The Problem with Uganda
My dear readers, there is a problem with Uganda.
Last week the Ugandan Parliament passed a bill that outlawed homosexual activity. Over four years in the offing, the private members bill is now in front of the President for final approval (itself still in question) and is set to become law sometime in the new year. The Bill provides for a fourteen year jail term for engaging in homosexual activity, rising to life imprisonment for engaging in activity with minors or if you are HIV positive. It is even a crime punishable with jail for not reporting someone else committing this crime. That means that pastoral support for those who have engaged in homosexual activity is itself utterly compromised since the moment someone is told about sexual activity they have to report it.
But this is the not the problem with Uganda. That of course is not to say that the Anti-Homosexuality Bill is a problem. It is obviously a problem; it is blatantly unjust, criminalising mere assembly let alone private consensual activity and as mentioned above, making pastoral support utterly impossible. No wonder governments and organisations around the world have spoken out about it, with the UK threatening to cut material aid to Uganda as a result. The Bill is nothing less than an outrage.
But as I said this is not the problem. The problem is that the Bill demonstrates a complete disconnect between Western and African notions of moral authority and shows the fragility of modern notions of democratic consent. The Bill is maligned in the West as being an infringement of human rights, but from the Ugandan perspective all that they are doing is shaping the moral framework of the country according to the will of the overwhelming majority. Look at it their way for a moment (however unpleasant you might find it) – no one who is homosexual is compelled to commit homosexual acts. Plenty of men and women who are predominantly attracted to people of the own sex function perfectly well in heterosexual relationships and there is nothing prescriptive in experiencing homosexual attractions that means you are destined to live as an open homosexual. Part of the problem they argue is that in the West young men and women are encouraged at a far too early age to identify with their sexual attractions and this leads them to forming sexual identities that aren’t necessarily the only choice available. In this context, what is wrong with outlawing behaviours that the majority believe are immoral as clearly the Bible teaches that they are? Such an action isn’t infringing on anybody’s human rights, rather it is actually protecting their humanity even if they don’t realise it.
Make of that what you want. Your most immediate response might be that what people do in private that harms no-one else should be their business. This certainly was in part the thinking behind the Wolfenden Report in the United Kingdom and the consequent Sexual Offences Act 1967 in England and Wales that legalised consensual homosexual acts between adults (at the time those aged 21 and above). It’s a popular position and almost taken for granted in this country, but just for the sake of the argument, why should it be valid? It seems obvious to us here in the UK and elsewhere in the West that private consensual acts are no-one else’s business, but in other parts of the world that isn’t the case. For some (for example in Uganda) there is a clear objective morality (found for Ugandans in the Bible which, ironically, was brought to them by Western missionaries) and it is the duty of the Government to guide people in the correct way to live. That means outlawing behaviours such as homosexuality which have eternal consequences. The government is actually protecting it’s population by banning homosexual acts and imprisoning those who engage in them because it dissuades them from activities which condemn them to hell and it gives them space to repent of their rebellion against God.
Some of you reading this are now cheering, others are looking for something to vomit into. I’m not necessarily interested in proposing you veer to one or other response, but rather that you understand the perspective of the Ugandans, even if you don’t agree with it. But as for those responses, to those of you who are cheering, I ask you to consider whether you really think transformative moral behaviour and spiritual regeneration is delivered at the threat of a jail term? Really? You think that? But on the other hand, for those of you who reel in disgust to the notion of a government that legislates morality for its people, why are you right and they are wrong? Is it because they have the Bible interpreted incorrectly? Well unfortunately you would very much be in the international minority on that issue. Or perhaps you believe that those in the west are more enlightened on this issue, that we have a firmer grasp of “human rights”? The problem is that most “human rights” are actually discerned by a majority vote these days. We have long since in the West rejected the notion of some objective form of moral authority beyond ourselves (traditionally God as he has revealed himself in the Bible) and we instead determine good by consent. Of course, the considered opinion of morality today is tomorrow’s prejudice (and vice-versa) and who are we to say that in a hundred years time we won’t legalise the obvious delights of polygamy (how could we have been so bigoted to prohibit it) but outlaw the evils of jammy dodgersÂ (their demonic stickiness is just so obvious in hindsight). The point of course is that views change over times and even non-religious enlightenment doesn’t necessarily equate with a liberal attitude to homosexuality. And frankly, why should the United Kingdom’s majority morality overrule the majority morality of Uganda? Or vice-versa? Isn’t there something deeply ironic about people in the West (a majority) wanting to impose their morality on Uganda (a minority) in the place of a morality (from the Ugandan majority) imposed on the homosexual sub-population (a minority)? Doesn’t just thinking about it hurt your head?
You can see then the problem with Uganda. It has everything to do with homosexuality but actually it has nothing to do with homosexuality in the slightest. Rather it is a deep epistemological battle between old and new worlds, a struggle over the discernment of truth and the response to the truth discerned and a struggle over how wide the discernment process itself is. For some in Africa the time of just accepting a neo-colonial imposition of western majority consent morality has now passed and the moment for traditional revealed morality is here. For some in the West it is inconceivable that morality should be vested in any other place than personal consent. As long as these two paradigms exists in conflict, the problem with Uganda will never be solved.
But despite that, I’m sure we’ll have a go at it in the comment thread.
Please note, any attempt by commenters to infer on this blog or elsewhere as some have doneÂ that I support the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill will not go down well. You’re welcome to comment here on this issue, you’re not welcome to malign people elsewhere and then come here and expect to be welcomed with open arms.
This piece by Chris Howles who is a missionary in Uganda is well worth a read.
So what is behind this bill, you ask? Simple. Traditional Ugandan views about sexuality. Uganda, with or without Christianity, is not a place that is readily tolerant of homosexual activity. This is true in the Christian community, the Muslim community, and the â€˜traditional ethno-religiousâ€™ community (unaffected by any Western missionary work or imposition of â€˜outsideâ€™ religion). In fact, in that latter community, I would imagine that the support of this law, and vehement and angry opposition to homosexuality, is even greater. To put it simply, this law comes from Ugandan culture. Not Ugandan Christianity. Christianity has barely impacted upon culture here.
Had certain activities remained criminal offences, the UK would not be the stinking sexual swamp which it has now become with the passage of a bill not only creating “marriage” between people of the same gender, but in effect criminalising those who dare to think differently. The Ugandans can see the trajectory which has been followed here, and they are entitled to three cheers for their determination in preventing the same thing from happening in their own country. Along with Russia, China, India, most of Africa, Australia, and the islamic world. It is the west which is in the minority, and it should cease its attempts at immoral imperialism before it provokes an international backlash.
How has the UK “in effect” criminalized those who “dare to think differently”? You’re either criminalized or you’re not.
Try opposing same-sex marriage in the public domain, and see how long it takes the police to turn up at your door. By enshrining immorality in an Act of Parliament, the government has subjected to all who disagree to the full weight of the equally immoral Equality Act and its penalties.
C4M haven’t, SFAIK, reported any door-steppings among the members. I doubt they’d be shy about it.
Officers may, occasionally, overstep their bounds, but there’s no law that comes close to criminalizing opposition to equal marriage, and many people feel no inhibition about doing so publicly.
You can, of course, dare to think differently. However, not every religiously motivated expression is protected as an Article 9 right to ‘manifest one’s religion’.
Even after Parliament’s decision to reform Section 5 of the Public Order Act, police in Wimbledon and Basildon continued to detain street preachers for the unintended ‘insult’ of explaining the traditional biblical opposition to homosexual acts.
Thank God that amended guidelines have been issued to ensure that intent will have to be proved for the offence of insulting words (Section 4A). Otherwise, only abusive or threatening words, behaviour or visible representation will constitute an offence under Section 5. In addition, reporting a one-off incident of feeling offended by someone else’s words does not support the claim of harassment. A minimum of two incidents are required.
So S.5 has been narrowed, and the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act has one of those “for the avoidance of doubt” sections, which makes clear that “any discussion or criticism of marriage which concerns the sex of the parties to marriage shall not be taken of itself to be threatening or intended to stir up hatred.”
If anything, the law to equalize marriage has added free speech protections.
You are right about this. The Act actually helps in this regard.
Thankfully, the amendment was introduced at House of Lords Committee stage, but only after the Joint Committee on Human Rights conceded that the free speech concerns of the Bill’s opponents should be addressed.
Claiming ethics by divine command runs into the Euthyphro dilemma: is it good because the gods will it, or do they will it because it’s just?
The Bible nowhere says why homosexual lovemaking is a sin. If anything, its unreasoned command increases the confusion, as exegetes scrabble around to construct a justification from the rest of the canon.
As for moral relativism, yes, Uganda’s law is abhorrent from our framework. All frameworks, however, are not equal. In addition to the powerful ethical arguments that you note, our framework is informed by the wellbeing that LGBT people experience from living in an open society that affirms them and their relationships. The Ugandan framework is built on a mix of disgust and “because the Bible says so.” The two are not the same.
And if you want to talk colonialism, what about the antics of Western evangelicals in making this an issue in Uganda?
There was a rather interesting article last week from a Ugandan explaining how this had very little to do with an imported culture war and everything to do with a clash of cultures.
Interesting, d’you have a link?
I’d like to know what the difference is between a culture war and a clash of cultures: the “culture wars” in America are a clash between conservative Christianity and reformers, which are, in effect, two separate cultures, albeit cultures that have America’s civil religion in common.
