Triablogue’s Moral Relativism Exposed

Killing children could sometimes be obligatory, according to Triablogue.

It didn’t take long for Triabloggers to deconstruct their own claim to believe in moral absolutes. In fact, it is very clear now that they are as morally relativistic as anyone else. It just took a few simple questions to help them contradict themselves.

IS KILLING CHILDREN ALWAYS WRONG?
I asked this question of Triabloggers, especially because if killing children is not absolutely wrong, then what is? Someone that believes in moral absolutes would respond with a simple YES. After all, the word “always” is pretty absolute and not ambiguous. Either X is “always” wrong, or it is not. So how did Triabloggers answer the question? Here are the results:

Paul Manata:
http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2010/07/thc-hector-confusion.html
“No (but I bet hector can’t think of the obvious answers for why this could be, given the vague and ambiguous nature of his question).”

Steve Hays:
i) God does no wrong by taking the life of an infant.
ii) There are also situations in which, no matter what you do, some innocent blood will be shed. Should we bomb part of a Syrian city that’s producing a biochem weapon which will be used to wipe out London, even though bombing that part of the city will kill some babies belonging to the resident scientists? Short answer: that might be permissible or even obligatory. But that’s entirely consonant with moral absolutes. Not all obligations are equally obligatory. There are higher and lower obligations. In case of conflict, higher obligations supersede lower obligations.



Hays, in particular, mimics the bin Laden approach to morality on 9-11. On that date, bin Laden was attacking New York, City and Washington DC, the centers of what he perceives as an oppressor of Muslims. His goal was to save Muslim lives.

So, if bin Laden had to kill a few thousand civilians, including children, to save millions of Muslims from American weapons of mass destruction, then Hays would presumably support it. Or is Hays saying that it is just acceptable to kill children when Christian or Western cities are in jeopardy?

And who else might answer my question (“Is killing children always wrong?") the same way? We can state now that the following group would answer the question the same way.

Paul Copan
William Lane Craig
Adolf Hitler
Steve Hays
Osama bin Laden
Paul Manata
Josef Stalin

So, what is the difference again between moral relativists and absolutists? It is merely another version of: “I have judged that my deity is right, and yours is not.” Recall that Hays has already told us that just because Allah says something, it does not make it morally permissible.


FUN WITH EVIL?
Manata tells us:I argue that realism is true, that there are moral facts that make certain actions right or wrong irrespective of our feelings. That molesting children for fun is really wrong is about as obvious to me as the hand in front of my face.

Fine, but why is the absolute immorality of killing children not as “obvious as the hand in front of my face”? “Self-evident” is not proof of objective morality at all. All Manata is saying is that his judgment of what is self-evident to him should be privileged.

But what if someone else thinks that “Action X is not as obviously wrong as the hand in front of my face”? How do you adjudicate such contrasting judgments when they are both based on nothing more than “being as obvious as the hand in front of my face”?

This, indeed, is very convoluted argument because FEELINGS are part of MOST, IF NOT ALL, of our moral judgments. I don’t like to see children suffering, and that feeling is plenty of reason for me to be against child molestation.

Frans de Waal, the Emory primatologist and author of Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved (2006), has demonstrated experimentally that even animals are sensitive to suffering and can comfort afflicted members of their own species. Therefore, our biological constitution and evolutionary development is perfectly able to explain our feelings and illuminate the motives for our moral judgments.

Manata’s supposedly purely objective rational reason (i.e., supposedly excluding the role of feelings), is no less tautologous than appealing to feelings: “Molesting children for fun is wrong because molesting children for fun is wrong.” Again, it is not really a proof of objectivity.

Moreover, I can find theists who say it is permissible to have fun when torturing children. Consider Psalm 137:8-9 (RSV):

[8] O daughter of Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall he be who requites you
with what you have done to us!
[9] Happy shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!


I say "torturing children" because we can suppose that these children would suffer, or not die immediately, if dashed against rocks. So, is this biblical author immoral for Hays or Manata?

