Engaging with critics of religiously grounded ethics: A depressingly bleak scholarly landscape

In a recent podcast episode, “Stop Being a Christian and Start Being a Person,” one of the things I talked about is that we Christians should not assume that because a scholarly endeavour is overtly Christian, it will be good. I also stressed that we should be prepared to recognise the gifts and goodness manifested in scholarship regardless of who presents it.

I wanted to start by reminding the reader that this is my position in case this blog entry tempts you to think that I’m someone who just likes to bash any work that is not Christian and that I’m just biased in favour of arguments presented by Christians. I try not to be. However, reading an article today by Paul Kurtz I once again, as I so often do, got the sinking feeling that there is just no hope – none at all – of some committed opponents of religious belief ever understanding (or perhaps acknowledging) some big, obvious and simple distinctions in philosophy.

There’s one type of mistake that irritates me because I see it needlessly re-enacted so many times in various different ways. The mistake consists of attacks on ethical theories that invoke God as the basis of morality in some way that manage to completely misconstrue those theories in a way that any first year student would be taken to task for (albeit graciously, being only a first year student after all).

Take the Paul Kurtz example that ticked me off tonight. Allow me to first paint the philosophical background. Many philosophers who are theists (and even some who are not) have entertained the belief that unless God exists, moral facts do not exist either. Some of those philosophers have used this belief to construct a moral argument for theism, reasoning from moral facts to the existence of God. Philosophers who have reasoned in this way include Thomas Aquinas, Immanuel Kant, John Locke, as well as contemporary defenders of theism like William Lane Craig and C. Stephen Evans. Here’s a sample of Paul Kurtz’s comments. See if you can spot what I might have found so irritating:

I believe there are moral truths, and I believe these truths can be drawn from ethical reflection. Philosophers from Aristotle to Immanuel Kant have defended the autonomy of ethics as a field of inquiry.

Human beings are capable of either good or evil. We are potential moral beings; how we develop depends on a complex of biogenetic and social influences, including parental care, belonging to some community, character formation, and the cultivation of some degree of moral cognition. Thus, it is possible to develop, through moral education and life experience, an empathetic-cognitive appreciation for the needs of others. I do not deny that there are exceptions, such as psychopaths and sociopaths, but morality is natural to the human condition, especially as human beings have evolved in sociocultural communities. I present a naturalistic perspective on the good life, not one rooted in otherworldly hopes and fears.

I submit that a kind of autonomous moral sensibility can be brought to fruition in a variety of tangible ways and that belief in God is not a prerequisite for knowing moral truths or acting morally. I must say that I am puzzled by the mantra, intoned by so many theists today, that “a person cannot be moral without a belief in God.” If this is supposed to be a factual claim, it is patently false; many good people have neither gone to church nor believed in God and yet have behaved morally, and the converse is often true as well. Is there a necessary logical connection between the fatherhood of God and basic moral principles? I would rather suggest that the belief of theists, that morality presupposes religious faith, is grounded in the apprehension that they would not behave morally without God (or Big Brother) looking over their shoulders.

Paul Kurtz, “On Human Values,” Science & Spirit July/August 2006, 35.

Where to start. The first and most important complaint here is that Kurtz is inventing arguments out of thin air. Theists do not argue, much less repeat as a mantra, that “a person cannot be moral without a belief in God.” Kurtz does not quote a single example of anyone doing this, and if he bothered to search for an example he would have a hard time finding one. Yet he has given the clearly deliberate impression that this is a common phenomenon, so common that it apparently amazes him. The argument that theists do present is an argument that unless there is a God, then moral truths do not exist. How moral a person you will become if you adopt belief in God is not even a component of the argument. What’s even worse is that one of the philosophers that Kurtz named as an influence on his thinking in this area, Immanuel Kant, was himself a Christian philosopher who used a version of just this argument! I literally do not know how to read Kurtz’s article in a way that does not result in him looking like someone who just does not want to really engage with his opponents, but who instead is doing what some Christian hacks might be tempted to do at times: preach to the converted, presenting alternative views to his own in such a way as to ensure that his readers will neither truly grasp them nor accept them.

