know which view of reality is true? Greg Bahnsen offers a solution: We are simply to ask the question “which worldview makes human experience intelligible?” (1).

This means stepping into the shoes of both parties, assuming for the sake of argument that each worldview is true, and determining which worldview comports with our experience of reality. This is a large task, and I am leaning heavily on the work of many smarter and more eloquent individuals to accomplish it. This post will focus only on one area of human experience: Morality.

Morality is a fairly straightforward concept. At its most basic, it is a standard we use to judge the “right” from the “wrong” when making decisions or assessing our claims against others. (2) Every one of us holds some set of moral beliefs, wether we are conscious of it or not. The belief that we should not scam someone out of her money, that we should assist a drowning child at the pool, or that we should not torture and eat babies, are all moral beliefs. We weigh these moral beliefs as being more than mere opinions or preferences- they are facts of reality.

So which worldview makes sense of this concept? For the Christian, our experience of morality is consistent with our worldview. Moral truth is grounded in the universal, unchanging, and perfect goodness of our creator (Psalm 77:13, Hebrews 13:8, Malachi 3:6). The character of God is the moral standard that all of our actions are measured against. Human life was created in his image (Genesis 1:27) with intrinsic value and dignity (Luke 10:25-37), and acts such as theft, rape, murder, and assault all violate God’s standard. This does not mean that belief in God is required for a person to be moral. It means that moral truth exists, something all of us plainly recognize (Romans 2:15).

Yet for the atheist, moral beliefs present an enormous problem. If we assume that the atheist worldview is true, we must admit that the universe is a cosmic accident. Human life is nothing more than the product of time and chance acting blindly on matter. We are simply complex clumps of stardust. When a murderer runs through a crowd stabbing innocent people, he is ultimately just a clump of stardust bumping into other clumps of stardust. (3) On what basis does the atheist claim that it is morally wrong to attack a crowd of people with a knife? He has none.

Because the atheist lacks an external standard by which human behavior can be judged, he has nothing to offer but his personal preference. Much like the young wolf in Jack London’s White Fang, his worldview leads to a reality in which morality is a meaningless concept- he simply does what his instincts and preferences drive him to do.

To our knife-wielding murderer, the only objective fact the atheist can offer is his mental state: “I do not like that you are stabbing people.” This is a far cry from the claim “You should not stab people,” but the atheist worldview cannot supply the preconditions necessary to make the latter claim intelligible. He has no authority to appeal to but the biochemical state of his own stardust brain. He has only personal preference.

The only way the atheist can be consistent with his own worldview is to consider moral belief a socio-biological illusion.(4,5,6) Yet the flagrant inconsistency of even the most popular atheist writers betrays their knowledge of God’s moral standards. In his book River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, Richard Dawkins writes:

“The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” (7) (emphasis added)

Here it appears that Dawkins has accepted the logical conclusions of his own worldview, and yet a year later, in a speech delivered to the American Humanist Association, Dawkins makes a profound moral judgement. He claims that  “faith is one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate.” (8) (emphasis added)

This hero of modern atheism cannot maintain consistency with his own worldview. He is reduced to absurdity by claiming that belief in God is irrational while simultaneously borrowing from the Christian worldview to make a moral judgement against faith itself. Why is this? Because as an image bearer of God, he recognizes the existence of moral truth, yet suppresses that truth in unrighteousness. As the Psalmist observes of the wicked man “He makes a pit, digging it out,
    and falls into the hole that he has made.” (Psalm 7:15)

 

  1. Greg Bahnsen, The Myth of Neutrality.
  2. T.M. Scanlon, “What is Morality?, in The Harvard Sampler: Liberal Education for the Twenty-First Century.
  3. Jeff Durbin, “The Irrefutable Proof of God,” Scottsdale Community College.
  4. Michael Ruse, “Darwinism and the Moral Argument for God“, Huffington Post.
  5. Edward O. Wilson, “The Biological Basis of Morality,” The Atlantic.
  6. Provine, William B.; Johnson, Phillip E., “Darwinism: Science or Naturalistic Philosophy?, A Debate Between William B. Provine and Phillip E. Johnson at Stanford University, April 30, 1994,” Origins Research (Access Research Network) 16 (1).
  7. Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life.
  8. Alex Berezow, “Richard Dawkins is Wrong About Religion,” Forbes.
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79 thoughts on “Atheist Morality: A House Built on Sand, Part 1

  1. I love what you are doing here. Who said you had to leave your brain at the door to be a Christian. I have been listening to C.S. Lewis books on CD the last couple weeks and he also hits on this topic. Great work. Keep it up.

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  2. Alright, I’ll play the “Devil’s Advocate” simply because I don’t think it’s been very much justice by most of its adherents. I’ll give it a go.
    Can we assume the atheist’s worldview and still have “shoulds?” i.e. It seems your contention is that we cannot. Suppose, however, one believes, as you note of Dawkins, the utter indifference of the universe: Can we still not choose (wish I could italicize that) to have morals, right and wrong, consistent with a society that we choose to have? Let’s set aside universals (for all societies) for a moment. Could we not decide, as beings on this Earth, endowed (with tongue in cheek) with reason, to construct, much like Euclidean or Riemann geometry, a system of right and wrong upon which a society and culture may be built?

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    1. Thanks for the comment Dale.

      What you point out is a type of pragmatism argued for by many atheists I have dialogued with. They will say that we can use our powers of reason to construct moral codes to the benefit of our societies and no external moral arbiter is necessary for this to happen. By beginning with the view that societies should flourish, the atheist argues that we can sort out all moral principals as either helping or harming this flourishing. The failure of this view is that it blindly assumes human society should flourish. Says who? From the perspective of the atheist worldview, there are no moral truths, and belief that human society should flourish is just another preference.

      Consider this: On what grounds would we tell someone fond of eating children than he should stop this practice? We have our preference that human life should flourish, and he has his preference that only his life should flourish and other human life should be eaten. By definition, preferences are neither right nor wrong, they just are. Thus, from the atheist worldview, moral judgment makes no sense. Telling a cannibal that his actions are wrong is the logical equivalent to telling him his eye color is wrong.

      Does this sound like the world we experience? Hardly. We know that eating children is wrong, and we know that human life has value. These aren’t preferences, they are moral facts. The atheist himself will cling to the fact-like nature of his moral beliefs even while arguing they are illusions, reducing him to self-contradiction and absurdity. As image-bearers of God, we have knowledge of his moral character and nature. The atheist (myself included before Christ) continually suppresses this knowledge in rebellion against God, but if you look carefully you will see the symptoms of this condition as a contradiction between his worldview and how he actually lives.

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      1. By beginning with the view that societies should flourish”
        There is zero reason to say that human society “should” flourish or that this is in any way the beginning of a moral code for the atheist. There is reason to believe that this is the beginning of a moral code for “capitalism,” the culture we live in. We want it to flourish and are capable of making it so. It is a preference. As a matter of fact, we killed raped and pillaged native americans who did share our moral code. They valued life and living in harmony with the earth. We have only adjusted our moral code in relation to the Earth since discovering we are affecting it.

        On what grounds would we tell someone fond of eating children than he should stop this practice?
        Simple: If you eat my baby, or my friend’s baby… I will kill you. And I would expect the mother or father of any other baby you ate to do the same. If you do not value your life, go for it. If you do value your life, then I suggest you don’t. With a prevalent attitude like this throughout an entire group of humans, they collectively decide to codify that someone eating babies is against the laws of that culture. Hence, they are constructing a moral code based on preference of the many.

        Is there morality around a speed limit? How could you judge a speed limit as right or wrong.
        ————————————————————————————————-
        I once stood in a classroom with a discussion of morality. The instructor asked this question. A teenager steals from a store. You are the cop that catches him. Do you take him to jail or not?

        Everyone but me said yes. And you must say yes as well. Exodus says you must. Thou shalt not steal. It’s part of your moral code. They all said that he had broken the law, and should be brought to jail.

        I propose that Timothy says you should differently. “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives,
        and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”

        You see, the boy had lost a father, and he could not provide for the household, no relatives known. He chose to steal food because his family was hungry. On what basis do you judge his actions? We live in a society that has hailed cops for sending these kids home and instead purchasing things for them in charity.

        I made this argument from my own personal choice and my constructed perspective of the situations possibility, that I would let him go in that circumstance. Because I value what he was doing to feed his family. The bible says thou shall not steal. Yet it also says he who cannot provide is worse than an unbeliever. So now this boy is morally bad and wrong simply by the death of his father and his inability to provide. Is that the same moral code you consider to be truth?

        As a christian society we further contradict the christian moral by letting these kids go home and purchasing things for them in charity. because it was always my understanding that the commandments take precedence. if they do take precedence, then how can we as a society justify applause for the aid by those officers. and if they don’t take precedence, then the moral code contradicts itself and must rely on personal preference to make the final call of value.

        The moral code you consider to be truth is ripe with contradiction and forced personal preference, lending creedance to the view that it is ultimately a collective personal preference that drives the morals of a culture, not the divine.

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      2. Thanks for your comment Aaron,

        For the sake of sticking to the subject of this post, I’m going to ignore your claim that God’s revealed word contradicts itself. I fully disagree, but I don’t want to change the subject yet.

        You concede that moral beliefs are nothing but biologically-driven preferences, not facts. Through the lens of the atheist worldview this is the only intelligible way to view morality. I commend you for realizing that. Here is the problem: You do not actually live or think consistently with this view. Threat of violence towards those who do not share your moral preferences does not make them “wrong.” It does not make your views “right.” Clearly the measure for what is morally “right” is not which party has superior numbers and physical force.

        Consider this example, in some cultures in the Middle-East, it is considered appropriate, good, and just to gang-rape disobedient women and girls. This doesn’t directly effect you or your family in any way. If you are to be consistent as an atheist, you must acknowledge that this is simply their preference. Preference by nature cannot be correct or incorrect, right or wrong. To suggest that it is would be to confuse it with an issue of fact, and would be irrational of you.

        Now the answer to this problem is simple. You’ve probably seen me write this already. You know it is a fact that punishment by rape is wrong because you are an image-bearer of the holy God that created you. Scripture explains that we suppress the truth about God and it leads to a darkening of your thinking. I was the same way before Christ. The contradictions between your actions and beliefs and the atheist worldview are the telling symptoms of this suppression of truth.

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  3. In response to this:
    “Do you believe that in order to judge something as good or bad one must first have values with wich to make those judgments against? Simple question, yes or no.”

    You said this:
    “No. You can call something good or bad for whatever reason you want.”

    My follow up is this:
    Can you provide one example of calling something good or bad for a reason OTHER THAN because that something was consistent with or violated some value?

    Also you said this:
    “You’ve said many things, but one thing you’ve never explained is how it is rational to consider the preference of another “wrong” as if preferences are issues of fact.”