In fact, Triablogue does not condemn all enjoyment of baby-killing. Here, they appeal to FEELINGS TO JUSTIFY their scriptures' morality:Psalm 137 per Triablogue

“There are people like the Psalmist who, under extreme duress and provocation, really feel that way. They understandably lash out at those who hurt them. Why is Scripture not allowed to even record their feelings?”

Did Hays or Manata feel the same way about those radical Muslims who might have danced in the streets when the Twin Towers went down? Would Hays be as understanding if someone said: “Happy shall you be when you take their children and rape them”? Should we try to understand that person’s feelings the way Triablogue wants us to understand the psalmist’s feelings?

And, of course, the text goes beyond “reporting” feelings. Psalm 137 suggests those feelings are justified. Recall also that just thinking about doing a particular act is tantamount to committing that act, according to Jesus (Matt 5:28).

Tautologies ‘R’ US
Part of the evidence that there are no such thing as objective moral absolutes is the fact that one can dissolve any moral statement into a tautology---a completely circular statement.

However, Hays claims that he is free of tautologies: The circularity is bogus since that’s a caricature of what I believe. Something is not evil just because God says it’s evil. If God says something is evil, then that ensures the truth of the statement. But that is not what makes it evil. For instance, sodomy is evil because God designed human nature to function in a certain way. Sodomy represents a violation of the way in which we were made to function. That’s not dissolvable into a mere tautology.

Hays is wrong. This claim (also a tired natural law argument) about sodomy IS dissolvable into a mere tautology. Observe:

Step 1: Sodomy is evil because it is a violation of the way in which we
were made to function.

Step 2: A violation of the way we were made to function is evil because
a violation of the way we were made to function is evil.

Hays offers us no “absolute” or “objective” reason why violating what he says is the way we were made to function should be evil. It does depend on a tautology that cannot be differentiated from its opposite (“it’s not evil to violate the way humans were meant to function”).

This is not really an irrelevant “tu quoque” (“you, too”) argument, but rather addresses Triabloggers’ denials that they are different from moral relativists. Showing that Triabloggers are doing the same thing as self-described moral relativists is a perfectly legitimate response to someone who claims to be different.

By Hays’ reasoning, penetrating a rectum with a penis is a violation of how God meant humans to function. However, penetrating a human body with a sword, a common way to kill people in biblical times, is acceptable. Apparently human bodies were designed to be penetrated by metal implements, but not by flesh.

Moreover, Hays’ morality rests on an unverifiable claim that he can tell how God has designed us to function. By his logic, we cannot wear glasses on our noses because God designed noses for respiration and smelling, and not for placing glasses upon them.

I see no more evidence that Hays knows what God wants than I see evidence that Osama bin Laden knows what God wants. As usual, Triabloggers deify themselves by equating their judgments with God’s supposed judgments.

And for all their pretense of philosophical sophistication, Triabloggers repeatedly show that they cannot evaluate the philosophical writings to which they refer. Note, for example, that Terence Cuneo’s The Normative Web (2007) does not really address the tautological problem of moral reasoning. Manata shows no “interaction” with Gilbert Harman's “Moral Relativism Defended,” Philosophical Review 84 (1975):3-22.

Manata, by the way, could have saved himself a lot of trouble if he had just read The End of Biblical Studies (pp. 113-115) to understand that my epistemology is not so easily pigeonholed. But, he already admits that he does not always read the materials that he discusses.


ABORTION IMMORAL?
According to Manata: Avalos also says that if one believes that a baby will go to heaven if they are killed, then this makes a great argument for abortion. Really? Derive this conclusion: “It is morally permissible to murder children,” from this premise: “all babies who die go to heaven when they die.” Show the derivation, Hector, justifying each step by rules of logic.


First, note that Manata changes “kill” to “murder.” Both are not necessarily the same. Killing describes the simple act of taking a life. “Murder” is a moral and legal judgment that a killing is unjustified.

