Responding to Critics: a Rejoinder to a Rejoinder

Well, it appears that I’ve finally made it. I now, for the first time, officially have a critic, that is, someone that’s willing to spend several hours of their time in order to show the world, via the blogosphere, why I’m wrong. Tyler Vela, who writes at The Freed Thinker Podcast, recently published a blog post by the name of, “Can God Serve a [sic] Foundation for Morality? Another Response”, in response to the first article that I published over at Atheist Republic, titled, “God and Morality: Why God Cannot Serve as a Foundation for Morality”. And as flattered as I am to have Mr. Vela taking time out of his day to consider my views, in reading his post I find that, much to my dismay, most of his critique seems to miss the point of my arguments entirely, very much like a football kicked at the stands rather than at the field goal.

What I mean is this: a great deal of the criticism launched my way by Tyler seems to arise from a simple misreading of my arguments/writing. Now, given that Tyler would seem to be a reasonably intelligent individual, I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt here and assume that this misunderstanding is largely the result of my unclear, and, perhaps downright sloppy, writing. If I may offer up a bit of a defense though, this original article was actually written in the span of a day or so quite spontaneously while applying to be a blogger for Atheist Republic (I needed a writing sample, so I quickly manufactured one). And though one might say that the meat of the article does deal with issues that stem from the research that I was doing in the philosophy of religion at the time (I was also applying for graduate programs and thus in dire need a writing sample for that as well), the blog post itself was (as I told Tyler in our correspondence) by no means intended to be my magnum opus. Indeed, I’m not even sure that I would still subscribe to everything I wrote at that particular time about this particular topic. With all this being said, I would like to at least try to come in and sweep up as much as possible the proverbial mess that my less-than-refined writing has apparently created, and, in so doing, hopefully rescue some of the core arguments that I was attempting to lay out in that initial article.


The first problem pops up in the second paragraph of Tyler’s response. Tyler tells the reader that he is going to ignore the first part of my article, because it lays out and attempts to deal with the original Euthyphro dilemma — an argument from one of the Platonic dialogues concerning the suggestion that morality is grounded in divine sentiments—and he neither subscribes to divine command theory nor feels any need to defend it. Which, of course, is fine. Indeed, I even commend him for publically rejecting a theory of ethics which so easily justifies horrors like filicide and genocide (much of which can be found in the Bible) without so much as batting an eyelash. The problem is when Tyler then goes on to assert—with literally no justification whatsoever, mind you—that the Euthyphro dilemma has long been debunked and moreover, that it “has largely fallen on deaf ears and fallen out of favor even among atheistic philosophers.” I had a brief moment of excitement there while reading the article when my eyes fell upon the “[2]” at the end of this sentence, as I naturally thought Tyler might bother to substantiate this claim of his (so as to, you know, elevate it above and beyond mere, “Trust me about this”-assertion), but alas, I was then disappointed to find only a note conceding that admittedly, there is at least one atheistic philosopher/thinker, Massimo Pigilucci, who still finds the Euthyphro dilemma persuasive. How generous of you to concede such a thing, Tyler.

With respect to Tyler, to say that the Euthyphro dilemma has been “debunked,” full stop, is both disingenuous and demonstrably false. It’s false to say that the original Euthyphro dilemma doesn’t do what it was more or less constructed to do (in terms of casting doubt on classic, theological voluntarism, or divine command theory) as, to the contrary, the Euthyphro dilemma as originally stated (but tweaked to deal with monotheism as opposed to polytheism), in this context, is rather successful.

So successful, in fact, that as a result of the influence that the Euthyphro dilemma (ED) has had on subsequent philosophy/theology, traditional divine command theory has largely lost favor among modern-day, philosophically-sophisticated Christians (such as Tyler himself). The reason for this of course is that ED successfully illustrates the potential problems with grounding moral values purely in the commands of the divine and without further qualification. If x is good by the sheer fact that a god commands x of us, full stop, then any number of things that we might otherwise, normally deem “immoral,” could thereby be rendered “moral”. So, for instance, the divinely-sanctioned acts of genocide carried out by God’s chosen race depicted in biblical books such as Numbers and Joshua were, under Christian, divine command theory (DCT), perfectly “moral” and “right,” full stop. As was the terrorist attacks of 9/11 under Islamist, jihadist strains of divine command theory. And if God hadn’t sent an angel down to prevent Abraham from slitting his son’s throat, slitting his son’s throat would have been the right thing for Abraham to do, full stop.

