Friday, February 23, 2007

Where My Values Come From

I would like to dedicate this post to Karen Hunter and Jesse Peterson. Karen Hunter, as members of the atheist blogosphere will recall, declared several weeks ago on CNN’s Paula Zahn NOW program, “What does an atheist believe? Nothing.” She went on to add that atheists need to just “shut up.” In a follow-up segment several days later, Jesse Peterson accused atheists of “trying to impose their godless lifestyle” on America and challenged Ellen Johnson of American Atheists to explain where atheists get their values from after trumpeting that he gets his values from “God and the Bible.” Well Karen and Jesse, here is my answer to you.

In short, I believe in civilization, liberty, justice, human rights, personal responsibility, accountability ,and the spirit of self betterment. While Jesse Peterson boasts that he gets his values from the Bible, I derive my values from the wisdom and knowledge accumulated by the human race from thousands of years of experience. You see, what Karen Hunter, Jesse Peterson and countless others fail to realize is while they focus on the comings and goings of a collection of semi-nomadic tribes between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, complex and sophisticated civilizations thrived in Egypt, Crete, Greece, Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, along the banks of the Indus River and in China. The Israelites and their collection of tales that would eventually comprise the Old Testament had no impact on the development of these civilizations.

The Greek achievements during the Hellenic and Hellenistic eras had a profound influence on Western civilization in so many areas. The plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides; the philosophy of Socrates and Plato; the spirit of scientific inquiry exemplified by Hippocrates and Aristotle; the birth of history with Herodotus and Thucydides. The Greeks gave us the Olympics, the Doric capital and the Corinthian column. And of course, as we all know, it was the Greeks who introduced democracy, or rule by the people, to the world.

In China and throughout East Asia, probably no man has had a greater influence than Confucius, who is believed to have lived in the 6th century B.C. ‘The Analects’, the collection of sayings attributed to Confucius, is replete with introspective statements such as “In what I have undertaken on another’s behalf, have I failed to do my best? In my dealings with my friends have I failed to be trustworthy in what I say?”, “When you meet someone better than yourself, turn your thoughts to becoming his equal. When you meet someone not as good as you are, look within and examine your own self,” and “It is these things that cause me concern: failure to cultivate virtue, failure to go more deeply into what I have learned, inability, when I am told what is right, to move where it is, and inability to reform myself when I have defects.” One of my favorite sayings from ‘The Analects’ is Book 13:13, “If a man manages to make himself correct, what difficulty will there be for him to take part in government? If he cannot make himself correct, what business has he with making others correct.” Those lines should be memorized by every aspiring candidate for political office.

Though Confucius is well known even to Westerners, Chinese civilization produced other great and important thinkers. One of my favorites, who is virtually unknown to Americans, is Mo Tzu, who lived in the 5th century B.C. Hundreds of years before Jesus was preaching to the Pharisees to “Love your neighbor as yourself,” Mo Tzu preached the doctrine of “universal love.” By that, Mo Tzu meant that we should regard the welfare of others as much as our own. “When everyone regards the houses of others as his own, who would disturb the others’ houses? One would regard the others as one’s self…is this a calamity or a benefit to the world? Of course it is a benefit.”

In the Gospels, Jesus famously implores his listeners to turn the other cheek. Several hundred years before that, the Buddhist text ‘The Dhammapadda’ had already covered the same ground:

“’He insulted me, he hurt me, he defeated me, he robbed me.’ Those who think such thoughts will not be free from hate. For hate is not conquered by hate: hate is conquered by love. This is a law eternal. Many do not know that we are here in this world to live in harmony. Those who know this do not fight against each other.” Elsewhere it reads “Overcome anger by peacefulness; overcome evil by good. Overcome the mean by generosity; and the man who lies by truth.”

Another great Indian religious text, the ‘Bhagavad-Gita’, instructs us that people with an evil nature “are addicts of sensual pleasure, made restless by their many desires, and caught in the net of delusion.” A person with good tendencies, on the other hand, “harms no one. He renounces the things of this world. He has a tranquil mind and an unmalicious tongue. He is compassionate toward all. He is not greedy. He is gentle and modest. He abstains from useless activity. [I wonder if that applies to blogging! :-)] He is free from hatred and from pride."

It was not until I was of college age that I became aware of and read the great works of Eastern religion and philosophy. It had a lasting impact on me by shaping my views about materialism and our attachment to the things of this world. Eastern thought, particularly Buddhism, is often stereotyped as being about withdrawing from the world and leading a monastic lifestyle. But for me, it was more about applying the philosophy in a way that was practical and consistent in a Western culture. We need clothes, shelter, transportation and possessions, but we do not need to have the fanciest clothes, the biggest house, the most expensive car, and loads of jewelry and other luxury items. Otherwise we find ourselves drowning in debt instead of saving for a rainy day. As Tyler Durden tells his followers in Fight Club, "The things you own end up owning you."

And not to give the Bible short shrift, but the one book from the Bible that had the most appeal for me was the Book of Proverbs. While there are many phrases in Proverbs about what "the Lord abhors" or "detests", there are also many wise and practical sayings, such as "He who ignores discipline comes to poverty and shame, but whoever heeds correction is honored" which are religiously neutral and echo the teachings of the texts I mention above.

What one begins to notice is that there are certain moral lessons that can be found in virtually all of the great texts of the civilizations of the ancient world. Some Biblical Literalists will argue, as I have seen, that this is evidence that our morals come from God, which of course they mean to be their God. I find this argument to be a pathetic attempt for them to give their religion the credit for all of the moral and ethical advances made by others. Rather, I would argue, as would any other objective person, that as civilizations developed throughout the world, the people who belonged to these civilizations found themselves confronting common problems. With the rise of literacy, the learned and educated people in each civilization developed the means to share their wisdom and observations with others.