Found it. It’s actually some US missionaries in Africa, but the point is the same. Let me know what you think.
Thanks for that. :)
While it’s a useful corrective to naivety, it doesn’t change the basic picture: yes, Ugandans were previously conservative towards gay people; but the type of conservatism has recently changed, thanks in no small part by the efforts of Western evangelicals. It’s gone from out-of-sight, out-of-mind to open hatred and a rallying point for Ugandan identity.
This 2010 article by Jeff Sharlet, Straight Man’s Burden, examines the “American roots” of the current attitude, and how US conservatives have intersected with and harnessed preexisting Ugandan culture.
Chris Howles is right to highlight the wrongs of blaming every missionary. This is less about missionaries than it is powerful and secretive activists from across the Atlantic. As Sharlet puts it, “It is a classic fundamentalist maneuver: move a fight you canâ€™t win in the center to the margins, then broadcast the results.”
I think you’re buying into a narrative that isn’t correct. The likes of Scott Lively were invited into Uganda by those Africans already taking a Conservative stance. The current retrenchment of values was NOT imported into Africa and would be happening regardless of who the invited speakers were.
I’m not absolving Ugandan conservatives. Of course they’re equally responsible for this persecution. Too many progressives buy into a racist “noble savage” POV, where gullible Aficans are exploited by slick evangelicals with $2,000 suits and $5,000 smiles.
It’s a mutually-beneifical alliance. As filmmaker Roger Ross Williams explains, “Of course thereâ€™s homophobia. But people in Uganda, where I spent time, have tended to, in the past, just look the other way. It was not accepted, but people sort of put up with it, so to speak.”
Yes, Ugandan conservatives have much to answer for, but American culture warriors are proactive, and in this up to their necks.
Problem is, the “slick evangelicals with $2,000 suits and $5,000 smiles” in Uganda tend to be Africans themselves.
If you’re talking about the Gay Uganda film that got shortlisted for the Oscars, it’s actually not a very good piece of journalism.
Sharlet’s report says the same, and details (on p.4, linked) internal splits among Ugandan pastors over American influence.
I can’t speak for the quality of God Loves Uganda, which I’ve yet to see, but the same narrative crops up time and again: yes, this law is a Ugandan issue; but Western culture warriors are heavily involved, and want to harness it for their own purposes.
Put it this way: if marriage equality can come to Utah, its opponents must travel to Uganda. Win outside the union, inspire the troops back home.
Small point, Peter: they’re not US missionaries – they’re from the UK, having trained at Oak Hill :)
Ah yes. Corrected now.
I wonder if this is what Peter is talking about:
“Claiming ethics by divine command runs into the Euthyphro dilemma: is it good because the gods will it, or do they will it because it’s just?”
The Euthyphro dilemma is pretty neatly solved by the Christian Doctrine of God, i.e. the doctrine of God’s simplicity. God *is* love, God *is* justice, etc. There is no higher law or standard other than Himself.
“As for moral relativism, yes, Uganda’s law is abhorrent from our framework. All frameworks, however, are not equal. In addition to the powerful ethical arguments that you note, our framework is informed by the wellbeing that LGBT people experience from living in an open society that affirms them and their relationships. The Ugandan framework is built on a mix of disgust and “because the Bible says so.” The two are not the same.”
This is interesting. What are you appealing to when you talk about “wellbeing”? Is it quantifiable? And whose wellbeing is more important? It seems that an awful lot of Ugandans might like this law to pass – it would probably increase their wellbeing if the law did go through. You’re making an assumption that the wellbeing of a minority is more important than the wellbeing of a majority. This is in no way obvious or logically required by an ethical system.
As a thought experiment, I’m curious as to what would happen if this law passed… and Ugandan society actually did “better” (assuming such a thing would be quantifiable). More happiness, wellbeing etc for the majority of people. Would that justify the law?
Not trying to argue for the system here, by the way, but I think Peter raises a very good question.
“God *is* love” sidesteps Euthyphro, as it doesn’t define ethics, merely personifies them.
As for wellbeing, it can be analyzed in a variety of ways: how well people function in their lives; biological measurements; self-reporting, and so on.
Plenty whites enjoyed institutionalized white supremacy. Psychological benefits to being a member of the dominant group can doubtless be framed and diagnosed. If those benefits come at the price of another person’s human dignity, I don’t care. People can survive perfectly well without oppressing others.
“God *is* love” sidesteps Euthyphro, as it doesn’t define ethics, merely personifies them.
Indeed. So the Euthyphro dilemma does not apply to the Christian understanding of God.
If those benefits come at the price of another person’s human dignity, I don’t care. People can survive perfectly well without oppressing others.
Now here you’re making a whole lot of assumptions. Why should we care about a nebulous concept like someone else’s “dignity”? Specifically, why should we care about the dignity of a minority? From a secular ethical perspective you could probably argue either way, but there’s certainly no provably “right” way of doing it.
If I understand correctly I think the point that Peter is trying to make (one of them at least) is that there is no objective “better” morality when you take God out of the picture. Once you start grounding ethical choices in ‘dignity’ or ‘wellbeing’ you have to make assumptions, and there’s no way of proving that your assumptions are any better than anyone else’s. Or, in fact, that you are applying them consistently (e.g. what I said about wellbeing with respect to a majority).
I find it fascinating that many people in the West seem to hold onto a broadly Christian form of morality (i.e. that there really is a good and evil, and it really does matter how you treat people – even minorities and your enemies) while simultaneously trying to disassociate themselves from the thing which gave rise to that morality.
“So the Euthyphro dilemma does not apply to the Christian understanding of God.” Now there’s a non sequitur if ever I saw one!
Ethics aren’t a science; they’re a human construct. You can’t “prove” right and wrong. “Objective” morality ends up investing human opinion with undue weight. This isn’t the opinion of Paul of Tarsus, it’s the very Word of the Lord.
As Euthyphro illustrates for all time, claims of revelation don’t avoid the hard work of deciding what’s ethical, and why.
JB, No. Christian ethics is about the nature of God.
Put simply, God IS good – so, whatever is good is good because God wills it and, because it is good, God wills it. Two sides of the same coin, not a dilemma – Euthyphronic or otherwise.
It does not give birth to objective ethics for all that. It still bases ethics on a belief (shared by either many or few) that there is a good God, that this good God has revealed his will in Scripture, which is entirely subjective.
Can I clarify Lorenzo? Is the Scripture subjective or is the belief God has revealed his will in Scripture subjective? Or both?
I meant to say that seeing scriptural morality as objective as opposed to other forms of moral reasoning is mistaken as it is grounded in an act of faith which is by definition subjective, but I’d need time to phrase it carefully, which is precisely what I lack. Happy new year everyone.
Err, the Scriptures are not subjective they are written, as is the book of Nature.
Generating your own beliefs based purely on your own perceptions and understanding – that is subjective!
But if it’s God wills it because it’s good….then it isn’t good because God wills it? Either, God is a totalitarian ruler or good is a simultaneously existing reality of itself. Can’t have both.
Yes you can have both – because God created everything!!
Nudge me to lend you a book on this.
I’m doing projection Sunday morn…hope it’s a thin book though haha
Two sides of the same coin? In other words, a circular argument, one of the most elementary logical fallacies in the book.
GG – how is “two sides of the same coin” a “circular argument”? – or have you been drinking :-)
Sorry, Dave, I didnâ€™t really mean that â€œtwo sides of the same coinâ€ is a circular argument. Thatâ€™s my fault; I expressed myself clumsily. What I really meant was that THIS PARTICULAR INSTANCE which you called â€œtwo sides of the same coinâ€ is in fact a circular argument. Which it is.
“Now there’s a non sequitur if ever I saw one!”
Why is it?
Ethics aren’t a science; they’re a human construct. You can’t “prove” right and wrong. “Objective” morality ends up investing human opinion with undue weight. This isn’t the opinion of Paul of Tarsus, it’s the very Word of the Lord.
In that case, if I disagree with your ethic – as the Ugandans do, say – what gives you the right to claim the moral high ground?
As I said before, there are multiple ways of grounding morality in reason and so on – all of them open to question and disagreement. There’s no reason anyone’s way should be prioritised.
It’s a non sequitur ’cause it doesn’t give a substantive basis for ethics, just says that ethics are personal in God.
The reasoned ethic with the better case, and better evidence, should carry the day.
Your alternative is … what, exactly? Claiming a particular text or tradition is revealed. If you’re wrong, you’ve invested subjective opinion with objective weight. Which is exactly what’s happened in Uganda.
“It’s a non sequitur ’cause it doesn’t give a substantive basis for ethics, just says that ethics are personal in God.”
The basis for ethics is God’s revelation to us, if indeed Scripture is God’s word, and ultimately in Jesus Christ. But I don’t see how the Euthyphro dilemma has any relation to this: as far as I understand it, it [the dilemma] is not trying to lay out a basis for ethics – just trying to question whether they can potentially be rooted in God. How we go about apprehending those ethics is another question.
“The reasoned ethic with the better case, and better evidence, should carry the day.”
Who decides what is better? Which reason should we believe? Which evidence? This is the perennial problem of consequentialist ethics (or indeed, any ethical system which does not make reference to God): “Who’s in charge?” If the highest level of authority you have is human, another human is totally at liberty to disagree.
