Does evil need God?
“questions about values—about meaning, morality, and life’s larger purpose—are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures.” – Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape
The moral argument for God’s existence is pretty strong, I think, but many atheists seem confident that God is unnecessary to ground objective moral values and duties. I recently took a few hours to revisit a debate between philosopher William Lane Craig and well-known arch-atheist Sam Harris about whether objective morality has any grounding in an atheistic worldview. And I would like some input from my atheist readers on something (yes, I am actually asking for it). I have some friendly atheist readers, not to be confused with this guy, the Friendly Atheist, and I welcome their input. I also have some not so friendly atheist readers occasionally. They will not be responded to.
I am going to present a possible “world” or society with the intent to demonstrate that well-being or “human flourishing” is not an adequate reference standard or foundation for objective morality, contrary to what Harris and others maintain. I think my scenario succeeds in exposing the deficiencies of the human flourishing argument, but maybe I’m missing something. So I am asking the atheist who buys (and sells) the argument to assess my fictitious world for flaws or omissions in reasoning.
As I understand it, this argument for objective morality asserts that it can be grounded in whatever accounts to the greatest human flourishing or well-being. That seems at face value to be a wholly reasonable standard, but when one begins fleshing it out, I believe it shows itself to be wholly unreliable.
So imagine a completely self-contained, isolated society somewhere ruled by a despot and his cadre of underlings. They have decreed the right to choose any young girl in the despotdom, anytime they want, to sexually molest individually and as a group for their pleasure. They have also decreed that if she or her family refuses them, everyone in the society will suffer…food, supplies, medical care etc. will be withheld and every resident, young or old, gets forty lashes.
I think it’s obvious that on the scale of well-being the society is much better off if the rulers are allowed to have their way with one or more young girls. They actually don’t take advantage of this right very often and when they do they always select from a particular tribe. So the great majority of members in this society benefit when these girls are raped and otherwise sexually abused.
So is rape morally wrong here, and if so, on what basis?
This is not an easy question, in part because it is not cleat how the despot has such a power of their society. That matters, because that dictates the options for reprisal, both violent or passive. Violent reprisal may be an option, an attack on the despots to either imprison them, drive them out, collapse the infrastructure by which they run the despotdom or else kill them. Else, passive reprisals like attempting to enter into negociation, going into hiding or saying “no” when they come for the girls and enduring the suffering until it ends may be an option.
Both of these would be moral because, although well-being would be immediately lowered, it would be an investment in longer-term wellbeing. The next generation and the generation after would be happier. To a muted extend, this is what most riots are about.
If, however, the despotdom is completely and inescapably at the whims of the despots, and you cannot hide from their wrath, and no level or reprisal or resistance will ever end the rape or the nationwide suffering if they refuse, then we have another question: do people suffer more when they are cold and hungry, or when they feel they are involuntarily complicit in a grave injustice? We would need an answer to that.
From your question, I assume you believe that wellbeing would actually be higher if the rape were allowed to continue (although, I’m not convinced). In which case, in this situation, with an inescapable, unchanging, all knowing (hence not being able to hide) and all powerful (hence not being able to defeat them), allowing the rape would be the moral situation.
But there are a lot of caveats, you’ll notice, before you get there. The Despots must be inescapable, all knowing and all powerful. They must be unchanging and cannot be negociated with. Their ill will must be sincere. AND human psychology must be such that knowingly being involuntarily complicity in such a horror is less heinous than the suffering the Despots can dish out.
There is another thing, I’ve forgotten to mention. Human psychology must be such that individual and group reprisals do not elevate human wellbeing and morale. Else, if such a thing does elevate morale, even if futile, then the reprisals again become the moral option.
As it happens, I don’t think we live in such a world where human psychology is this way, or that one can be omnipotent and omniscient.
I am interested, though. What is the religious answer to this question? To serve your master and obey the law of the land, is it not?
I applaud your attempt to answer this difficult question, but…I can’t see that you did. My question was, is rape immoral in this society and if so, on what grounds? You seem to think it still would be and talk about measures the society could take to oppose the edict, but you gave no basis on which to objectively determine that the leaders’ sexual molestations would be wrong.
Further, your claim that well-being in the long term would be increased is, I believe, totally unsupportable. It seems more likely to me that the society would not survive. But even if it were more likely than not that future generations would be better off, how could guesses about the future unknown be a dependable factor in determining what is morally good or bad today?
