11 February 2008

Amoral Man – Post Script

"Amoral" is not "immoral" and "Judeo-Christian" is not "better behaved"

As part of a discussion in the comments under this posting, with an anonymous reader, I made the assertion that while a Christian may fail to live up to his code, he at least knows what he's failed to live up to. The reader asks, “You don't truly want to imply that no one else but Christians have standards that they want to, try to, live up to, now do you?”

Well, not only do I not wish to imply this, in the original posting I asserted out-right that atheists live in accordance with some sort of standards. I grant that the above-mentioned assertion could be understood as implying what the anonymous reader asks about, but I didn’t see any need to qualify the assertion given that I’d already considered non-theistic moral standards in the original posting.

But the issue (and I explained this in the original posting) isn’t whether an atheist lives in accordance with some standard. What I asserted in that posting was that the standards which govern an atheist’s ethical life are rooted in his own autonomous notions of morality. I don’t think people who live in accordance with their own autonomous notions of morality can be credited with living a moral life. How could he? His moral principle comes from within himself. He isn’t meeting a standard. He is the standard.

In an effort to overcome this point he says, among other things, that “Thou shalt not kill is nothing more than preservation of the species.” Well, that may be. But it doesn’t tell us that not killing is a moral good unless it is a moral good that the species survive. My anonymous reader probably wants to survive. Or perhaps he just wants, as a human, to see his species survive. If that be the case then, as I said, his moral principle comes from within himself and is nothing more than his desire to survive projected upon the whole species. The species ought to survive. Or maybe the species just wants to survive, and the moral principle, “Thou shalt not kill” serves that desire.

Anticipating just this sort of thing, I discussed (in para. 12 of the original posting) briefly Kant’s view, which I happen to agree with, that in order to count as a moral act an act must proceed from a duty, not a desire. The desire to survive entails no duties.

Even if this were not the case, surely a duty not to kill is not the only duty following from the “preservation of the species”. In order to be preserved, there must be reproduction in the species, so perhaps laws outlawing homosexual behavior are proper after all. If everybody were gay the species would die out. Sure they were born that way, but the equipment still works for purposes of procreation and they should be required to use it for that purpose. (Or maybe we could just require that gays marry and father/mother children and get a little same-sex action on the side.) Polygamy – but only by males, of course – should also be permitted, especially in those cases in which there happen to be more females than males. Besides, if there are people out there who must resist the urge to kill for the sake of the preservation of the species, then everybody should be required to resist whatever urges the indulgence of which do not serve to preserve the species.

However flippant that all may seem, the point remains that I don’t think we can get a duty not to kill from the concept of the self-preservation of the species.

My anonymous reader seems to suggest that the fact that we don’t see snakes turn into serial killers and kill lots of other snakes tells us something about how we should act. “How often,” he says, “do you see a snake turn into a serial killer and kill lots of other snakes? Is a snake therefore a…Christian?” Well, I grew up in Texas; so the only snakes I saw close enough to observe were garters, and I never did see one garter kill another. All the other snakes I saw were the kind I didn’t want to get close enough to observe – at all. (Reminds me of this joke. Tanto and the Lone Ranger were out one day…. Actually, never mind.)

The fact that snakes are not Christians must mean that one does not need to be a Christian in order to believe that it is wrong to kill, I suppose. It certainly tells us that one does not need to be a Christian in order not to kill, a point I might understand his making if I had asserted, whether explicitly or implicitly, that only Christians do not kill, or that only theists believe it is wrong to kill. Not only did I not do so, I explained why, even though an atheist may not kill, his not doing so isn’t moral behavior: his not doing so proceeds from his own autonomous notions of morality. He doesn’t kill for reasons that seem good to him. If he doesn’t kill because he acknowledges some universally applicable moral code as obligatory, then he does so because has personally judged this code to be universally applicable.

Now, I wonder: if the non-murderous behavior of snakes is to tell us something about the moral status of killing, what are we to make of the behavior of the female praying mantis? I shudder to consider the possibilities.