“Your alternative is … what, exactly? Claiming a particular text or tradition is revealed. If you’re wrong, you’ve invested subjective opinion with objective weight. Which is exactly what’s happened in Uganda.”
Let’s just say I’m not proposing an alternative for the time being. That still doesn’t make it right for anyone buying into a secular form of ethics to claim “right” in any meaningful sense over the Ugandan “wrong”. At this point I’m simply pointing out an inconsistency as I perceive it.
However, I do believe that for an ethical system to have any kind of moral weight behind it beyond merely suggestion, it does require something outside of ourselves – namely, God as revealed in the Christian scriptures.
In terms of investing subjective opinion with objective weight – this is another question about whether it’s possible for God to speak to us and for us to discern what he has said with any confidence. I believe it is a ‘yes’ on both counts. I will let others speak into the situation in Uganda, however I did find Chris Howles’ article helpful on that one.
And who decides if God is speaking to us?
That’s the problem with revelation claims: to paraphrase John Macquarrie, you can’t escape the human filter. “Objective” morality doesn’t escape our limitations: much worse, it treats flawed humans as God’s mouthpiece.
Euthyphro stands against all power-based ethics claims. Reasoned ethics may be flawed, but they admit it, and are open to modification. Conservative religion is in a mess over so many things because it’s incapable of change.
“That’s the problem with revelation claims: to paraphrase John Macquarrie, you can’t escape the human filter. “Objective” morality doesn’t escape our limitations: much worse, it treats flawed humans as God’s mouthpiece.”
This is assuming that God is not capable of communicating with us, those who he created. I believe that an infinite God has that ability, and has communicated with us.
However, I don’t want to turn this into a discussion as to why I believe that. If we assume that it is possible for God to communicate with us, and for us to have confidence in discerning what he has said, then Christianity is better than any merely human value system. Clearly we disagree on those assumptions, but this probably isn’t the place to have that discussion.
“Euthyphro stands against all power-based ethics claims”
I’m sorry, I’m sure I’m being stupid, but I cannot see what you mean here.
“Reasoned ethics may be flawed, but they admit it, and are open to modification.”
Saying that reasoned ethics is “flawed” is something of an understatement. Reasoned ethics is fundamentally and intrinsically flawed. No amount of modification will fix that.
I’ve little to add to Guglielmo Marinaro‘s comprehensive explanation.
As Euthyphro illustrates, you can’t settle ethics by diktat. “God says so” is about power, not morality. Whatever their source, ethics have to be defined. You can evade the reasoning process if you like, but you can’t replace it.
“Reasoned ethics is fundamentally and intrinsically flawed.” How much more flawed is it, then, when its product is treated as infallible.
Thank you James, I understand what you mean now.
One thing which is important not to ignore within Christian ethics is the fundamental notion of God as Creator. You might say, God gets to set the rules because he created everything.
But it is not so crude: Christians believe God is good, and that he knows what is best for his creation.
e.g. Isaiah 48:17-18,
“This is what the Lord says â€“ your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:
â€˜I am the Lord your God,
who teaches you what is best for you,
who directs you in the way you should go.
If only you had paid attention to my commands,
your peace would have been like a river,
your well-being like the waves of the sea.”
In other words, God’s rules are never arbitrary – they are what’s best for us.
I don’t say this to circumvent the reasoning process, but it’s important to understand the role that God as creator plays in Christian ethics.
However, I don’t believe that God ever says “do this” without a reason. I believe God’s teaching about same-sex sexuality, for example, is seated more widely within the teaching on sexuality – I think the Living Out website guys do a good job of explaining this. You are free to disagree with the reasoning, but it is there.
“You might say, God gets to set the rules because he created everything.”
Or in the words of God on Trial, God is not good, just strong.
William Lane Craig has applied this “divine command theory” to the tribal genocide in the Hebrew Bible, with chilling results:-
“On divine command theory, then, God has the right to command an act, which, in the absence of a divine command, would have been sin, but which is now morally obligatory in virtue of that command.”
This is the very definition of objective immorality. Not good, just strong.
And how do we know what God thinks? We must rely on human intermediaries and their claims of infallibility. And this is superior to reasoned ethics?
“This is the very definition of objective immorality. Not good, just strong.”
I have a feeling we’re not going to agree on this one. There is no way of *proving* God’s goodness; however if we do accept it, I think philosophically and theologically Euthyphro is a non-dilemma.
Having a discussion about the specifics of what happened about the Canaanites is probably best left for another day. I would note, however, that just because we may find something distasteful in modern 21st century society does not make it morally wrong.
“And how do we know what God thinks? We must rely on human intermediaries and their claims of infallibility. And this is superior to reasoned ethics?”
As I have said before, if God does exist I believe it is possible for him to find a way for him to communicate with us. Yes, even through human intermediaries.
Do you at least agree that -IF- (1) God exists; (2) God is good; (3) God is able to speak to us; (4) we are able to understand what he has said (including ethical commands), this would be better than reasoned ethics? While you may dispute those points in themselves, I think the argument is sound if the premises are accepted.
I think we’re beginning to go round in circles here so I’ll close with this.
I think most people in the West, although they may claim to have ‘reasoned ethics’, actually believe in an objective morality. Look at pretty much any popular film and it will contain some struggle of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. If someone steals my car, I don’t think “Oh, well, they must be operating under a different system of ethics”. I think they’ve done something objectively wrong! I can’t believe anything other than the Christian narrative could have created and explain such a world.
You say there is “no way of *proving* God’s goodness; however if we do accept it.” In order to do so you must possess a sense of right and wrong, good and evil independent of the divine revelation you are trying to assess, to accept or reject. It simply cannot be avoided.
“In order to do so you must possess a sense of right and wrong, good and evil independent of the divine revelation you are trying to assess, to accept or reject. It simply cannot be avoided.”
Christian teaching is that mankind is created in God’s image (with some knowledge of good and evil), and each person is in some kind of relationship with their creator. It’s not that we’re starting from neutral ground, if that were even possible. We are able to recognise God as good because he created us.
I think it’s interesting to look at it from the other way and say, if there is no God – why is it that people do have some kind of instinct for good and evil? And, more tellingly, why do they ignore it so much of the time?
Absolutely right. Indeed, if you believe, as many still do, not only in a being called God who is good, but also in a being called Satan or the devil who is evil, then without a prior sense of right and wrong, of good and evil, you have no means of telling which is which â€“ unless you do it by tossing a coin, which would give you a 50% chance of deciding correctly.
Be clear about what you are saying here. You’re arguing that “right and wrong” are external to God? That he is not the source of goodness and holiness?
â€˜Youâ€™re arguing that â€œright and wrongâ€ are external to God?â€™
If â€œright and wrong are external to Godâ€ means that, in Lewis Carrollâ€™s words, â€œthe ideas of Right and Wrong rest on eternal and self-existent principles, and not on the arbitrary will of any being whateverâ€, then my answer is â€œYesâ€.
â€˜That he is not the source of goodness and holiness?â€™
Iâ€™m rather wary of answering that question, Peter, because, to be absolutely honest, Iâ€™m not sure that I know precisely what it means. I will just say that, if the contrary proposition â€“ that â€œGod IS the source of goodness and holinessâ€ â€“ is intended to imply anything like â€œIf God does not exist, everything is permittedâ€ (a saying attributed to Fyodor Dostoevsky and which formerly adorned your website), then my answer to the question is â€œYesâ€.
So where do these eternal priniciples of right and wrong come from if not God? Why is right right?
It seems to me that you want to reject God as an external source of morality because you don’t like his morality, but you still want to have an external source of morality.
It makes sense, no doubt, to say that our sense of right and wrong is given us by God, although atheists will not, of course, accept that. It also makes sense to say that, since God is perfectly good, anything that he commands or does will be right and anything that he forbids will be wrong, although again to an atheist that will not be applicable. What will not do is to say that right and wrong depend on Godâ€™s whim, so that he can choose to make things right by commanding or doing them and choose to make things wrong by forbidding them.
â€œIn saying, therefore, that things are not good according to any standard of goodness, but simply by the will of God, it seems to me that one destroys, without realizing it, all the love of God and all his glory; for why praise him for what he has done, if he would be equally praiseworthy in doing the contrary?â€ â€“ GOTTFRIED WILHELM LEIBNIZ
â€œIf no moral principles exist apart from Godâ€™s will, Godâ€™s moral choices cannot be principled, and a being that makes unprincipled choices… is not a being worthy of worship. … If actions are neither right nor wrong independent of Godâ€™s will, then God cannot choose one over another because it is morally better. Thus, any moral choices God makes must be arbitrary.â€ â€“ THEODORE SCHICK
But God *is* good. That’s the whole point. You want God to be able to do bad things. That’s just inconsistent with his nature.
When faced with God doing something we perceive as bad there are two responses. The first is to say “That is a bad thing” and therefore God is not good. The second is to say, “Since God is good, how is this a good thing”. I’ve always found the second far more fruitful in my spiritual development.
No, I donâ€™t want God to be able to do bad things. You say that God *is* good. Fine. But if the meaning of â€œgoodâ€ is whatever God freely decides good to be, the only reason why he cannot do bad things is that, no matter what he might choose to do or to command, it could not by definition be anything but good, and would ipso facto be consistent with his nature. â€œGod is goodâ€ would then mean simply â€œGod is absolutely anything that he fancies being or doingâ€. It follows that God COULD have chosen to command â€œThou shalt stealâ€, and that could not possibly be inconsistent with his nature, because the very fact that he had commanded it would have made it right.