It is only very recently in human affairs, say the last two or three centuries, that it has become possible for an educated person to have access to the moral and ethical traditions of cultures outside of his own. Nowadays, anyone can go to a local library or Barnes & Noble bookstore to find books about the Greek philosophers, 'The Analects' of Confucius, the texts of Hinduism and Buddhism, along with the Bible and virtually every great work that has been written and published up to the present day. Because we live in a predominantly Christian country, it is to be expected that the Bible will have a greater hold on the imaginations of most Americans. But as the Clarence Darrow character in "Inherit the Wind" says of the Bible, "It is a good book, but it is not the only book." When considering the collective wisdom of humanity, the Bible is but one of many pillars of human civilization. So, when Jesse Peterson boasts that he gets his values from the Bible, I would tell him that the source of his values is much poorer and limited than mine.


Sirkowski said...

It bugs me to no end when people talk as if everything "moral" had been invented by Christianity. As if before 'Thou shall not kill' murder was just fine with everybody.

CyberKitten said...

Excellent post!

Tommy said...

Thanks Cyberkitten. Personally I was concerned that this post was suffering from overkill. But I felt I had to provide examples of ethical teachings from other cultures outside of the Bible in order to ram home the point. I don't think I fully captured what I set out to do in a concise and to the point style, but in the end, I just wanted to get the darned post up after laboring over it for so many hours!

And Stardust, I know you tagged me with the quote thing, but to date I just have not been able to get to it. I did not want you to think I was ignoring it.

Stardust said...

Tommy, this is a beautiful post that should be published somewhere...seriously. It is excellent.

Don't worry about the quote thing. I know you are a busy man. If you want to just fuggetaboutit, that's fine too. :) Your posts are much more worthwhile.

CyberKitten said...

tommy said: Personally I was concerned that this post was suffering from overkill.

Not in the least. I often skim particularly long posts but I took the time to read yours all the way through. It was *very* well reasoned and was right on the money. A very impressive piece of work and well worth the effort you put into it.

Stardust said...

I suggest you send this to American Atheist, Positive Atheism and maybe send it to your local Atheist organization.

Trissa said...

Tommy, as someone who is relatively new to the athiest culture, I have a naive question. Is there a spiritual element to your belief system? If so, what does it look like?

Tommy said...

Thank you both again for your kind words, though I still feel that the end product was an imperfectly realized execution of the goal I had in mind.

I also wanted to include references to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, but ended up dropping it because I did not want the post to drag on and on. Besides it might have detracted from the argument that there are meaningful sources of morals and ethics outside of the Bible as the Renaissance and the Enlightenment took place within the context of a Christian Europe.

Interestingly, I borrowed from my library a couple of days ago a collection of Paul Kurtz's writings called "In Defense of Secular Humanism" and the opening chapter makes very similar arguments.

Tommy said...

Hi Trissa!

I just noticed your comments as I submitted mine.

That's an interesting question. There are those fleeting moments when I feel some bond or connection to humanity and, at the risk of sounding like some New Age hippy, feel a certain sense of oneness with humanity and the universe.

When I first turned away from Christianity, I still maintained for a time a belief in some ill-defined higher power. My view of God changed from an entity apart from us that sat in judgment over us and intervened in our affairs to the idea of a divine force that was part of all of us and that connected us to each other. (Sorry if I sound like Obi-wan Kenobi there!) This led me to have, which I still possess, a very universalist outlook with respect to the human race.

I don't know if I would consider myself a spiritual person at present. I do have what I would consider a higher set of ideals as to how to be good and virtuous, but being a flawed human being, I understand that I will forever fall short of fully realizing those ideals. But at least having those ideals provides me with a light to navigate by while negotiating the turbulent waters of life.

BaconEating AtheistJew said...

Great points. You are missing one thing though. Evolved "ethics and morality." I'm convinced that we are born hardwired in the majority of cases not to kill and steal from those most like us and those who live in the same vincinity as us.
Just look at the animal kingdom and the social mammals. Just look at ants even.
If you look at a monkey, or ape, or great cat or ant within its own "tribe" they act just as "moral and ethically" as a "good" human would be expected to act.
An ant doesn't need knowledge of God to not kill his fellow workers. A monkey knows that stealing a banana from a monkey in his tribe is going to lead to some crappy consequences.

If "morality and ethics" weren't in our hardwiring, we'd be extinct.

Stardust said...

tommy, just to let you know I have featured and linked to your article at Gifs...HERE. Hope you don't mind, but it's a great follow-up to Bob's posts.

Stardust said...

Thank you both again for your kind words, though I still feel that the end product was an imperfectly realized execution of the goal I had in mind.

Then develop it more and send it off to various places! :-)

Tommy said...

Thanks Stardust. I'm flattered.

After the CNN segment, I have had this idea of drafting an op-ed to my local newspaper Newsday about the misconceptions people have about atheism.

Stardust said...

After the CNN segment, I have had this idea of drafting an op-ed to my local newspaper Newsday about the misconceptions people have about atheism.

tommy, the timing for such an article is excellent since atheism has been in the news much recently and with the success of books by Harris and Dawkins.

If I sent a piece like that to our local paper, the Herald News in Joliet, the editors (fundie police) would edit mispellings into it and re-write it to make me sound like an idiot if I don't put it in writing that I must approve all edits.

Now I always demand to read the final draft they are going to print. I don't know if this has ever happened to you, but I have written several editorials for our paper here and they really butchered a couple of them which still pisses me off to think about!

Tommy said...

BTW, have you heard from Andrea about the baby? I hope everything went alright. Of course, I suppose she has her hands full with the new little one to be blogging.

The Merchant of Menace said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Merchant of Menace said...


That was a delight to read, in many respects.

