Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Duck Dynasty, Medieval Islam, and Moral Philosophy

There was a recent public flap, brought to my attention by a post on my favorite blog, over a speech by Phil Robertson, the patriarch of Duck Dynasty. Its claim was that an atheist had no basis for moral judgement, no ground on which to describe horrific acts (described in some detail in the talk) as bad.

It occurred to me that the same claim had played a central role in a somewhat earlier argument, the dispute between two schools of philosophy, Ash'ari and Mu'tazila, in medieval Islam. One of the major points of disagreement between them was the question of whether it was possible to know good and evil, to at least some degree, by human reason or only by revelation. The Mu'tazili position was that it was knowable by reason, the Ash'ari position that it was not.

I see a logical problem with both Robertson's position and the position of his Ash'arite predecessors. You encounter a powerful supernatural being. If you have no ability to distinguish good from evil on your own, how can you tell whether he is God, the Devil, or, like the Greek and Norse gods, a morally ambiguous being, no more consistently good than the rest of us?

I doubt that Robertson has published much on moral philosophy, but does anyone know if this is an issue that has been explored in the literature, ancient or modern, and if so whether anyone has come up with a good rebuttal to my argument, which seems to imply that both believers and nonbelievers need some source of moral knowledge outside of religion?


Kefalas said...

I think it is the same question with euthyphro's dilemma. It is discussed in one of plato's dialogues called euthyphro.

RKN said...

which seems to imply that both believers and nonbelievers need some source of moral knowledge outside of religion

All anyone would need is some method to distinguish good from bad, not that the method has to be based in pure human reason, if by that you mean logically irrefutable. I've never come across a method for classifying good and bad things with such a strong basis.

Depending on how much my method differs from someone else's, I may attribute more or less Devil-like or God-like qualities to the being, depending on how it presents, but I'd expect a great deal of agreement in the aggregate of all such classifications.

Brian Albrecht said...

The standard response from C.S. Lewis is that we all have an internal compass that distinguishes good from bad. We know that from self-reflection. That compass, although not perfect, comes from God. Believers and non-believers all have this same compass.

So you can distinguish good and bad as a non-believer, but not without God.

I don't know who else has taken this position in the literature.

bruce said...

Steven Brams 'Superior Beings':

"The central question I pose in my work is: If there existed a superior being who possessed the supernatural qualities of omnipotence, omniscience, immortality, and incomprehensibility, how would he/she act differently from us, and would those difficulties be knowable?

...he should not follow a tit-for-tat strategy; instead, some chicanery may be called for. This may result in m wrongful punishment for the righteous, and undeserved rewards to the wicked, making Superior Beings appear unethical if not despicable."

Brams is smart enough to give you a workout. I'd sure like to see you two debate.

Steven Seargeant said...

Stephen MacLean said...

Yes, the question can be found in Plato’s Euthyphro (as well as in Republic):

‘Just consider the following question: is the holy loved by the gods because it is holy? Or is it holy because it is loved? (10a)’

Quintanova said...

I like C. S. Lewis' position, as mentioned by Brian Albrecht, and would like to add that the exact same argument can be made using the word "nature" instead of "God". In both cases, something put a moral compass into us. Personally I would use the word nature instead of God.

Anonymous said...

"something put a moral compass into us. Personally I would use the word nature instead of God."

One could even argue that the "natural moral compass" consists of evolved behavior based on game theory -- Tit for Tat as one simple example.

In other words, regardless of the existence of or belief in a God, any organism that had developed social structures of the same order of complexity that humans have developed would necessarily favor certain behaviors (proportional justice, forgiveness within limits, etc.) and disapprove of certain others.

The applicability of game theory varies depending on how many of your interactions are with "kin" and how many are with complete strangers, so one could imagine an intelligent species that evolved from "lone hunters" rather than pack animals evolving different moral standards.

Maurizio said... argument, which seems to imply that both believers and nonbelievers need some source of moral knowledge outside of religion?

If that is what you are trying to prove, I think there is an easier way: any believer who does not take their Holy Scriptures literally (e.g. anyone who does not kill homosexuals, children who disrespect their father, and so on) is using _some_ criterion to decide which precepts of the Scriptures to keep and which ones to discard. That criterion, wherever it comes from, does not come from the Scriptures themselves. So it must exist before the Scriptures themselves. So it is presumably accessible to atheists as well. (I read that in Dawkins btw).

Anonymous said...

The Lewis argument referenced by other posters is essentially the Christian one as I understand it. In the story of the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, gaining that knowledge (as do their descendants, presumably). So Robertsons answer might be that we can discern god to be good because of this heritage.

Of course one could also argue that just because a supernatural being has supernaturally caused us to believe that certain things are wrong or right doesn't mean that they in fact are.