To be fair, it seems to me that it is you who want God to be able to do or to command bad things â€“ or things that we would recognize as bad â€“ but that you want to insist that bad things become good things if it is God who does them or commands them. You say, â€œWhen faced with God doing something we perceive as bad there are two responses.â€ I disagree: there are three. The third, which you seem to have overlooked, is to say, â€œSince this thing that God is alleged to do is clearly a bad thing, and since God is good, he does not do it and would not do it, no matter who says that he does.â€
But they’re not bad things by definition. The way that you want things to work is that God does something and then *you* get to decide whether it was good or bad (in an objective sense). Read Genesis 3 recently?
The patristic doctrine is that God is good and therefore everything God does is good. The fact that you don’t like it doesn’t stop it being good.
Our own reason and our own moral sense are the only faculties which we have by which to judge of any proffered revelation (â€œWhy not judge for yourselves what is right?â€ â€“ Luke 12:57). If we discount those, then the adherents of any other religion can do likewise and can on similar grounds rule out of court any objection on moral grounds to any aspect of their religion. For example, â€œThe way that you want things to work is that Allah does or commands something and then *you* get to decide whether it was good or bad.â€
You say that the patristic doctrine is that God is good and therefore everything God does is good. Is it also the patristic doctrine that what makes it good is the mere fact that he does it, and that if he wanted to, he could even take things that we recognize as wicked and make them good by doing them?
I have just re-read Genesis 3. I have to admit that I canâ€™t take it seriously.
It’s the patristic doctrine that things we might call wicked from our fallen perspective are actually good. That’s not quite the same as what you’re saying.
My presupposition is that God is good. Yours appears to be that God isn’t necessarily good.
My presuppositions are the same as those of Lewis Carroll:
(1) That â€œGod is perfectly good.â€
(2) That â€œthe ideas of Right and Wrong rest on eternal and self-existent principles, and not on the arbitrary will of any being whatever.â€
(3) That to accept as just and righteous acts which our moral intuition tells us are wrong is â€œvirtually the abandonment of Conscience as a guide in questions of Right and Wrong, and the embarking, without compass or rudder, on a boundless ocean of perplexity.â€
When you ask â€œWhere do these eternal principles of right and wrong come from?â€, I have to confess that I havenâ€™t got a satisfactory answer. I certainly donâ€™t find â€œWell, God made them upâ€ â€“ which is effectively what youâ€™re saying â€“ a satisfactory answer. To quote Russell again:
â€œTheologians have always taught that Godâ€™s decrees are good, and that this is not a mere tautology: it follows that goodness is logically independent of Godâ€™s decrees.â€
I think we have to accept that there are some enigmas which, in this world at least, will probably always remain insoluble. I agree with A.J. Ayer when he wrote that the adoption of a moral principle â€œis a decision for which it may be that we are not able to give any further reason, just as we may not be able to give any further reason for the value that we attach to justice or to liberty.â€
So you reject the notion that concepts of right and wrong in the Universe derive themselves from the creator of the Universe, but you cannot give an alternative explanation?
You rather want to have your cake and eat it don’t you?
Let us say, rather, that in default of a satisfactory explanation, I prefer not to grasp at an unsatisfactory one.
This dilemma is highlighted in Judas (Hiss! Boo!) accusing Jesus of self-indulgence for accepting Mary’s anointing with expensive perfume at the expense of selling the same to provide for the poor.
Christ’s answer is: ‘It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.’ (John 12:7)
Judas’ ulterior motives aside, there is no process of human reasoning that could have revealed this ritual priority for the perfume to an objective observer.
Right and wrong are still right and wrong whether or not one is a Christian and, indeed, whether or not one believes in God. Once you start basing ethical choices on the supposed â€œwill of Godâ€, there are two problems which you have to confront.
The first is that you have to make assumptions about what the will of God is, and while you may be convinced that your assumptions are better than those which differ from yours, thereâ€™s no way of proving that they are. You can, of course, appeal to some external â€œauthorityâ€, which you assume reveals what the will of God is, e.g. a sacred book such as the Bible, but others can assume that the will of God is mediated by some other â€œauthorityâ€, e.g. a different sacred book such as the Qurâ€™an or the Book of Mormon, and there is no way of proving that your assumption is more correct than theirs.
The second problem is that, even if you have managed to resolve or explain away the first in a way which satisfies you (although it will not satisfy everyone else) and have attained the conviction that your assumptions about the will of God are correct and provide you with a morality that is objective from your standpoint, that morality is still subjective from Godâ€™s standpoint. Thus, God could, if he wished, have plumped for a completely different morality. For example, as Bertrand Russell pointed out, he could have chosen to issue a version of the Ten Commandments with all the â€œnotsâ€ omitted â€“ Thou shalt steal; thou shalt do murder; thou shalt commit adultery, etc. â€“ and it would have been just as valid as the version that we have, since right and wrong depend entirely on his whim. As another British philosopher summed it up:
â€œThe point is that moral standards can never be justified merely by an appeal to authority, whether the authority is taken to be human or divine. There has to be the additional premise that the person whose dictates we are to follow is good, or what he commands is right, and this cannot be the mere tautology that he is what he is, or that he commands what he commands. This does not mean that we cannot look for guidance in conduct to those whom we judge to be better or wiser or more experienced than ourselves. To a greater or lesser extent, we can and do take our morals on trust but in so doing we are making a moral decision. We are at least implicitly judging that the rules which we have been brought up to respect or the verdicts of our mentor are morally right: and again this is not the mere tautology that these rules and verdicts just are what they are.â€
â€“ A.J. AYER, “The Central Questions of Philosophy”, 1976
I am not a great fan either of Russell or of Ayer, but they were undoubtedly correct about this, and one does not need to be an atheist (as they were) to see that they were correct. Lewis Carroll (Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), a staunch Christian if ever there was one, made precisely the same point in the 19th century, viz. â€œthat the ideas of Right and Wrong rest on eternal and self-existent principles, and not on the arbitrary will of any being whatever.â€
Of course, if one takes this point of view one still needs to work with the conflict of received wisdom in Uganda and the West.
“The first is that you have to make assumptions about what the will of God is, and while you may be convinced that your assumptions are better than those which differ from yours, thereâ€™s no way of proving that they are”
I’d say it’s possible to have a discussion over what makes the most sense. Of course it’s impossible to prove anything when it comes to ethics. But what makes sense of the world we live in? What best explains the belief that most people have of right and wrong?
Is it atheism? Is it the Islamic God? Is it the Christian God? I believe that Christianity is the only satisfactory explanation. I can’t prove it, but neither can anyone prove that anything else is right.
And, of course, saying that no-one can prove that their solution is right has little bearing on the Ugandan solution. They might say, “Well, you can’t prove you are right, hence we are continuing with our bill”.
Your second point seems basically to be a restatement of the Euthyphro dilemma: “morality is still subjective from Godâ€™s standpoint.” In other words, God could ‘will’ anything he liked to be moral. I believe the classical Christian Doctrine of God disagrees with this: if God *is* good, he is both the lawgiver and the standard. There is no higher authority than God to appeal to. He cannot command us to ‘bear false witness’, for example, because God is love and God is truth and such an action would be neither. In other words, God’s commands are an extension of his character. There is an actual ‘good’, and it is ultimately God.
“that the ideas of Right and Wrong rest on eternal and self-existent principles, and not on the arbitrary will of any being whatever”
Much as I respect Carroll I feel I have to disagree with him here. One has to wonder, if principles of right and wrong are so eternal and self-existent, why so much of the world seems to get them wrong so much of the time.
To take a relevant example, throughout much of human history homosexuality was believed to be wrong (say, using some kind of natural law). If right and wrong is so obvious, why was this the case? Why is it obvious now that it’s right, whereas it wasn’t to our forebears?
Even in the enlightened West, many scientific ethicists advocate eugenics, or post-birth abortion. A friend of mine trained at Manchester University in medicine – the lecturer in ethics there taught that a baby is not a person until it is able to recognise itself in the mirror. (The implication presumably being, it’s OK not to treat the baby as a person up until that point).
David Bentley Hart has written a book called “Atheist Delusions” – it is an excellent book but I don’t like the provocative title (I think it was probably titled by an editor who wanted to make a few more sales). But he is a historian, and in the book traces the history of Christianity over the last 2000 years and its effect on morality where it has spread.
This is a quote from that book, with which I finish:
“If we find ourselves occasionally shocked by how casually ancient men and women destroyed or ignored lives we would think ineffably precious, we would do well to reflect that theirs was â€“ in purely pragmatic terms â€“ a more â€œnaturalâ€ disposition toward reality. It required an extraordinary moment of awakening in a few privileged souls, and then centuries of the relentless and total immersion of culture in the Christian story, to make even the best of us conscious of (or at least able to believe in) the moral claim of all other persons upon us”
Why, Mr Sacre? Who alleged that moral reasoning was easy? And what in your eyes would constitute a ‘moral proof’?
I’m not sure which part of my post you are replying to. I never said moral reasoning was easy, or provable. In fact, isn’t that the point: moral reasoning, without some higher authority, is fundamentally flawed – you may reason one way, someone else may reason another.
No-one can “prove” an ethical system right or wrong. A nation state may adopt one for the sake of maintaining an ordered society, but we cannot say another system is “right” or “wrong”. The only measure we really have for ‘rightness’ is consequence – and that can be measured in a number of different ways.