Apart from much of the Southern part of the United States, now days one is hard-pressed to find true, unflinching, Christian divine command theorists who are actually willing to bite the bullet here and say that indeed—at least theoretically—anything could/can be rendered moral in so far as God commanded it of us. So again, in that respect, ED has been rather successful as this sort of strict theological voluntarism has become increasingly rare. Instead, many a Christian have begun placing their faith in a slightly modified version of divine command theory, called modified divine command theory (or as Tyler puts it, “divine attribute theory”), which seeks to place the foundation of our moral value not in God’s commands per se, but in God’s nature (and yet still, almost miraculously, manages to justify those divinely-sanctioned bouts of genocide I just mentioned a few sentences ago).

Now, the disingenuous part of Tyler’s response to me on this point is two-fold: first, Tyler suggests that because the original Euthyphro dilemma only deals with the traditional divine command theory it therefore has nothing to say about the slightly different modified divine command theory; I’m pretty sure that Tyler knows this isn’t the case even if he ultimately disagrees with my arguments to this end. As I argue in my article, and as the philosopher Wes Morriston argues in his work on the matter, the spirit of the original ED remains as pressing as ever when turned towards Craig and Tyler’s divine attribute theory (I’ll deal with that specifically in a moment), and cannot therefore simply be dismissed outright as mere irrelevance.

Furthermore, and in spite of the fact that they are becoming rarer by the moment in Christian circles, there are still plenty of people overall who do subscribe to the more narrow view of traditional divine command theory that Tyler and I both agree is absurd; one can’t simply pretend that these people don’t exist and just assert that the “official” meta-ethical, theistic view happens to be the one they subscribe to (i.e. the more flattering one). Like it or not, the Euthyphro dilemma as originally presented is still very much relevant.

The second aspect of Tyler’s apparent disingenuousness is the way in which he (and others pushing his view) seems to, on the one hand, reject outright the notion that morality should be grounded in God’s commands, but then on the other, still attempts to retain the significance of God’s commands. The way this usually works is to say that God’s nature serves as a sort of moral measuring stick by which our actions and so on are to be gauged in order to determine their goodness or badness, but God’s commands, which, follow necessarily from his perfectly good nature, provide us with moral obligations (i.e. what’s right and wrong) towards one another. God’s commands, in other words, still determine what we should do, but ultimately they themselves are determined by God’s “perfectly good” nature. We might summarize this brilliant tautology the following way, ‘that which God commands is good, because God only commands that which is good.’ The waters are muddied further however if and when we add biblical inerrancy into the mix (as Craig does), as you end up having to affirm that God commanded his chosen race to commit acts of mass murder/extermination/genocide, but nevertheless persist in saying that he’s still perfectly good, as were those actions, because …well, because GOD.

The First Objection

Moving on, the first direct objection that Tyler gives to my argument (if you haven’t already, you might want to go read my blog post that inspired all of this) is to say that I’m guilty of making a “severe, conceptual error” in regard to the direction of the causal arrow between God’s perfectly good nature and the outward manifestation of his nature. This is coming from my reframing, or if you will, modification, of the original Euthyphro dilemma so as to engage the modified version of divine command theory that many Christians, again, including Tyler, currently espouse. He writes:

“The problems for Markum’s argument begin at this early stage for he has made a severe conceptual error in confusing the causal arrow. When a Christian says that God is good and then describes him as “just, impartial, honest, loving, and so on” they are describing the outworking actions of God’s goodness. That is, God is goodness and so therefore God acts in ways that are what we come to know as “good.” God is not goodness, because he acts lovingly toward us for example. In fact, God was goodness before the creation of the world and so had not yet expressed love toward us. Those character traits are expressions of goodness and not the reasons for why God is good. So the problem is largely resolved in the same way that the first horn was avoided.”

First of all, just so we’re clear, when I refer to god’s nature as being just, loving, impartial, and so on, I’m merely partaking in the language that is commonly employed by Christians to describe their god; that is, I’m not just pulling this description of God out of my ass or something. Indeed, I’m quoting directly from Craig himself when I first broached this idea in the article.

