Notes from Greg L. Bahnsen’s lecture, “Does Morality Depend Upon God?“
I want to clarify some things at the outset regarding whether ethics depends upon God. The question can be taken a lot of different ways.
First of all, the issue before us tonight is not whether atheists as persons are able to live morally comendable lives. Surely many atheists are honest, courageous people who love their children and so forth. I’m not here tonight to talk about that.
Secondly, nor does the issue whether atheists engage intelligently in ethical discussion, reasoning and issues. I’m not going to say atheists can’t engage in rational discussion about ethical matters. Most atheists do not repudiate matters as nonsense.
I’m here tonight to ask whether the atheist philosophy of life is consistent with ethics. Does ethics comport with the atheistic worldview? I’d like to throw out the thesis that theists cannot make ethics intelligible. I’m going to give you an example of a non-controversial statement of morality that people would agree with. I want you to imagine this statement being made to a Somali warlord, “It is immoral for you to tortue this child in order to exhort her parents to give them all their food.” What I suggest is that atheists leaves the most uncontroverial judgments of morality senseless, arbitrary and inexplicable. I will show you tonight that ethics does depend upon God. We cannot give an account of ethics without recourse to God.
My agenda tonight will be two-fold:
Firstly, I’m going to ask what the atheist means by moral terms like “good” and “evil.” Also by what standard he uses to determine what counts as good or evil.
Secondly, I’m going to ask what are the presuppositions by which the atheist makes any moral judgments whatsoever.
Firstly, what could the atheist mean by moral terms?
Societal Subjectivism/Cultural Relativism
Perhaps the atheist takes the word “good” to mean whatever evokes public approval. When we say “helping orphans is good” it evokes the approval of society. The problem is that on this basis, then a statement like “the vast majority of that community approves of genocide” would be moral. The fact that the majority of people feel a certain way should not convince anybody that that feeling of the goodness or evil of something is correct. Ethics doesn’t reduce to statistics. Cultural Relativism says that what is good or evil is relative to the society in which the ethical judgements arise. Cultural Relativism renders all social reform evil by definition. If ethics is determined by each culture, then any attempt to change that culture by definition is a violation of the standard of ethics. It brings the absurd conclusion that Martin Luther King Jr. is by definition evil. Ordinarily people think that the goodness of something as evoking their approval, rather than their approval or societies approval constituting its goodness. If I say that this action is good and that is what makes my society approve of it that makes sense, but if I say societies approval makes that action good then that wouldn’t make sense.
They say good is what evokes the approval of the individual. This implies that no two individuals can make identical ethical judgments. When Bill says that helping orphans is good, he is not saying the same thing when Ken says that helping orphans is good. Because when Bill says it that means helping orphans evokes Bill’s approval; when Ken says it, helping orphans evoke’s Ken’s approval. It would be impossible to make the same moral judgements. This view would also imply that a persons own ethical judgements could never be mistaken, unless he happened to misunderstand his own feelings. If you were a private subjectivist, then a person could by definition never be wrong, because what he says is good evokes his approval.
They suggest that goodness is an in-definable property, a basic or simple property, which we do not come to know empirically or through nature. He don’t use your senses and do research and draw conclusions and find out what good is; rather, good is something that we know intuitively. However, what does someone mean by a non-natural property? Unless we are speaking of a supernatural property which of course that is the very thing that atheists dispute. Calling goodness a non-natural property seems like a way of saying it is not a supernatural property. Moreover, Intuitionism cannot provide a basis for knowing that our intuitions are correct. Not only must we intuit the goodness of say charity, we must also intuit the correctness of that intuition. So I intuit that charity is good, but I also intuit that that previous intuition is correct. It is recognized that not all people have identical intuitions about good and evil. These conflicting intuitions cannot be rationally and objectively resolved within the atheist worldview if you are an Intuitionist.
Ethical terms do not function and are not used to describe anything at all. When we speak ethically, we’re not even trying to describe anything. We are rather simply give expression to our own emotions. Ethical language is not cognitive and informative, it is rather expressive. So when I say “adultery is immoral”, I am saying “adultery, BOOO!!” I am simply expression of disapproval of something when I say it is wrong. Then again, on the Emotivist theory, there can be no rational disagreements in ethics and this seems absurd. According to Emotivism, when people talk about ethics, they could never disagree with each other, because all that they’re doing is expressing their emotions. There is nothing wrong if you expressing this and I expressing that.