Richard Gilbert said...

This question is basically the postmodernist issue, right? The religious stance is essentialist, as is the liberal humanist; keep asking how you know something and at some point you come back to "because I do". The constructionist would point to that as evidence that, to paraphrase you, _neither_ the believers nor the nonbelievers _have_ a source of moral knowledge that is outside of faith. Descartes on the other hand is fine with coming back to an ontological argument, and most non-deconstructionists are, whether they are willing to admit it or not, essentialists to some degree.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

"If you have no ability to distinguish good from evil on your own, how can you tell whether he is God, the Devil, or, like the Greek and Norse gods, a morally ambiguous being, no more consistently good than the rest of us?"

It doesn't seem to me that you need to be able to make such a distinction in order to have moral knowledge via revelation.

If Isaac Newton appeared to Aristotle in a dream and provided him with Newton's Equations (which we'll take for the sake of argument to be in some sense true), but Aristotle didn't have any way of knowing whether Newton should know what the true equations of motion are, and stuck to his guns on refusing to perform experiments, would we then say that he didn't gain any knowledge about mechanics in this episode?

Even if for some reason answer the answer is "no", Aristotle would still have been able to make sound predictions about the trajectories, speeds and kinetic energy of projectiles. By analogy, even if we can't know whether any particular god is just, it doesn't prevent us from making morally sound choices on the basis of revealed knowledge from that god - even if we insist that ignorance about the god's goodness prevents us from truly acquiring this moral knowledge.

Religion may yet then have an advantage over atheism, insofar as if moral knowledge comes from gods, though neither the atheist nor the theist could truly acquire it, the atheist prevents himself from having any sort of access to it whatsoever, whereas the theist doesn't.

I think a better line of attack against those who say atheists can't be moral is to observe that most theists do not even claim to have moral knowledge directly revealed to them. They glean it from a book, which an atheist can read just as well as any theist can; so in practice atheists aren't blocking off sources of moral knowledge any more than theists.

John Vandivier said...


As I have exceeded the Blogger character limit in my response, I encourage you to read my full response on either your Facebook page or on my blog.
Read my Blog Response:

I believe the droids your are looking for are principally William Lane Craig, Alvin Plantiga, and perhaps Greg Koukl.

You also might want to explore presuppositional apologetics vis a vis Sye Ten Bruggencate.

I particularly recommend Craig. Here are five related resources from him:

1) Article: "Keeping Moral Epistemology and Moral Ontology Distinct"
Read More:

2) Transcripted Podcast: "Religious Epistemology"
Read or Listen Here:

3) Video Debate: "Is the Foundation of Morality Natural or Supernatural? William Lane Craig vs Sam Harris"
Watch Here:

4) Article: "Critique of Holy Spirit Epistemology"
Read More:

5) Video: "Doctrine of Revelation Part 1: Introduction to General Revelation"
Watch Here:

Perhaps a bit remote from your particular example, we could also take a more pragmatic approach utilizing Bayesian Inference which would be something along the lines of, "No amount of additional evidence can convince me to believe that P(A)' > P(A) simply because I have overwhelming prior evidence of P(A)."

There has been some discussion in the peer reviewed academic literature, Craig is published and Plantiga is even further published, but this talk is more the purview of the public forum and non-peer reviewed literature including books and the web as a strong stance in favor of Christianity, particularly evangelical, orthodox, and literalist Christianity, is heavily discriminated against in journals of philosophy and religion, as well as academia, peer reviewed literature, and even culture in general.

I encourage you to look through YouTube where Craig has a number of interesting public debates with well known atheists such as Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, and many others.

Sam Harris in particular has debated Craig on issues of moral episemology and ontology. One of their debates was the third recommended resource.

David Johnson said...

Ditto for the C.S. Lewis explanation. Growing up in a mainstream protestant church, our catechism explicitly said the knowledge of good and evil is within everyone regardless of faith. Eve ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and since then we have all been born into sin and born with the knowledge of that is sinful. Despite being a Calvinist sect, we were taught that unsaved people just have morality else how could they know to seek salvation. In addition, a core tenet of mainstream Christianity is that no person is morally better than another. Salvation is not moral prescience but forgiveness. Morality may only come from God, but God has given it to everyone regardless of their state of salvation.

But unfortunately a recent shift in the evangelical movement has altered this. I don't know where it came from, but even in my same childhood church I'm hearing attitudes that Christians are better than non-Christians, that only Christians can be moral. It's not biblical, it has no basis in theology, it's just vulgar us-vs-them tribalism.

John Vandivier said...

For what it's worth, I reached out to leading thinker and apologist Greg Koukl. He agrees that the problem is that David's question confuses issues of moral ontology and moral epistemology.