Moreover, to just avoid the question all together and just say that God is goodness, in my eyes, doesn’t really deal with the core problem. Recall that the original dilemma centered on God’s commands (Is something good because God commands it, or does God command something because it’s good?), and that the new, proposed dilemma centers on God’s nature (Is God good because he is just, impartial, loving, and on, or are these traits/attributes/properties good because they are divine attributes?). As far as I can tell, Tyler essentially wants to go with the latter option, that is, that things like love and compassion, justice and impartiality, are not good in themselves, by way of simply asserting (again) that these things are good in so far as they are aspects of God’s nature. Hence, in Tyler’s view, if there is no god, then there is no moral difference between helping an elderly woman across the street, and pushing one out into the street in front of oncoming traffic. If there is no god, under Tyler’s moral paradigm, the holocaust is morally equivalent to a food-drive.  But why is this the case? Why is God good? What is it about his nature that makes him good? What does it even mean to say that he is “good”? Where is the argument for God’s goodness and how might it be constructed beyond mere presupposition? Tyler’s answer to these questions basically amount to, “Because God.” Why is God good? Because he’s God. What is it about his nature that makes him good? The sheer fact that it’s God’s nature. What does it even mean to say that God is good? It simply means that he’s… God. If, in fact, God himself is the definition of “good,” is it not circular to then say that God is good? I mean, why beat around the bush at all when you can get straight to the point and just simply say, “God is God.”

Suppose instead that Tyler wishes to escape this circular inevitability by way of digging his proverbial feet in, pulling himself up by his own metaphysical bootstraps, if you will, and just asserting his moral ‘first principles’ in the form of God’s nature, or, excuse me, the outward manifestations of God’s nature. Though there may be some significant issues with this move, I think that there is a much deeper point to grasp here; namely, that any and all “logical” systems (whereby this or that follows from an initial set of axioms) eventually fall prey to the same inevitable, metaphysical wall of circularity (i.e. in terms of justifying those axioms). The truth is that all any of us can ever do in this situation is to simply assert our starting principles, or fundamental axioms, and then evaluate amongst ourselves both the internal consistency of those principles and the external consequences or ramifications of those principles and their logic in the world. In other words, just like Tyler with his divine attribute theory, those who uphold secular foundations for morality do so by asserting a set of first principles of their own (be it via utilitarianism/consequentialism or Sam Harris’ notion of a moral landscape, deontology, virtue ethics, contractarianism, etc.). It’s reasonable, therefore, for theists who insist upon theistic morality to critique the ethical precepts of their opponents in the above-mentioned terms of their logical consistency to one another, and by the effects they bring about in the world (clearly, one of my precepts is consequentialism in one form or another), but it’s not reasonable for such theists to pretend that they are somehow on more solid ground when it really comes down to fleshing out the ultimate foundation of their metaethical view.

Anyway, back to his critique specifically. Tyler writes:

He [i.e. yours truly] digs his hole deeper by trying to compare the problem by analogy to himself, “As long as I myself am compassionate, impartial, loving, and so on, I am good much the way this god would be if it in fact existed.” Not only does this make the conceptual error just mentioned but it also makes a massive category error of thinking that morality relates to all beings omnibus idem – that we are moral in the same way that God is moral, and vice versa.

This is perhaps the epitome of what I was referring to earlier when I said that Tyler seems to have missed the point of my arguments entirely. Yes, I obviously recognize that finite human beings could never be as moral, let alone “moral in [precisely] the same way,” as an infinite being of alleged perfect goodness (again, leaving aside what in the hell that phrase would or does even mean). My point in making this comparison instead was simply that if you grant my initial point that God is good because he is loving, compassionate, just, impartial, and so on, and not the other way around, then we as human beings can be moral in much the same way as such a being, which, of course, is clearly not to say that we could be moral in the exact same way as the proposed infinite being. Nuance and context is everything my friend, especially and particularly in the realm of moral philosophy. So again, if you grant my initial point, then the difference between moral agents here on earth and the quintessential (hypothetical) moral agent in the sky, would seem to be one of degree, not one of kind [and no, I’m not trying to rhyme (shit, I did it again)]. We, as finite beings, could never be perfectly good in the way that people imagine their god to be, but surely we can be good in a more limited, or, if you will, truncated sense of the word.

