11 March 2008

Whence is duty?

Now that my brain is no longer simmering over low heat I offer further reply to my anonymous reader. (Note: I don’t label postings such as this “Duty to Reply” for nothing. Every critic gets a reply, so far as I am physically able to give one.)

He reminds me that I “never tried to refute the fact that if Christians are moral because of their belief in God then [I am] stating that 99.9% of the world is not moral because they don't believe in [MY] variation of God” (here). On one hand there is nothing to refute: I don’t believe that Christians are moral because of our belief in God and the rest of the world immoral because of their unbelief. This would logically require me to believe that the Christian who murders, steals, cheats, or commits adultery is moral, despite his actions, on the grounds of the presence in his heart of belief in God. It would also logically require me to believe that the non-Christian who does not murder, steal, cheat or commit adultery is, despite his actions, immoral on the grounds of the absence in his heart of belief in God. These are not positions that I hold. I conceded in “Amoral Man” that non-Christians act in ways which I credit as moral. But I also admitted that I credit those actions as moral on the basis of a Christian view of what constitutes moral acts, something which he believes is illegitimate for me to do. In other words, I judge Christians and non-Christians by the same moral standard. And the moral standard in Christian thought is not whether someone believes in the Christian God, although one of the requirements of Christian ethics is the honoring of God.

My friend continues to reply to me as if my argument in “Amoral Man” were that Christians (or theists in general) are morally superior to non-Christians (but particularly non-theists) simply by virtue of being Christians. In fact, I offered no such argument; nor would I have done. What I argued was that a non-theistic view of reality leaves no room for ethics. Not only would I not be the first person to make that argument, if I were still a non-theist I would not be the only non-theist to make that argument. As I also pointed out in “Amoral Man” many non-theists recognize this, among whom are Steven Weinberg and William Provine. This is not to say that the issue is thereby resolved. Rather it is to clarify that the precise point I was arguing is not novel, nor fringe.

On the other hand, so what if I do believe that Christians are moral because of our belief in God and the rest of the world immoral because of their unbelief?

I have found it very interesting throughout our exchanges that he believes there are things I ought to believe and, conversely, things I ought not believe. Indeed, some of my beliefs make me arrogant, so there is a moral component in his epistemology, as there is in mine also. In this case, as I understand him, I ought not believe that Christians are moral because of their belief in God and that the rest of the world is not moral because of their unbelief. Moreover, I am morally out of line for believing Christians morally superior to others just for believing in our variation of God.

Apparently I have an obligation, a moral obligation, not to believe that. I am not informed, however, how I come to have this obligation, this duty. He has been very consistent about insisting I have duties while being short on explaining how I’ve come to have these duties. He objects to me holding him accountable to my variation of God. So be it. I object to his holding me accountable to his variation of morals.

In response to my assertion (here) that “[I]n order for the atheist to be credited as living a moral life when he doesn't kill, he must have a duty not to kill, not simply a lack of desire to kill, or the simple fact of not having killed” my anonymous reader writes:
An atheist DOES have a duty not to kill. The only difference is that his duty is not based on a book that glorifies incest, murder, maimin [sic] and genocide.His duty is to his fellow man. His duty is to his society and to his species.
In my original posting I briefly discussed the subject of duty. I asked how anyone comes to have duties, on a non-theistic view. I asked to whom these duties are owed and how we come to have these duties to them. We are now informed that the atheist has duties to his fellow man, his society, and his species. We are informed that while the atheist has duties, what separates him from the Christian is that his duties aren’t “based on a book that glorifies incest, murder, maiming and genocide.” (I guess those things are immoral, and are related to some of the duties each of us has to his fellow man, his society and to his species. But I think he should be prevailed upon to demonstrate that these things are wrong, before he claims superiority for his system on the basis of this distinction between his system and mine.)

Besides, I asked, in the original posting, how one comes to have these duties? He doesn’t tell us. I suppose we have these duties just because he says so.