    I’ve gone over how preference itself is an integral part of morality. I’ve pointed out that even when you defer to God’s judgment you are still dealing with preference: God’s preference. Your religious brand of morality does not escape this perceived problem. I think to understand this concept one must first except that value is the basis of judging good or bad, I think one must come to realize that it can be no other way. That is why I challenge you provide me with one of the “many” reasons you say there are to pass judgment with respect to goodness or badness without deterrence to value. Here’s the question again:
    Can you provide one example of calling something good or bad for a reason OTHER THAN because that something was consistent with or violated some value?

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    1. Hi Trevor,

      Christian theology would disagree with you on “goodness” being nothing but a preference of God’s. Ultimate goodness is grounded in the nature and character of God. It is not something he chooses arbitrarily. When a person rapes and murders a child, we can say this action is wrong because as creations of God, there is a universal and unchanging moral law that we are obligated to follow. That law is based on God’s holy character. It is not merely a preference that children should not be treated this way, and it is not merely a preference that we should do what God wants. It is a command that carries the authority of the one who made all life and all moral choices possible to being with. Thus, when we say “you should not murder that child” that “should” is spoken with real authority.

      As for your question about providing an example of “calling something good or bad for a reason OTHER THAN because that something was consistent with or violated some value?” I don’t understand what you mean by this, perhaps you can help me understand it.

      Finally, you have not answered my question: How is it rational to consider the preference of another “wrong” when by their nature preferences can be neither right or wrong, as they are not issues of fact? You seem to be attempting to answer this when you write “I think to understand this concept one must first accept[sic] that value is the basis of judging good or bad, I think one must come to realize that it can be no other way.” I agree with this, but on what basis do you consider your values to be correct and those of the child rapist to be incorrect? This draws us right back to the problem of treating preferences as facts.

      Ultimately I do not think you will find a satisfactory answer because moral facts are unintelligible on the atheist worldview. But you know better than to believe that our recognition of moral fact is just an illusion, and you know this because you are an image bearer of God. I was stuck in this contradiction as an atheist too, and scripture perfectly describes the way in which the active suppression of the truth by the unbeliever leads to futile and foolish thinking. It is evidence of your need for Christ, and I encourage you to recognize you rebellion against God, repent, and believe.

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      1. I am a little confused by your response. When I asked you:
        “Do you believe that in order to judge something as good or bad one must first have values with which to make those judgments against? Simple question, yes or no.”

        You replied with:
        “No. You can call something good or bad for whatever reason you want.”

        I then asked you to provide an example of calling something good or bad without some value to make that judgment against. You have yet to do that, the last time I asked that you said you didn’t understand what I meant by the question and that perhaps I could help you understand. Well, I mean I would like you to give me an example of “call(ing) something good or bad for whatever reason you want” which is not a reason that implies some value that is being judged against.

        However, it seems that you are now agreeing with me. I wrote: “value is the basis of judging good or bad, I think one must come to realize that it can be no other way”

        To which you responded that you agree, we just can’t assume that one’s values are correct over another (a claim I did not make). So just to be clear, do you agree with me that value is the basis of judging good and bad?

        As for the preferences of God, to be honest I found you response vacuous.

        “Ultimate goodness is grounded in the nature and character of God. It is not something he chooses arbitrarily.”

        I think it’s safe to assume that God prefers his unique character and nature over other possible variation of character and nature, yes? I’m sure his choices are not arbitrary, Indeed I would suggest that he makes choices in line with his preferences, yes? I don’t see how your escaping the perceived problem of preference, you just prefer God’s preferences.

        “When a person rapes and murders a child, we can say this action is wrong because as creations of God, there is a universal and unchanging moral law that we are obligated to follow. That law is based on God’s holy character. It is not merely a preference that children should not be treated this way, and it is not merely a preference that we should do what God wants. It is a command that carries the authority of the one who made all life and all moral choices possible to being with. Thus, when we say “you should not murder that child” that “should” is spoken with real authority.”

        Again, God’s holy character which is the basis for moral law is surely a character that he prefers. God gets to decide what his character is so it must surely be his preference. The fact that he would be an authority figure on the subject of moral commandments does not take away the fact the moral laws he decreases are a reflection of his preferences. You have said nothing that takes preference away from God’s decision making process with regards to what is and is not moral.

        “How is it rational to consider the preference of another “wrong” when by their nature preferences can be neither right or wrong, as they are not issues of fact? ”

        The actions of another can only be deemed wrong because they violate some value. Since value is a subjective concept, morality itself can only be subjective. Thus, ones actions can only be deemed wrong relative to someone’s values. This is why I keep asking you to provide an example of making a judgment of goodness or badness without the assistance of some value to judge against. I posit that this is not possible and as far as I can tell you have agreed with that much. If it’s true that no moral judgment is possible without first possessing values, (which I think we both agree on now but I’m not sure), than any moral judgment must necessarily be subjective. However if one chooses life over death as the ultimate value then one can objectively determine the most proper ethical code consistent with that value. So I must ask you again:

        Are we in agreement that value is a prerequisite for judging goodness and badness? If not then can you please provide an example of a moral judgment that can be made without the assistance of some value to judge against?

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      2. Let’s just assume for the sake of argument that a person’s values are the source of all his moral judgments. I don’t feel comfortable agreeing that this is universally true, as some moral judgments may be based on a whim or are deceitful, but let’s just go with it so we can move forward.

        As to wether or not God prefers that we follow his commands, yes, that is clearly the case. I have never been attempting to argue that God does not prefer one type of human action above another. He clearly does. My point is that this preference is grounded in his nature, which is the ultimate standard of everything you and I know to be “good.” This means (as you seem to acknowledge) that God’s preference are not arbitrary. This means they are not subject to change or negotiable. Yet you simultaneously claim that God simply gets to “decide” what is good and what is evil. This is exactly what I have argued against. If God’s character and nature are the origin of moral goodness, there is no other way he could act.

        Now, I asked you an important question in my previous comment: “How is it rational to consider the preference of another “wrong” when by their nature preferences can be neither right or wrong, as they are not issues of fact?”

        I think I now understand what you mean by value being the basis of one’s judgments. I prefer the term “preferences”, lets we think that the atheist worldview can account for intrinsic value of any sort (it cannot). If atheism is true, then these values are just preferences that we all assume. I think you agree with me here. You go on to say that if we choose to value life, we can objectively determine the method that leads to flourishing of life. This is essentially the argument that Sam Harris makes regarding moral facts, and I agree that this makes sense.

        Here is the problem- the initial assumption, that human life should be valued and allowed to flourish, is just another preference. You do not live or act consistently with this however. Do you think the terrorists who murdered innocent civilians in California were morally wrong? Do you think raping children is wrong? To do so would be to claim that another’s preference to value only some human lives is “wrong” or “incorrect” which is unintelligible. Preferences by definition have no truth value, they just are.

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      3. I see we’ve reached some common ground.

        I would agree that intrinsic value cannot be accounted for. As value is a subjective concept anything can only be of value to some conscious being that has assigned value to it. That morality is necessarily subjective due to it’s reliance on value has also been my point. However, this subjectivity only exist between two points: those who value their lives and those who do not. Therefore a rational value based ethics applies to literally everyone who wants to live. Those that do not value their lives can simply kill themselves, the rest of us who prefer to live can objectively make moral decisions and pass moral judgment upon the rest of the living based on the value of our own individual lives that nearly all of us share.

        “Do you think the terrorists who murdered innocent civilians in California were morally wrong?”

        Yes, even to the terrorist. They just don’t realize it. A terrorist who suspects to live with 72 virgins upon death on earth clearly has some value for their own life. They just don’t realize that the life they seek is imaginary and what they are doing is actually bad for their life: it ends completely. Objectively they are acting against even their own value, they just don’t realize it.

        The child molester is as well acting against the rational self interest of a self life valuing individual. At it’s most basic and easy to understand level the golden rule is the most useful explanatory tool of this ethical code which the child molester has clearly violated. I could go into more detail about how the child molester is wrong but I’m going to pause with hopes that you see the point and delving further is unnecessary.

        Again, rational-self-life-value ethics applies to all that wish to live. While the decision to value one’s life is subjective, objectively this moral code applies to all who are living.

        Now for God if you don’t mind.

        You admit that his moral laws are inline with his preferences. You admit at least for the sake of argument that judgment of good and bad requires value to judge against. Given the value constraint of judgment and the admission that God’s preferences determine his moral code you still do not escape the perceived problem of preference. To say “this preference is grounded in his nature, which is the ultimate standard of everything you and I know to be ‘good.'” is in conflict with those two premises we now agree on (at least for the sake of argument). Everything you and I know to be good are to some degree subjective due to our reliance on value. Even God relies on value and since value can only belong to an individual then his values may not align with mine. By deferring moral judgment to God you are essential just relying on the preferences of someone who would admittedly be super smart; the perceived problem of preference which (according to you) cannot be fact remains.

        I posit that Christianity has an much bigger problem than the preference dilemma you keep bringing up. I would suggest that sin cannot exist, only God’s will, and to call some action sin is a contradiction to God’s nature. This may be for another time so I’ll spare you the details. Unless of course you wish to hash this out as well, I’m game. Either way, thanks for being a mindful, respectful and rational Christian. You are a rare breed Russell and you serve your cause well. Although I of course still disagree, you’re obviously a good, kind and respectful person; traits even an atheist like myself can admire 😉

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      4. I’m going to side-step your thoughts about the nature of God and moral ontology for a second, because I don’t believe you have answered my objection and that was the entire point of this post.

        You claim that “rational value based ethics applies to literally everyone who wants to live.” This is clearly not the case. Murderers want to live, they just don’t care if you and your family do. Cannibals want to live, they just don’t care if their next meal does. Child rapists want to live, they just don’t care about making others suffer. If atheism is true, your preference for following “rational value based ethics” is just another preference. In dealing with the child molester, you invoke the golden rule. If atheism is true, this is also just something you prefer to live by. The child-molester may not.

        The problem remains: The atheist worldview cannot account for moral beliefs being anything but personal preference. To judge another preference as “wrong” is irrational, as preferences cannot be “right” or “wrong” in the way facts are.

        God, our external moral arbiter (who very much prefers us to act in accordance with our purpose and design as his creation) is the only one who can provide the necessary preconditions for the intelligibility of moral truths.

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      5. Maybe writing this as a syllogism will help:

        If atheism is true,

        1. All moral values are preferences.
        2. Preferences, by definition, cannot be right or wrong.
        Therefore,
        3. It is not right or wrong to value raping and murdering children

        This is the logical result of the atheist worldview. It does not comport with what we both know to be true. Rapping and murdering children is wrong.

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      6. Also, it just dawned on me that there is some confusion around the problem of “preference.” From the atheist’s worldview, all moral beliefs are preferences, and all have the same truth value- that is to say, none.

        The Christian worldview allows for moral law. God’s preference is for us to act in ways that reflect his holy nature. Yes, that is a preference, but that’s not a problem in the same way as it is for the atheist worldview. On atheism, there is no law, there is no moral truth, and moral claims and judgments are meaningless outside of your own head. Because God exist, to say “killing children is wrong” is not just to say “God’s preference is that it’s not nice to kill children.” It is a fact that killing children is wrong in the same way that it is a fact that gravity pulls us back to earth when we jump, because both are laws that govern our universe created and controlled by God.