Tyler then compounds this problem of misunderstanding further by taking his misplaced critique and then basically just running with it. He writes:

“Here a sneak peak (sic) must be given to what is to come, but it is hugely doubtful that Markum is the foundation for all objective moral values and so when he acts in an ethical manner, he is reflecting the moral goodness of God, much like how the moon may shine at night but only as it reflects the light of the sun. So Markum may act in good ways but he is not goodness. That distinction does indeed make all the difference.”

Yes, this distinction does make all the difference, but alas, taking note of and saying so is completely and utterly irrelevant as I’m clearly not arguing the latter option (i.e. that I myself am the foundation for objective morality). And, I must say, I’m actually rather insulted by the thought that Tyler and other people could ever think me so philosophically naïve and silly to even entertain such a thought. Believe it or not, I think I’m actually more insulted by this than I am of the general, pretentious and condescending tone of the Tyler’s response to me. But at no point did I argue this to be the case—that I’m goodness itself, and for Tyler to suggest otherwise in order to critique and then do away it in his blog is nothing more than a textbook case of erecting and destroying a strawman with my nametag stapled to it.

Tyler then gets into the business of the distinguishing between that which is good and that which is wrong, and then claims that this distinction seems to be lost on me. But it isn’t. Under Tyler’s moral paradigm, to say that x is good is counterintuitively not, or at least not necessarily, to say that it’s right and indeed, if you recall, I tipped my hat to this earlier when I spoke about how Tyler’s idea of divine attribute theory attempts to retain the significance of God’s will (via his commands) whilst simultaneously de-emphasizing it’s significance in order to get around the original Euthyphro dilemma. So yes, Craig and Tyler are saying that something is ‘good’ in so far as it reflects God’s holy nature, and that something is ‘right’ in so far that it coincides with the commands of God; I understand this and for our current purposes, have no problem whatsoever conceding this distinction. I honestly think that the confusion here originates from me misspeaking in the paragraph from which this critique is derived and using the word “wrong” instead of the word “bad”.  Here’s the quote from me in the original post, “Conversely, there is nothing truly wrong with being dishonest, cruel, or unfair, other than the fact that God doesn’t act in this manner.” Here’s what I should have said, “Conversely, there is nothing truly bad with being dishonest, cruel, or unfair, other than the fact that God doesn’t act in this manner. My wrong—or I mean my bad ☺.

Moving on…a key part of my argument against the sort of ethical system Tyler subscribes to is to point to one of the consequences of transitioning from traditional divine command theory to modified divine command theory (or Tyler’s “DAT”). Remember that the original Euthyphro dilemma endeavors to show that if God’s commands in themselves are the source of morality, then morality would seem to be arbitrary as the difference between good and bad, right and wrong, would actually just be determined by the whim of God. Tyler and his cohorts avoid this thorny implication by saying that God can only do that which is in strict accordance with his nature and thus, the argument goes, to even ask if something like rape or murder could be good or right if God commanded it of us is akin to asking whether or not God could create a triangle with four corners; he just can’t do these kinds of things.

Now, the first problem with this is the fact that the god of the Bible is depicted not only as personally murdering (by which I mean to deliberately take the life of an innocent) by the millions, but also as commanding his chosen race to engage in bouts of ethnic cleansing, often leaving his warriors to deliberate amongst themselves as to whether or not they should keep the virgin girls as sex slaves or to just kill everything alive. So unless Tyler is willing to disown the god of the bible for some vague, nebulous, disembodied mind that has nothing to do with these atrocities, then apparently mass murder and ethnic cleansing are things that can in fact be moral in so far as a perfectly good god commands them of us (watching Christians jumping through endless hoops in order to rid their minds of cognitive dissonance in this area is both amusing and depressing at the same time).

It’s worth noting briefly too that many of the most influential Christian thinkers (such as Martin Luther and Descartes) rejected this` sort of thinking outright due to the way that it seems to place something, namely, moral laws, over and above the sovereignty of God. But here’s another problem; imagine, if you can, a god who’s every action follows necessarily from his perfectly good nature. For any given situation, the only possible action to be carried out by this god would be the morally good ones, but, and here’s the rub, according to Tyler this god a.k.a. Jesus, is also omnipotent. So even though we’re talking about a being who can only do those things that are morally good and is literally, physically, or spiritually or metaphysically, or whatever—incapable of doing anything else—he/she/it is nonetheless to be defined as all-powerful. Check. Ah, but it gets even better, for not only is this being all-powerful but so too is this being metaphysically free in the libertarian sense of the word (or at least I assume that’s what you mean Tyler, so please excuse me if you subscribe to compatibilism of some form or another).