See my prior response for full treatment.

Here's Greg's comment via Facebook:

Benjamin. said...

The argument is very odd; to say that non-believers do not know good from evil. Obviously Christians believe morality to be from God. They also believe the universe to be formed by God. It hardly can be deduced by such beliefs that the universe cannot be observed by atheists.

I do not know what speech by Robertson you are talking about, so I can't comment on what he said specifically.

Anonymous said...

I will add to this discussion that in the Bible the apostle Paul writes that we have a moral compass in Romans chapter two verses 14 and 15. This idea is also elsewhere in the Bible. The William Craig videos John Vandivier posted have their transcripts available at and I also recommend them.

Magical Idealist said...

"These emotional reactions are purely psychological in character and origin. They may be indifferent to the intrinsic quality of the actions, and they have no transcendent significance, no character of 'moral sanctions.'
They are facts that are 'natural' in their own way, on which one should not superimpose a mythology of moral interpretations...

These are the objective terms in which Guyau, Nietzsche, and others have treated in realistic terms such phenomena of the 'moral conscience,' on which various authors have tried to build a kind of experimental basis — moving illegitimately from the plane of psychological facts to that of pure values — for an ethics that is not overtly founded on religious commandments."
- Julius Evola

Anonymous said...

It's easy to spot evil, just look for long beards.

Anonymous said...

This is one of the classic philosophical debates, going back to one of Plato's dialogues—I think Kefalas is right that it's the Euthyphro. The question is, Do the gods love holy things because they are holy, or are they holy because the gods love them? The theological analog is the debate over whether God commands the good because it's good, or the good is good because God commands it. In the latter case, accepting something as good is just submitting to superior power, and saying God is good is no more than saying that God commands us to praise him; in the former, God's power is limited and there is something independent of God, the rational nature of goodness. I found out just lately that the classic names for the two views are intellectualism and voluntarism.

They have other applications, of course. For example, it could be said that Ayn Rand was an intellectualist egoist (she thought that she should pursue what was rationally knowable to be in our interest) whereas Max Stirner was a voluntarist egoist (he thought that whatever was chose to pursue WAS our interest).

Or, in politics, does the state make something legal or illegal because it's knowably right or wrong, or does the state determine what is right or wrong by the laws it passes, which cannot be measured by any external standard? The former of course is the theory of the Declaration of Independence—"to secure these powers, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed"—but the latter is the dominant legal theory of the twentieth century, as favored by legal realists such as Holmes.

C.S. Lewis did not simply affirm that God gave us the ability to know good from evil. In a response to J.B.S. Haldane, he said that Haldane apparently took his Christianity to be simply submission to omnipotence, but that Haldane was mistaken; Lewis believed that God was good, but if God was not good, his power would not be a reason to worship him. That only makes sense as an intellectualist position: What is good is independently knowable, and is a standard by which even God can be judged, and what God is doiong is not so much giving us the ability to know what is his will as giving us the ability to know what is true, which among other things lets us know whether God is good or not.

Anonymous said...

Robertson, I think, was making a different claim than you describe. He was not saying that an atheist has no basis for moral judgment; rather, he was saying that without a God, man can do anything he wants. In fact, this argument goes back at least to Hobbes. Before the creation of the Commonwealth, Hobbes tells us, there is no basis for determining good and bad; there is only human desire, and no one can condemn any human action, however terrible. Those who claim that man has an internal moral compass are probably right up to this point: we seem to have internal senses of fairness, group solidarity, and a few other things (see Jonathan Haidt). But different cultures shape those internal feelings differently. Even Naziism had its own moral structures (I hear that Mein Kampf is still read with approval in some parts of the Middle East).

Back to Robertson. If there is no God and if man is nothing more than an intelligent animal (as Nietzsche tells us), where is the evil in the actions of his rapist murderers? Most human beings will be appalled by such cruelty, but that is merely the judgment of an animal. According to Nietzsche, we may CHOOSE to impose a set of moral beliefs on the world, but that morality has NO MEANING BEYOND THE BEING(S) THAT IMPOSE IT. If there is no God and if human beings are nothing more than animals, morality is reduced to a code based on certain animal desires and aversions. That, I think, is Robertson's point. Without God, human life has no transcendent meaning, and there is no basis for morality beyond our animal wants. Everything else is wishful thinking. This, I think, is a deep moral insight. Readers of Nietzsche are all aware of this, but most of them keep it to themselves because of its power to destabilize all existing moral thought.

Anonymous said...