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      7. “Murderers want to live, they just don’t care if you and your family do. Cannibals want to live, they just don’t care if their next meal does. Child rapists want to live, they just don’t care about making others suffer.”

        No. You’re conflating the preference to value individual life with any perceivable preference. A murderer may value their own life but they are not acting in accordance with rational self-interest. The golden rule objectively follows from valuing one’s own life. It is in one self-interest (and thus the interest of one’s ultimate value: one’s life), to cooperate with others, treat them with respect and most importantly recognize their right to their own life just as you would want others to recognize yours. To murder may serve to satisfy an impulse or fetish but it does not serve the rational interest of oneself. The same applies to child rapist and cannibals. Just because one preference can be identified (the choice of existence over nonexistence) does not mean that any and all preferences are valid moral conduct. If one values one’s life (a preference) then it is objectively foolish do act against it by harming others in a society which will inevitably retaliate against you.

        “If atheism is true, your preference for following “rational value based ethics” is just another preference.”

        Yes, it would be a preference to act morally. One could have a preference to act immorally. One may have preferences that act against their ultimate preference to exist, and those would be immoral preferences. It seems as if you think that if one allows any vestige of preference to be a part of moral philosophy then inevitably any perceivable preference must be considered moral by that philosophy. I think for you to continue to believe you have to: 1) intentionally ignore the groundwork I’ve laid for you concerning value, the fundamental value of life and how all objective moral judgments stem from that initial choice and 2) ignore a conflict that exist with Christian morality, which stems from God’s preferences. If no vestige of preference or choice can be allowed in a moral philosophy in order to be valid then your Christian morality is no more valid than the ethics I’ve been laying out for you.

        “God, our external moral arbiter (who very much prefers us to act in accordance with our purpose and design as his creation) is the only one who can provide the necessary preconditions for the intelligibility of moral truths.”

        I disagree. With the Christian God there can be no right or wrong. There can only be God’s will. But I know you don’t want to talk about that so I’ll leave it there.

        “If atheism is true,
        1. All moral values are preferences.
        2. Preferences, by definition, cannot be right or wrong.
        Therefore,
        3. It is not right or wrong to value raping and murdering children”

        1. No. Existence over nonexistence is a preferences. All moral values follow from that preference.
        2. Sure they can. If one’s preference is in conflict with their desire to exist (their value of their own life), then it is wrong. People are capable of acting against their own self-interest, they are capable of having immoral preferences. Again, you’re just conflating one preference with any and all preferences. You’re false dilemma of preference applies equally to Christian morality since God has preferences and according to you the presence of any vestige of preference renders any and all preferences either morally acceptable or morally unjudgeable.
        3. It’s wrong. It is in conflict with rational self-interest and thus wrong.

        “Also, it just dawned on me that there is some confusion around the problem of “preference.” From the atheist’s worldview, all moral beliefs are preferences, and all have the same truth value- that is to say, none.”

        Are you intentional ignoring what I’ve said? Because I’ve gone over this several times now and you argue as if you’re just completely overlooking my frequent responses to this repetitious argument. Maybe you think that if you say it enough times it will somehow become true, simply because you keep repeating it; is that it? I’m going to address this one last time:

        There is one, let me repeat that: there is ONE, let me repeat that again: THERE IS ONE MORAL BELIFE THAT IS PREFERENCE: the value of existence (life) over nonexistence. All other moral values logically follow from that choice. They are not preferences, they are necessary logical truths that you may prefer to live by or not. You may prefer to live morally or immorally. Simply because one preference exist in a moral code does not mean that any and all preferences are moral. Otherwise Christian morality faces the same false dilemma you keep bringing up.

        “The Christian worldview allows for moral law. God’s preference is for us to act in ways that reflect his holy nature.”

        WAIT A MINUTE! God has a preference for how we behave?? The word “preference” exist within your explanation of Christin morality?!?! Well then, I think I’ll just ignore anything else you have to say on the matter and blithely declare that Christian morality is nothing but preferences.

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      8. Trevor,

        You’re writing essays and failing to answer my most fundamental point, so I’m going to be surgical in this response.

        Recall that the entire point of this discussion is wether atheism can make sense of the reality we experience. You believe it is a fact that raping and murdering children is wrong. So do I.

        You admit that to value human life, or not, is just a preference. When someone values killing human life, and you judge them as “wrong,” you are judging their preference as “wrong” which is irrational. Preferences cannot be right or wrong, they are not facts.

        You have argued that everyone value’s his own life and it rationally follows that they should follow the golden rule. But it is just your preference that anyone should care what is rational. I repeat: When someone values irrationally killing human life, and you judge them as “wrong,” you are judging their preference as “wrong” which is itself irrational. Preferences cannot be right or wrong, they are not facts.

        Your moral beliefs directly contradict your atheist worldview.

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  4. “You admit that to value human life, or not, is just a preference. When someone values killing human life, and you judge them as “wrong,” you are judging their preference as “wrong” which is irrational. Preferences cannot be right or wrong, they are not facts.”

    I honestly don’t know what you mean by stating that a preference is not a fact. If Chester prefers to molest children then is it not a fact that Chester prefers to molest children?

    “You have argued that everyone value’s his own life and it rationally follows that they should follow the golden rule. But it is just your preference that anyone should care what is rational.”

    It’s not just a preference, rational behavior is a requisite for moral behavior for anyone that values their own existence.

    “I repeat: When someone values irrationally killing human life, and you judge them as “wrong,” you are judging their preference as “wrong” which is itself irrational.”

    All you do is repeat yourself as if by repetition alone what you are saying will somehow become true. I’ve addressed that claim several times now and instead of addressing my response you’re just repeating the claim again, and again and again. Anytime you want to address the points I’ve made against that claim, that would be cool.

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    1. Haha, “Chester” seems like an appropriate name for this scenario. Here is the problem with treating preferences as fact. You asked “If Chester prefers to molest children then is it not a fact that Chester prefers to molest children?” Yes, this is a fact. The problem is that if atheism is true your preference “Children should not be molested” is not a fact. It is only a fact that “Trevor prefers that child molesters should not molest children.” We can discuss facts about your phsychologicl state, but those cannot be confused with facts about how reality “should be.” That’s only intelligible if there is an external moral law that is being broken.

      You have also written “rational behavior is a requisite for moral behavior for anyone that values their own existence.” Let’s assume this is true. If Chester wants to do what you consider “moral” he needs to be rational. His preference is to act “irrationally.” You preference to act rationally is just that, a preference. It cannot be right or wrong, and you have again lost any grounds for rational moral judgement.

      I’m not continuing to repeat myself for fun, I’m continuing to repeat myself because my argument has exposed a fundamental contradiction in your worldview. You have “addressed it” in that you have acknowledged the problem, but you have not resolved it, and I’m not going to allow you to change the subject. My goal is to show you your need for Christ, who can redeem not only your soul but your thinking. That won’t happen if we avoid this glaring problem.

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  5. “The problem is that if atheism is true your preference “Children should not be molested” is not a fact”

    Sure it is, and I’ve laid out how that’s a fact several times now. Anytime you want to address my responses to that claim you keep bringing up, that would be cool.

    “‘rational behavior is a requisite for moral behavior for anyone that values their own existence.’ Let’s assume this is true. If Chester wants to do what you consider “moral” he needs to be rational. His preference is to act “irrationally.” You preference to act rationally is just that, a preference. It cannot be right or wrong, and you have again lost any grounds for rational moral judgement. ”

    If we assume truth to my claim about the requirement of rationality then a preference to act irrationally is in immoral preference. This is just basic logic your ignoring now, specifically if-then logic:

    IF it is a requirement to act rationally in order to behave morally
    THEN it is immoral to behave irrationally.
    So, if one has irrational preferences then if logically follows that their preferences or immoral.

    I know your capable of comprehending basic logic. One’s preferences can be judged by an atheist. I’ve laid out how one can do this several times now, including above with a basic logical exercise.

    “I’m not continuing to repeat myself for fun, I’m continuing to repeat myself because my argument has exposed a fundamental contradiction in your worldview. You have “addressed it” in that you have acknowledged the problem, but you have not resolved it, and I’m not going to allow you to change the subject.”

    I’m not trying to change the subject, I’d be thoroughly pleased if you responded to what I’ve actually said rather than just continually repeating yourself. All you’ve been doing is making a claim: Atheism cant judge morality because of preferences. Then I respond to whatever variant of that claim you make and instead of addressing my response you just make the claim again. Now you finally did address one small part of one of my responses above when you assumed truth to a claim I made, but then you contradicted your assumption of what’s true. I laid out that contradiction with some basic logic, maybe if I’m lucky you’ll address it rather than just repeating yourself again.

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    1. Sorry Trevor, I missed this reply from you a while ago and I’m just now reading it. It seems you’ve regressed to insult here, so I’m not sure how much value there is in continuing our discussion. One question does come to mind though, why exactly should we assume that humans are “required” to act rationally? Who or what puts that requirement on us?

      Also, I see you summarized my claim as “Atheism cant judge morality because of preferences.” This is not something I’ve ever said, so I guess we are having a communication issue.

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  6. Russell,

    You write:

    “If atheism is true,

    1. All moral values are preferences.
    2. Preferences, by definition, cannot be right or wrong.
    Therefore,
    3. It is not right or wrong to value raping and murdering children

    This is the logical result of the atheist worldview. It does not comport with what we both know to be true. Rapping and murdering children is wrong.”

    It seems like you are trying to give a proof-by-contradiction of God’s existence.

    Your argument, phrased slightly differently, seems to be;

    “Assume, for a contradiction, that God doesn’t exist (i.e. that atheism is true). From this assumption we can deduce 3. that it is neither right nor wrong (in some kind of absolute sense) to rape or murder children. On the other hand, we know that raping and murdering children *is* wrong. We’ve thus arrived at a contradiction, meaning that our original assumption—that God doesn’t exist—is incorrect. QED.”

    Am I right that this is your logic? If so, I guess my question is how do we know that raping and murdering children *is* wrong in some presumably absolute sense? I think you’d have a hard time arguing that it *is* wrong in that sense without appealing to the existence of God. But in that case, your proof by contradiction is circular as you assumed, as part of your proof, what you were in fact trying to prove.

    Russell, I’ll also say as someone who’s thought a lot about these issues that your arguments are on the whole rather naive, and reveal a general ignorance of much of the philosophy surrounding morality and ethics that’s been produced over the last few hundred years. I don’t say this to be mean, but I would encourage you to try and argue the atheist side to yourself a little bit more faithfully. I suspect that you’re basing the atheist’s argument largely/entirely on your own experience as an atheist (I could, of course, be completely wrong about that). If so, you’re right that your arguments for atheism weren’t great.

    Best,
    John

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    1. John,

      I think proof-by-contradiction probably does apply here, but I’m not sure. To answer your question, yes, a foundational premise of my argument is that it is a fact of reality that raping and murdering children is wrong. It is also true that the Christian worldview can explain this experience of reality, and the atheist worldview cannot. You are absolutely right that I assume that God exists. You are also right that his existence is why human lives have intrinsic value and dignity, and why raping and murdering others is wrong.