Another example is Peter Singer. In passing he dismisses theologically grounded ethical theories as follows:

Some theists say that ethics cannot do without religion because the very meaning of “good” is nothing other than “what God approves”. Plato refuted a similar view more than two thousand years ago by arguing that if the gods approve of some actions it must be because those actions are good, in which case it cannot be the gods approval that makes them good. The alternative view makes God’s approval entirely arbitrary: if the gods had happened to approve of torture and disapprove of helping our neighbours, torture would be good and helping our neighbours bad.
Peter Singer Practical Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, 2nd ed.), 3.

As is common (but mistaken), Singer thinks that the divine command theory of ethics (the theory is is referring to here without naming it) is refuted in Plato’s Euthyphro. It’s not. More importantly, no theistic philosophers argue that “good” or “right” have the very meaning of “what God approves.” This is a misrepresentation of the divine command theory of ethics, which takes several forms today, but not that form. What’s more, even the Euthyphro dialogue that Singer refers to does not deal with a theory like that. There, Plato dealt with a theory in which moral obligations are caused by the will of God, a theory that Singer ought to have no difficulty distinguishing from the one he described.

It doesn’t make sense to me that things should be as bad in the state of the literature. There’s no reason and no excuse for getting things so badly wrong. Volumes have been written by Christian thinkers over many centuries, and their views are readily accessible. There isn’t really even anything at stake for men like Kurtz and Singer. Accurately understanding and portraying the arguments used by many Christian philosophers is not at all to concede that they are correct. What’s more, the people who are the worst offenders are people who are themselves totally immersed in the subject matter to such an extent that they more than nearly anybody else should be getting these things right. Paul Kurtz is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo. It is impossible for him to be unaware, for example, that Kant used the argument from morality to theism, or what the actual theistic argument is (as opposed to the caricatured version that he presents). Peter Singer teaches at Princeton. Princeton! There is no way, as an author in the field of ethics, he has not actually read philosophers spell out their theistic views on the relationship between God and morality. Why, I ask in my perhaps naive way, do people who engage in this kind of argumentation get paid to teach people about it while I, who sit here getting ticked out about it and writing corrections like this, cannot seem to be able to land a role teaching the the field? But I digress.

The point is, it is rather depressing to invest effort into getting my fellow Christians to respect scholarship no matter where it comes from and to keep our standards high so that nobody can accuse us of being lazy and partisan and trusting that we will have a credulous audience that shares our religious preconceptions, only to look “over the fence” as it were and see that there are professionals operating in roles that influence many who just don’t care. They have a goal, and they don’t seem to give a toss how it is reached. It paints a very depressing picture of debates around philosophical issues where believers and unbelievers disagree. With scholars/author/speakers like this out there and a student and internet fan base out there behind them, I feel like a coach urging his team to get out there, play fair and keep it clean because we know that we have the skill to win and win decisively, knowing all the while that the other team is packing knives, the referee is going to award them goals even when they miss (and never be paying attention when we score), and the rabid commentators are going to announce to the fans at home that we lost fair and square.

On the other hand, things like this serve as a further motivation to actually succeed in the field. It’s a scene that badly needs to be cleaned up and someone has to do it.