Sorry, this was in answer to your remark that much as you respect Carroll, one has to wonder why so many seem to get it wrong if principles of right and wrong are so eternal and self-existent.
But you know the answer to this Lorenzo. Did they not teach you this at the vicar factory?
â€œOf course itâ€™s impossible to prove anything when it comes to ethics.â€
Precisely, and thatâ€™s why, even if you believe that a knowledge of right and wrong can be given us by revelation, the question that James Byron asks below, â€œHow do we know the supposed revelation is genuine?â€ remains unresolvable in any objective way. You acknowledge this yourself when you say â€œI believe that Christianity is the only satisfactory explanation. I canâ€™t prove it, but neither can anyone prove that anything else is right.â€
No matter what the classical Christian Doctrine of God may disagree with, if right and wrong are decided by Godâ€™s decree, then he certainly COULD â€˜willâ€™ anything he liked to be moral. Unless, in Lewis Carrollâ€™s words, â€œthe ideas of Right and Wrong rest on eternal and self-existent principles and not on the arbitrary will of any being whateverâ€, there would be nothing to stop him from deciding, to take your own example, that bearing false witness was a bloody good thing and that we could do with a great deal more of it. To say that bearing false witness would be neither love nor truth would not be a valid objection, because it would be entirely up to God to decide whether love and truth were good, and whether, even if they were good as a rule, there might not be times when a spot of hatred and untruth was a good scheme.
I would add that even C.S. Lewis, a past master at rationalizing the irrational and defending the indefensible, eventually came to acknowledge that â€œThings are not good because God commands them; God commands certain things because he sees them to be good.â€ As he rightly observed, â€œThe opposite view (Ockhamâ€™s, Paleyâ€™s) leads to an absurdity. If â€˜goodâ€™ means â€˜what God willsâ€™ then to say â€˜God is goodâ€™ can mean only â€˜God wills what he wills.â€™ Which is equally true of you or me or Judas or Satan.â€
â€œ…throughout much of human history homosexuality was believed to be wrong (say, using some kind of natural law). If right and wrong is so obvious, why was this the case? Why is it obvious now that itâ€™s right, whereas it wasnâ€™t to our forebears?â€
Thatâ€™s an interesting question, and I have to confess that I havenâ€™t at present got a satisfactory answer to it. I can but observe that our ideas of what is right and what is wrong change. To take another example, throughout much of Christian history it was believed to be right to torture and, if the desired result was not obtained, to burn to death those who held â€œunsoundâ€ views on, for example, the Virgin Birth, the Trinity or the Eucharistic Presence. There were those who dissented from this view, of course, but they were themselves in danger of similar treatment if they said so openly. As the historian Jasper Ridley wrote, â€œThe people who held these advanced beliefs in favour of religious toleration were obliged to keep their views very secret.â€ If right and wrong are so obvious, why was this the case? Why is it obvious to us now that it was wrong, whereas it wasnâ€™t to our forebears? And it certainly isnâ€™t because of new knowledge. No new facts have come to light about parthenogenesis, the composition of the Godhead or what happens when the bread and wine are consecrated. Nor do we know anything about burning people alive that they didnâ€™t know. (Except that things donâ€™t give out phlogiston when theyâ€™re burnt, which is hardly of any moral relevance.)
And even among those who still insist that all homosexual behaviour in all circumstances is morally wrong, only a few would now openly defend the utterly despicable way in which gay men were once treated and which was regarded by most people, including professing Christians, as above criticism.
“To say that bearing false witness would be neither love nor truth would not be a valid objection, because it would be entirely up to God to decide whether love and truth were good, and whether, even if they were good as a rule, there might not be times when a spot of hatred and untruth was a good scheme.”
God could not decide that love and truth were not good things, because that would be against his character. God is those things, to the fullest possible – infinite – extent. And he cannot change, because he is perfect.
This is the logical consequence of saying that God is love, God is perfect, and God is infinite (the “most mostest”, if you’ll excuse the expression) – in other words, the Christian God. For God to be anything else is an impossibility.
“To take another example, throughout much of Christian history it was believed to be right to torture and, if the desired result was not obtained, to burn to death those who held â€œunsoundâ€ views on, for example, the Virgin Birth, the Trinity or the Eucharistic Presence. … Why is it obvious to us now that it was wrong, whereas it wasnâ€™t to our forebears? ”
Indeed, Christian history is littered with people doing bad things in the name of Christianity. That’s not to say they were right to do so. People will find any excuse to do what they want to do, especially if it is politically expedient for them to do so. (I suspect much of the blame for such things should be laid at the door of politics rather than Christianity). People being selfish and having double-standards – this is exactly the kind of behaviour that the Christian worldview predicts.
On the other hand, if secular reasoned ethics is true, at best we can say that in the past they practiced a different form of ethics. In fact, if you could justify rationally that burning heretics actually functions pretty well as part of an ethical system, there’s no reason we couldn’t reintroduce it.
“Indeed, Christian history is littered with people doing bad things in the name of Christianity.”
Why’s burning heretics “bad”?
Was Thomas More a “bad” man, a sadist, looking for an excuse to inflict pain? Nothing we know of him indicates this. Far from it, he was a devout man, who burned heretics because he honestly believed it was right. His martyrdom, and his heresy burning, have a common source.
And how do we know that More was wrong? What “objective morality” tells us this? Isn’t religious toleration simply a pact of convenience given ethical gloss?
If not, why not?
“And how do we know that More was wrong? What “objective morality” tells us this?”
I am guilty of over simplifying.
Heretic burning relates to the question of whether it is ever right for nation states to execute someone as part of its justice system. I’d say the answer to that is complicated at best. Although I personally do not have the right to take a life, I think God has given governments the right to make that decision.
The fact that ethics are complicated with shades of grey does not mean there is no objective morality. It’s not the case that we have a simple checklist of rules we can apply to each and every situation, there are principles.
And once again, I turn the question back round and say: if secular ethics is true, there would be no point even having this discussion. They (the heretic burners) simply made a different decision. It’s meaningless to say that heretic burning is wrong.
Also it’s important to remember that in a godless universe, death is the worst possible thing that can happen to anyone. However, as Jesus said in Matt 10.28, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Death is not to be feared – God is to be feared. We can have confidence that justice and righteousness will be done regardless of what happens on earth. All those burned heretics and heretic burners (along with the rest of us sinners) will one day need to face the judgement seat of God.
If what makes something good is purely the fact that God wills it or does it, then a perfect God would have perfect freedom to make love and truth good things or not good things, exactly as he chose. It would then follow that if he willed bearing false witness, it would be good by definition and thus could not be against his character.
As for saying that he cannot change because he is perfect, if God can make things good simply by exercising his sovereign will, deciding for himself whether or not being perfect allows him to change should be a doddle.
Even if some of the terrible Christian persecution had motives behind it that were other than purely religious ones, that explanation is inadequate to explain the phenomenon as a whole. That Thomas Aquinas, for example, approved of the persecution of heretics on grounds of political expediency is hardly a proposition to be taken seriously. The Protestants, of course, were as bad as the Catholics when they got into power. But all this is in any case beside the point, which is that for centuries it was accepted as morally right to torture people who held heretical views and, if they would not recant, to burn them alive, and that disagreement with this was a minority position which was itself regarded as a dangerous heresy. So this is just one instance in which the general moral view is completely the opposite of what it was, but not on the basis of any new facts or of any new revelation.
Iâ€™m not sure what you mean exactly by â€œsecular reasoned ethicsâ€ and by saying that â€œat best we can say that in the past they practiced a different form of ethics.â€ But I think I am right in saying that, in general, people who regard it as wrong to burn alive people with â€œunsoundâ€ religious beliefs, and who do not base that view on religious grounds, do not think that it has only become wrong in modern times and was all right back then. They believe that it was always wrong, but that most people back then didnâ€™t realise it.
I don’t think you’ve understood me. “If what makes something good is purely the fact that God wills it or does it” – no, what makes something good is the fact that God *is* it. God doesn’t will something to be right or wrong. It’s an ontological thing.
And, if God is perfect, there is no possible way that good can become any ‘gooder’, therefore he cannot change.
Let’s deal with the heretic burning thing head on. There are a few things I’d want to say:
1. Yes, politics does not explain the reason why religious people supported it. But politics was a major factor: under Mary, for example, around 300 protestants were burned. Was this because they were heretics, or was it because Mary wanted to curry favour with Rome? It was politically expedient for her sake to appear to be harsh on dissenters. In fact, the distinction between the religious and secular just didn’t exist in those days – it is a modern invention.
2. We mustn’t forget the cultural context, which is where death and capital punishment were rife. I don’t wish to excuse any behaviour, but on a journey you don’t get to your destination immediately. And I believe history has headed in the right direction in this country, mainly through an exercise of Christian principles.
3. Sadly, throughout Christian history many cultural assumptions have been imported into the church. I wonder, for example, how many Americans believe that it is good and right to own (and use) guns. I’d say, at the least, this is an argument that the church should be wary of following the prevailing cultural opinion. It is possible to simply assume what culture assumes without ever questioning it.
4. It’s easy to paint the past ethically as black and white, from our comfortable 21st century viewpoint. This isn’t the case. Morality isn’t a set of rules to be blindly followed in every event. It is a set of real decisions that real people make in real situations. This is why it makes sense for God to ontologically *be* good: because he is relational. Good doesn’t exist apart from context and relationship.