Whilst I agree with your contention that is not Xtianity (or even any religion whatsoever), nor is it this entity so-called 'believers' call 'god', which is the source of morality and ethics, the point made by Bacon Eating Atheist Jew is even more apposite: what we intellectualise as morals and ethics are actually part of our evolutionary development. However, I appreciate that that sort of argument will be dismissed out of hand by the people you were primarily addressing yourself to, which is why I believe that your approach was by far the better one at this stage. As it is, I doubt that these people will be likely to accept that any wisdom can pre-date their own so-called 'holy scriptures', or come from a source other than their own particular so-called 'god'(but who is, after all, simply of the many so-called 'gods' who have littered the human landscape over the millennia).

Nevertheless, none of that detracts from your very elegant piece.

(PS: I removed my previous post as I had missed a couple of typos - I hope I've corrected them all in this version).

Stardust said...

tommy, I haven't heard anything about Andrea and baby. I too hope all went well for them. I am sure she forgot all about blogging once the little one arrived.

Krystalline Apostate said...

Nicely done, tommy.
My response to Ms. Hunter was about 1/2 this long, & I received a curt reply that I needed to make it shorter, as it was too 'selfish'.
You may consider emailing both Petersen & Hunter w/it, but my impression is that they'll dismiss it w/a wave of a hand.
Still, as Lucretius once said, "The drops of rain make a hole in the stone, not by violence, but by oft falling."

Eve said...

A very elegant post, tommy, and an excellent "takedown" of the all-too-common (and false) theistic position that atheists either have no morals or are still following "xian" ones.

trissa, welcome to the realm of non-theism in all its forms! Many of us doubt that there is such a thing as a spiritual dimension to human beings, since the idea of spirituality, so close to the idea of the supernatural, seems so far to be a concept we've invented for the area of belief systems. We have thoughts/ideas, feelings/emotions, and feelings/physical sensations, but apparently not anything else. The vast majority of so-called "spiritual experiences," for example, be they xian pentecostal "speaking in tongues" or New Age "out-of-body experiences," are easily and reasonably explained by natural physiological processes within our own bodies.

There's a lot of information out there, and personally I found the Skeptic's Dictionary at one of my best sources for the explanation and refutation of spirituality and the supernatural. The James Randi Foundation website at (hope I got that right; I'm at a library computer!) is another great resource.

Happy hunting!

J. Pete Strobel said...

Hello Tommy:
I really liked your post.
Granted I am a Christian, but I found nothing in your post that I thought refuted Christianity.
It is unfortunate that some people egotistically insist that their thoughts or beliefs are superior to others, but you have done a wonderful job to show that a universal moral law pervades countless cultures, philosophies and religions. For me this is added evidence the God indeed exists, and I do not need to qualify that with insisting everyone acknowledge that God as a Christian God. God suffices.

Whether God best revealed Himself amongst all the religions through Jesus is truly a matter of belief. I believe He did, you believe He doesn't even exist. I think the universal nature of the moral law that you so cogently pointed out says otherwise. Keep searching. I will too.

Tommy said...

Thank you for your comments Pete.

The purpose of the post was not to necessarity refute Christianity, but to demonstrate that atheists have value systems to draw on, and because we are not Christians or religious Jews, we have the whole of human civilization from which to draw our values.

As for whether this is evidence that your god exists, of course we continue to disagree with you on that point, and vehemently so.

That being the case, I appreciate and welcome your input.

BigTex71 said...

Tommy, you have a wonderful way of articulating your thoughts. I am a newly 'born-again' closet atheist and I found your blog while examining agnosticism/atheism. I love reading your posts (and Stardust's.)
Keep up the great posts!

Tommy said...

Thanks for the kind words Tex.

Jason said...

Hey Tommy,

I hope that what I am about to say will not be misconstrued as an attempt to debate. I consider myself a truth-seeker just as you are. I am really writing out of curiosity. As a theist, however, I will make this one clarification: Christians do not obtain their morals from scripture alone. In fact, Christians believe it is "written upon the hearts of human beings." This may be an explanation as to why the majority of people of various cultures will still agree on fundamental principles, such as, we should not torture and mutilate babies. The bible does not have to be the point of reference for everyone when considering what is moral or immoral. I know I ought not to sexually abuse babies, not because a piece of text has told me. Even if some cultures do that, the question I ask myself is,"Is what I believe on the matter merely an opinion, or objectively true?" I want to apologize beforehand for any redundancy in this long post. Having said that, my questions are in regards to things being objectively true, and not just subjectively true. For example, is it wrong in all cultures, times, and civilizations for babies to be sexually abused? If so, by what standard am I allowed to call that wrong? Is it a matter of opinion? We can talk about picking and choosing the great wisdom and teaching from previous civilizations, but what makes us pick some teaching and reject others? What is the basis from which we choose? Are our choices, such as the rejection of "torturing infants," objectively wrong regardless of dissent? Also, if morality is the product of an evolutionary process, how is it that it is being imposed upon people of all cultures and times? We can say we are nurtured, but who was the "first cause" that thought it was good to be compassionate and how did that "light bulb" go off? Some apologists, such as Ravi Zacharias, notorious to atheists I'm sure, have stated it like this - How do we go from an amoral, impersonal first cause and become moral and personal without a transcendent objective moral law? If we say we have objective morals, how are they imposed upon us? If we say we don't have objective morals, then there was absolutely nothing wrong with what people like Hitler did. Our disagreement with his actions would only be a matter of opinion - for it worked for him, and he saw it as correct.

Also, if ethics are a matter of evolution, and evolution teaches survival of the fittest, where do we get this instinct that it is noble to lay down our lives? If evolution encourages survival of self, wouldn't the desire to lay down our lives for others be an evolutionary blunder - a flaw in our system that we should reject absolutely? If not, then once again, what is the basis from which I can make that claim? I apologize for all of the questions. I want to thank you for this opportunity you haved allowed to share my thoughts. I have met many arrogant atheists and Christians who think they know everything. I'm glad we can diplomatically discuss this in our pursuit of understanding truth.