      Does that make my argument narrowly circular? I don’t see how. “God exists” is not a premise in my argument. His existence is the only palatable explanation for a fact we agree upon.

      As to your request for me to “try and argue the atheist side to yourself a little bit more faithfully,” I’ve researched these topics for years, and specifically quoted the best and brightest atheists in these posts. If you find that I’ve made a straw-man of their positions, please demonstrate how. My guess is you are assuming I must have because I’ve portrayed these very bright men as self-contradicting and foolish. Sadly, I think that’s because they are.

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  7. Hmm…let me try again to explain. I think your argument can be distilled into:

    “Let’s suppose God doesn’t exist (i.e. let’s suppose “atheism” is true). Then it follows that raping and murdering children is not right or wrong in any absolute sense. But it *is* an absolute moral truth that raping and murdering children is wrong. The last two statements contradict one another. Therefore, our initial assumption—that God doesn’t exist—must be false (an initial assumption that’s true wouldn’t lead to a logical contradiction or, if it did, then one could prove anything, including that 0=1, and logic wouldn’t be a very persuasive tool).”

    Would you agree that this represents your argument? If so, then I’m curious about the last claim in the argument—the claim that it is an absolute moral truth that raping and murdering children is wrong. Or, more generally, that absolute moral truths exist. I mean, for your argument to be a “logical argument” that convinces anybody who does not already agree with you, this claim—call it CLAIM AMT—has to be justified too, no? And I thought, from reading your blog posts and the comments, that your view is that God is needed for any philosophy which claims the existence of absolute moral truths. This seems to be one the foci of your discussions on this site, and is what the well-known Dostoevsky quote at the beginning of your post is pointing to. Am I wrong that this is your view? If I am right, then your justification for CLAIM AMT relies on God’s existence. But then the whole argument is indeed circular: You are trying to show that atheism doesn’t make sense. You suppose, for a contradiction, that atheism is true. You arrive at a contradiction, but the claim that supplies the contradiction is essentially an assertion that there exist absolute moral truths. But this assertion relies on the existence of God (again, you don’t think philosophical frameworks can coherently lay claim to existence of absolute moral truth without God).

    Personally, I’m not bothered by claims of God’s existence, and I wouldn’t call myself an atheist. But I do think that it’s extremely hard (if not impossible) to make a logical argument which refutes atheism.

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  8. More concisely: “God exists” *is* a premise of your argument because without it you can’t assert that it is an absolute moral truth that raping and murdering children is wrong (I mean, you yourself wrote “It is also true that the Christian worldview can explain this experience of reality, and the atheist worldview cannot”), and this last assertion is the linchpin of your argument.

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    1. John, I believe you are making a mistake in your reasoning here: “God exists” *is* a premise of your argument because without it you can’t assert that it is an absolute moral truth that raping and murdering children is wrong.”

      This is not correct. Human experience of reality leads to the conclusion that raping and murdering children is wrong. This is my premise, and my argument seeks to determine which view of reality (atheism or Christianity) comports with this fact. As it turns out, only the Christian view does, providing an explanation for this observed fact that atheism cannot.

      Now, if you want to challenge the truth of the premise that raping and murdering children is wrong, I would need a different argument from the one outlined here.

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      1. Russell, I think we’re still misunderstanding one another somehow. You write:

        “Now, if you want to challenge the truth of the premise that raping and murdering children is wrong, I would need a different argument from the one outlined here.”

        Yes, I suppose I do indeed challenge the idea that it is an absolute moral truth that raping and murdering children is wrong. Not because I’m in favor of raping and murdering children, but because I don’t believe that there is such a thing as moral truth independent of human existence or which doesn’t ultimately amount to an essentially universally agreed upon “preference” (to use your term) of human society. And I think many (probably the majority, though certainly not all) atheists feel the same way.

        So:

        1. If you’re trying to convince an atheist that atheism is wrong, it doesn’t necessarily work to use the existence of absolute moral truths as a premise of your argument (if two parties don’t agree on a basic premise, then there’s no reason to expect that they’ll agree on the rest; the argument, in order to be convincing, has to start with agreed-upon premises or axioms). If they don’t find the argument convincing, it isn’t necessarily because they’re worse than you at logic or because they’re being irrational; it may be because you haven’t justified one of its central premises (the existence of absolute moral truth).

        2. Justifying the premise that there exist absolute moral truths independent of human existence (like that raping and murdering children is wrong) requires God in your view (again, you don’t believe it’s coherent to talk about absolute moral truths without God—that’s a major point of your blog posts). But you shouldn’t expect an atheist to buy that justification, for obvious reasons.

        Do you kind of understand what I’m getting at?

        You’re not starting from premises with which you and the person you’re trying to convince agree.

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      2. John,

        I appreciate your observation, because it’s jumping right into the Part 3 that I’m working on for this series. I actually strongly disagree with you regarding discussing this argument with atheists. The vast majority of so-called atheists do hold that moral facts exist, or at least want to. The problem is really that they haven’t considered how that contradicts their worldview.

        The problem with rejecting the existence of moral facts is that no one, yourself included, actually lives or thinks consistently with this rejection. It’s a simple and consistent way of defending atheism in a dialogue like this, but as soon as you leave your computer and go back to the real world, you treat morality as something very different. I believe this shows that your view of morality as societal preference fails to account for what we experience in reality.

        For example, if the belief that “we should not eat babies” is adopted by the majority of society, this represents a collective preference for not eating babies. Preferences, by definition, are not right or wrong, true or false; they simply are.
        When another society decides that they prefer to eat babies, they are exhibiting a preference to do the opposite. Both of us would immediately recognize this as morally wrong. We would say “they should not be doing this.” But if atheism is true, we are making the error of treating preference as fact. This leaves us acting irrationally, and removes any coherent basis for moral judgement.

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  9. I disagree with you Russell, that you’ve faithfully argued the atheist side to yourself. You’ve contradicted basic logic in your arguments about preference and have so far failed to acknowledge even that much.

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      1. I didn’t say you misrepresented atheist, I said that your arguments contained logical contradictions. Specifically:

        “‘rational behavior is a requisite for moral behavior for anyone that values their own existence.’ Let’s assume this is true. If Chester wants to do what you consider “moral” he needs to be rational. His preference is to act “irrationally.” You preference to act rationally is just that, a preference. It cannot be right or wrong, and you have again lost any grounds for rational moral judgement. ”

        If we assume truth to my claim about the requirement of rationality then a preference to act irrationally is in immoral preference. This is just basic logic, specifically if-then logic:

        IF it is a requirement to act rationally in order to behave morally
        THEN it is immoral to behave irrationally.
        So, if one has irrational preferences then if logically follows that their preferences or immoral.

        If we assume truth to the premise: rational behavior is a requisite for moral behavior, then it logically follows that a preference to behave irrationally is an immoral preference. You contradict yourself when you assume truth to the aforementioned premise and then assert that preferences cannot be right or wrong. Whenever I have brought up this logic the most you have done so far is respond by repeating your claim that preferences can’t be right or wrong, as if somehow by repetition you can overcome logic.

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  10. Yes, we have had a miscommunication. I assumed your position for the sake of argument- that rational behavior is a requisite for moral behavior. I want to make sure I understand you though, you begin by assuming some moral value like the golden rule, and rationally judge behavior against that rule to determine if they are moral or immoral, correct?

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    1. Incorrect. I begin by assuming that there are only two fundamental choices: Life or death; that these are the only two alternatives which are affected by any and all individual action. I.e. all human action either supplements life or damages it. The golden rule follows later.

      Now are we at least in agreement that IF (for the sake of argument) the premise that rational behavior is a requisite for moral behavior is true THEN irrational preferences are immoral? I’m still not clear on where you stand there. If we can agree on the logic which follows from that premise then it can only be the premise with which we are in disagreement.

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      1. I’m not quite done trying to understand your argument, bear with me. So you begin by assuming that all human actions either support life or harm it, understood. So if you assume that supporting life is the “right” thing to do, then it follows that behavior can be rationally understood as “right” or “moral” if it supports life, correct?

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    2. I think I see now where our misunderstanding lies. “Preference” is being conflated with behavior. To be clear it is behavior that is immoral. If someone molests a child it is morally wrong regardless of whether or not they have a preference for molesting children. Say you lost a bet and as a result you had to molest a child, something which you didn’t want to do and therefore did not prefer, this behavior would still be wrong. Conversely let’s assume that Chester has a desire to molest children, (we could call this a “preference”) but he never acted on that desire. Having the desire, or preference, is in and of itself not subject to moral scrutiny; the behavior which may or may not be influenced by preference is judgeable separate from preference. So when I say that someone has a immoral preferences I mean that the behavior associated with that preference is immoral, not the desire itself.

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  11. Hi Russell,

    Sorry for replying out of order. But I think we’ve finally come to see where we disagree. You accept that your argument for God is not persuasive to those who don’t believe in the existence of moral truth independent of human life (what I’ve been calling absolute moral truth for short). (In fact, it’s circular regardless of what one believes, but if you don’t see that by now, I say we just agree to disagree.) But you disagree with my characterization of atheists as mostly not believing an absolute moral truth. That’s fine. And you might be right—the majority of atheists might insist on absolute moral truth without thinking about how this might jive with their world views. I guess I was thinking about (granted, without making this clear) people who *have* spent a lot of time thinking about this, as part of their profession, like professional philosophers, rather than, say, the people who are responding to your blog posts. Metaphysicians and ethicists, for example. My impression of the field comes from a couple of my friends who are professional academic philosophers. Checking in with them again, it seems I may have exaggerated things a bit. Their guess is that about half are moral relativists and half are not. Almost all are atheists. Of course, what all that means depends a lot on the precise definitions of these terms (and I’m not completely clear myself on what those terms mean). In any case, what the majority of atheists in various different subpopulations believe about moral truth is an empirical question that *could* actually be answered in a way that satisfied everyone involved, so it’s probably not worth devoting too much time to that question.

    It’s true that I (and probably most atheists—even the academic philosophers) live *mostly* as though my moral beliefs are absolute. I would guess that I feel as strongly that raping and murdering children is wrong as anyone who believes in God. I just don’t see a contradiction, however, between my belief about the ontology of morality, and what I think is important, the ways in which I live my life, the way in which I experience reality, or my “world view”. I don’t see the contradiction between deciding to live for the most part as if morals are absolute, but not *really* believing in that 100%. Just like it’s irrelevant whether you *actually* exist (maybe you and everyone alse are just figments of my imagination) to the way in which I interact with you. I also don’t see why “preferences” as you call them can’t have meaning. I think that’s in some ways the core of your argument. What endows a belief with meaning? It’s a very hard and complicated question, and turns in large part on what “meaning” means, but suffice it to say that I don’t think God is necessary.

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    1. John,

      To clarify, I don’t believe my argument for God’s existence is persuasive to anyone who has rejected God, without God intervening and opening the unbeliever’s eyes to his or her error. God has explained in scripture that all men actually know God, and in rejecting him we actively suppress the truth. This leads to futility and foolishness in thinking. In short, intellectual objects to God’s existence are just cover for the true basis for rejection, which is a matter of the heart.