The function of ethical language is in fact bearing a title. Whenever I’m using ethical language, its just so that I can direct other people to behave in certain ways. On this theory, no attitude and no action is good or evil in itself, and what is left is no explanation of why people go around gratuitously directing people with these veiled commands in the form of ethical discourse.
The ultimate good is pleasure. What is good or evil is what gives rise to pleasure. If good or evil is defined by pleasure, then what sadistic serial killers do are good.
An action is good if it achieves a certain end like the greatest happiness or the greatest number of people. In order for you to be a Utilitarian, you would need to be able to rate and compare happiness. As well as be able to calculate all of the consequences of any given action. The Utilitarian theory would require you to not only rate your internal happiness and pains compared to each other, but I must compare my happinesses and pains to other people’s. There are many counter example counter-inuitive examples to Utilitarianism. Let’s image that a certain community is alarmed of a serial rapist that has been active other the years. The police seem to be helpless to do anything about it, but it also seems like the series of rapes has stopped. The police think that everything is okay, but the community is still afraid. In order for the police to regain confidence of the community, they take some random person and says that he is the guilty rapist. He man is convicted and put into prison, as a result, the entire community is happy and live in peace. Even though that the greatest happiness of the greatest number was achieved through doing this, we agree that this was an evil thing to do. Utilitarianism could justify doing something of this nature. On the Utilitarian theory, good may be taken to promote general happiness only if it is antecedently the case that generalized happiness is itself good.
A deontological theory of ethics places emphasis upon duties and rules. By Rational Deontologicalism is meant a theory of ethics that determines our duties and rules by the use of reason. Immanuel Kant is a standard example of this kind of ethics. Kant formulated the categorical imperative. If you take a proposed line of behavior and universalize it–what if everybody did the following–then it is a categorical imperative rather than a conditioned one.
Sartre says that people must be authentic and not fall into bad faith. We should be ourselves and not let people define us. We determine what is right or wrong for ourselves. Whenever we think that are subject to a higher authority we are not being free. Don’t let anybody give you commandments. A problem with this is that this is his commandment. Sartre’s attempt to advance his ethical theory is a violation of his ethical theory. On the Existentialist theory, any choice is equally authentic. It doesn’t matter what you do, all that matters is that you freely choose to carry out an action.
Six commonly recognized features of ethics
1. When we talk about ethical discourse, we are talking prescriptively, not descriptively.
-Ethics talks about what ought to be the case, not what is the case.
2. Everyone speaks as though ethics is individually regulative.
-Whatever ethics is, it’s supposed to regulate the individual. Ethics doesn’t change with personal desires and feelings as though you ought to do what you end up doing no matter what it is.
3. Virtue is not identical with personal pleasure and success
-doing good is not the same as doing well
-plenty of people have done well in this world (big houses, nice cars, fame etc.), but we wouldn’t say that are good people.
-there is a difference between virtue and success
4. Might is not identical with right
-ethics is not about who has the power
5. Free-will is a precondition for ethics
-it is senseless to say that someone is under obligation when they are no choice in the matter anyways
-when we speak ethically, we are assuming that people can do this and that.
6. Ethics deals with universal obligatory authority
-ethical maxims are universalizable; if it is an ethical duty for me, then it is an ethical duty for you under similar circumstances
The atheist worldview features
1. The atheist worldview holds that the world is matter in motion
2. Man is a product purely of nature.
3. All knowing is through observation.
4. Behavior is a matter of stimulus and response.
5. All quality reduces to quantity.
-everything that has a qualitative nature to it reduces to mathematics and configuration.
Do the 5 features of the atheist worldview comport with the six features of ethics?
1. Ethics is prescriptive not descriptive. On the atheist view the world is matter in motion all quality (prescriptive) reduces to quantity (description), and all knowing is observation. No one has ever seen an “ought” in this world.
2. There are universal obligatory authority when dealing with ethics. If everything is matter in motion, if all that we know is based upon observation, then the only that exists are concrete particulars. There is nothing abstract and universal. The very thing we are talking about, universal obligation, cannot exist within the atheist worldview. Ethics is to be individually regulative. With the loss of prescriptiveness and with the loss of universal obligation, then there is no individual regulation within the atheistic worldview.
3. If nothing exists but matter in motion subject to the laws of physics and biology, if man is nothing but a product of nature, if all behavior is stimulus response, then it turns out that men don’t have free will. Whatever you do is predictable if we knew all of the stimulus and response mechanisms built up in you. No individual is under authority is accept what another individual chooses as morally correct on the atheist worldview. Any individual may not submit to the method that the other individual uses to determine right and wrong.