Anxiously awaiting your thoughts,


Stardust said...

I love reading your posts (and Stardust's.)

why thanks bigtex! I think Tommy is an excellent writer. I always look forward to his next post. I learn a lot from them.

Tommy said...

Hi Jason.

The point of my post was not that I claim all Christians derive their values or morals exclusively from the Bible, though I dare say it is the case for many of them. However, the inspiration for this post was in response to Jesse Peterson's challenge to Ellen Johnson of American Atheists. He said he gets his values from the Bible and God and demanded that Ellen explain where atheists get their values from. My post was in response to that.

I had anticipated that someone would come along here and raise the questions you raised and I hope I can answer them in a satisfactory matter.

You ask by what standard is it wrong to sexually abuse babies. My stock answer to that is that it is wrong to inflict on anyone something we would not want inflicted on us. In this particular instance, sexually abusing a baby is, to borrow from Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park, "a violent, penetrative act." Assuming the baby (you did not provide an age) is not killed, we are looking at possible injury and mental trauma.

To provide oneself with a sense of what should be objectively right and wrong, you must ask yourself what kind of society do you want to live in? Can a society survive where all or even most of its participants engage in acts of rape, thievery, murder, fraud and violence? Such a society would not seem God up in the heavens to destroy it, it would soon destroy itself.

In my post, I listed civilization as one of the things I believe in. Now what is civilization? For me, I would loosely define it as safe, clean, well paved streets, museums, theaters, peaceful relations between people et cetera. While different people will have different visions of their ideal civilization, no civilization can endure for long if it does not provide some means for the common well being of its members.

If you go back far enough in time, back to when humans consisted of bands of hunter-gatherers. In order for the band to survive, its members had to learn to cooperate with one another. As various groups of humans settled in places conducive to agriculture or could sustain a growing population, writing developed as a means for bureaucrats to assess taxes, make laws, manage relations with neighboring states and so forth. Over time, as literacy developed, educated people began to put time and thought into topics such as morality, ethics, how to compel or encourage people to be good and virtuous.

As for whether giving up our lives to save another goes against evolution, you are absolutely right. Richard Dawkins, in "The Selfish Gene", addresses this very point. Since I lost my co-worker's copy that was loaned to me, I do not recall Dawkins' exact words, but he basically said it was a good thing that we did behave in ways that seemed to run counter to our survival instincts.

There are probably a number of theories floating out there as to why, for example, an adult would put him or herself at risk to save a child about to be struck by an automobile or some other avoidable fate. On some unconscious level, perhaps we see all children, not just our own, as perpetuating our species, so by risking my life to save a child, I feel that in some way I am hoping to perpetuate the human race. It may go back to hunter-gatherer days, when infant mortality rates were much higher, that children were valued for perpetuating the band. Another factor at work is that the person who risks his life to save another being may believe that he has a reasonable chance of surviving or he does not even consider the odds.

I think I have rambled on enough for now, but hope at least some of what I said was reasonable to you.

Jason said...

Hey Tommy,

I appreciate your response to my comment. I have read works by atheists such as Hume, Russell, and Rowe (I'm sure Rowe would be shocked to find his name with the other two), but nothing that has dismissed all doubt regarding the question of objective morality. Although I would be reluctant to believe anyone, regardless of philosophy, that claimed to satisfy all questions. The truth is, I have never met an informed atheist; but, not because they are far and few. Rather, because I have never really ventured outside my own world to understand them - unfortunate, I know. I never want to be guilty of making assumptions about people I have never actually taken the time to understand. Hence, you may understand my enthusiasm when I finally get a chance to speak with an informed atheist who can shed light on his/her world view. As I mentioned earlier, my questions arise out of curiosity. I'm here to learn. Having said that, I wanted your take on something that still lies, in my opinion, unanswered - that is, are there objective morals that transcend time, culture, and personal opinion and what are the implications of how we answer that?

In your response to my initial comment you have stated, "To provide oneself with a sense of what should be objectively right and wrong..." I may be mistaken, but implicit in this statement, with the words "sense" and "should be," is the idea that morals aren't necessarily transcendent or objective. Then, throughout your comment is the idea that educated people began " compel or encourage people to be good and virtuous," implicitly claiming, though perhaps as a result of my misinterpretation, that there is an absolute standard of what is good and virtuous. I'm not saying that your response to my comment was contradictory. I was just looking for clarification. This is most likely due to my inability to understand as opposed to your wonderful ability to communicate, as your friends have accurately stated. The clarification I'm looking for is whether or not the moral values we hold are absolute and transcending personal opinion.

Should we adhere to Utilitarian philosophy, thinking that what is right is always acting towards the greatest good for the greatest number? For what are we to do in situations where the greatest good for the greatest number or civilization is some reprehensible act, such as, the sacrificing of children? I hope I'm not misunderstood here. I am not suggesting that you are a Utilitarian. I do see, however, that we are besought to act in the best interest for our civilization. One would first ask, what makes the civilization worthy of preserving in the first place? Why this desire to think of the other and where does it come from? One may certainly claim that it comes from the idea to preserve self in that we cannot survive alone. I certainly can understand that assessment. However, what do we say in circumstance where in tribes of hunter gatherers, one person decides to run away in battle, thinking only of self, and steals everyone else's food? Though he/she did not act in the best interest of everyone, they are not culpable in that they were acting with the same intention as everyone else was primarily - that is, to preserve the self. What are we to say of people like Hitler who was acting, in his opinion, for the best of the Aryan race? Is he morally culpable? One may certainly propose that we do what is best for the "human race" as a whole - but what is the basis for considering that a value? Can I really be blamed for selfishness without objective morality? Sure selflessness may help the whole and myself - but what if in my own stubbornness I decide to be selfish my whole life? Am I truly guilty of anything? May I steal another man's wife, kidnap his child, and respond to his protest by saying, "Get over it! You're only protesting your opinion on what is good - this is what is best for me!" Could I do such a thing and be wrong and by what standard would someone be able to call that wrong? It appears to me that a world without objective morality, transcending time, culture, and public opinion, is one that is unlivable.