Some additions and clarifications to my point immediately above:

In Robertson's world, atheists can make moral judgments, but those judgments have no real significance. The atheist's morality is indistinguishable from, let's say, the mating hierarchy among gorilla's or chimps. We think ourselves superior to other animals, but if we are merely another species of primate, what is the difference in terms of "value" or "significance" between gorilla behaviors and human behaviors? (I suspect that Peter Singer regularly asks this question of his students.) Only the existence of God can make human life meaningful. An atheist, of course, will say that the theist's moral judgments have no more significance than his own, for no God exists to validate the theist's claims. But this does not in any way justify the atheist's self-important claim to be able to make significant moral judgments. If the atheist is correct and there is no God, the only fitting conclusion is that neither the theist nor the atheist is capable of significant moral claims. This matter will only be adjudicated, ultimately, by the existence or non-existence of God.

For Robertson, the atheist's world has the following moral structure: the man who commits a horrific crime has done nothing wrong if he is not caught. His crime presumably had a private purpose, even if it was only to take pleasure in the torture and killing of others. He has accomplished this, and committing the crime was more important to him than observing the moral rules of his culture. He gets to choose what is right for himself, for there is no power capable of making rules that are superior to his right of choice. Societies claim to have such power, but what is the basis of such claims? Without God, what are "societies" but an assemblage of primates, and how is any true moral evil done by one primate defying the rules/customs of a primate group? If caught, our criminal will be punished, but the same is true of any gorilla caught violating the mating hierarchy. And if he can escape detection, he has nothing else to fear.

Finally, in a world without God, all moral systems are ultimately utilitarian. The codes have no super-human sanction, and so no matter how they are arrived at or explained, their only real justification is their utility (in most cases, their benefits to those with the power to create the moral codes). Once again, see Nietzsche.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous: I don't think that argument you construct can be sound. For why should anyone accept God as having anything to say about morality?

If there is no objective moral standard of what is right, then God is merely the ultimate example of "those with the power to create the moral codes", and obeying him is merely the ultimate submission to animalistic brute force. You can't say that God is good and his commands are good ones, because you have no standard of goodness by which this could be known.

On the other hand, if there is such a standard by which God can be known to be good, then that standard must be independent of God's will; so we can know what is good or right without appeal to God.

You can't get out of Nietzsche's quandary by appealing to God. God is trapped in the same quandary. Either there is or this is not an objective right or wrong, but if there isn't, then God can't provide one.

An old joke shows two physicists at a blackboard scrawled with equations. One is point at Step 7, which reads, "A miracle happens!" and saying, "I think you need to be more explicit in this step."

I think you need to be more explicit in this step.

RKN said...

On the other hand, if there is such a standard by which God can be known to be good, then that standard must be independent of God's will; so we can know what is good or right without appeal to God.

Sure, but there's a lot of room between a perfectly objective (logically irrefutable?) standard of goodness and no standard at all. It doesn't seem to me that in order to avoid circular reasoning one's standard has to be perfect to be able classify the Being as more Devil-like or more God-like, so long as the standard has its basis only in reason, albeit it imperfect reason.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry whswhs, you're the one who doesn't get it. You don't seem to understand the concept of God. Your God is apparently subject to such things as human notions of good and evil. You are merely indulging in wishful thinking--you want there to be some sort of man-made standard of goodness against which you can test or measure God. But there can't be any such standard. If God exists, God IS the standard; you can't test him or measure him to see if he comes up to YOUR idea of the good. Your standard is nothing--unless of course it is God's intention to allow human beings to indulge in this sort of speculation.

And I don't want to escape from "Nietzsche's quandry": I wholly accept it. Without God, man is but an animal, and all his attempts to construct moral standards are empty. You want to be able to "know what is good or right without appeal to God." But you can't--at least not in any way that goes beyond the limits of animal behavior. Without God we are mere primates--we are quite bright primates, I grant you, but that's it. We have no access to the True or the Good. Without God, there is no "standard" to be known. Our cultural assumptions disguise our animal nature, but it remains there nonetheless. Read your Nietzsche.

Eric Jacobus said...

I See Satan Fall Like Lightning is a great book on this topic.

Anonymous said...

anonymous: And how do you know that God is the standard? Do you have a rational basis for thinking so, or are you simply submitting to God's superior power? Because if it's the latter then your God is not an escape from the Nietzschean challenge; he's the ultimate manifestation of it.

IlĂ­on said...

What *is* it with God-deniers?

Tertium Quid said...

The more relevant question, I think is whether I think the more relevant question is whether in the absence of God there is any reason to believe that something is wrong other than measured by the standard of what one can personally live with. I say that it is wrong for you to kill people just because you can get by with it, and you reply that this is a matter of my opinion. We have different opinions. With regard to distinguishing God from Satan, it is perhaps guided more by revelation than one cares to admit--even if, or especially if, one is an atheist--maybe reason is rationalizing revealed knowledge and somehow taking credit for its insights.