While I certainly realize that this standard definition of God is basically a truism in modern theology and indeed, embarrassingly, the philosophy of religion (which isn’t actually an argument for its truth value), I can’t help but feel that those who purvey it are asking us all to let them have their cake and eat it too… God is omnipotent and free, but he can only do that which is good? To say that God can only do that which is logically possible (i.e. that he’s incapable of doing anything that entails logical contradictions) is one thing, but to say both that he can only do that which is logically possible and because he is perfect goodness, therefore, it’s logically impossible for him to so something that isn’t perfectly good, is, at least in my eyes, quite another. I grant that it follows rather straightforwardly from the necessary nature of logic that if a god existed, it would only be able to do that which is logically possible, but from what does it follow that a god would also be perfectly good, so as to bring about these further entailments? We have been given (and indeed there is none to be given) no arguments to substantiate the notion that God is goodness; rather, we are simply told that God is goodness (and then that goodness is Godness). But why should we accept this fundamental premise, from which everything else for Tyler follows, especially given the world that we actually find ourselves in? Do you, for instance, have any idea how many children have suffered and died in this world in the time that has taken you to read this post up until this point? Something like 21,000 children die every day…that’s 1 child every four seconds, and fourteen every minute. And yet, we’re supposed to take seriously the notion that God is goodness? If anything, and if there is a god, let’s be honest; this thing must be a royal prick beyond anyone’s conceivability.

This reasoning also, again, seems to bring about yet another, Euthyphro-independence-objection-like—problem. Consider for a moment how the laws of logic are largely understood as existing necessarily, as opposed to existing contingently, which, of course, is to say that they didn’t come from anywhere or anything; they’re just brute facts of existence. This is why it is relatively uncontroversial to refer to a god, if it existed, as being restricted by the laws of logic. Well, it seems to me that all this talk of God also being bound by the laws of morality very strongly, and irrespective of whether or not the theist is aware of it, suggests that moral laws (or more precisely, moral truths) exist necessarily in a similar way. Think about it; if moral truths are necessary, such that even God is bound by them, then they are not contingent upon anything (including God). But that means that if there is/was no god (i.e. if atheism was true), then these moral truths would still exist, because to say otherwise, that, “No, if God didn’t exist, then moral truths wouldn’t exist” is to say that moral truths are in fact contingent upon something (God). I wonder if Tyler is willing to admit therefore that moral truths are not necessary in the sense that logical truths are…. And just to clarify, I’m not affirming nor denying moral realism here (you’ll understand why I say that soon enough) as much as I’m suggesting that in fact, rather than the idea of God casting doubt on the notion of secular morality, and depending on how you look at it, the idea of God (albeit, a hypothetical, conceptual god) can actually help bolster the notion of secular morality by suggesting that moral truths may in fact exist necessarily.

Tyler then moves on to the second section of my article which focuses on the moral argument for the existence of God. Again, right off the bat, Tyler is way off target. He writes [I’ve put my quotes within his text in red]:

“Markum begins his assault on the argument with revealing a major flaw in his own argument. He states, “Now leaving aside the fact that many of us think values are necessarily subjective...” Remember the subtitle of the article is, “Why God Cannot Serve as a Foundation for Morality.” The irony of Markum’s statement should be pointed out. He is attempting to show that God cannot be the foundation for morality but in order to do so, he must reject that there is such a thing as objective morality. I have argued extensively elsewhere that subjective morality just is nihilism and thus no morality at all, but observe how Markum needs to deny morality in order to defend his case that God cannot be the foundation for morality. This is a very costly error for him to make.”

The problem with Tyler’s reasoning here is that in fact, in attempting to show that God cannot be the foundation of morality, I do not have to reject the existence of objective morality. Frankly, this is just a whopper of a nonsequitur; moral nihilism does not follow from the falsity of modified divine command theory. This is simply a mistake in Tyler’s reasoning, for in no way, shape, or form do I need to “deny morality” in order to defend the case that God cannot be the foundation of morality. The truth rather is that if MDCT is false, and indeed I think it clearly is, then that is merely one ethical system of thought to be discarded and does not in any way cast doubt on the plethora of other moral philosophies.

