Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Response to Dennis Prager 'If There Is No God, Murder Isn't Wrong'

An Introduction To Christian Sophistry

Usually, I have very little interest in the God debate between atheists and christians, but a particular concern, the origin of morality, is pertinent to my cause because moral facts are just about the only thing I talk about here. When I condemn government policies, and especially those of my own government, I usually do so on the grounds of moral law when constitutional law is not applicable, and even where constitutional law is applicable I still back up the statutes in question with moral law. This leaves the further question of where moral law comes from, which I will address below. I am an agnostic deist and as you may have guessed from the blog description a rational utilitarian on the issue of interpersonal morality. I don't think Dennis Prager made this video with my worldview in mind, much less even knows that it exists. I am replying because Prager seems to imply in the video that his Judeo-Christian worldview has a monopoly on morality. It also dismisses every form of utilitarianism outright, by implication, since utilitarian theories are inherently secular theories of ethics. Before debunking his conclusion, we should first examine his premises. His conclusion is based on a number of logical fallacies. This doesn't necessarily mean that his conclusion is false, but it does necessarily mean his premises are false.

Fallacies of Christian Sophistry

Ambiguity Fallacy

From the start of the video until the end, Prager fails to define his terms. Good, evil, right, wrong, and God are never defined. Without defining his terms Prager is simply playing a semantics game. He doesn't prove that you can't justify moral claims without belief in God; he just throws around ambiguous words, which vary in meaning depending on culture and time, loosely associating them with one another until he reaches his desired conclusion.

False Dilemma

Prager disingenuously implies in the opening that there are only two approaches to morality: the Judeo-Christian one and the secular one. This is a false dilemma on face value not only because other religions exist but also because there isn't a monolithic secular theory of ethics. Secular means they have at least one thing in common; they are not religious based. Other than that it's logically unsound to jump to the conclusion that they share the same values. There isn't a common set of secular values anymore than there is a common set of non-American values. Secular denotes the absence of religious/supernatural claims and nothing more. There are egoists, humanists, utilitarians, egalitarians, and libertarians. We don't have shared values. We only share one thing in common: a lack of supernatural basis for our claims.

False Equivalency

Prager's entire argument hinges on the premise that you can't provide any objective measurements or scientific facts that prove murder is wrong. This is not only a red herring, it's also a false equivalency. Physical units of measurements like the SI units themselves were invented by humans so they hardly serve as an example of something that's objective in the sense that Prager is trying to convey; something independent of any human's opinion. Furthermore, scientific facts aren't proven. The term proof is exclusive to the realm of logic and mathematics; a priori knowledge. Scientific facts and theories refer to organized bodies of a posteriori knowledge that even when corroborated by many studies and backed by mountains of evidence are still tentative at best. A scientific explanation is only objective in the sense that it was discovered through a uniform set of procedures called the scientific method (another invention of the human mind), has yet to be falsified (by another human mind), and offers the best established explanation for a specific phenomena (observed by the human mind usually by the aid of human inventions). Aside from the laws of physics, scientific facts and theories are rarely universal, unlike moral facts, and cannot be known a priori, unlike moral facts.


You can't point to any pictures, objective measurements or scientific facts that demonstrate murder, theft, and rape is wrong; therefore, God made it wrong. This is a logically invalid conclusion because it is not implied in any preceding premise. In order for a conclusion to be both valid and sound, it must be implied in at least one of the preceding premises and all the premises must be true. The only conclusion that would logically follow here is that there are no objective moral facts in the sense that they can be demonstrated through the scientific method. The criteria itself isn't appropriate to the claim; it's like saying you can't prove water freezes at 0 degrees Celsius using Euclidean geometry.

Circular Reasoning

At about the 1:30 mark Prager finally gets around to defining wrong. Apparently it's whatever God says is wrong. How convenient, the desired conclusion is defined in the premise.

So How Do I Know Murder Is Wrong Without Invoking God?

Moral law can be logically deduced from the objective facts of human nature and principles of life. There is no need to invoke God to justify moral law, even if God exists. First, I should note that despite what Prager claims in the video the prohibition against murder is not a moral absolute. Murder as an act of retaliatory violence against a murderer who let's say killed your family member is just, but in a civilized society we would have to defer this act of retaliation to the state and call it capital punishment. When capital punishment is appropriate is an even more nuanced issue than when killing another person is just; there are exceptions to be made in both cases. Now murder as an act of initiatory violence against an innocent person, which I think is what Prager had in mind, is unjust. The difference between these two examples is that in the former the affliction is reciprocated while in the latter it is unprovoked. The sentiment of justice is ultimately derived from the norm of reciprocity. The norm of reciprocity is a social instinct. It's not anyone's personal opinion. No one discerned it through conscious thought. It is hardwired into human nature and therefore is as much an objective fact as the fact that a person cannot survive without water. People also have an instinct to preserve their own lives, and subsequently their own autonomy since a threat to the former is also a threat to the latter. However, the innate desire to preserve one's autonomy is a purely selfish one. Only when the desire to preserve one's autonomy is coupled with mutual sympathy for every other person's desire to preserve their autonomy do we arrive at a moral sentiment and only in this way can we maintain a functioning society. A society in which people only pursue disparate self-interest would 1) be at a fitness disadvantage to societies where members were cooperative (i.e. a society in which the pursuit of self-interest is restrained by consideration for others) and 2) would become dysfunctional and quickly collapse harming all of it's members in the long rung. In our transition from nomadic societies to civilized societies common concrete ends (e.g. hunting) must be supplanted by common abstract rules to ensure sufficient cooperation. Abstract rules such as do not murder and do not steal must require reciprocity in our transactions with one another and mutual restraint from pursuing self-interest in ways that reduce other people's autonomy or capacity to preserve their own lives. The sentiment of justice is thus a sympathetic affection of the instinct to preserve personal autonomy. Moral law, the law of equal freedom, is deduced from these considerations of the objective facts of human nature and principles of life. That every person should have the freedom to gratify only such desires that do not prevent others from having the same freedom to gratify their desires obliges both reciprocity in our transactions and mutual restraint from reducing the autonomy of others.

Happiness, prosperity, and the well being of one's family and friends are the only things people pursue as ends in themselves. Abiding by moral law leads to greater happiness in the long run, while violating moral law leads to greater misery in the long run. Murder, rape and theft may be individual acts but they have societal consequences. Murder, rape, theft and other violent crimes tend to make societies more unstable and thus it's members more miserable, even for the murderers, rapists, and thieves themselves. It is no wonder why cities with higher violent crime rates also tend to be more impoverished and have a more miserable existence than cities with substantially lower violent crime rates. The same is generally true of countries. The countries with the most despotic governments also tend to have the most impoverished people, while wealthier nations tend to have more freedoms, especially more economic freedoms and stronger property rights. Violating and abiding by moral law have real world effects at the societal level, in the long run, and does not require divine intervention for people to recognize it.

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