Thursday, May 1, 2014

Thoughts on the Morality Debate

Tarun Iyer (left) and George Simopoulos (right)

Last month, a debate was held in the University of Toronto between George Simopoulos (Christian) and Tarun Iyer (Atheist) on the question, “Is God the Source of Morality?” I thought it was a good debate, and gave the chance for some budding young intellectuals to be able to demonstrate what they are capable of in the area of academic debate.

Representing the Christian side, George Simopoulos that “the idea of absolute value is at the heart of the human experience.” Christianity affirms that there is an objective standard for making value judgments, which makes sense of our intuitive judgments regarding pleasure and pain, He makes the argument that all morality and ethics is ultimately rooted in the Triune God of scripture. This is not just in terms of Divine Command Theory, where God makes something moral by declaring it to be thus. Rather, as George notes, goodness is inextricably tied to God's nature, and when God makes a command in scripture, He reveals something of His unchanging nature. He also makes the point that ethics matters because of teleology/eschatology: We are headed towards an end, which culminates in the final judgment and the inauguration of the new heavens and new earth. In that light, right and wrong matters because their consequences are eternal. Accordingly, the non-theist's worldview cannot account for categories of right and wrong. We cannot know if such categories truly exist or not, thus causing the non-theist to commit epistemological suicide. Our thoughts are like weather patterns and we have no reason to trust them, and while we can make descriptive statements, we cannot make prescriptive ones, for to do so is to commit the “is-ought fallacy.” Furthermore, since we are just a random assortment of atoms, there is nothing intrinsically valuable about human life if we take this Naturalistic perspective

Representing the Atheist side, Tarun Iyer argues that according to Humanism, we must take care of the intrinsic value of human life (how he arrives at the conclusion that human life has intrinsic value is not explained). He rejects the idea that a transcendent higher power is necessary for grounding moral value judgments, as we can scientifically determine whether actions are good or bad. He refers to the idea of objective morality as “the last bastion of religious argument.” He objects to the idea that a higher power allowed humanity to live in hundreds of thousands of years without knowledge of morality. According to Tarun, it is absurd for God to prohibit such things as homosexuality and polytheism, and that if we choose to interpret the Bible in its historical context, we thereby nullify its claim to be the Living Word of God. He further rejects the idea of the Bible being the basis for moral absolutes on the grounds that other sacred texts such as the Bhagavad Gita have been making moral claims at least a thousand years before it.

Based on the arguments raised by both sides, it can be seen that they are approaching the debate from completely different angles. Tarun approaches the question from a social-historical angle, pointing to particulars that, in his estimation, militate against the Christian worldview's claim to provide objective moral grounding. George does respond to some of these particulars, pointing out, for example, that differences among different Christian groups are on secondary issues and do do nt detract from the core consensus on moral views, and that despite perceived difficulties in interpreting certain biblical texts, a solid hermeneutic allows us to draw a coherent moral standard from the Bible. George does not dwell on these particulars, however, and instead, approaches the question from a philosophical angle, going beyond particulars and going into the meta-ethical considerations underpinning our moral judgments and intuitions. He ties in the ethical aspects of the Christian worldview to its metaphysical and teleological presuppositions. In so doing, George exposes the fact that while Tarun can make objections regarding specific historical details incidental to Christianity's morality claims, he cannot provide a viable alternative from a Naturalistic worldview. 

There were two questions that were posed to Tarun in the Q&A in the debate that illustrate this failure of Naturalism to provide a meaningful basis for morality. The first was when I pointed out to Tarun how he never provided a way out of the is-ought fallacy, and asked him how he got around it. He responded by denying the is-ought fallacy! This implies that we can derive moral imperatives simply by empirical observation (he repeats in his closing statement when he asserts that we do not need to make any presuppositions to arrive at truth; but only to make observations of the world around us). He then argued that the we can objectively measure the consequences of actions and make moral judgments based on those (incidentally, Tarun did not know what a teleological ethics is, even though that was basically what he espoused). He never explained how one determines what exactly we should measure in order to determine if something is good or not, other than a vague and undefined reference to “love and compassion,” never mind why we take such parameters to be the basis for moral judgment, as opposed to the parameters anyone else proposes.

The second question came towards the end of the Q&A, when someone asked Tarun whether all of humanity's achievements, moral or otherwise, will matter after the human race becomes extinct. Tarun's response to the question is to say that it would depend on whether or not anyone else comes along to be able to observe the remains of humanity's achievements. If sentient life were to disappear from the universe, then it ultimately would not matter. This reveals the anthropocentric nature of Tarun's worldview: Persons, actions and achievements have value because other persons assign value to them. But if there is no person to assign that value, then such value would not exist. Corollary to this is that there is no way to arbitrate between someone who assigns value to certain persons and actions, and another person who rejects such value judgments.

In addition to this are various miscellaneous problems with specific issues that Tarun brings up. He says, for example, that it is “implausible and obscene” that such a being then decided to reveal Himself in the Middle East rather than someplace more civilized, such as China. Leaving aside the implicit racism embedded in that comment, it is quite odd that anyone would think that God must give His revelation to a nation that (in the objector's estimation) is civilized enough to accept it, or that He must do so in a specific way and in a specific time and place in history, as though the objector imagines himself to have a better plan for spreading God's message than the way He actually did so.

The Hitler question was debated to death as well, both during the Q&A and in the post-debate discussions that ensued. Not even Richard Dawkins accepts the idea that Hitler was a Christian, arguing that the contradictory statements coming from him indicate either that Hitler deconverted at some point in the early 1940s, or that he is, in Dawkins' terms “an opportunistic liar whose words cannot be trusted, in either direction” (The God Delusion, ch. 7). It seems that no matter how many times it is pointed out that Hitler privately ridiculed Christianity as a “great scourge” “disease,” such statements are nullified by public statements by Hitler where he praises Christianity. Because you can always trust the sincerity of politicians who make religious professions in their public statements, yes?

Finally, there is the question of other sacred texts predating Christianity. First of all, Tarun makes a slight historical error with regards to the Bhagavad Gita: the probable date for its composition is around the fifth century B.C., at which point most of the Old Testament had already been written. Be that as it may, even if other cultures did draw from moral sources predating the Bible, this does not nullify the Christian claim in the least. The reason for this is that in the Christian worldview, natural revelation (as distinct from special revelation gives humanity its moral sense (cf. Romans 1-2). Special revelation via the Scriptures expands upon the moral compass that God placed in human beings, making explicit what is implicit and revealing that these moral values are not just human developments, but have divine sanction and transcend human beings. Funny enough, the relative uniformity of moral codes across cultures is precisely what we would expect if the words of Romans 1-2 were true, as opposed to the evolutionary explanation of morality provided by Naturalists.

Overall, I have to say that George presented the better case in this debate, as he was the more articulate speaker, and his arguments were much more cogent. I find Tarun's arguments lacking, as he demonstrates a lack of knowledge of the meta-ethical issues surrounding the debate regarding the source of morality, or even of the historical and sociological issues that he raised in his own presentations. Perhaps in the future, he would learn from this experience and present better arguments for a Naturalistic view of ethics.