Having said that, if there are some objective moral values, where and how do we obtain it? Though I may be stoned for this, I would like to quote Ravi Zacharias again, for his question is left unanswered. From an evolutionary framework, how do we go from an amoral, impersonal first cause, and through a non-moral process, become moral and personal without a transcendent objective moral law? We can call on the wisdom of civilizations, but where did they get the concept of what is true, if there is such a thing at all? Would their assessments be relative to opinion? I wonder why Dawkins would suggest that the deviation from our survival instincts are good at times. I'm sure he would also suggest that we act for the whole, but why? Some have suggested that we act based on biology, given that mothers of different species care for their young. However, from a biological perspective of this, I am no more guilty of throwing away my baby in the trash as I am holding in my urine - for I am only acting against my biological instincts - nothing that requires moral obligation. If anyone is to ever call that morally reprehensible, by what standard can that claim be made?

Once again, I apologize for my long and redundant comment. I appreciate your willingness to respond to my banter and shed light as to what an informed atheistic perspective is on this. As always, I appreciate that we can do this with civility.

Anxiously awaiting your thoughts,


Jason said...

One Clarification:

I understand that you think that the world should agree on some values, lest there be chaos. However, I believe there are objective values that are worth maintaining because of its intrinsic worth and not purely because of the results it produces. It is within that framework that I have commented. There - now I'm done=).

Tommy said...

Hi Jason.

Let me reply by throwing some questions at you. Let's play a hypothetical.

Scenario #1: You find yourself in a situation where the person you love the most, be it a spouse, child, parent, friend, or whomever, and a stranger are about to die. Either they are both holding on to a ledge and are about to lose their grip and fall to their deaths, or they are in a burning room. You have the opportunity to save just one of them. Which one will you save, the loved one or the stranger?

Scenario #2: Same danger scenarios. Only this time instead of a loved one and a stranger, the two people in danger are (1) Mexican hottie Salma Hayek and (2) queer as a three dollar bill and hasn't had a decent song in years Elton John. Again, you only have the chance to save just one of them. Which one will you save?

Before you answer, I am going to guess that in these respective scenarios, you will save your loved one over the stranger and Salma Hayek over Elton John. In these situations, you are acting based on subjective value judgments. Who wouldn't choose to save a loved one over a stranger? And I am sure almost every heterosexual male would save Salma Hayek instead of Elton John. But aren't the lives of the stranger and Elton John equally precious? Granted, we would probably feel some sense of anguish over the ones we are condemning to death by saving the ones we choose to save. But while we ideally should consider all life to be sacred, the truth is that we end up valuing some lives over others.

Here is another scenario, one that is likely to have happened many times throughout history. A woman in a small band of hunger-gatherers gives birth to a child. However, for whatever reason, food is not readily available and there is not enough to go around to feed both the mother and the baby. In such a scenario, the parents of the baby may view infanticide as a reasonable choice. The mother might still be able to bear children in the future when the food supply is more reliable, but if she dies instead, the father is saddled with trying to feed and raise the child, which leaves him with less time to hunt and forage. It is not a pleasant choice, but in their situation, can they be blamed if they commit infanticide?

I get where you are coming from. It is an argument I hear many times. If our morals do not come from God, then how can we say for sure what is right or wrong. All I can say in response to that is that it assumes there really is a God that has a set of rules that it wants us to live by and if we obey the rules we go to heaven when we die and if we disobey we go to hell. You may believe that such an entity exists, but your belief in its existence and your belief that it has promulgated rules for us to live by does not mean that this entity does exist and care about us.

During the Lenten season, Catholics will forgo eating meat on Fridays. Orthodox Jews eat only kosher food. The OT contains a host of detailed rules over what Jews can and cannot eat, how to observe the Sabbath and so forth. Do you honestly believe that a supreme being that creates an infinite universe is going to give a rat's ass what a band of humans on planet Earth eat? Does a universal deity really care if a Jew eats pork and drives a car after sundown on Friday nights?

No one, at least no one who is sane, wants to be raped, robbed, beaten, defrauded, discriminated against, or murdered. Put a community of people together who think the same way, and you can expect that they would want to pass laws punishing such behavior and to promote teachings that discourage bad behavior and encourage good behavior. Do we need a deity to tell us that?

Chris said...

Excellent! You speak for atheisist everywhere.

Unfortunately, I am afraid that Ms. Petersen will never see the irony in her dialogue-ending statement that atheists have "nothing to say."

Sad she would tell atheists to "just shut up"--obviously it would benefit her a great deal to silence herself for just a moment so that she might give pause to consider a different view point.

Amazing that it's the most closed-minded individuals that are chosen as the "guest expert" for these "news" pieces.

Jason said...

Hey Tommy,

I appreciate your diplomacy and how you have not requested that I get lost for writing so much on your blog. I certainly would understand if you did not want to continue the discussion, though this has sadly been the highlight of my week. Considering that this is your blog, you should most certainly have the last word – that is, if you want the discussion to end. If not, may the intellectual stimulation continue!

Although this may be due to my misinterpretation and inability to understand, I still feel that there is some ambiguity as to whether or not you find morals to be objective. I apologize if I have read between the lines; but in one paragraph you intimate that morality is subjective, while in another paragraph you state that laws are there to govern good and bad behavior, as if there was such an absolute thing on what “good” or “bad” is. I suppose what I’m asking is, aren’t those bad behaviors you listed, such as rape, really subjective? Or is there some moral absolute that suggests that they are wrong irrespective of time, culture, and world view?