Neither are we told on what these duties are based. We are not informed how it is that my fellow men, my society or my entire species come to have rights against me that I act, or do not act, in certain ways. How is it that my fellow men, my society and my species even have the right to exist – much less to have rights against me? Who do they think they are? God? You see, if we don’t have the right even to exist, then I don’t see how we have the right to anything which makes our continued existence possible. “Thou shalt not murder” may be, as he put it in one of his earliest comments, nothing more than preservation of the species, but has the species any right to be preserved? If so, how does it come to have this right?

Here are some duties beyond preserving the species which he thinks people have:
1. Duties not to abuse children, not to divorce, not to murder, not to rape, not to produce guns, as evidenced by his listing these as moral failures (here).
2. Apparently, God (if he exists) has a duty, if he is all loving, all mighty and all present, not to punish people for all eternity just for not following his petty rules and regulations (here) – as evidenced by his complaint that God does so, and is “petty” in doing so.
3. A duty not to be so hateful of one’s fellow man as to clearly feel that atheists belong to a lesser class of men (here).
4. A duty not to be arrogant (here).
5. God has a duty to be compassionate (also here).
6. A duty not to be “a menace to society and mankind” (here).
7. A duty to meet a moral standard that is based on facts and not fiction (here).
8. A duty to live my life valuing the worth of this life rather than trying to impress some entity so as to get a pleasant afterlife instead of eternal damnation in hell (here).
9. A duty not to “start killing multiple members of [one’s] own kind for reasons that are clearly anti-productive and anti survival of the species” – in other words, a duty to be productive and promote the survival of the species (here).
10. A duty to aid one’s fellow man (here).
11. And, of course, a duty not to render decisions about who is moral based on whether they believe in my version of God (here).
Elsewhere he comments:

The simple fact is that a "true moral" Christian is no more -- or less -- "moral" than a raping pedophile. (here)
Certainly, the Christian is not more moral than a pedophile simply by virtue of being a Christian. He can only be more moral than a pedophile if (a) pedophilia is immoral (he doesn’t explain how this is so), and (b) the Christian is not a pedophile. On the other hand, if the Christian is an adulterer then he isn’t more moral than a pedophile, unless one wants to say that something about the predatory nature of pedophilia makes it a worse evil, since adultery is at least consensual. What I would argue is that my friend has no grounds for asserting that pedophilia is immoral.

Even if that were not the case, what I argued in “Amoral Man” was not that the Christian is more moral (I didn’t even argue that the Christian was moral at all), only that a non-theistic worldview denies reality to moral notions. It may be, as he asserts, that the Christian is no more, or less, moral than a pedophile. But this is true of the atheist as well, which is what I argued in “Amoral Man.”

Allow me to illustrate the problem as I have long seen it. A non-theistic worldview asserts materialism as the ultimate reality; everything is ultimately just material. The situation, as I see it, is similar to one in a universe in which all is fundamentally water. A man who is fundamentally water performs an act which is also fundamentally water and in attempting to distinguish his water-act from some other water-act in order to establish whether his water-act is right or wrong he applies a moral standard which is also fundamentally water. By this means water applies water to distinguish water from water. How does a standard which is ultimately water get applied by a man who is also ultimately water in determining the moral status of an act which is also ultimately water?

He might accuse me of reification here. But the worldview itself, being ultimately materialistic, automatically reifies everything without any help from me.

Finally, he asks (here),

Why is it so hard to understand that morals aren't something that Christians can claim sole ownership?
I think it is quite telling that in responding to a claim that his worldview is ultimately amoral he has chosen to do little else than recast my argument into something it has never been and, while he’s at it, accuse me of some wrong-doing. It’s his time to waste, of course, but I can’t help wondering: If he objects so much to being told his worldview is fundamentally amoral, why not just offer logical rejoinder which explains how his worldview is not fundamentally amoral? Arbitrarily asserting duties (e.g., to one’s fellow man, his society, his species) doesn’t explain how water generates moral standards for judging the actions of water. Accusing me of wrong doing doesn’t explain how water generates moral standards for judging the actions of water.

My question to him about how I come to have any duties to my fellow men, my society and my species has gone unanswered throughout our exchanges. It remains so.


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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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