      Second, all arguments that deal with issues of ultimate standards of truth are circular. I consider God’s revelation to man to be the ultimate standard of truth. You consider (I’m assuming) your own power of human reasoning to be the ultimate standard of truth. I cannot argue for that starting point without appealing to scripture itself, just as you can’t argue for the validity and trustworthiness of human reason without appealing to human reasoning. This type of broad circularity is inescapable, and doesn’t present a problem unless we pretend it doesn’t exist.

      Next, you state: “I don’t see the contradiction between deciding to live for the most part as if morals are absolute, but not *really* believing in that 100%.”

      This is cognitive dissonance at its best. You recognize moral facts as part of reality, but choose to adopt a worldview that cannot support these facts at all. Rather than throw out a worldview that doesn’t comport with reality, or live consistently with that worldview by abandoning the illusion of moral fact, you choose to treat illusion as fact.

      This becomes a serious problem when moral judgements are concerned, as I’ve already pointed out.

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  12. You write:

    “For example, if the belief that “we should not eat babies” is adopted by the majority of society, this represents a collective preference for not eating babies. Preferences, by definition, are not right or wrong, true or false; they simply are.”

    I would agree that they’re neither right nor wrong in an absolute sense, yes.

    You also write:

    “When another society decides that they prefer to eat babies, they are exhibiting a preference to do the opposite. Both of us would immediately recognize this as morally wrong. We would say “they should not be doing this.” But if atheism is true, we are making the error of treating preference as fact. This leaves us acting irrationally, and removes any coherent basis for moral judgement.”

    I would certainly use the language “they should not be eating babies; that’s morally wrong”. But what I would *mean* in saying that is not that they are wrong in the sense that it is a truth of the universe, independent of human existence, that eating babies is wrong. I would mean that it violates my own deeply held moral beliefs. (Again, you might argue that one can’t have deeply held moral beliefs without God. I disagree because I do have them. Best not to argue that someone doesn’t feel the way he claims to feel; you might as well tell me that the chair I’m sitting on doesn’t exist.) I might even be willing to take action to stop them depending on my own moral calculus and the specific details involved.

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    1. You wrote: “I would certainly use the language “they should not be eating babies; that’s morally wrong”. But what I would *mean* in saying that is not that they are wrong in the sense that it is a truth of the universe, independent of human existence, that eating babies is wrong. I would mean that it violates my own deeply held moral beliefs.”

      The problem is by abandoning an external moral standard by which to judge human behavior , you lose any rational grounds for judging the behavior of another person. You are right to recognize that if atheism is true, no one is “wrong” in any universal or absolute sense. The only factual statements you can now make about morality are related to mental status. “Eating children is wrong” is not a true (or even factual) statement, but “I prefer behavior that doesn’t include eating children” is a true statement.

      How then do you judge another person for having a different preference than you? On what basis can you condemn any behavior? To do so is to tell a person his or her preference is wrong, and that is a conflation of fact and preference and completely irrational.

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      1. You write:

        “The problem is by abandoning an external moral standard by which to judge human behavior , you lose any rational grounds for judging the behavior of another person.

        How then do you judge another person for having a different preference than you? On what basis can you condemn any behavior? To do so is to tell a person his or her preference is wrong, and that is a conflation of fact and preference and completely irrational.”

        Yes, to tell a person that his preference is wrong in an absolute sense, when I don’t believe in absolute moral truth is irrational. But that’s not what I’m doing as I thought I’d made clear.

        I *can* decide (“judge” if you prefer that word, though I suspect that it has slightly different meanings for you and me) whether another person’s behavior comports with my values, which are drawn in part from an understanding of nearly universally shared human values. Yes, that standard is not external if by “external” you mean external to human existence, as in coming from God or something. But I think it is generally a successful method in deciding how people should act towards one another (which is, in my mind, the central purpose of morality). You haven’t explained why it is “irrational” to not have an external moral standard in the latter sense. Unsatisfying, yes, I’ll grant you that, but I think “irrational” is the wrong word. Irrational connotes a logical error. Given my premises (which you may disagree with), and the fact that in “judging” people I’m not trying to decide whether they’re wrong in any absolute sense, I don’t think I’m making a logical error.

        Also, I think my method of evaluating another person’s behavior works practically as well for an atheist as it does for a believer. There are several points to make here:

        First, it’s not as if belief in God makes most moral conundrums easy (or even easier) to solve. There are many times when different moral considerations come into conflict and the Bible does not tell you how to resolve the conflict. What “external” basis are you relying on in those cases to make the correct decision? Maybe you’d say that you pray for an answer or something? What if you pray and receive one answer and someone else prays and receives a different answer? Then what? This goes to my next point.

        Second, different people reading the same Biblical text with the same level of rigor can come to different moral conclusions. What’s the rational basis for deciding who is correct? The Pope or Jerry Falwell?

        Third, the first two comments go to the fact that the way in which even religious people *discover* the absolute moral truths they believe exist is essentially the same as the way in which atheists come to their moral beliefs. I.e., they are mostly shaped by culture and the times. This is clear when you look at which sorts of beliefs were considered moral even by religious people centuries ago. You might say “well, they were just making logical mistakes” but the fact that they made those mistakes and the fact that religious people still disagree vehemently suggests that it is difficult, even assuming the existence of God and absolute moral truths, to discover what those truths are. No less difficult, I claim, than it is for atheists to make similar decisions, given their own moral beliefs (which they would acknowledge are not external to humans).

        So, I guess I’m arguing that in practice and in effect, the way most non-religious people form their moral beliefs is the same as the well in which most religions people form theirs. I don’t see belief in God as being that helpful in actually deciding how to act. Atheists as a group don’t behave in radically different ways, with respect to actions with moral implications, than Christians do.

        A separate point is: in practice, when someone’s doing something I believe is immoral, it’s because they are making flawed deductions based on poor information and general ignorance. It’s very easy to judge people’s decisions and behaviors in that case, on the basis of logic alone.

        Finally, I’m surprised that you’re so befuddled as to how to condemn another person’s behavior in practice without believing in God? I mean, we do that in the legal system all the time. We have laws which are based in part on shared moral values which tell us how to judge people in various circumstances. Sure, these laws may have been motivated by religious ideas, but they certainly do not depend on the existence of God in order to actually function. If all the religious people in this country disappeared, the laws would function just the same. I mean, there were plenty of pre-Christian societies which had laws against indiscriminate killing, for example.

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      2. I’m going to answer what I think are your most important points here.

        “I *can* decide (“judge” if you prefer that word, though I suspect that it has slightly different meanings for you and me) whether another person’s behavior comports with my values.”

        But that is the equivalent of saying “That person is not acting how I would act in that situation.” That does not make him “wrong” for eating babies any more than it makes him “wrong” for liking a different flavor of ice cream than you do. He could very easily say the same thing of your behavior. Moral judgement in this sense is meaningless, and this is not what you or I mean when we say that something is immoral.

        “I think it is generally a successful method in deciding how people should act towards one another (which is, in my mind, the central purpose of morality).”

        But what constitutes the “success” of an ethical system is equally meaningless if success is just in the mind of the beholder. A successful ethical system for a child molester might be one in which the lives and dignity of children are not valued. If atheism is true these are just two opposing preferences that are equally devoid of truth.

        “You haven’t explained why it is “irrational” to not have an external moral standard in the latter sense.”

        I did. If atheism is true it is a logical error to speak of another person’s preference to rape and murder children “wrong,” because this represents nothing more than an individual preference which is not factual. You’ve avoided this by saying that you aren’t actually saying someone is wrong “in an absolute sense,” but this is the only sense in which someone can be factually wrong.

        “Finally, I’m surprised that you’re so befuddled as to how to condemn another person’s behavior in practice without believing in God?”

        This is a fundamental misunderstanding of my position, and anticipating this common mistake, I carefully corrected it ahead of time in my first post. Belief in God is not required for moral judgment. The existence of God is required to make moral judgements coherent and rational.

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  13. And yes, without God, it’s perhaps harder to decide how to live one’s life. I understand the appeal of the Christian deity as a simplifying mechanism. I do. (Libertarianism has a similar appeal.) But that alone—the comfort of structure and rules—is not enough to justify belief in a higher being, to my mind at least. And living according to the Gospel does, in my mind, sometimes leads to errors in judgement about how one should behave or think (e.g. regarding gays).

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  14. you asked:

    “So if you assume that supporting life is the “right” thing to do, then it follows that behavior can be rationally understood as “right” or “moral” if it supports life, correct?”

    There a conceptual steps which are taken from the beginning assumption to reach this conclusion, but yes it can be said that action which supplements individual life is the “good” and that which damages it is the “bad”.

    I’m not entirely sure what you’re getting at, so I’ll wait to say more.

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    1. What I’m “getting at” is trying to understand your view to your satisfaction. You keep saying I’ve ignored it, but I don’t believe that is the case. I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt and making sure I can fully and correctly articulate what you believe.

      So in summary, you believe moral facts are possible within the atheistic worldview through this reasoning:
      1. Human life has value
      2. We can rationally determine which behaviors support or harm human life.
      3. Questions of morality are really questions of what behaviors support or harm human life.
      4. Therefore, we can rationally determine what behaviors are moral or immoral.

      Is this close? Feel free to correct me where I’m off.

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      1. That’s pretty close, I would add however that life is the precondition to value and is therefore itself the ultimate value.

        What you have ignored is my response to the alleged inability to judge preference. I laid out some basic logic which you have in fact ignored, or at the very least have yet to address. IF we accept the premise that rational behaviour is a requisite for moral behaviour (as you did ealier for the sake of argument), THEN to behave irrationally (even when done so in the name of preference, desire, a false sense of duty or for whatever reason) is immoral.

        Now I beleive you have conflated preference with behaviour when you say that a child molesters’ proclivity for touching little boys is “just” a preference. I would disagree, I would say that it is many other things besides just preference: a choice, a decision, an action; I’m sure I could write a comprehensive list of things other than “just” preference which could describe chesters’ behaviour. But if your going to continue to ague as if preference and behaviour are the same thing then my logic still holds. IF rational behaviour is a requisite for moral behaviour (for the sake of argument), THEN irrational preferences (assuming by preference you mean desire-oriented-behaviour) are neccisarily immoral. I don’t see how we could disagree on the logic here, you have yet to point out any logicall flaw other than repeating some variant of the claim “your just judging preference”. Or do you disagree with the premise? I’m stll not sure where you stand here.

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      2. Trevor,

        I think I’m starting to understand where our communication has broken down. It seems to me that you’ve simply recreated the same problem that Harris does in his theory. That is to say that the entire framework of your ethical theory is internally consistent, as long as we believe that the assumption it begins with is true, namely that human life has value.

        For example, I could change the starting assumption and get an equally valid formulation of your argument with a very different result.

        1. My life has value. Baby’s lives do not.
        2. We can rationally determine which behaviors support or harm my life.
        3. Questions of morality are really questions of what behaviors support or harm my life.
        4. Therefore, we can rationally determine what behaviors are moral or immoral.