I certainly understand what you are attempting to say with the given scenarios. There are circumstances where we must make subjective value judgments. However, this does not mean that the objective values do not exist even in those decisions. Let’s take the scenarios you presented:

In the scenario of saving either Salma Hayek or Elton John, two people to whom I have no personal attachment, my decision to obviously save Salma would be subjective. However, although my decision to choose between one or the other is a subjective value judgment, the fact that I consider either one of them worth saving at all, as opposed to being disinterested and walking away, is an objective value judgment.

Even in the scenario of the mother choosing infanticide, we can see that whether or not she is morally culpable is up for debate if she agonizes over her decision – for she would still be acting with love for the other, an objective value. However, in the same scenario where she makes the same decision, if she acts maliciously and with pleasure, could we call that morally reprehensible from a world view that denies objective moral values? Again, one may propose that a mother cares for her young out of a biological instinct. However, according to that perspective, fighting that instinct is no more malicious than choosing not to urinate when inclined. Can we really claim that she is morally culpable?

Finally, it appears that implicit in the discussion of civilization may lie another objective value – that we should do unto others as we would want others to do unto us. There are two perspectives that someone can take on this. One may suggest that we should follow this “golden rule” because that is what will produce the best results for everyone, but more importantly, for ourselves. Another perspective is that we should do kindly unto others because not only would we want to have kind things done to us, but it is objectively and intrinsically good to do so. According to the former perspective, one that is self and result driven, a person who breaks the “golden rule” is not morally culpable. Our “laws” or values are purely subjective and a matter of opinion – even the “golden rule” itself. If a person who knows he/she will die within the hour deviates from our rule and chooses to indulge in all sorts of pleasures at the expense of someone else’s rights (consider rape), he/she is not wrong on a moral level – for there is no objective standard, rather only self-created subjective ones. Once again a person can steal my wife and children, but I could by no means suggest that their act is wrong on a moral level – for there is no standard by which I can measure that outside of my own subjective opinion. Although I understand your assertion regarding living in civility, what are we to say of those who care nothing for themselves, and as a result, do not care for anyone else? If they harm others, can we oppose them on a moral level? I suppose that even in Dawkins’ assertion about “the miraculous evolutionary blunder” of self-sacrifice lies an objective value that suggests that life is worth perpetuating even if we will no longer be involved.

Anxiously awaiting your thoughts,


Tommy said...

Well Jason, I did not expect that any answer I could give you would be to your satisfaction. After all, the name of my blog is Exercise in Futility.

Nevertheless, I will give it one more go, though in the end it is only my own point of view constrained by the limits of my education and intelligence.

I would argue that what we would ideally like to think is objective morality is something that evolved over time. In order for something to be wrong, one must first have a conception that something is wrong. 50,000 years ago, did wandering bands of Cro-Magnons consider rape, child abuse or murder to be wrong? Maybe within their own limited circle, yes. But if a man from one tribe happens upon a woman from another tribe wandering alone foraging for food, he might not feel any reservations whatsoever about forcing himself on her, knowing that once the deed is done he makes his way back to his tribe and is likely never see her again. Now, from our present day value system, that Cro-Magnon rapist committed a terrible deed. It does not matter that it never occured to him that it was wrong. And if he were to be magically teleported to our present day and raped a woman, he might be totally baffled as to why he was being punished for the rape. Nevertheless, because we live in a culture in which rape is considered a terrible crime, we could not continue to let him live among us because other women would be at risk.

Let me put it to you another way. A builder some thousand or so years ago discovers a way to construct buildings that are more stable and less prone to collapse and thereby potentially save lives and reduce property damage. He puts down his principles in writing and disseminates it. His methods of building become objectively better than methods that preceded his because they are superior and are more beneficial. Would any sane person argue, "Well, why should we care if our buildings collapse all the time?"

I would think that we live in a world of competing subjective value systems, and each value system considers that its values should be objective and universal. In some tribal cultures, if a man's daughter is raped, he is liable to kill his own daughter because the rape is perceived as bringing shame on the family. To you and I, this is totally barbaric. To this father who murdered his own daughter, it is the proper thing to do.

Now to be clear, I am not advocating political correctness or espousing moral equivalency. What I am saying is that a value system that develops over time which respects the rights of persons to live their lives free from violence and oppression shows itself to be better than societies that do not. Just as with my example above of the discovery of new building techniques which are demonstrably superior to older methods and which thereby becomes the new objective standard for constructing buildings.

I knew where you were going with the Hitler example, because you were hoping or expecting that if I said that there was no objective morality, then essentially there was nothing wrong with the Holocaust. To return to the building methods analogy, the older methods of building were objectively wrong once the new methods were discovered, even though the builders of the old methods lacked the understanding or awareness of the new methods.

But with the Nazis, they had the further disadvantage in that a humanist value system had already existed which held that genocide was wrong. That is why you had people in Nazi occupied Europe, however clandestinely, sheltering Jews from the Nazis. I believe that the people of Denmark in particular had a notable record in this regard. The record is also demonstrably clear that Nazi Germany harmed itself by its treatment of the Jews and for its aggressive behavior against its neighbors. So even if I claim that morality is essentially subjective, it does not mean that the Holocaust or Hitler's ambitions to conquer Europe were not wrong. But again, to repeat myself, what we think of us an objective moral system that values human life is something that develops over time and demonstrates its superiority. Hitler may have believed he was doing a good thing in trying to exerminate the Jews and conquer the Ukraine, but he and the people he seduced into following him got exactly what they deserved.

You will probably argue that I am arguing from a utilitarian viewpoint. That may be an oversimplification, but the best value system, which we would call an objective value system, is one that produces the best results. A genocidal tyranny cannot produce good results, so its actions and values are clearly wrong.