Glenn Peoples


7 thoughts on “Engaging with critics of religiously grounded ethics: A depressingly bleak scholarly landscape

  1. Hi Glenn

    I have recently been reading “Is Goodness without God Good Enough?” which contains a debate between Craig and Kurtz and several critical reflections on the debate by Sinnott-Armstrong, John Hare, Stephen Layman, Richard Swinburne, Louise Anthony, Mark Murphy and Donald Hubin. Kurtz in that debate presses the same line as you cite. Craig immediately points out the caricature and Kutrz proceeds to do it again and again in the debate, several commentators like Hare and Murphy again point it out to him, Murphy and Craig in particular make it very clear that the claim is an ontological one. Hare in particular is all over his interpretation of Kant. In his reply he seems to equivocate between conceding these points, claiming that in reality Hare Craig Murphy are conceding something significant, construing the divine command theory as an epistemological claim, and then finally saying that he does not understand what “ontological foundation” means. He similarly acknowledges Kant’s sees God as a necessary postulate of practical reason but then suggests that his interpretation is fair because Kant based morality on reason. I found the whole thing truly bizarre given Kurtz’s standing as a professor.

  2. “Good for goodness sake” is really just as good as Google’s “Don’t be evil” motto. They sound good, but what do they really mean? Not much!

  3. Glenn, I understand the argument that unless there is a God moral truths do not exist. Now define moral truth, and why the word “truth” must be used in the sense of some metaphysical principle laid down in concrete, rather than the arising of such an idea as “morality” via an interactive process. Secondly, if you have no fear that people will swear and kill at will if they fail to acknowledge either God or “moral truths” set in metaphysical concrete, then neither do I have any such fear either, and so why are such beliefs so essential to promote? I would like the philosophers of moral truths and God to consider the benefits to society if everyone’s children had to take a class beginning very young, on practical moral wisdom drawn from all the world’s religious books and philosophy books, novels, plays, movies. Practical moral wisdom. Without arguing or worrying whether or not such wisdom is set in conrete metphysical galoshes, whether Jesus is Lord or just a great moral teacher, etc. Don’t worry about that, but consider the benefits of teaching all the great lessons in practical moral wisdom. I think humans have the capacity and foresight to recognize the beneftis of civilization and of tossing words rather than grenades at each other, and how we can all benefit most via cooperation. That’s pragmatic and practical moral wisdom.

  4. Now define moral truth, and why the word “truth” must be used in the sense of some metaphysical principle laid down in concrete, rather than the arising of such an idea as “morality” via an interactive process.

    Welcome back, Edward. If I understand you, you’re suggesting that perhaps we should not think of moral truths as facts at all. Rather than objective truths, you appear to be suggesting that perhaps morality is a convention that societies collaborative create via an interactive process.

    If that’s the case, then it’s not actually objectively true that it’s wrong to torture innocent children just for fun, but societies have collaboratively decided that this is not how they will behave. Although you mightn’t like the terminology, I think that relativism of this sort really has nothing to distinguish itself from an error theory of morality, aka moral nihilism. But that issue of terminology aside, I put it to you that the collaborative or relativistic scheme has consequences that most of us – perhaps even you – are not prepared to accept. For example a society that collaboratively decides to organise itself in adherence to Sharia law has elements that many of us think are morally awful. But Sharia law is one example, we can imagine all sorts of schemes that can be agreed on in some collaborative fashion but which we look on with intense moral disapproval.

    Secondly, I was more than a little surprised by this:

    Secondly, if you have no fear that people will swear and kill at will if they fail to acknowledge either God or “moral truths” set in metaphysical concrete, then neither do I have any such fear either, and so why are such beliefs so essential to promote?

    The innuendo here is that the one and only reason that exists for promoting religious beliefs is to get people not to swear and kill at will. Where on earth, I wonder, could you have gotten this obviously false impression? If Christianity is true, then we aren’t accepted by God because we don’t swear at or kill people at will. They find themselves in a broken relationship with God which is put right through faith in Christ. Not swearing at or killing people at will is nice of course, but still, the idea that religion has nothing to commend itself unless people would swear and kill without it is pretty weird.

    Lastly, I think it’s a false distinction to set up practical moral wisdom in contrast to moral truth. Often practical moral wisdom simply doesn’t know which way to turn unless there are any principles to which it can appeal. “Practical moral wisdom” divorced from the thought of ethical truths does not answer questions about bioethics, for example.

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