5. Ultimately, as I said to JB, God will judge everyone. There will be no unrighteous deed which does not go unpunished. (Christians believe that, for them, the punishment fell on Jesus Christ.) This gives us confidence to believe that whatever immorality has happened in the past will be made right. Death is not the end. Heretics and heretic burners alike will be judged or vindicated.
When I say “secular reasoned ethics” I simply mean ethics which exists purely by virtue of reason, without reference to God. Of course people with such a system believe that burning heretics was wrong back then; I would question whether that is a valid belief. It goes back to the question: what makes things right or wrong, objectively? I have been trying to argue that, from a godless perspective, there is nothing which one can appeal to higher than reason – reason which can be disagreed with.
So whereas one person might say it was wrong to burn heretics, another might say it’s par for the course – so long as you can come up with a plausible sounding rationale for it. And, seeing as no-one can agree on how to judge plausibility, this isn’t as far-fetched as you might think.
Sorry Phil, arguments from divine simplicity won’t wash. They still presuppose an act of faith in the goodness of God (how would you know?), and that you are created in the image of this good good. Still terribly subjective and still presupposing an ability on your part to determine what is good.
Every system presupposes something. You can’t get away without it. The question is not whether we can get away without any presuppositions but whether the presuppositions that we have make sense.
If we are created in God’s image – as the Bible says – it logically follows that we should have a sense of what is good, even if it is marred by the fall. And I think this is exactly what we do find.
If you think about secular godless ethics, you still have to have the presupposition that we are able to recognise good from evil. But – on what do you base that presupposition? What, in a godless universe, could possibly give rise to the idea that certain actions have an innate ‘rightness’ or ‘goodness’ and others an innate ‘wrongness’?
Their consequences, the harm they cause or not, and the intent that prompted them. I’m a Christian and quite happy with the existence of God, personally, but not with the idea that we have an ‘objective’ set of moral doctrines that must be accepted as revealed on blind faith, neither should any serious Catholic Christian. It’s pretty traditional theology.
As I’ve tried to argue here before, the problem with defining ethics via consequence or ‘harm’ is, who gets to define what consequence or harm is acceptable? For example, the Ugandan Bill seems to be supported by a majority of people in the country. If you measure consequences exclusively by how many people it would make happy, you could plausibly make a case to go for it. ‘Harm’ is another funny one – what defines harm? Who defines it? If, for example, an openly gay couple move into a Bible belt town in the South of the USA – does that cause ‘harm’ to the community? In a sense it does.
No-one can agree on how to judge these kind of ethics, or what value to put on different things. What you tend to end up with is ethics which ends up looking very much like your own personal preferences i.e. egoism.
I’m not sure what you mean about “it’s pretty traditional theology”. Which traditional theologians articulate the idea that we don’t have any objective moral doctrines?
I’m not saying, by the way, that Christians have a set of rules they need to blindly follow. I’m saying that God himself *is* the standard, the objective morality which everything else must measure up to. Matt 5.48 ‘Be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect’, for example, or ‘Be holy, because I am holy’ (Lev. 11, quoted in 1 Pet 1.15), or Eph 5.1 “be imitators of God”. The Scriptures outline for us how that works out in practice and does give us moral doctrines, but it’s not a wooden “one size fits all” approach. If anything I’ve said has suggested that I am sorry for misleading you.
Incidentally, as I understand it God’s simplicity is pretty traditional theology – from what you’ve said I’m not sure whether you disagree with the doctrine or not.
Of course I don’t disagree with the doctrine, but divine simplicity means that, as Aquinas says, although you may confess THAT God is good you cannot have the foggiest about WHAT it means for him to be good. It’s no foundation for ethics at all.
I haven’t read Aquinas, or at least not on simplicity. Anselm’s Monologion talks about a supreme good through which all other ‘goods’ receive their goodness.
I don’t agree we can know nothing of what it means for God to be good. It goes back to the imago dei and the doctrine of creation. Also, I believe God has given us his revelation (the Scriptures and, ultimately, his Son). So God has revealed himself to us and is not hidden.
Similarly with God’s substance. If you mean by ‘unknowable’ you mean, completely unknowable, then I disagree. Although we are never able to comprehend God, we are able to apprehend him – because he has chosen to reveal himself to us. e.g. John 17:3 “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent”.
I sense that we may be talking past each other here, as seems to be common on these internet discussions.
I’m not sure we’re talking past each other, but the conversation could be very long indeed, and has been going on for a long time already. Yes, I do mean unknowable as completely unknowable, not as slightly mysterious. I can no more understand the divine nature as I can teach my dog quantum physics. Indeed the similarity between a dog’s mind and mine is far greater than between mine and God’s. As the preface to any celebration of the Divine Liturgy puts it quite lyrically: for he is “God: ineffable, incomprehensible, invisible, inconceivable.” Aquinas comments on Jn 17 that in Christ we are in this life united to God as to the unknown. As for Anselm, all (bar maybe Duns Scotus) criticise him for envisaging a univocity of being between God and us, but hey, I’m glad Evangelicals (if you describe yourself as such) are reading the Fathers and scholastics again.
“I can no more understand the divine nature as I can teach my dog quantum physics”
I think this is why we are talking past each other. I am not arguing that our goodness stems from a complete and total knowledge of God in his essence. I am arguing that, as creatures who bear God’s image, we are like him (although that image is marred by the fall) – so although we may not comprehend him in his totality, nonetheless we have a knowledge of good which comes from him. Additionally, he has revealed to us what is good through his Word.
Let me ask you a question which might help to clear up confusion: what can we know of God? I would be curious to know, if we have no knowledge of God, why we are instructed to be like him as I mentioned in a previous post.
Looking up one of your quotes, I noticed that Aquinas in Contra Gentiles 3.17 says this: “Therefore, that which is the highest good is, from the highest point of view, the end of all things. But there is only one highest good, and this is God, as has been demonstrated in Book One. So, all things are ordered to one good, as their end, and this is God.” Which to my mind is saying that there is an ultimate ‘good’.
This is why I am wondering whether we are operating on two definitions of knowing God. Although we are not able to know everything about God, I think we are able to know something about him – supremely because of the incarnation (i.e. Jn 14.9 ‘Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father’).
I would indeed describe myself as evangelical. I am currently studying at theological college, doing a course on the Doctrine of God, so far we have majored on Augustine with some looking at Hilary of Poitiers and Anselm (amongst others).
Indeed Phill, the quote from Aquinas actually contradicts what Lorenzo was suggesting Aquinas was arguing.
Or here is Gregory Nazianzen “The Theologian” in his 28th theological Oration â€œTo tell of God is not possible, but to know him is even less possibleâ€ (Or. 28.4). And again:
Our starting point must be the fact that God cannot be named. Not only will deductive arguments prove it, but the wisest Hebrews of antiquity, so far as can be gathered, will too. The ancient Hebrews used special symbols to venerate the divine and did not allow anything inferior to God to be written with the same letters as the word â€œGod,â€ on the ground that the divine should not be put on even this much of a level with things human. Would they ever have accepted the idea that the uniquely indisoluble nature could be expressed by evanescent speech? No man has yet breathed all the air; no mind has yet contained or language embraced Godâ€™s substance in its fullness. (Or. 30.17)
I will name God – YHWH
Yes, God as supreme good from which all other good is named is taken straight from Plato. Not sure it’s Christian. Here’s Aquinas on the same: “And yet the separate substance, through its own substance, knows of God that He is, that He is the cause of all things, that He is above all and far removed from all, not only from the things that are, but even from those that can be conceived by the created mind. This knowledge about God we also are able somewhat to obtain, because from His effects we know of God that He is, and that He is the cause of other things, surpassing all and remote from all. And this is the limit and the highest point of our knowledge in this life where, as Dionysius says, we are united to God as to something unknown. This happens when we know of Him what He is not, while what He is remains utterly unknown. Hence in order to indicate the ignorance of this most sublime knowledge, it was said to Moses (Exod. xx. 21) that he went to the dark cloud wherein God was. (Contra Gentiles 3.49)
“the separate substance, through its own substance” being us, created in God’s image
God’s substance being simple also entails that it is absolutely unknowable, at least that’s how most scholastics understood it
Either God commands things because they are good, or things are good because God commands them. You cannot have it both ways. If he commands things because they are good, then they would be good anyway whether he commanded them or not, and they would still be good even if he didnâ€™t exist. If, on the other hand, things are good because God commands them, then if God is a free agent â€“ and who is if God isnâ€™t? â€“ then he could have commanded otherwise. It is no use saying that that would be contrary to his nature since he himself is good, because if goodness depends on Godâ€™s decree, then nothing that he decrees can be contrary to his nature.
Saying that â€œwhat makes something good is the fact that God *is* itâ€ is simply an evasion of the question. Helping someone who is in trouble, for example, is NOT something that God or anyone else IS; it is something that one DOES.