Okay, I think I've rambled enough for now.

Anonymous said...

Tommy and Jason,

You both are excellent at arguing your points. I admire the attitude or the enviroment of the discussion which is not negative, but rather nurtures creative thought. It is apparent that neither of you are going to budge, but at the same time your goals are not to convert the other but rather to learn. I am sure you both are tired of debating these same points over and over as this is probably not the first time you guys have had this debate. However, for someone like me, I rarely have an opportunity to digest such an interesting topic. I have learned alot from you both. I hope you both continue this healthy debate because whether you know it or not there are others in the world who appreciate such discussion.

James said...


You made some really good points, it makes me think.

Jason said...

Hey Tommy,

First, I want to make a statement regarding the rapist and then move on to what I had trouble understanding in one of your statement.

Regarding the primitive rapist, let us not confuse “personal accountability” and “moral culpability.” Assuming that ethical evolution is without problems for the moment, the primitive rapist can claim “invincible ignorance” and not be “personally accountable” for what is not known. However, that does not mean that he isn’t morally culpable of an immoral act. He may be no more “accountable” than a child who is unaware of his/her selfishness is, but it doesn’t mean that the act in and of itself isn’t reprehensible. The only way that the act of rape is morally justified is if the value of cherishing women is subjective to our cultural context alone.

Regarding the incongruity:

I must apologize again if I have failed to see consistency in your point. The last thing I want to do is misunderstand. First, you suggest that,

“…what we would ideally like to think is objective morality is something that evolved over time…we live in a world of competing subjective value systems, and each value system considers that its values should be objective and universal.”

From this statement I gather that the multiple value systems, including our own, are essentially subjective, or relative to opinion; any real objectivity may likely be illusory. Then, regarding Hitler, you suggest

“To return to the building methods analogy, the older methods of building were objectively wrong once the new methods were discovered, even though the builders of the old methods lacked the understanding or awareness of the new methods.”

Implicit in this claim is that the way we live or “build” is no longer subjective, illusory, or relative to opinion. Rather, now there is a certain way we ought to build as a result of new knowledge. We now have objectivity by which we can judge the way others "live" or “build,” calling their way “wrong.” It is no longer a world of competing subjective value systems whereby we cannot impose our values upon theirs; we now have the ability to say that the way someone “builds” is against an objective standard.

You asserted that we behave the way do in order to produce the best results. We learn new and more effective ways to “build,” or live in civility, and therefore we attribute value to utility. We are kind to others because it is what is best for everyone to live in harmony, but more importantly, best for us. Of course, the other school of thought that encourages moral objectivity suggests that we ought to be kind not only because we want to be treated kindly, but also because it is intrinsically good to be kind.

The reason I state this again is because I find it to be crucial. If there are no objective moral values, our critique against the father who murdered his daughter, the rapist, and Hitler is one that is against their method and not their morale. If all we are doing is trying to build towards the best result, their actions are nothing more than bad methods of building – nothing morally reprehensible. First, if we suggest they build in the same way that we do, we are imposing our values upon them. Second, the fact that we expect them to build, and build well, is indicative of the fact that we hold “building” or perpetuating civilization as an objective value – transcending personal opinion.

Finally, in my last comment I asked, “What are we to say of those who care nothing for themselves, and as a result, do not care for anyone else? If they harm others, can we oppose them on a moral level?” People like this certainly do exist and we often hear about them on the news. If results are what we are after, we can only critique their method. It is only when intrinsic morality is our end that we can oppose someone's immorality.

Anxiously awaiting your thoughts,


Jason said...

Again, another clarification:

My statements regarding the Primitive Rapist were in response a statement you made:

"In order for something to be wrong, one must first have a conception that something is wrong."

I was commenting in response to that statement. I apologize for the confusion.

Tommy said...

Well, as I wrote earlier, there is nothing I can say that will make you happy.

It is not my job in life to explain why what the Nazis did was horribly wrong. It clearly was and for me to have to engage in philosophical hair splitting to argue about it is a poor use of time.

Again, all I can say is that people do not want to be mistreated and our society develops laws and moral taboos based on that to tell us that murder, rape, theft, fraud, and physical assault are wrong and that transgressors will be punished. From a practical standpoint, I don't see why there has to be anything more to it than that.

Ultimately, there is really only one difference between you and I. You are a self-identified Christian who is probably on balance a good person who does not harm anyone. I am an atheist, and I like to think on balance that I am a good person. The only difference between us with respect to morals is that you believe certain things are wrong because some supreme being supposedly told a bunch of people in the Middle East some thousands of years ago, while I believe certain things are wrong because of the manifest harm they cause to the perpetrator, the victim, society at large, or all three.

Where secular and religious moral systems come into conflict is when they differ as to what should be wrong. Take homosexuality for example. The majority of Christians believe that homosexuality is a sin because it says so in the Bible. A secularist like myself on the other hand would argue that it is not. People seem to be gay because they are predisposed to be that way, and if being in a relationship with another person of the same gender, provided that they are both old enough to be trusted to make such a decision, is fulfilling for them, then more power to them I say. Where homosexual conduct should be condemned, just as with heterosexual conduct, is when the person engages in promsiscuous behavior and does not use any protection. That person runs the risk of getting himself infected and possibly infecting others. This creates a public health problem that effects society. Therefore, from a practical standpoint, promiscuity is wrong because of its negative consequences, not because some deity in the heavens disapproves of the conduct.

With that I conclude my remarks on the matter, though of course you are free to leave any further comments you wish. I get the sense this exchange with you could go on forever, and I would never have any time to blog about anything else, unless of course that is your ultimate aim! ;-)



Jason said...

Hey Tommy,

I must say that I have enjoyed our exchange of ideas. I appreciate the fact that you have been patient through my persistent inquiry. I will, however, make a few corrections on behalf of theists, and then go away.