        On this model, eating babies is not immoral. This is why I’ve asked you to explain why “human life has value.” Christianity can explain this statement as fact, atheism cannot. At best, atheism can explain why your brain happens to think human life has value, but that mental state does not reflect a fact of reality.

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      3. This is the second time now that you’ve told me that my starting assumption is something other than what it is. Please stop putting words in my mouth.

        My starting assumption IS NOT that human life has value. My starting assumption is that life and death is the fundamental alternative we face in regards to all human action. That life is valuable follows later.

        Now, you still haven’t addressed the basic logic I’ve pointed out repeatedly regarding the judgment of preference.

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      4. My starting assumption was that life or death is the fundamental alternative we face in all human action.

        Value: that which one acts to gain or keep.

        “Value” denotes the object of an action. It is that which some entities efforts are directed toward acquiring or preserving. This requires an entity capable of goal directed behavior, something which said entity must be alive to do. Life is a precondition to value.

        To put it another way: A rock has no value because it has nothing to gain or lose because it is not alive. Life is a precondition of value.

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  15. This is the second time now that you’ve told me that my starting assumption is something other than what it is. Please stop putting words in my mouth.

    My starting assumption IS NOT that human life has value. My starting assumption is that life and death is the fundamental alternative we face in regards to all human action. That life is valuable follows later.

    “1. My life has value. Baby’s lives do not.
    2. We can rationally determine which behaviors support or harm my life.
    3. Questions of morality are really questions of what behaviors support or harm my life.
    4. Therefore, we can rationally determine what behaviors are moral or immoral.

    On this model, eating babies is not immoral. ”

    I am under no obligation to defend this model, it is not my model nor one I have been purporting.

    “This is why I’ve asked you to explain why “human life has value.””

    I honestly don’t recall the last time you’ve asked this question, but it’s a good question and I’m happy to answer it. When I was scrolling through our conversation in an attempt to find the context you were referencing that question from I stumbled upon another reply that I didn’t see until now, one where you asked why rationality is required for morality. I’m happy to answer both questions, which I’ll do in another post to eliminate confusion.

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    1. That’s not necessary. The only question I am interested in asking is why you believe human life has value, and why that means it is wrong for someone to rape and murder children. In other words, what fact of reality does the hypothetical argument I’ve constructed above miss? Where does it err? (the one you aren’t obligated to defend).

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  16. Arg…the REPLY button doesn’t always seem to be in the right place.

    “But that is the equivalent of saying “That person is not acting how I would act in that situation.” That does not make him “wrong” for eating babies any more than it makes him “wrong” for liking a different flavor of ice cream than you do. He could very easily say the same thing of your behavior. Moral judgement in this sense is meaningless, and this is not what you or I mean when we say that something is immoral.”

    I’m not claiming it makes him “wrong” in any kind of absolute sense in which right/wrong exist externally to humans, that’s true. He could say the same of my behavior, sure. That doesn’t mean that judgement in this sense is not meaningful, however. My moral judgements feel meaningful to me. You just think that its meaningless because your definition of meaning relies on some sort of external standard. It’s an artifact of your own conception of the word “meaning”. My moral judgements are also not made in isolation. My moral beliefs are formed in part from nearly universally shared human values, and so my most important moral judgements also have the weight of most of human civilization behind them. It’s not as if, in practice, there are two people, one claiming that it’s OK to eat babies and the other claiming that it’s not.

    “I think it is generally a successful method in deciding how people should act towards one another (which is, in my mind, the central purpose of morality).”

    Good question. “Successful” wasn’t a good choice. I really mean that the outcome—in terms of how humans treat other humans—does not depend on whether one assumes the existence of absolute moral belief or not. This is evidenced by the fact that atheists who form their moral beliefs in the manner I described, behave in the same way as Christians, all other things (like nationality, culture, etc.) being equal. So if you think that successful outcomes are achieved by your mechanism for moral belief then you must also believe that successful outcomes are achieved by mine.

    “I did. If atheism is true it is a logical error to speak of another person’s preference to rape and murder children “wrong,” because this represents nothing more than an individual preference which is not factual. You’ve avoided this by saying that you aren’t actually saying someone is wrong “in an absolute sense,” but this is the only sense in which someone can be factually wrong.”

    I never used the word “factual”. I *can” judge whether someone’s behavior does not comport with my moral beliefs. I call that behavior “wrong” if it does not. So no, yours is not the only sense in which someone can be wrong. I just gave you another sense. Again, the problem is that you’re disallowing meanings of the word “wrong” which don’t agree with the meaning you want to assign to it.

    “This is a fundamental misunderstanding of my position, and anticipating this common mistake, I carefully corrected it ahead of time in my first post. Belief in God is not required for moral judgment. The existence of God is required to make moral judgements coherent and rational.”

    Again, I don’t think it’s a matter of rationality unless you’re defining what it means to make moral judgements rationally as necessarily involving an appeal to an external standard. That’s not what the word “rational” actually means. You might think that it is only rational to make moral judgements by appealing to an external standard, but you have not provided an argument for that conclusion starting from any premise that I agree with.

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    1. “I’m not claiming it makes him “wrong” in any kind of absolute sense in which right/wrong exist externally to humans, that’s true. He could say the same of my behavior, sure. That doesn’t mean that judgement in this sense is not meaningful, however. My moral judgements feel meaningful to me.”

      I’m sure your moral beliefs feel meaningful to you, just as the murder or thief might feel his moral beliefs are meaningful to him. My point is that you have not established any rational grounds for identifying one set of beliefs as right and another as wrong. You seem to agree that on atheism this isn’t possible, hence any statement about another person’s actions being right or wrong is meaningless.

      “My moral judgements are also not made in isolation. My moral beliefs are formed in part from nearly universally shared human values, and so my most important moral judgements also have the weight of most of human civilization behind them. It’s not as if, in practice, there are two people, one claiming that it’s OK to eat babies and the other claiming that it’s not.”

      The number of people that agree, or disagree with your moral preferences also do not make them true or false. In fact, if we assumed this is how morality worked, slavery was “right” when the early American colonies existed.

      “I think it is generally a successful method in deciding how people should act towards one another (which is, in my mind, the central purpose of morality).”
      Good question. “Successful” wasn’t a good choice. I really mean that the outcome—in terms of how humans treat other humans—does not depend on whether one assumes the existence of absolute moral belief or not. This is evidenced by the fact that atheists who form their moral beliefs in the manner I described, behave in the same way as Christians, all other things (like nationality, culture, etc.) being equal. So if you think that successful outcomes are achieved by your mechanism for moral belief then you must also believe that successful outcomes are achieved by mine.

      I agree that belief in God is not a prerequisite for moral behavior. It is God’s existence that is a prerequisite for moral truth, which is a necessary precondition for the intelligibility of any moral claim.

      I never used the word “factual”. I *can” judge whether someone’s behavior does not comport with my moral beliefs. I call that behavior “wrong” if it does not. So no, yours is not the only sense in which someone can be wrong. I just gave you another sense. Again, the problem is that you’re disallowing meanings of the word “wrong” which don’t agree with the meaning you want to assign to it.

      Here we get to the meat of our disagreement. You do not believe in moral facts. You believe in preferences, and you state facts about your preferences. Unless we are talking about issues of fact, judging the answer to a question as right and wrong is not intelligible.

      “Again, I don’t think it’s a matter of rationality unless you’re defining what it means to make moral judgements rationally as necessarily involving an appeal to an external standard. That’s not what the word “rational” actually means. You might think that it is only rational to make moral judgements by appealing to an external standard, but you have not provided an argument for that conclusion starting from any premise that I agree with.”

      My point is this: If moral facts do not exist, your moral beliefs are only preferences. They do not apply to anyone but you. To claim anyone else’s moral preferences are “right” or “wrong” is irrational (we could say unintelligible or nonsensical if you prefer) because it assumes there is truth value to a proposition that is inherently (and by your admission) devoid of truth.

      The one question that I have repeatedly asked, and that I have not heard you sufficiently answer, is the basis upon which you can claim someone else is wrong for his or her behavior. You have appealed to your own personal moral preferences, but as I’ve pointed out, they can do the same, and since there is no such thing as “right” or “wrong” behavior to being with, this is unintelligible.

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      1. “The one question that I have repeatedly asked, and that I have not heard you sufficiently answer, is the basis upon which you can claim someone else is wrong for his or her behavior. You have appealed to your own personal moral preferences, but as I’ve pointed out, they can do the same, and since there is no such thing as “right” or “wrong” behavior to being with, this is unintelligible.”

        I’ve answered it, but you don’t consider it sufficient. That’s OK. We can agree to disagree here. As I’ve admitted, it is less satisfying to believe that there’s no external standard for moral truth. Maybe you think that’s a disqualifying assumption for any moral theory. I obviously don’t. I still don’t understand the logic behind your conclusion that my mechanism for determining what is right or wrong is unintelligible. I mean, you understand my mechanism. Maybe you could use a more accurate descriptor than “unintelligible”.

        Also, you keep using the word “rational”. Can you explain what you think this means? To me, the word “rational” modifies a conclusion obtained from a premise via a sequence of logical deductions, according to the commonly accepted rules of logic (with which you and I probably agree). A conclusion is not “rational” with respect to a given premise if it does not follow via a sequence of logical deductions according to these rules. In order to claim that anything I’ve said is not “rational”, you need to show that I’ve made a logical mistake given my premise. Can you do that? If we’re starting from different premises, “rationality” cannot be an arbiter of whether your conclusions are more correct than mine.

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      2. “I’ve answered it, but you don’t consider it sufficient. That’s OK. We can agree to disagree here. As I’ve admitted, it is less satisfying to believe that there’s no external standard for moral truth. Maybe you think that’s a disqualifying assumption for any moral theory. I obviously don’t. I still don’t understand the logic behind your conclusion that my mechanism for determining what is right or wrong is unintelligible. I mean, you understand my mechanism. Maybe you could use a more accurate descriptor than “unintelligible”.”

        It’s not just “less than satisfying” it’s an example of extreme cognitive dissonance to simultaneously hold that your moral beliefs are mere preference, yet act as if those preferences have the weight of facts by which you could judge the moral preferences of others. Let me try to make it as clear as possible by going back to the original syllogism I used to help Trevor understand this:

        1. All moral beliefs are preferences.
        2. Preferences, by definition, cannot be right or wrong.
        Therefore,
        3. It is not right or wrong to believe it is acceptable to rape and murder children

        I don’t know how to make that any simpler. Your response so far has been to essentially say “It’s wrong because it conflicts with my moral beliefs.” You are absolutely right that “it conflicts with my moral beliefs” but it does not follow that “it is wrong.” It is incoherent to consider any form of preference right or wrong because to do so confuses preference with fact. You might as well tell me I am wrong for enjoying chocolate ice cream because you prefer vanilla.