As to my personal view on the subjectivity or the objectivity of moral values, this, unfortunately, is neither the time, nor the place, for me to go any further down that path (I’m dealing with this in the book I’m currently working on which will be available for Tyler to critique soon enough). But again, so what? I may very well have additional reasons to object to the argument beyond my alleged rejection of moral realism (and for the record, I certainly don’t agree with Tyler anyway that speaking about inevitable subjectivity, in some sense, in regard to moral values necessarily entails moral nihilism). For instance, theists and atheists alike can, and, in some cases, do, simply object to the first premise of the moral argument (that if there is no god, there is no such thing as objective morality) alone.

In the beginning of my section on the moral argument I write:

“Moving on to Craig’s moral argument for the existence of God, he relies rather heavily upon the claim that there are in fact objective moral values in the world. Now leaving aside the fact that many of us think values are necessarily subjective, to what exactly does Dr. Craig point in support of this? Amazingly, the only thing Craig gives in order to substantiate this—the existence of objective moral values in the world—is the fact that we perceive moral values in the world. That is, because things like rape seem quite obviously wrong to (some) of us, we can simply conclude from this that therefore these things are objectively wrong.”

Tyler writes in response to this:

“The first major problem here is that Markum can only say this if he is unfamiliar with the corpus of Craig’s work in which he has done quite a bit of work defending P2. However, even if that were not the case I would still be inclined to agree with Craig on this issue. We can think of a simple analogy: How am I to convince you that a realm of material objects exist? Well I point to the desk and say, “Here is a material object!” What do you say then to the person who rejects perception and says, “Well you cannot appeal to thing that is meant to be proven”? It seems to me that if someone wants to deny that raping a small child for fun and profit is actually and objectively evil and immoral, then I’m simply not sure that they have the moral or rational capacities to discuss these issues cogently. In fact, the only I see this ever coming up is in a defense of atheism or a denial of theism such that it seems that nihilist is willing to accept absurdities in order to escape conceding that God exists”

Speaking of being unfamiliar with Craig’s work, Tyler’s “simple analogy” of how one might reasonably infer moral objectivity from subjective perception turns out basically to just be the analogy that I was referring to in my initial critique of Craig’s article. Essentially, the idea here is that just as we are more justified than not believing in an external reality to us (outside of our heads…) even though our only access to it is by means of our imperfect sense perceptions (we could be dreaming or in the matrix etc.), we are also more justified than not when we infer an external or objective moral reality by means of our subjective, imperfect, moral perceptions (or intuitions).

Now, let me just say that I have much respect for William Lane Craig; he is a brilliant philosopher and perhaps the best (depending on how you look at it) Christian apologist/debater currently making the rounds. Yet, to be honest, I think that his reasoning here in terms of drawing up an analogy between objective [external] reality and objective morality is surprisingly lazy for a man of his intellectual caliber. My issue, I suppose, to try to condense it into a few words, is simply that it’s a bad analogy. We—for the most part (I’m ignoring those stubborn solipsists)—agree about our external reality.  We agree, for example, that the table were currently using is real, as is everything else we’re currently experiencing barring a recent hereto unknown consumption of LSD or some other such hallucinatory episode. Now, in contrast, take any given moral issue or question, like, say, ‘Is it ever morally acceptable to murder another human being?’; like it or not, there is serious discordance in our species about something even as seemingly straightforward as this. Even if we leave aside those who refuse to see their murder as murder (deliberately killing an innocent human being), and manage to justify it (in their heads) as righteous killing, suppose, for a moment, that you were given the choice between either killing one innocent in order to save the lives of 10 other innocents, or letting all 11 innocents die; would murder still be wrong? Some would say that, “Yes, no matter what, murder is wrong, full stop,” but then others would say, “No, it would be wrong not to kill the one and thereby save the 11 innocents.” How about lying? Is lying ever morally justified? Gay marriage? Capital punishment? Abortion, and if so, at what point and in what circumstances? Needless to say, these questions are merely the tip of the moral ice berg; to say, therefore, that we can look towards our reliance upon our sense-perception as a sort of epistemological justification for our moral intuition of the existence of objective morality is not something that I’m capable of taking all that seriously.

And yes I of course realize that there is a large degree of concordance between the moral values of different cultures and time periods; I’m not denying that at all. My point is that there is nonetheless far too much disagreement for the analogy to hold.