If what contributes to human flourishing in the future can be a criteria for morality, then what about the benefits…the growth in character, for example…that we receive from enduring suffering because of our own or someone else’s “bad” behavior? You know…what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger? Some people will testify that though they wouldn’t want to go through them again, they’re grateful for the trials and disappointments in their lives because they learned and grew from the experiences. Maybe a young man was often hungry and cold as a child because of an absent father and druggie mother, but that taught him compassion and perseverance, self-sufficiency and an appreciation for simple pleasures, and he is now better able to empathize with and help those struggling as he did.
As a theist, my answer to the question is…yes, rape is wrong in this society and in every society. And the reason is because there is a God from whom we derive our knowledge of right and wrong, by our consciences primarily, and who is the foundation for good and the standard by which we measure our actions. What the people in this hypothetical situation should do about the injustice is not pertinent to my argument.
Okay. Yes, the rape is wrong, as it lowers the wellbeing of the victims and society.
The despot is also morally wrong for invoking fear of retribution as that also lowers people’s wellbeing.
That answer is obscenely easy. I assumed you were angling at where the society is morally right to let it happen. I was investigating the moral landscape of their options.
How does the rape lower the well-being of the society? And in what way does the “fear of retribution” lower the “people’s wellbeing”?
How do you feel when you know there is an injustice going on near by? How do senseless crimes make you feel? How does watching the news, full or local fires and violence, make you feel? That is how a systematic rape-ring in your local Despotdom might lower a society’s wellbeing.
Have you ever been bullied? If so, has the bully ever told you that if you tell any one about what happened they will only get you again, but worse? Do you remember the fear that make you feel, the impotence, the isolation? That is how having a despot saying that you can’t do anything about it is going to lower society’s wellbeing as well.
Injustices, crime, etc. do bother me, but there are certainly plenty of individuals in our communities, towns, nations, and societies who are either blissfully unaware of what goes on beyond their neighborhood or for whom it causes little more than a frown and head shake. But even though it may lower a society’s well-being, what counts, as I understand it, is the sum-total…the bottom line…what combination of factors weighs heaviest on the scale. And I can’t see how, in my scenario, the rape which guarantees the people needed food, supplies, treatment, and comfort, but subjects them to some uneasiness and even distress, does not weigh heavier on the well-being scale than hunger, illness and torture with the satisfaction of resisting a perceived wrong.
Simple: you are treating the availability of food, medicine, technology, comfort and other amenities as an amoral variable. It is not. The availability of those things is a part of their rape-ring. Both the threat of removing basic amenities and the rape are immoral. You’re talking about blackmail, extortion and rape.
You’re talking about invoking fear and performing physical violence on girls.
But i am still interested to hear your Christian answer to this.
To look at it another way: do you think that a government that has decreed, by force, to exchange civil liberties for its society with rape is a government that is maximising well-being?
I did give you the Christian perspective on this. You’ll find it in my first response to you.
“do you think that a government that has decreed, by force, to exchange civil liberties for its society with rape is a government that is maximising well-being?” According to how I understand the atheist’s conception of well-being…yes. But of course you and I both, I think, want to deny that it does maximize it because we instinctively know rape is immoral, and blackmail and extortion are unjust and surely, we feel, they can’t contribute to well-being. But that’s different than equating morality with well-being, and I still think my example demonstrates that they can, and so well-being is not a dependable standard or foundation for it.
Really? You think that government is maximising well-being compared to, say, the government of Norway?
I don’t know anything about the government of Norway, but as I said, according to how I understand the atheist’s argument for morality tied to well-being…yes.
Can you explain to me how you think that works?
Not any better than I already have, Rhys. Sorry.
I’m not seeing how you think people who think in terms of the Moral Landscape think.
You seem to think that a despotic government that extorts it’s society into allowing the rape of children in exchange for basic resources is a government that is maximising wellbeing.
I don’t understand how you think this is system of maximal wellbeing. It is a system of fear and violence. Where is the maximised wellbeing?
Perhaps the problem is that the term “well-being” is ill-defined and will be understood differently depending on one’s worldview and even personality. And I am referencing it as I am assuming Sam Harris and other atheists understand it, which may not be accurate. How would you define well-being?
I don’t know that “atheist” is appropriate here. I find that i am in an atheist minority for ascribing to the moral landscape. If it’s easier we can refer to people who ascribe to Harris’s Moral Landscape as “scapists”.
