“Fan” mailDecember 6, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
From time to time I see references to this blog in the comments people submit to other blogs. They’re especially interesting when they come from Vox Day supporters, like this one does. I’m particularly fascinated when Vox’s supporters find fault with my arguments at the precise points where I agree with Vox.
For example, in referring to last Tuesday’s TIA post, “Mike T” writes:
It is a very weak argument, that fails to even understand the point that Vox was making that the Golden Rule is simply not a moral statement at all because it provides no inherent, objective guidance on what we should do. If a psychopath or a sociopath were to follow the golden rule as the foundation of their moral code, it could lead to some extremely *ahem* “interesting” situations. Hence why Vox said that the Golden Rule only makes sense as a means of applying a pre-existing, objective moral system to your actions.
Mind you, Vox didn’t actually say that the Golden Rule makes sense as a means of applying a pre-existing, objective moral system (at least not in Chapter 14 of TIA), but he did say that it was not a perfect basis for determining morality, and I did agree that “Yes, the Golden Rule is not a perfect and infallible guide to morality.” But if agreeing with Vox makes my argument weaker, then perhaps I ought to revisit the topic.
There’s a lot more I could say about the Golden Rule, of course. In my original post, I wanted to focus more on the fact that Vox was using a shallow, 1-dimensional strawman to distract attention from the argument atheists actually use, which is that Biblical morality often falls short of what one would expect from a divinely inspired and supremely good revelation. But if we just want to look at the Golden Rule, there’s lots more we could say.
For instance, while it’s true that you can think up fringe cases (e.g. psychopaths) where the Golden Rule could be abused, it’s still a good moral guide in the vast majority of cases. Jesus did, after all, preach it as a guiding principle, so you’d think Christians would acknowledge that it has some utility in that particular domain. Even in the cases where it can be abused, it’s not as though any other moral system would do better—a psychopath is going to remain psychopathic no matter how many times you read Exodus 20 at him.
Mike T is wrong, of course, about the Golden Rule not providing any kind of practical guidance on what we should do. If you’re considering whether or not to punch someone in the face, ask yourself, “Would I want to BE punched in the face?” If you can answer that question, then you can receive moral guidance from the Golden Rule. Even if all the Golden Rule does is to restrain you from inflicting suffering on others (because you would not want suffering inflicted on yourself), it has served a tremendously practical and specific moral purpose.
In fact, it is revelation-based morality, and not the Golden Rule, that fails to give us reliable guidance as to right and wrong behavior. If right and wrong are determined solely by divine decree, if a thing is good solely because God permits or demands it, and if we assume that God is sometimes willing and able to speak to human hearts, then there is no behavior that is not potentially good so long as it is arguably the will of God. If someone murders someone else, and God spoke to his heart and told him to do it, revelation-based morality gives us no basis for calling his behavior “evil.” We have no way to disprove the claim that God revealed, to that one person, that murder was His will.
Nor can we claim that we know God would never reveal that murder was His will. Even without all the Biblical examples of cases where God did command people to kill each other, if right and wrong are defined solely by what God has revealed, then we can’t assume that murder (or torture or stealing or lying) would be so wrong in and of themselves that God would be wrong to want them. If you assume that there’s a higher standard to which even God’s behavior and desires are accountable, you are making moral judgments about God’s revelations based on a secular, objective moral standard. That means that God’s revelations are not the source of moral standards, since God’s ability to dictate moral decrees is itself subject to a higher, secular standard of morality. But if that’s the case, then it’s the secular standard of morality, and not divine revelation, that is really determining what is right and what is wrong.
There are also some very practical reasons why revelation-based morality actually makes it more difficult to tell right from wrong. An ethicist who defined morality in terms of what God allegedly revealed in the Old and New Testaments would have a harder time explaining why it is wrong to practice genocide, to deny a man his own wife and children, to sell your daughter into sexual slavery, to mutilate babies’ genitals, to put someone to death for the “crime” of working on Saturday, and so on.
By condoning and even commanding such actions, the Bible leaves the revelation-based moralist without any means of declaring that such things are intrinsically wrong, and forces him (or her) to declare that they are only wrong relatively and situationally. There is no objective standard of right or wrong behavior, because the behaviors themselves are neither right nor wrong. They only become right or wrong relative to God’s inscrutable and unpredictable will for a particular time, place, and situation. And since “God works in mysterious ways,” and “His thoughts are not our thoughts,” we can’t really predict what will or will not be God’s perfect will for any given situation. Unless, of course, we’ve got an objective, secular moral standard which rules over the moral decrees God Himself is allowed to make.
So I hope it’s more clear by now that I do not agree with Vox Day’s attempt to portray revelation-based morality as being somehow superior to the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule does not need the Bible to guide people into correct moral behavior (much of which consists of minding one’s own business and not inflicting suffering on others). And, sadly, the Bible does not show much evidence of relying too heavily on the Golden Rule (despite Jesus’ endorsement of it). The Israelites, for example, probably would not want to be wiped out by the Amalekites, so that fact alone ought to have guided them in considering whether or not the prophet Samuel was really telling them to do things that a genuinely moral deity would have endorsed.
There, I’ve contradicted Vox. Is my argument stronger now?