So too do I agree with Tyler and any other moral realist when they say that “raping a child for fun” is wrong. So often lost on many theists is the fact that one can think something is wrong and yet simultaneously believe that there is no law, somehow in the universe, with which that opinion, that thinking so, corresponds to. The real issue in all this instead concerns the usage of the word ‘objective,’ and what exactly is meant by it in this particular context. Admittedly, presumably, in the sense that Tyler, and certainly in the sense that Craig (moral values existing independent of human minds) uses it, I do not believe in objective morality. However, if by objective we simply mean more than mere subjectivity and opinion, then in fact I’m inclined to agree that morality can be objective in the sense that something either does or does not cause gratuitous harm (I have much more to say about this but again this post has grown larger than I planned as it is). Granted, the idea that gratuitous harm itself is wrong ultimately boils down, in some sense, to my opinion on the matter (which is what I mean when I say that all moral values are ultimately, in some sense, subjective), but then so too does any other metaethical system, including Craig’s and Tyler’s, which again, is a truth too often avoided by modified divine command theorists.

And, to be clear, as Tyler accuses me of this in his response, I’m certainly not confusing epistemology for ontology when I say any of this. You see, I’m not arguing that objective moral values do not exist because people do not agree about said moral values, what I’m saying is that the very fact that we don’t agree about moral values—in particular how we disagree about so much, and how we do this so strongly— throws into question the idea of inferring objective moral values based on our subjective perception of them (to Tyler: in other words, I’m critiquing what you consider to be a straw man of Craig’s). So, in other words, I’m not using epistemology in order to disprove ontology, I’m using epistemology to raise doubts about epistemology-derived ontology. In thinking of this, I imagine a theist, after having just put forth an argument from experience, then accusing his atheist opponent of committing the genetic fallacy for bringing up the existence of different faiths. The atheist might say something like, “Of course these other faiths don’t prove your faith is incorrect, per se, but they do at least call into the question the use of this seemingly unreliable mechanism by which you are trying to justify your faith.”

Tyler then makes another mistake which again probably has a lot more to say about my writing skills than his comprehension skills:

“Markum then calls an audible and attempts to punt to a concept of beauty and wonders if just because some people observe beauty that therefore there is some kind of objective beauty. He wonders then who would argue such a position and seems to be wholly unaware of the entire field of philosophy which deals with aesthetics, many of whom do hold to objective beauty. In fact many theists would say, along with their ethicists, that creaturely beauty is only beautiful in so far as it displays the beauty of God and that God intended to display with it. While it is beyond the scope of this response to make such a case, I do think that something can be said for such positions. In short, I think it is actually Markum and not Craig who is employing “lazy reasoning” by throwing up beauty as if it is some prima facie a priori defeater to the objectivist case.”

The funny thing is that though Tyler is correct in mocking me about my ignorance of the particular nuances of aesthetic theory (and indeed, shame on me) he again seems to completely misunderstand what I was trying to say. I certainly was not saying that beauty is not or cannot be in some sense objective, or that those who think that it is and can be are crazy; rather, my reference to objective beauty was to say that one could not simply point to their subjective perception of beauty in order to prove the objectivity of that beauty. Here’s the part in question:

“But if this analogy held here, then it would seem to equally apply to other values, such as beauty, as well; now really, could anyone reasonably argue for the 'objective beauty of something' by referring to the fact that we are justified in trusting our subjective perception of the external reality?”

It should be clear then that this statement is most certainly not supposed to be taken as some “prima facie a priori defeater to the objectivist case [for morality], but instead as an argument against appealing to the belief in physicalism (via merely the senses) as an analogy/justification for belief in the objectivity of aesthetic values (via our senses and cognitive faculties), and thereby against doing the same as an analogy/justification for the objectivity of moral values.

Tyler then expresses some confusion about my last objection concerning the structure of the moral argument:

“Markum then takes a tact that I find quite puzzling. He moves to the structure of the Moral Argument and attempts to argue not only that the premises are false (which we have seen above he has failed at demonstrating) but also that the argument is a non sequitur, that is, that the structure of the argument is invalid. This is quite bizarre in that the argument is actually quite a standard modus ponens structured argument. It is of the form:

P1) ~P → ~Q
P2) Q
P3) P

This is a standard syllogistic form and within the moral argument the propositions and their negations are properly carried through the premises. However Markum starts this new assault by saying, “If this argument were formulated correctly, premise two would read more like, ‘Objective values seem to exist in the world,’ or ‘Objective values are perceived by most (I’m being generous here) of the world’s inhabitants.’” What he has done is taken a logically valid argument and in order to show why he thinks it is not valid, he offers what he thinks are improvements that would actually make it invalid. So not only is he incorrect that it is a non sequitur but his attempt to change it would turn it into a non sequitur.”