Your statement that you â€œbelieve history has headed in the right direction in this country, mainly through an exercise of Christian principlesâ€ is hardly in accordance with the facts, at least where the example that I have cited is concerned â€“ and I say that as a Christian myself. It was precisely the application of supposed Christian principles that lay behind the persecution and judicial murder of heretics. It was in fact THE accepted Christian position, and anyone who had the audacity to disagree with it was himself a heretic. If he claimed to be a Christian as well, that just compounded his impiety. And the Protestants were usually as bad as the Catholics when they got into a position of power. Jasper Ridley expresses it well:
â€œCatholics and Protestants disagreed as to the nature of Christâ€™s presence in the bread and wine; and the Protestants disagreed with each other about this. … Despite their disagreements about the nature of the presence, they were all agreed on one point: anyone who had the wrong belief about it should be put to death by torture.â€
As Hans KÃ¼ng noted long ago, the beginning of the end of this type of persecution in Europe was bought about not by the Reformation but by the Enlightenment. If anything, it was precisely the erosion of supposed Christian principles by Deists, free-thinkers and agnostics that brought about our gradual deliverance from such horror.
Thank you but I fear logic falls on deaf ears here…
“Helping someone who is in trouble, for example, is NOT something that God or anyone else IS; it is something that one DOES.”
Why is helping someone who is in trouble a good thing? Because it is a loving thing, it is an act of love from one person to another. How do we know what love is? Because God is love, and ultimately he has shown us in sending his Son. 1 Jn 3:16, ‘This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.’ God is both love ontologically and acts out of that love.
“the beginning of the end of this type of persecution in Europe was bought about not by the Reformation but by the Enlightenment”
You mean, like those lovely French revolutionaries and their guillotine?
One of the things that the Enlightenment brought was a greater separation between church and state, whereas before (especially in France) the church had had far too much political power. This makes me wonder, as I said before, whether much ‘heretic burning’ was as much political as it was religious – even if it was the official position / application of Christian principles and anyone who disagreed was burned as a heretic. Power corrupts – absolute power corrupts absolutely. It’s easy to be blind to your own faults if it keeps you in power.
Sometimes it’s hard to see past your own culture, and this affects Christians as much as anyone – for better or worse. Context matters.
Ultimately, I don’t think that examples of Christian principles being applied thoughtlessly or misapplied throughout history invalidates the enterprise of Christian ethics or the idea that there is a supreme good who is God. Christians do get things wrong.
However, we can only have this discussion about heretic burners in centuries past and whether what they did was right or not because we believe there is an ultimate Good.
If morality truly does evolve, who’s to say it gets “better”? It just changes and it may go forwards as well as backwards. There is no ultimate standard of good, there is no real way of comparing (other than metrics which one may disagree one such as consequence, greatest happiness for the greatest number etc).
If God is love and love is good, that is because love is good of its own nature and cannot be otherwise, not because God or anyone else has decided that it is good.
Christian persecution and judicial murder of heretics and unbelievers was enjoined and practised by the churches, both Catholic and Protestant, as morally good and as a religious duty. (That some people probably took part in it for political or other non-religious reasons does not affect that point.) This was the teaching of the churches, and those who rejected it thereby made themselves heretics. In civilized Western Europe, at any rate, it is now generally recognized that this was wrong. There are, however, some countries in which religious minorities, particularly Christians, are now being persecuted. Do we say, â€œAh well, itâ€™s easy to paint Muslim countries, for example, as ethically black and white, from our comfortable modern European viewpoint. This isn’t the case.â€ and â€œSometimes itâ€™s hard to see past your own culture. … Context mattersâ€? I think not.
“If God is love and love is good, that is because love is good of its own nature and cannot be otherwise, not because God or anyone else has decided that it is good.”
I don’t see the logic here. What are the logical steps from saying God is love and love is good, to saying this is because “love is good of its own nature and cannot be otherwise”?
Additionally, if there is something that exists externally of its own nature outside of God… haven’t you introduced polytheism? If love exists, and that love is external to God, whatever it is must be a god of some kind as well. And that doesn’t sit well with Christian theology, to put it mildly.
I think I’ve said everything I want to say about heretic burning. In terms of Muslims… actually, I would agree with both your paraphrases of what I said. That’s not to say I think what the Muslims are doing is right, but when you factor in the way that Islamic states view Christianity as a ‘Western’ thing and part of the disastrous Western imperialism, etc. etc. – you can understand why some behave the way that they do.
incidentally, how Christians have acted in the past or how Muslims act now is as much a ‘problem’ for you as it is for me. If love truly is an eternal, obvious principle – then why do/did these people act the way they do/did? (And what makes you so sure that you are right *now*? It cuts both ways.) As I said before, the whole Christian worldview *predicts* the fact that people will be unloving, unkind, rebels against God etc. – that is what we need salvation from. To point to examples of Christians getting things wrong is just pointing to examples of humans being humans, as the Bible says we are.
And, as I have said on this subject ad nauseam – from a ‘secular’ ethical point of view, what makes the Muslims wrong in persecuting Christians? If the only way you can define ethics is by consequence (without reference to an ultimate ‘good’), then they’re seeming to do pretty well out of it – in fact surely it makes sense to bolster their own religion and culture. In fact, looking at the history of the world, lots of civilizations did pretty well (temporarily) by looting, raping and murdering. Should we say those are good things to be doing? In fact, doesn’t such a consequentialist ethic ultimately boil down to “might makes right”?(Which, I believe, is exactly what you are trying to argue against when it comes to God in the Euthyphro dilemma.)
“… throughout much of Christian history it was believed to be right to torture and, if the desired result was not obtained, to burn to death those who held ‘unsound’ views on, for example, the Virgin Birth, the Trinity or the Eucharistic Presence.”
And this wasn’t an aberration from “true” Christianity. Suppressing heresy by force makes sense from Christian premise. If hell exists, and heresy leads people to hell, then isolating and cutting out heresy is essential.
The curious thing isn’t that Christians ever did this. The curious thing is why they ever stopped.
The answer, of course, is that rival sects persecuting one another leads to a bloodbath. Once the common authority of the church was abandoned, religious toleration was inevitable. Does nothing to undermine the justification for burning heretics. Yet few now argue that enforced religious uniformity is desirable even as an ideal.
You couldn’t ask for a better example of how our morals evolve.
Spot on Phill. This is the dilemma the modern world faces – it has removed objective morality, but in the darkness of its removal it simply cannot argue that any action is intrinsically good.
What is “objective morality,” and where do we find it? The Bible? Tradition? Someplace else?
How do we know the supposed revelation is genuine?
I don’t think this is an imported culture battle from US conservatives. This is African value systems in conflict with a western liberal ethos.
That’s complicated by the “African value system” being heavily based on Victorian evangelical protestantism, imported by European missionaries. It’s no wonder that American evangelicals were able to jack in so easily.
Wherever the “liberal ethos” has its origins, its claims, like the claims of those missionaries, are universal.
Once again, read the link I posted. That’s not necessarily true.
“Please note, any attempt by commenters to infer on this blog or elsewhere as some have done that I support the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill will not go down well. Youâ€™re welcome to comment here on this issue, youâ€™re not welcome to malign people elsewhere and then come here and expect to be welcomed with open arms”
Well said Peter.
IMHO this post makes the mistake of failing to differ between democracy and majoritarianism. In elections, the person with the most votes wins because we recognise that each person has an equal individual moral status and an equal moral right to cast a vote. Sending thr most popular representative to parliament is an imperfect way of respecting the moral autonomy of individual citizens as expressed in their electoral preferences.
What this means, though, is that there are deeper principles of personhood underpinning representative democracy. When a majority victimises a minority in a way that denies their dignity, personhood, moral autonomy, that is not democratic measure but a utilitarian one. The elision of utilitarian majoritarianism and “democracy” is a fallacy that crops up everywhere on this topic (and just about any other topic involving a tyrannical majority).
The legislature of a true democracy does not see its function as determining the moral constraints of its citizens’ lives, but as protecting the basic rights of those citizens. This is the problem with the anti-homosexuality bill in Uganda.
And who decides what the basic rights of the citizens are? The majority…
It depends what you mean. In a representative democracy, it is true that the majority’s *representatives* determine the *legal* rights of citizens (sometimes constrained by constitution or presidential veto). But I’m talking about moral rights, not legal rights. Political philosophers often talk of “natural rights”: basic moral rights that are not generated by legislative whim, but simply attach to the person qua person. The majority may frequently violate the natural rights of the minority, but that doesn’t mean that the minority doesn’t possess those natural rights.
And who determines what those moral rights are?
An unconventional answer to this question is presented in Hillel Steiner’s “An Essay on Rights” (1994). Basically, he argues that a certain set of basic natural rights are necessary presuppositions of any belief in justice.
My own view is a variation on this: that all human discourse (conversations, looking people in the eye, charity, sharing food) presupposes recognition of the other person as someone to whom I am transcendentally responsible. Treating others in certain ways is therefore, regardless of culture or local moral codes, a violation of others’ moral transcendence.
I’m still working in this area, but I reject as unnecessary the implication of your comment – that all moral rights are culturally contingent. We can recognise a common humanity between cultures, after all.
So basically it’s a consensus?
What do you mean?
You didn’t answer the question. How does society discern what these fundamental rights are? How does it know it is right? Why does the notion of rights change over the years? Why do different societies have different notions of rights at the same time? Why should our notion be superior to others?
You can’t answer these questions adequately and we just go back to my basic contention that we have one set of rights up against another and no way outside of an objective external morality to determine who is actually correct.
Well, I didn’t say anything about consensus, which is why I asked for clarification.
The requirements you outline cannot be met, because none of us has access to an objective external morality. But equally inadequate is the notion that rights are merely the creations of moral fashion (which is what Jeremy Bentham thought – supporting my contention that this is a utilitarian view, and itself generated from a particular moral worldview).
