Thursday, December 14, 2017

If There Is No God, Murder Is Still Wrong

Usually, I have very little interest in the God debate between atheists and Christians, except when it comes to the origin of morality. I take exception to this subject because moral facts are just about the only thing I talk about here. When I condemn certain government policies, and especially those of my own government, I usually do so on the grounds that they violate moral law when constitutional law is not applicable. And even when constitutional law is applicable I still back up the argument against this or that policy with moral law. Of course, this naturally leads to the question where doe moral law comes from? I’ll address this below. I am an agnostic deist and as you may have guessed from the blog description a rational utilitarian. I don't think Dennis Prager made this video with my worldview in mind, or much less even knows that it exists, but I’m replying because Prager seems to imply in the video that his Judeo-Christian worldview has a monopoly on morality. He also dismisses every form of utilitarianism outright, by implication, since utilitarian theories are secular theories of ethics. Before debunking his claims, we should first examine his premises. His conclusion is based on a number of logical fallacies and false premises.

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 only one thing in common; they are based on religion or supernatural explanations. It's illogical 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. 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, mathematics, and other bodies of a priori knowledge. Scientific facts and theories refer to organized bodies of a posteriori knowledge that even when corroborated several times over 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.


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.

The argument is also poorly framed. Morality is ultimately not a matter of isolated individual choices. Morality is about social influences. Crimes like murder and theft don’t just affect the victim; they have a rippling effect across society. Although we can’t make exact measurements, there are objective consequences to crimes like murder and theft, other than those suffered by the victim and perpetrator. For instance, places with lower crime rates, cities or countries with less murder and theft, tend to have higher standards of living than places with higher crime rates. We also know that places with higher crime rates tend to have lower property values as well and are generally less conducive to doing business than places with lower crime rates. Government corruption and criminality also tends to be accompanied by the same dire consequences that accompany higher crime rates. For instance, Norway is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, in terms of gdp per capita, and also has some of the lowest crime rates of any country which is accompanied by relatively little government corruption; on the other hand, Mexico is one of the poorest countries in the world, has some of the highest crime rates of any country and one of the most corrupt governments. I’m not suggesting that high crime rates and government corruption are a direct cause of prosperity and poverty; after all, correlations don’t tell us anything about the direction of phenomena. However, there is a high degree of comorbidity between poverty and high crime rates as well as between poverty and government corruption, and at the very least we could say these things exacerbate poverty and diminish the prosperity of a society.

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.

Morality Without God As An Explanation

Morality wasn’t handed down by any god or government. It’s not something we sat down and reasoned our way to. Morality is a product of human action but not of human design; it is a result of what we would call the emergent order. Just like our cultures, our norms and our markets, nobody in particular creates morals, rather they result from the interactions among different people and processes over time. Morals are objective only in the sense that they can be discerned by examining the objective facts of human nature. The first objective fact of human nature is that humans are social animals. Individuals don’t just pop into existence like virtual particles; our identities are formed as we are brought up through the various institutions of our society, starting with our families. Morality is a product of this process; it is ultimately an adaptation to the social state. It’s what allows societies to function, or rather what allows people to maintain the bonds necessary for the survival of societies, and the survival of our society is in our long term self-interest.

When we think about morality as a psychological adaptation, rather than a set of divine decrees we get a much clearer picture of why we need it, which is the entire point of having morals in the first place. Our sentiment of justice is ultimately an expression of the norm of reciprocity: a social instinct that predates human existence. It's not anyone's personal opinion. No one discerned it through conscious thought, but it became hardwired into human thinking through evolution. We also have an even more primitive instinct to preserve our own lives, and subsequently our own autonomy since a threat to the former is an implied threat to the latter. However, the innate desire to preserve one's autonomy is a purely selfish one. It’s only when this desire to preserve our own autonomy is coupled with mutual sympathy for every other person's desire to preserve their own autonomy that we arrive at a moral sentiment. 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 hurting everyone in the long run. In our transition from nomadic societies to civilized societies common concrete ends (e.g. hunting) had to be supplanted by common abstract rules to ensure sufficient cooperation. Abstract rules such as do not murder and do not steal 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.

You have probably heard the saying ‘ there is still honor among thieves.’ Even criminal organizations have a code of conduct that they adhere to among each other. They might not recognize the code of conduct of the larger society, but they still need one among themselves to accomplish their malicious ends. Pursuing disparate self-interest without regard for others would even ruin criminal organizations.

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