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  17. On why life has value:
    Only in the context of a life or death alternative can values exist. The simplest way to illustrate this is to point to the negative: let’s imagine an indestructible robot, capable of cognition. Nothing it can do would make it physically better or worse off. It would need no food, so it would have no reason to eat. It would not need to come in from the rain, the elements do not damage it. Once we remove the alternative of life or death we remove the possibility of need satisfaction or need frustration, at least at the physical level.

    This robot would have no need for knowledge as it would have no use for it in achieving any ends; so far it has no ends. It would not need money, it needs not purchase any material objects. Even the hedonistic approach is inapplicable (doing whatever one want simply because one feels like it, regardless of reason), feelings presuppose a value judgment, so far there is nothing for the robot to value.

    So, it is the fact that we are faced with the alternative of life or death and that we can do something to effect the outcome which allows values exist in the first place. The fact that I can effect the outcome allows for goals: I will obtain food, avoid harsh elements and obtain knowledge so that I may further my life. Only the life/death alternative allows for value-oriented action and only if an entities end is to preserve life. The ultimate value (life) is an end in itself that we all pursue. Life is the standard of value, that which furthers it is good and that which threatens it is evil. So I could surmise like this:

    1. We only have reason to act because we face a life/death alternative
    2. Self preservation is the ultimate reason for any action. Since my approach is naturalistic, this is indeed something that occurs in nature and can be observed.
    3. Whether or not self was preserved is the standard by which any action should be judged as successful or not, or “good” or “bad”, since self-preservation is the reason for all action.
    4. Without the alternative of life or death there would be no need to act, there could be no goals and thus there could be nothing to judge values against. Therefore there could be no values at all.

    If the objective of morality is to provide guidance for our choices and actions, then I believe from a natural perspective self-preservation must be what we judge action against, as it is the reason for all action (I welcome your impending challenge to this premise). Necessarily life itself is the irreducible primary with regards to value, it is the ultimate value. Your irreducible primary is God, I prefer something that occurs in nature and can be observed.

    I believe that answers your question on why life has value, although if you need me to clarify anything I’d be happy to. Now as to why raping and killing children is immoral:

    Simply put, it goes against one’s rational self-interest for at least two obvious reasons:
    1) Most babies have parents that are more than willing to kill in order to protect their young.
    2) Not any less important, when living in civilization one can reasonably expect to be treated a certain way by others only if one is willing to reciprocate. If you want to be respected then be respectful, if you want to live in peace then be peaceful to others, if you don’t want to be eaten by others then don’t eat others… If you want others to respect you’re ultimate value then you must respect theirs. In short, you cant expect to survive in civilization, at least not as a free individual (that freedom is valuable is being taken for granted, although I could elaborate on that as well), if you are routinely raping and murdering others.

    I believe I have answered your question: ” basis upon which you can claim someone else is wrong for his or her behavior.”

    The basis is life, which is the ultimate value. I have explained what makes it the ultimate value. I have explained how the existence of values depends upon life and the alternative of death. I don’t see anywhere where my explanation doesn’t intelligible explain how we can judge others. What’s missing?

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    1. You have not demonstrated that life has any value. What you have demonstrated is that as a species, we have an inherent desire to preserve our own lives, and that gives us reason to place value on our lives. That does not make our lives valuable in any factual sense, but means that generally, the human psychological state is one in which continuing to live is valued. If atheism is true, this mental state exists because the blind process of evolution lead to creatures with this desire surviving more often than not.

      This is an enormously important distinction, because it means the statement “human life has value” is not factual, it is a biologically-driven preference that you hold. Nothing about your analysis would suggest that someone is factually wrong for choosing to value only *his* life and not the life of others, or desiring to kerosine the entire ant-hill of the human race because he chooses to value the planet over all human life.

      You gave three reasons for why someone would be wrong for raping and killing children, and they all require that person share some non-factual preference with you.

      1.”it goes against one’s rational self-interest” – There is no obligation for someone to act rationally, this is your own preference

      2. “Most babies have parents that are more than willing to kill in order to protect their young.” This doesn’t make attacking children wrong, it just shows possible consequences.

      3. “you cant expect to survive in civilization… if you are routinely raping and murdering others.” This doesn’t make rape and murder factually wrong, it simply restates your preference for valuing human survival.

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  18. Russell, first of all I didn’t say “less than satisfying”. I said “less satisfying”.

    You write:

    “it’s an example of extreme cognitive dissonance to simultaneously hold that your moral beliefs are mere preference, yet act as if those preferences have the weight of facts by which you could judge the moral preferences of others.”

    When you say “mere preference” one connotation is that my moral beliefs aren’t very meaningful or important to me. But that isn’t true. Let’s say that one of my moral axioms is that one should not kill another person merely for sport. There are many reasons I strongly believe that is a good rule to live by: I like living myself; I believe the Golden Rule is generally a good maxim for allowing people to live happy, fulfilling lives; I am an empathetic person. The reason I value my own life and have empathy owes in part to my upbringing and in part to my brain structure which itself owes in part to evolutionary processes. So, yes, while I don’t believe in external/absolute moral truth, my moral code is still very important and meaningful to me, and so I don’t see this as an issue of cognitive dissonance. I don’t see how having strong beliefs about how one ought to live, but not thinking that those feelings are rooted in some higher being or are external to human existence is in contradiction with living my life according to those beliefs and using them to judge others.

    “Let me try to make it as clear as possible by going back to the original syllogism I used to help Trevor understand this:

    1. All moral beliefs are preferences.
    2. Preferences, by definition, cannot be right or wrong.
    Therefore,
    3. It is not right or wrong to believe it is acceptable to rape and murder children”

    I’m sorry, but this syllogism is just not a convincing piece of logic to someone who doesn’t accept your premise that it is an absolute moral truth, which exists outside of human existence, that raping and murdering children is wrong. I would say that it is morally wrong, but what that means to me is that raping and murdering children is in conflict with my moral system, as explained again below. Anyhow, I probably feel all the same feelings about raping and murdering children that you do unless you’re some kind of sociopath.

    “I don’t know how to make that any simpler. Your response so far has been to essentially say “It’s wrong because it conflicts with my moral beliefs.” You are absolutely right that “it conflicts with my moral beliefs” but it does not follow that “it is wrong.” It is incoherent to consider any form of preference right or wrong because to do so confuses preference with fact. You might as well tell me I am wrong for enjoying chocolate ice cream because you prefer vanilla.”

    No, you’re misunderstanding. I call something “morally wrong” if and only if it does not comport with with my moral system. This is what I mean when I use the words “morally wrong”. It’s not that I have some independent (of my moral system) idea of what it means for something to be “morally wrong” and then am trying to argue that if something conflicts with my moral beliefs then it follows that it is morally wrong under this independent definition. I’m telling you that I *define* what it means for me to consider something to be “morally wrong” in terms of my moral system. Do you understand the difference? I mean, I could say instead of “X is morally wrong” simply that “X doesn’t comport with my moral beliefs” if you’d rather I not use the terminology “morally wrong”. I’m fine with that. Which flavor of ice cream is best is not what I would call a moral judgement, so I would probably use different terminology—something more commonly used in that setting. I would instead say “I think vanilla is better”. I would not condemn you for preferring chocolate because that doesn’t conflict with any of my moral beliefs.

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    1. “When you say “mere preference” one connotation is that my moral beliefs aren’t very meaningful or important to me.”

      I’ve already addressed this. Your moral beliefs can be the most important thing to you, and they are still not matters of fact. Preference does not mean trivial, it means non-factual.

      “I’m sorry, but this syllogism is just not a convincing piece of logic to someone who doesn’t accept your premise that it is an absolute moral truth, which exists outside of human existence, that raping and murdering children is wrong”

      So you see that my logic is sound, and agree with my premises, but you refuse to accept the conclusion? Good. The problem is the only viable alternative is something you also refuse to accept, so you’re stuck in the nonsensical world of claiming “moral truth doesn’t exist but it does.”

      “I call something “morally wrong” if and only if it does not comport with with my moral system. This is what I mean when I use the words “morally wrong”. It’s not that I have some independent (of my moral system) idea of what it means for something to be “morally wrong” and then am trying to argue that if something conflicts with my moral beliefs then it follows that it is morally wrong under this independent definition. I’m telling you that I *define* what it means for me to consider something to be “morally wrong” in terms of my moral system.”

      This is perfectly consistent, as long as you only judge yourself and never attempt to judge the moral beliefs of the child molester as morally wrong, because that would be confusing your personal moral system with his personal moral system. Since both are matters of preference, that would be conflating facts with non-facts (see above syllogism).

      You are fully aware that raping and murdering children is as wrong as 1+1=2. So am I. You cannot escape that knowledge because you are an image bearer of God, and recognize his moral law even in your rejection of him. The contradiction between your worldview and the moral law you recognize is the result of a continual suppression of the truth about God. I’m not going to be able to convince you of this contradiction through rational argument. If that were an option we would be done already. Until God grants you the ability to see your own sinful suppression of the truth, you will remain in rebellion and your thinking will remain futile. I was exactly the same as you are now before Christ.

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      1. You continue to misunderstand and misrepresent basic points of mine. Probably part of that is the difficulty of having a convo online rather than in person. One of the things I agree with in your last post is:

        “I’m not going to be able to convince you of this contradiction through rational argument.”

        That’s because its not possible to prove God’s existence through rational argument starting from premises which don’t effectively assume his existence already (it’s also impossible to disprove God’s existence). It’s called faith. Isn’t that what they say?

        I think I’m probably done with this conversation. For now, at least.

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      2. I can easily prove God’s existence to you by showing you the absurdity of the contrary. This won’t convince someone who is willing to live in a contradiction between his worldview and his experience of reality. What you are doing takes commitment, and an active suppression of the truth. If you’re interested in continuing the conversation, I’d be happy to. I’m particularly interested in how you can use your personal moral system to judge others who have their own (different) personal moral system.

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  19. Russell, I’m having trouble seeing where I have failed to explain precisely why life is valuable. You keep telling me I’ve failed to do this, so I must be completely ignorant as to how you define value. Could you please define it for me?

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    1. Value: Importance, worth.

      You have established that the human mind has evolved to see survival as valuable. If atheism is true we can only understand this to be a biologically driven illusion. This means you can explain why you think human life has value, but you have not supported the position that it actually does.

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      1. You’ve given me synonyms rather than a definition, I’ll try to work with that though.

        What’s important or what has worth are evaluative concepts that are outside the realm of hard scientific fact. Whether or not something is important can only be evaluated by an individual. Worth is entirely subjective, something is only worth as much as it accomplishes from the perspective of some individual doing to evaluating. You are asking me to turn something that is necessarily subjective into some type of hard scientific fact, an impossible request. This however does not mean that an atheist cannot judge moral rightness from moral wrongness. It is a fact that value cannot exist without the alternative of life or death, you have yet to refute that. It is a fact that all action is ultimately done for the purpose of self preservation, you have yet to refute that. If these premises are true It then follows that whether one self is preserved is the proper test of “right” or “wrong” with regard to action in the evaluative moral context (as opposed to the hard scientific fact context). Again, given that the ultimate purpose of all action is self preservation it is only proper to evaluate action against that end. The importance or worth of the individual is inherent in everybody, therefore this evaluative method is proper for everyone. I don’t see the need to turn evaluation into hard scientific fact and I don’t see how that impossibility makes evaluation impossible, they are two separate fields. If you will only accept some conclusion that can be reached by the scientific method then Christianity is even more unable to satisfy your requirement.