The definition of well-being is ill defined. It has something to do with happiness and comfort and not always throwing up. But i don’t think that’s the issue here. I think the issue here is that you lack the perspective and the empathy to properly recognise the situation you are describing. You are talking about things that effect fear and pain and guilt and suffering and then demanding that raises well-being.
Good morning (afternoon?), friendly atheist…friend. I feel like we’re talking past each other a little bit here. The situation I envisioned IS one of more happiness and comfort and less pain and suffering WHEN the rapes are unopposed. You apparently disagree with my conclusion about what the net wellbeing of the society would be. But that just demonstrates the failure of wellbeing to serve as anything even approximating a reliable standard for morality.
There are essentially two problems I see with your fictional thought experiment.
(1) You are ignoring one of the two horns of your description: (a) The government will provide resources and amenities of its citizens (b) if the government can rape little little girls, unopposed.
That latter half is a problem. You are talking about it as if it were an amoral dimension. But it’s not. It is a decision made by conscious people that affects people’s wellbeing. And I am arguing that extorting people to be complicit in rape will lower their wellbeing. But you’re failing to take the picture as a whole.
Looking at it this way: would people be happier if they had amenities (like you and I do) but no rape happens?
(2) You think people will be happier with rape and amenities than without both. But I think people tend to have sensations of guilt and horror.
Many analogies can be made. In fact, any trade where a person says “permit this or something worse will happen” is an analogy.
I don’t know if you have any children, and I apologise for the imagery I am about to share. But imagine if I took from you your house and food and money and you can have it back if, at some regular interval, I can rape your daughter. Would you choose to forgo food and shelter to protect her? Would you choose to live an impoverished life to ensure that I didn’t rape her? What would you do>
There is a third problem
(3) In my first comment I tried to illuminate some other options. Understanding the other options is very important, because we are talking about a moral landscape so there needs to be a “map” as it were.
So, that rape is immoral because it does not maximise wellbeing. Maximal wellbeing, in this thought experiment, would be reached by offering the amenities for free, or in exchange for voluntarily offered things.
Again…how can wellbeing be an objective standard when our understanding of it is so subjective?
I’m not a big fan of shifting conversations around like this. Especially, in this circumstance, as we haven’t met a disagreement about the definition of wellbeing. What we have met is a disagreement about the predictions of wellbeing of people coerced into accepting rape as an inherent part of their society.
But, I will engage the question. Note, I will be aware that you haven’t actually addressed my concerns with your thought experiment.
Wellbeing is a matter of the state of the brain. Therefore, wellbeing is an objective fact. It can truly be said to rise or fall in individuals and, therefore (with the help of basic arithmetic) on net through a society.
It is not well defined. But neither is health. And we haven’t let the lack of a perfect definition hold us back from a health care system.
I thoroughly recommend that you read the moral landscape, as that concern is addressed in the book.
It might be useful to, in a different thread, explore the religious answer, as well. You said:
“the reason is because there is a God from whom we derive our knowledge of right and wrong, by our consciences primarily, and who is the foundation for good and the standard by which we measure our actions”
And I take issue with that. I do not know how to derive the moral imperative “rape is wrong” from your religious book. I have some stock rebuttals for some stock answers, but I will let you explain how we actually derive this knowledge.
As we have already discussed, I dismiss the pertinence of your thought experiment because you ignore some aspect of the package of decisions i.e. you ignore the forced coercion as if it were a brute fact and focus only on the rape as if they do not belong to the same package. I also disagree with the content of your predictions of the out come. I also think you lack the appropriate perspective to see that the way your hypothetical despotic government different from say, the UK or US is in rape. Other countries are able to offer amenities without the exchange of little girls. Your hypothetical only adds rape, and then queries whether the rape would be moral.
More importantly, if we are to take your thought experiment and its parameters seriously we have another issue. If we assume that wellbeing would be higher in this society if rape were permitted, then you are saying that the moral answer, according to your interpretation of the moral commands delivered from God is for an entire society to willingly starve to death, inflict such a fate on their children and die. Can you, without the use of Heaven, explain how this is moral?
(I say “without the use of Heaven” because the use of Heaven normally just invokes a re-telling of the wellbeing-based model. They will be rewarded in the after life “an hundred fold” [I think that’s Mark 10:30, but I could be mistaken].)
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