When Tyler says that my attempts to change it would actually turn it into a non sequitur, he’s correct, and that’s precisely my point. What I’m saying is that the moral argument as Craig formulates it has a dubious second premise because it asserts the controversial objectivity of moral values. [Granted, one can make this assertion if you want, but generally speaking in constructing arguments you normally try to select the least controversial premises possible.] And hence, if one was to word it more properly (again, in my eyes) by asserting instead the uncontroversial fact that people perceive a moral realm, the argument then becomes a non-sequitur.

And then, finally (again my words are in red):

“And thus ends the criticism of Craig’s argument. That really is it. While Markum is a clear and considerate thinker [I wonder if this really what Tyler thinks] it can hardly be said that his article has moved the needle for the cause of atheism against the Moral Argument. And yet he is not done. Remember the article is meant to show that God cannot be the foundation of morality. So Markum asks, “can we think of any other possible explanations for the fact that many of us do admittedly perceive moral values in the world?” This is where the real one-two punch should come in to knock God out of the explanatory ring. But what comes is not really what the title of the article offers.

“And the answer is of course an enthusiastic, yes. We are social animals. Evolution, whether or not its existence is even acknowledged, is a perfectly tenable explanation for why we happen to have these ethical inhibitions seemingly woven into our very being. We, as social beings, are preoccupied with the good and the bad quite simply because nature has gracefully conditioned us to be this way.”

[Back to Tyler] That’s all that he has to offer. Social animals and evolution. Namely, nihilism. So we see again that in order for him to justify that God is not the foundation of morality, he must deny morality itself.”

Okay I’m just going to cut him off there….again, Tyler is just completely missing the point here when he speaks about me needing to deny morality in order to justify the claim that God is not the foundation for morality. To repeat, one can object to theistic conceptions of morality whilst simultaneously rejecting moral nihilism because the truth of moral nihilism simply does not follow from the failure of modified divine command theory. And to be clear, my reference to evolution here is not to prove or disprove the existence of objective morality, it is to provide a plausible explanation for the moral intuitions/inclinations that seem to drive our moral evaluations. In other words, I merely wanted to show that we can give an account of our undeniably powerful moral sense without deferring to a disembodied mind living beyond space and time.

To summarize then, my article titled, “God and Morality: Why God Cannot Serve as a Foundation for Morality,” set out to fulfill two tasks: (1) to demonstrate that there are still some problems with modified divine command theory and (2) to undermine the moral argument for the existence of God. Tyler’s responses and critique varied a great deal, but overall it seems pretty clear to me that the majority of these complaints seemed to have arisen simply from a misreading of my arguments. Ambiguity breeds misunderstanding, and for this I apologize.

Let me also say that I have no doubt that Tyler will very quickly offer up yet another response to this response (which was a response to his initial response…), to which I will then probably respond, and on and on it will go, until one of us gives up and moves on to something better. Might I suggest, therefore, another option? Tyler and I both are currently hosting podcasts, so, why don’t we endeavor to set up a series of discussions between the two of us on these matters and whatever else might pop up?

In my experience, engaging with people on this level (via blog posts) seems to eventually erect a sort of wall of indifference between the two parties, from which both sides and launch their respective attacks at one another, everything very quickly devolving into nastiness, ad hominems, and pointless bickering to and fro. When two people actually engage with one another more directly however, whether connecting over the phone or in person, it seems to me that the discussion has a far better chance of being fruitful, and going somewhere worthwhile and beneficial. With that in mind, what say you Tyler?

If you like our posts, subscribe to the Atheist Republic newsletter to get exclusive content delivered weekly to your inbox. Also, get the book "Why There is No God" for free.

Click Here to Subscribe

Donating = Loving

Heart Icon

Bringing you atheist articles and building active godless communities takes hundreds of hours and resources each month. If you find any joy or stimulation at Atheist Republic, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.

Or make a one-time donation in any amount.