Anyone that says that atheists do not have values is a person who is completely misguided. As you have stated, you and I probably even share the same values on a lot of issues. However, the difference isn’t as simple as you have suggested. Given that you want to maintain that values are subjective, they hold no other value other than that you consider them to work in your context, and thereby declare it good. In comparison to a person who feels that they have “the good idea” you have no objective standard by which you can call them immoral, although you may disagree with their method. Even the idea to disregard “the survival of the fittest,” and embrace the evolutionary blunder of self-sacrifice, attempts to presuppose that civilization is worth perpetuating even if we aren’t around, but tries so desperately to say that cherishing life itself is a value that we can’t call objective. Now, this wasn’t an attempt to summarize your views in some oversimplifying way. It was just to show the following difference.

As I mentioned in my first post, I don’t believe that what I call good and bad is the result of something I read or something someone tells me. I believe, regardless of the philosophy, it is written upon human hearts. Why is this important? Because I don’t think what is good is arbitrary. I don’t think something becomes good purely because God commands it. In that case, I am where you are in that the only value I can attribute to “being kind” is that it made God feel good to say so. Having said that, I don’t think that God has necessarily revealed to human hearts a list of good things as much as He has revealed Himself, the exemplification of goodness. Therefore, I know what is good because He has revealed what is intrinsically and objectively good. It is interesting that psychology, philosophy, religious and irreligious, will all claim that there is something wrong with humanity. Now, the only way we can call something objectively wrong is because we have an understanding of what is objectively good. The question would be where would an atheist, on a naturalistic worldview, be justified in imposing their world view upon someone while still maintaining that their view is nothing more than a subjective opinion? As I said, the question wasn’t whether or not atheists have morals; rather are those morals objectively true? It appears that you don’t want to suggest that.

Finally, what I have gathered from your comments is you closely align yourself with Utilitarian/Kantian ethics. Utilitarian in that, we ought to do the best for the greatest number in order to perpetuate society. Anything that doesn’t perpetuate society should be seen as “building backwards.” Kantian in that one person should not steal another’s food, for such a civilization would collapse. Therefore, we enforce the universal law, or as Kant stated, the Categorical Imperative. If everyone were to behave in such deviant ways, the civilization would not last; and such actions would once again be “building backwards” for it doesn’t perpetuate society. Why am I writing all of this? To be consistent and fair, according to this world view, homosexuality from your perspective should not be condoned either. If you are consistent with your perspective, homosexuality does not provide maximum utility, breaking the first rule. Second, if everyone were to behave in the same way, the civilization would not perpetuate itself considering that procreation would not even be possible. Since perpetuating self and society is our primary objective, homosexuality should be abandoned. In fact, if others adopt the same behavior, humans will become extinct. If you don’t think you align yourself with the aforementioned philosophy, I would argue that your comments are bursting with those ideas. Once again, if I am incorrect in this assessment, which I likely am, I apologize and do not expect a response from you.

Tommy, I have thoroughly enjoyed this discussion; not because you or I “proved a point,” but because we were able to have a dialogue that had truth and understanding as its aim. Once again, I embarked on this endeavor in order to understand an atheistic world view from an informed atheist. You have certainly made provision for that. Thank you.

Anxiously waiting no more,


Anonymous said...


Wow. I never thought about that. I always figured for Christians it was merely "...because god said so" or "...I take it by faith". I never realized (or probably never cared to listen) that there are arguments for a belief in god outside some Biblical mandate.

S said...

great debate..and great points made by both parties..its good to have stimulating conversations like this instead of always hearing just one point of view...

Tommy said...

Hi Jason,

The thing is, I am not versed in the ideas or many of the persons you mentioned. I know of Kant but have not recalled anything in particular he wrote. So I couldn't say that I am a Kantian without having first familiarized myself with his writings. I do understand that John Stuart Mill is considered to be a utilitarian in that he espoused the greatest good for the greatest number.

The Ravi Zacharias you mention I don't believe I have ever heard of. I suppose I could Google him and see what I come up with.

I would certainly not consider myself a strict utilitarian. For example, someone might propose that the best way to preserve the Social Security fund and keep it from going bust would be to euthanize everyone over the age of say 75. From a strictly statistical point of view it might seem logical, but if you believe that human life has worth, then such a proposal would be absolutely insane.

Regarding homosexuals, it is not a matter of me condoning the conduct or not. From what I have read, a certain amount of the population will always be gay, somewhere in the low single digits percentage wise. The vast majority of us are not gay, so there is no threat of the human race becoming extinct because everyone chooses to be gay. From a humanistic point of view, one that I possess, it is better to leave them alone and let them be who they are. The caveat, of course, that I mentioned above, is that they use proper precautions to limit the spread of diseases because it has costs that the society at large has to bear.

Do I believe that human life is intrinsically worthwhile? Yes. You sjust seem to disagree with how I arrive to that conclusion. As I have written elsewhere, my belief is that if there is a "god" watching over us and judging us, then any such entity that is capable of creating this vast and amazing universe must be rational. If it judges us in some afterlife, I would have to think that it would judge us based on our behavior and conduct, and not on whether or not we believed that a man who may have lived some 2,000 years ago and rose from the dead was the son of God. And I seriously doubt that such a god, when judging me, will say, "Well Thomas, you generally lived a moral life, but I disagree with how you based your value system, so off to eternal perdition with you!" Any deity who would accept a Jerry Falwell or a Pat Robertson into heaven for their meanspirited comments while exiling my spirit to some terrible place is a being that is without decency and justice, and certainly not worthy of my worship, love or respect.

Finally, I of course do not nor can I claim to speak on behalf of atheists or atheism. I am merely one insignificant person with an obscure blog who tries to live life as best he can, making mistakes along the way, and hoping to learn from them.