My anonymous reader also informs me that, “[A]theists aren't immoral nor are they amoral. The moral code(s) they live by are ‘partly’ the same ones of Judeo-Christians, and Muslims, Taoists, Wiccans, Druids, etc... not because those religions are right but because some moral codes are universal.” Well, perhaps some moral codes are universal. But his assertion that this is the case tells us very little. It does not, for example, tell us how we become obligated to any moral code, even a universal one. It does not tell us how we may enquire into the content of these universal codes. Some moral codes may be universal, but that alone does not tell us that “Thou shalt not kill” is part of the content of any universal code to which we may be obligated. (What’s more, he has not decided simply that this universally applicable moral code is obligatory for him, but also that it is universally applicable and obligatory for all other humans, whether they have judged it so or not. But I digress.) I asked, in the original posting (para. 22) how we may know that it is wrong to murder:

Do you know it's wrong to murder in the same way that you know George Bush is President of the United States, or that it is (or is not) snowing outside (where you live) right now? Is the proposition, "It is wrong to murder" true by definition in the same way as "2+2=4"? It is difficult to see how it could be.
Apparently we know because snakes don’t kill their own kind. (But praying mantises do.)

I was also provided with links intended to show me that morals have nothing to do with Judeo-Christian religions (here and here). The links are to on-line profiles of two porn stars, one a Jew, the other a Christian (specifically, Roman Catholic). Since the links are intended to point to the behavior of the two performers, the point is clearly that people within the Judeo-Christian sphere are not paragons of moral virtue. And this would be an important point if my argument in “Amoral Man” was an argument that Judeo-Christians are better behaved than non-Judeo-Christians. To be fair, his provision of these links was in response to two questions I asked about the Christian credentials of two adult magazine publishers (i.e., Hugh Hefner and Bob Guccione). By asking the questions (which, I admit, were poorly phrased and confused the issue), I was aiming at the notion that Judeo-Christians involved in porn were pursuing the standards of the Judeo-Christian ethic. I assert that regardless the Christian credentials of Bob Guccione and Jenna Jamison, they aren’t pursuing the requirements of the Judeo-Christian ethic in the areas of sexuality and objectification of women.

In a subsequent comment, the same reader writes:

1. The US is the most Judeo-Christian-theocratic nation on earth.

2. The US has the largest numbers of serial-killers per capita

3. Logic dictates that chances therefor are that the large majority of serial killers belong to one Judeo-Christian sect/cult or the other.

4. Most of them will have been considered by their friends, collegues,etc... as well behaved and good theist Americans.

5. Facts show all of the above to be true.

If the morals of theists, especially Judeo-Christian ones, are so much better then the ones of the 'amoral' atheists then how to you explain the above?For that matter how to you explain the fact that atheists aren't represented in the US jail population in the same percentages then they are in the general population? Let alone why they are not even much more numerous if they are amoral.

Really, just how could I hope to explain, given “facts” 1 through 5? I will first stipulate to each of them. I believe they are all arguable (except perhaps for item 2), but even if they are not, they don’t, even if true, affect my argument (i.e., that atheists are amoral). First, I didn’t assert that Judeo-Christian morals are “better” than the morals of “amoral” atheists. The apples belonging to a man who has apples are not “better” than the apples of a man who has no apples. My reader seems to think that I equate amoral with immoral, having apples as having good apples and not having apples as having rotten apples. I don’t. I explained why I believe atheists are amoral (not immoral). He offers nothing in response. Apparently it’s just wrong (morally wrong?) to say so, no matter what one’s reasons might be.

Second, let’s say that the large majority of serial killers do belong to one Judeo-Christian cult or other. Let’s say also that I have argued the superiority of the Judeo-Christian ethic. This fact about the population of serial killers tells us nothing about the superiority of the ethical system in question. For one thing, there is only a problem with serial killing (among others) if the Judeo-Christian ethic is applicable and, therefore, murder is wrong. For another thing, that people violate the prohibitions entailed in an ethical system tells us nothing about the applicability or superiority of that ethical system.

The serial-killer Christian would be a violator of the Judeo-Christian ethic on that point, not a follower of it, when he kills. Think of it this way. If we have a law specifying a speed limit on highways, and people violate that law, it doesn’t tell us that there is a problem in our system of laws, unless, perhaps, that system has no provision for dealing with offenders. My anonymous friend seems to think that an ethical system, in addition to being comprised of positive and negative duties (i.e., Thou shalt and Thou shalt not, respectively), must also somehow guarantee obedience to these duties. And therefore the inferiority (or just the absence of superiority) of the Judeo-Christian ethic is demonstrated by the fact that people following that ethic violate that ethic. But that isn’t the case. The Judeo-Christian who serially-murders isn’t obeying; he’s disobeying. And that tells us nothing about the Judeo-Christian ethic itself. If there is a superiority in the Judeo-Christian ethic, that superiority is properly demonstrated by the obedience given to it, not any disobedience. Arguing against the supposed superiority of the Judeo-Christian ethic on the basis that people, even some Judeo-Christians, disobey it is to say that we can determine which ethical system is the best on the basis of how many obey it, or don’t disobey it.