I have suggested a couple of ways in which I think a universalist account of rights might be possible. The Christian gospel, though, has no greater claim to be an objective external morality, but is what Rawls would call a “comprehensive doctrine” competing with others – such as the traditionalist Ugandan doctrine you rightly point to.
“… we have … no way outside of an objective external morality to determine who is actually correct.”
Sure we do. We can evaluate the arguments and evidence. Ultimately, yes, it comes down to convincing people (not necessarily a majority: Utah’s marrying gay couples because of a single judge).
The implication of your argument is that people can’t determine anything without external validation. If not, why’s ethics a special case? If so, given that people have to validate revelation claims, your argument is self-defeating.
How do you weigh the evidence of a moral decision? What are the qualitative and quantitative measures?
The Utah ruling is a good example.
In short, does a decision have a rational basis?
Shelby has the Constitution to guide him, so the question before him was “how does the Utah law match up to constitutional principles?” a question that has qualitative and quantitate elements.
So back to my question: if people are incapable of making judgments absent revelation, how do they find the revelation to begin with?
But why should the constitutional principles be important? All you’re doing is just pointing us to another arbitrary authority.
Since reasons can be given for all constitutional principles, “arbitrary” doesn’t fit. They’re not “objective” in the sense you mean — in short, truth — which is why there’s a mechanism to amend the Constitution. Ultimately their merits rest on flawed human judgments, based on argument and evidence.
Thing is, you’re not offering an alternative. All the criticisms you lay at the door of our ability to “determine who is actually correct” apply equally to assessing revelation claims. The more you lay on, the more you undermine your own case.
Give me one of these reasons.
I’m not offering an alternative at the moment because that isn’t my intent. All I’m doing is deconstructing your argument.
Deconstruction, very po-mo!
Under the Constitution, restricting marriage to opposite-sex couples violates the Due Process Clause, “freedom from all substantial arbitrary impositions and purposeless restraints.” As Shelby found, none of the rationales for banning same-sex marriage had a rational basis: i.e., marriage isn’t tied to procreation, because infertile couples can marry. (He didn’t labor on the convoluted saving-throws to make this a general argument inapplicable to the particular.)
Outside an American context, the constitutional framework changes, but the premises don’t.
It’s no matter if you don’t offer an alternative, as what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Since revelation claims can’t escape the human filter, everything you throw at my position ricochets back onto yours.
Why should we take any notice of the Due Purpose Clause?
At the end of the day you’re going to have to admit that current morals are ultimately just arbitrary. There is no reason why another culture banning homosexuality is immoral in any meaningful objective sense without an external authority.
Shelby takes note of the Fourteenth Amendment because, as an Article III judge, he’s sworn to uphold it. Others aren’t, but the underlying arguments are transferable.
Arbitrary is something based on whim, not reason. Reasons were given for allowing same-sex marriage. If you think all human judgments are arbitrary by default, you’re going to have to admit that revelation claims are unsustainable. Which takes you right back to muddling through with the rest of us.
If not, why not?
You’re just avoiding the issue. Why should the various parts of the constitution by authoritative? Because we agree they are? Ultimately all your arguments come down to human consensus as the arbiter of morality and why should one consensus be more valid than another (in a different time or a different place)?
The fact I’m not (at present) offering an alternative is not the issue. We’ll get onto that later.
Your alternative is entirely the issue, as your criticism of human reasoning (not “authoritative”) is predicated on the assumption that a better alternative exists. You criticize a premise because you believe you possess a better one.
You’ve stated what it is: God-given “objective morality.”
This slams into two problems: Euthyphro (as Guglielmo Marinaro rightly says, God’s morality is subjective to God: you land up with WLC’s amoral “divine command theory”); and empiricism (revelation, received and authenticated by flawed humans, can’t bypass out limitations).
When it comes to my position, you proceed under a mistaken assumption: I don’t claim to have a method to discover “authoritative” ethics. Just the opposite: I find the very concept, in trying to base truth on power, to be incoherent.
“When it comes to my position, you proceed under a mistaken assumption: I don’t claim to have a method to discover “authoritative” ethics. Just the opposite: I find the very concept, in trying to base truth on power, to be incoherent.”
So ultimately you agree with me. There is no objective sense in which the Ugandan anti-gay Bill is immoral – it is simply one society’s opinion against another. Under your reasoning the idea that the oppression of a minority is immoral is just a temporary assumption of our modern society that could easily be reversed in another generation.
As for the Divine Command Theory, I have no problem with this. Yes, it means one should be in the fear of God but that my friends is the beginning of wisdom.
We don’t fear God, we fear his spokesmen, because we must rely on their word.
We do think the anti-gay bill is wrong from our current framework. As I said, not all opinions are equal, and change isn’t arbitrary. The possibility of error isn’t the probability of error.
Against this, your “objective morality,” in practice, has all the problems you identify with my position, but made so much worse by treating flawed human opinions as holy writ, and removing the possibility of change.
So no, ultimately, we don’t agree at all. The choice isn’t between human ethics and “objective morality,” but between human ethics and human ethics in denial.
I fear God. Good luck with not thinking you need to fear God.
So “objective morality” has no substantive content, and rests on threats of divine wrath?
This is superior to ethics based on evidence and reason?
No, that’s not what I said.
You said that you have “no problem” with divine command theory, which claims that ethics have no substance, but rest on the whim of God.
You then said that we should “fear God.”
If you’re not saying that ” ‘objective morality’ has no substantive content, and rests on threats of divine wrath,” what are you saying?
Let me answer with Psalm 128 from this morning’s prayer.
Blessed is everyone who fears the Lord,
who walks in his ways!
You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands;
you shall be blessed, and it shall be well with you.
Your wife will be like a fruitful vine
within your house;
your children will be like olive shoots
around your table.
Behold, thus shall the man be blessed
who fears the Lord.
The Lord bless you from Zion!
May you see the prosperity of Jerusalem
all the days of your life!
May you see your children’s children!
Peace be upon Israel!
Just to say folks, this is EXACTLY the kind of conversation I wanted to have on this subject. Thank you so much for keeping it on topic. It’s a great discussion on epistemology.
Peter – No offence and feel free to delete this comment if you want but what is the purpose of this post? You say you want a discussion of epistemology or liberal democratic theory or international jurisprudence or most likely theology since you seem to collapse all normative disputes into religious truth claims. However, you frame it around not only both the moral and legal status of homosexuality in the UK but also the potential persecution of gay people in Uganda and after introducing several contested claims, you then collapse the argument back down to metaethics. Philosophers, theologians, and political theorists have been debating these issues for centuries so I doubt you are posing these questions in good faith.
I think you are trying to score some cheap political points over gay rights and your link to that missionary proves that clearly. It really callous when peoples lives are literally at risk in Uganda and you seem more interested in justifying your own life choices. The reference above about gay people in Uganda pretending to be straight to survive is repugnant and you know it, which is why you try to frame it in some sort of post-colonial relativism.
You think you are being clever because you want to cast secular liberals are moral relativists while claiming the high ground because you think the only way to ground objective morality is in theism, specifically your version of evangelical christianity. This is just a rehash of euthyphro and you know it.
Long story short – this is pretty low even for you Peter.
Read the last paragraph of my post, re-read your comment and get back to me.
No Peter – your entire modus operandi on this blog is to make these type of articles and then to play cat and mouse with your commenters in a very passive aggressive manner. “I know you are but what am I” is not intelligent discourse but we both know that isn’t really your goal. But hey, you and I have the luxury of living in the West, unlike the hypothetical gay ugandan you muse about above, but don’t reality interfere with your self-delusion.
So when I write that I find the Ugandan anti-gay bill objectionable you think I’m lying?
It’s quite interesting to hear educated White commentators dissect the problem of Uganda without a whit of anything but second-hand information about Black communities.
While many here are happy to engage in a Listening Process for LGBT individuals, there is little listening directed to gain insight from or relate African academic research into the origin and cause of African homophobia. How, for instance, Christian fundamentalist groups have lured the lower classes by claiming that corruptive Western cultural values are responsible for their lack of economic participation: that only a root-and-branch return to OT morality will restore their blighted fortunes.
As a black man who grew up in post-colonial Barbados, I saw how that society developed a pervasive caricature of gay men. It was typified by distortions of over-dramatised effeminacy and the threat of gays to emasculate anyone who did not oppose such behaviour which macho contempt.
It is clearly this fear of emasculation is mirrored in the Muslim fundamentalist fear of feminisation. The societal ideal is characterised by sexual domination of women as compensation by men for what they lack in genuine male economic privilege. It particularly imposes a ‘pimps and prostitutes’ ethos on lower socio-economic gender relations. Much of gangsta rap and ragga glorifies this kind of behaviour.
What has been disappointing here is the wholesale refusal on the part of most commenters to reflect on any analysis of root causes. The research below would make a good start:
Very useful David, thanks.
What’s interesting is the hypocrisy of fundamentalist xians attempting to appropriate feminist and other post-modern discourse analysis and critical theory while at the same time denouncing post-modernism and anti-foundationalism as “moral relativism” – too clever by half…
What’s really clever is to propagate the idea that the mere association of any intellectual method with a philosophical era is a virtual trademark restriction on its usage
What’s hypocritical is to deconstruct the Bible, only to exempt deconstructionist’s arguments from deconstruction. What’s sauce for goose..,