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      2. “What’s important or what has worth are evaluative concepts that are outside the realm of hard scientific fact.”

        Hey, now we are getting somewhere. We agree that if atheism is true, human life has no real value outside of your opinion that it does.

        “It is a fact that value cannot exist without the alternative of life or death.”

        I’m not convinced this is true at all. If I found out that I was immortal I think I would still value kindness toward children.

        “It is a fact that all action is ultimately done for the purpose of self preservation.”

        I’m not convinced by this either. When I drink beer is that for self preservation? What about the guy who molests children?

        “If these premises are true It then follows that whether one self is preserved is the proper test of “right” or “wrong” with regard to action in the evaluative moral context (as opposed to the hard scientific fact context). Again, given that the ultimate purpose of all action is self preservation it is only proper to evaluate action against that end.”

        I honestly don’t even care to argue the premises that lead to this, because I think they are red herrings. If we assume for the sake of argument that your premises are true, it does not follow that self-preservation is “right” it simply follows that self preservation is why everyone does anything.

        Let’s try to tackle this by returning to a question you didn’t answer. How does this view allow you to say, factually, that someone who does not act in his “rational self interest” is wrong? Is it not just your opinion that he should abide by your preferred ethical system outlined above?

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      3. let’s be really specific too. A child molester who values his life, and values the preservation of his life, but has no interest in valuing the lives of children. You previously gave me three reasons why this would be “immoral” and I demonstrated that one of these reasons was a threat of punishment (has nothing to do with an act being right or wrong) and the other two reflected your personal preference that he should act differently, which puts you right back in the nonsensical position of treating preference as fact. Is there something new in this explanation of your ethical view that has allowed you to solve that problem?

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      4. “Hey, now we are getting somewhere. We agree that if atheism is true, human life has no real value outside of your opinion that it does.”

        We do not agree on that. Regardless of whether or not atheism is true, value does not exist outside of individual judgment. Your definition precludes such a possibility.

        “If I found out that I was immortal I think I would still value kindness toward children.”

        Why would kindness of children be of value to you if you were immortal? Please elaborate as I think I’ve laid out how that would in fact be impossible.

        “When I drink beer is that for self preservation? What about the guy who molests children?”

        Ultimately yes, the desire for drinking and sex can be reduced to the inherent urge of self preservation. It may not align with self preservation upon evaluation (which is why we need morality), but the desire is a result of it none the less.

        “If we assume for the sake of argument that your premises are true, it does not follow that self-preservation is “right” it simply follows that self preservation is why everyone does anything. ”

        That was not my argument. My argument is that whether or not an action preserves self is the standard of judgment for right and wrong.

        “How does this view allow you to say, factually, that someone who does not act in his “rational self interest” is wrong?”

        Again, moral evaluation is outside the realm of scientific fact. It is morally wrong, as opposed to factually wrong.

        “Is it not just your opinion that he should abide by your preferred ethical system outlined above?

        Nope. The ethical system I outlined applies to everyone.

        “let’s be really specific too. A child molester who values his life, and values the preservation of his life, but has no interest in valuing the lives of children. You previously gave me three reasons why this would be “immoral” and I demonstrated that one of these reasons was a threat of punishment (has nothing to do with an act being right or wrong) and the other two reflected your personal preference that he should act differently, which puts you right back in the nonsensical position of treating preference as fact. Is there something new in this explanation of your ethical view that has allowed you to solve that problem?”

        Nothing new, I just don’t agree with you that moral evaluation can be or even should be thought of in the context of provable physical fact. Morality is an evaluative concept and rational self interest is proper for all humans. Furthermore, Christian morality faces the same inability to be proven factually as you require. So you are not even demonstrating some inferiority to Christianity inherent in atheism.

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      5. “My argument is that whether or not an action preserves self is the standard of judgment for right and wrong.”

        Says who? You’ve said this “applies to everyone” it is “proper” it is what we “should” use to measure right and wrong… but you’ve also admitted that there are no moral facts. That is to say, the question “how should we judge what is right and wrong?” has no correct or incorrect answers. Now you are thoroughly contradicting yourself. It is simply your preference to define right and wrong as that which preserves self.

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      6. “Says who?”

        It’s not a matter of whether or not it is said by anyone. It’s a matter of the fact that we all face the life/death alternative, that the ultimate purpose of action is to preserve self and thus action must necessarily be judged based on whether or not it achieves it’s end: self preservation.

        “You’ve said this “applies to everyone” it is “proper” it is what we “should” use to measure right and wrong… but you’ve also admitted that there are no moral facts.”

        I’ve admitted that morality (Christian, atheist or otherwise) does not fit within the context of provable physical facts. I’m not at all uncomfortable referring to moral right and wrong as moral facts, as opposed to physical facts.

        “That is to say, the question “how should we judge what is right and wrong?” has no correct or incorrect answers.:”

        Sure it does. We SHOULD judge action as right and wrong based on whether or not a particular action achieves the ultimate end of self preservation.

        “Now you are thoroughly contradicting yourself. It is simply your preference to define right and wrong as that which preserves self.”

        It’s not simply a preference. It’s proper to define right and wrong this way because the ultimate purpose of action is self preservation. Logically it then makes sense to judge action by whether or not it achieves the ends sought by doing that action.

        “Also, why is self-preservation the way you define it good, but self-preservation the way the serial rapist defines it bad?”

        Um… How exactly does a serial rapist define self preservation? I must admit I don’t really understand this question.

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      7. The point in your argument in which you lose me is this: “thus action must necessarily be judged based on whether or not it achieves it’s end: self preservation.”

        So all actions either work toward self preservation or they don’t. Why have you decided that working toward self-preservation is “good” and working against it is “bad?” This is essentially what my last question was about. The serial rapist may choose to define his non-self-preserving behavior as morally acceptable. Why is that wrong?

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      8. “So all actions either work toward self preservation or they don’t. Why have you decided that working toward self-preservation is “good” and working against it is ‘bad?’ ”

        Because the ultimate reason underlying any action is self preservation. It is logical to judge an action based on whether or not it achieves the ends said action seeks to achieve.

        “The serial rapist may choose to define his non-self-preserving behavior as morally acceptable. Why is that wrong?”

        It is wrong precisely because it is non-self-preserving. His definition of morally acceptability is in conflict with the ultimate purpose of action and therefore is a false definition.

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      9. “Because the ultimate reason underlying any action is self preservation.”

        That doesn’t answer my question. Why is self-preservation is good? Even if we assume that is the ultimate reason for all action, that does not make it a fact that self-preservation is good.

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      10. “That doesn’t answer my question. Why is self-preservation is good? Even if we assume that is the ultimate reason for all action, that does not make it a fact that self-preservation is good.”

        Since self preservation is the ultimate reason which underlies all action, it is necessarily the ultimate good. It is an end in itself, an irreducible primary. I.e., once we reach self preservation we cannot reduce further with regards to morality. We have simply reached the point of existence, where the alternative is non-existence. All we can do is acknowledge: this is where I am and were I shall strive to remain. All good stems from this irreducible point. We can acknowledge that this is proper considering it is self preservation which drives all action.

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      11. “Since self preservation is the ultimate reason which underlies all action, it is necessarily the ultimate good.”

        This assumes there is an ultimate good, which is exactly what you are trying to prove to me. You’re now appealing to circular reasoning. It does not “necessarily” follow from the atheist worldview that anything is actually good, evil, right, wrong, etc.

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      12. “This assumes there is an ultimate good, which is exactly what you are trying to prove to me. You’re now appealing to circular reasoning.”

        No, it begins with the assumption that self preservation is the reason for all action and therefore the standard of judging all action. It then follows that self preservation is the ultimate good since it is the ultimate standard of what action is and isn’t good. This is not circular reasoning. It is however an irreducible primary, or an axiom which can easily be confused with circular reasoning but is not quite the same thing.

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      13. “It then follows that self preservation is the ultimate good since it is the ultimate standard of what action is and isn’t good.

        This is a textbook example of circular reasoning. I believe your argument goes like this:

        1. Self-preservation is the reason for all action.
        2. How much or how little an action leads to Self-preservation can be judged.
        3. Self-preservation is morally good.
        4. Therefore, how much or how little an action leads to self-preservation is a measure of how morally good that action is.

        You have no reason whatsoever to believe premise 3 is true outside of your personal preference for thinking that it is. The only justification you give for premise 3 is premise 1 & 2, but nothing about those two premises being true (if they are) leads necessarily to the truth of premise 3 unless you presuppose that an ultimate standard of good must exist, which is exactly what atheism cannot support and what you are supposed to be proving.

        Someone could easily invert your assumption and believe that based on premise 1 & 2, self-preservation is the ultimate evil, not the ultimate good. What argument could you give in response?

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      14. “This is a textbook example of circular reasoning. I believe your argument goes like this:

        1. Self-preservation is the reason for all action.
        2. How much or how little an action leads to Self-preservation can be judged.
        3. Self-preservation is morally good.
        4. Therefore, how much or how little an action leads to self-preservation is a measure of how morally good that action is. ”

        That is incorrect, my argument goes like this

        1. self-preservation is the reason for all action
        2. Action should be judged as to how effectivley it achieves the end it seeks
        3. For the purpose of morality (a system that guides our choices and actions), action which achieves its end of self preservation should be considered the “good” (good meaning you have taken an action which achieves it’s end).
        4. Therefore self preservation must be the ultimate good since it is the proper standard by which all good is measured.

        I admit that this is not proof in the traditional sense, I’m simply trying to help you understand what is axiomatic. This is not circular reasoning though:

        Circular reasoning (Latin: circulus in probando, “circle in proving”; also known as circular logic) is a logical fallacy in which the reasoner begins with what they are trying to end with.

        I begin with self preservation as the underlying reason for all action, this is not where I end. By defentiion my reasoning is not circular.

        That life is an end in itself is however axiomatic and thus cannot be proven in any traditional sense. I’ve done my best to help illuminate the neccesity of this axiom but ultimetly the nature of an axiom is such that it can’t be proven, yet all proofs rest on it’s truth.

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      15. You’re right, this is not a proof because it does not follow necessarily that we “should” consider self-preservation to be the ultimate good. This is still the point in your reasoning where you depart from objective fact and insert your subjective preference. You’ve never escaped that.

        The closet you have come is constructing an argument that points to self-preservation as the most rational basis for moral judgment. Yet this also assumes that we “should” be rational, which is yet another subjective preference you’ve co-mingled with fact.

        This has been fascinating to watch. You have constructed an incredibly convoluted argument for how you can get moral facts from an atheistic worldview. You’ve come nowhere near succeeding for the reasons I’ve pointed out above, but watching the mental back-bending the unbelieving mind is willing to go through order to avoid accepting the absurdity of the atheistic worldview is incredible. This truly is an active “suppression” of the truth.

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