Now, what ought we to learn about the Judeo-Christian ethic from the fact that not as many atheists are serial killers as Judeo-Christians? Apparently we are to learn that the Judeo-Christian ethic is not superior. Well, that is very interesting. From the fact that atheists obey the Judeo-Christian ethic (it’s the standard which he employs in setting up this problem) we are to learn that the Judeo-Christian ethic is not superior. My argument that atheists are amoral, in addition to not being an argument that they are immoral, is also not an argument that Christians, as a class, are more moral than atheists. The man with the apples, above, may choose not to eat his apples; and the Judeo-Christian may choose to disregard the system of ethics entailed in his worldview. That doesn't make the atheist moral; it just makes the Judeo-Christian immoral, as judged in terms of his own ethical system.

For one thing the Christian who will agree that atheists are, or can be moral is judging the atheist’s behavior by the Christian ethical system. When I was an atheist I found that offensive: for the Christian to judge me as morally good presupposed the truth of his entire life-system (not just the ethical provisions), a system which I rejected. (Though I do have to confess to having had a certain respect for elements of the Judeo-Christian ethic and its influence upon Western civilization – much like Oriana Fallaci had.) Who was the Christian to tell me I was or was not a good person?

For another thing, no argument about the supposed superiority of the Judeo-Christian ethic is an argument that, as a rule, the actions of all (or even just most) Judeo-Christians are morally superiority to the actions of non-Judeo-Christians. That would transform the discussion of ethics from what we ought to do to what we in fact do. The same ethical system that commands the Judeo-Christian to do or not to do also judges him when he fails to do or not to do. If the Judeo-Christian ethic fails just because a Judeo-Christian fails to meet the standard then no Judeo-Christian can be said to have missed the standard: the standard, remember, is supposedly invalidated by someone’s failure to meet it!

My anonymous reader may be correct. There may be a great many Judeo-Christians in our prisons. But remember that, on his own admission, it was our Judeo-Christian-theocratic system which weighed those Judeo-Christians on the Judeo-Christian balance, found them wanting in respect of conformity to that standard, and put them in prison in the first place.


Having stipulated to items 1 through 5, above, for purposes of clarity regarding my position, I want now to offer some brief consideration on what it means to be a Christian. When he asserts that the United States are the most Judeo-Christian-theocratic in the world, I have to agree, of course. But I agree only to the extent that it can be said that we have not as fully jettisoned our orthodox Christian heritage to the same extent as it appears European nations have done.

But the fact is, not everyone who says, “I am a Christian” means the same thing by the word Christian. (NB: I didn’t say that not everyone who says he is a Christian is a Christian, or a “true” Christian.) For example when I say that I am a Christian I mean, among other things, that I receive the Apostles’ and Nicene (381) creeds as statements of the catholic faith; in other words I identify myself as an “orthodox” Christian, as contrasted with, say, a “liberal” or “neo-orthodox” Christian.

When someone like Oriana Fallaci called herself a “Christian” atheist, she did not mean by “Christian” what orthodox, liberal or even neo-orthodox Christians mean by the term (see also here). When someone like Robert Jensen calls himself a Christian (a true Christian, in fact), he does not mean by the term (as he himself explains) what orthodox, liberal or neo-orthodox Christians mean by the term. What people like Fallaci and Jensen mean when they call themselves Christians is simply nothing more than that they recognize a certain cultural value to Christianity apart from theological-philosophical elements. (In a sense, I suppose I would rather have Fallaci and Jensen inside the tent with me, pissing out – sort of – than outside the tent, pissing in. [Apologies to Winston Churchill.] But I digress.)

But there is something Fallaci, Jensen and others do which some Christians in the orthodox, liberal and neo-orthodox sense also do: they select which parts of the body of doctrine, including the ethical elements, they will apply to themselves and others. What this means is that caution must be exercised when styling the United States as “Judeo-Christian-theocratic” because while they may in some sense be Judeo-Christian, they are not confessionally and explicitly so. (That last point is important because my anonymous reader informs me that people are not what they do not explicitly call themselves. But more about that in a subsequent posting.) They are so in the sense that elements of the Judeo-Christian worldview provide much of the cultural motif; and that is about it.


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James Frank Solís
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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