That is why Hays presumably does not say “it is permissible to murder Syrian children if it saves London.” For Hays, killing Syrian children is justified, and so not “murder.”

Manata, therefore, might wish to add this item to his reading list: Hector Avalos," Legal and Social Institutions of Canaan and Ancient Israel," Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, J. Sasson, ed. (4 volumes; New York: Scribner's, 1995) Vol 1: 615-631.


Second, my starting premise does not have to be what Manata demands. I also could use this rationale:

A. It is morally permissible to use any action that achieves the highest proportion of saved souls.

B. Abortion, with its 100% salvation rate, is an action that achieves the highest proportion of saved souls.

C. Therefore, it is morally permissible to use abortion as an action to achieve the highest proportion of saved souls.

Compare this rationale to that offered by Hays to kill Syrian children:

A. It is morally permissible, even obligatory, to kill Syrian children to save London if those children are present in the part of a Syrian city that manufactures biochem weapons.

B. Children are present in the part of a Syrian city that is producing a biochem weapon which will be used to wipe out London;

C. Therefore, it is morally permissible, even obligatory, to kill children present in that part in the part of a Syrian city that manufactures biochem weapons.

Here, the salvation of souls is NOT the intended "higher" goal, but rather the preservation of the bodies of Londoners. The bodies of Syrian children are not held to be as valuable as the bodies of Londoners, but Hays cannot tell us why he made that difference.

Hays' rationale generally seems contrary to the higher goal of Hays’ own moral authority, Jesus, in Matthew 10:28: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”


SUMMARY
I think my mission is accomplished, at least for now. I have shown that Triabloggers pretend to be moral absolutists and objectivists but really are moral relativists, just like everyone else.

17 comments:

Lvka said...

Children don't stay children forever. If they would've been let to grow up, would you have taken responsability for their actions?

Paul Manata said...

Um, Hector, I'll respond more fully later, but your non-expertise in ethics is coming through pretty clearly. Moral realism isn't synomymosu with ethical absolutism. And, even if it were, there is a position of ethical absolutism called hierarchicalism, which can allow for suspensions of ethical duties. However, I'm not a hierarchicalism. I am a moral *realist*, and that is enough to fail to be a relativist. I do not think that every single moral rule/duty/principle is an *absolute* one. You have made several level confusions in this post. Also, one can believe in moral absolutes even if one doesn't believe that *every single* moral rule/duty/principle is morally absolute.

Paul Manata said...

Oh, by the way, Dr. Avalos, I see where you say I didn't mention Harmon. Yeah, that's right. I was responding to you. However, I note you did not read Cuneo's Normative Web, for if you had, you'd note that Harmon's argument for relativism is precisely addressed. I wrote a paper on Harmon (and, yes, I have that article in one of my anthologies on Ethics---come to think of it, I have it in two separate ones) and ethical relativism, so I'll just go aheard and paste some of that in.

Anonymous said...

Paul, your whole philosophical defense derives from your cockamamie notion that there is a normative ethic in the Bible. Face the facts here that Biblical ethics are barbaric. The only way to justify them is to do a great deal of gerrymandering, oh but wait, that's what you're good at in defending the indefensible.

Dr. Hector Avalos said...

Hello, Mr. Manata,
I think you are misreading what I said. My argument is that, no matter what you call yourself, you would still be a moral relativist. That should be clear from my statement that there are only two types of people
(those who admit they are moral relativists; and those who don't).

Thus, my critique applies to all ethics that pretends to be anything other than relativist.

Second, I did not stay that Cuneo did not interact with Harman (not Harmon, as you have it).

I said YOU did not interact with Harman. Read this sentence again: "Manata shows no 'interaction' with Gilbert Harman's “Moral Relativism Defended,” Philosophical Review 84 (1975):3-22."

Or are you really Cuneo posing as Manata?

You also missed my point about your double-standard. You expect me to "interact" with people you think are important in my blog post, but you don't think you need to mention people I think are important in your blog posts.

I do not think that Harman appeals to tautologies in the way I prefer, but he shows that defenses of moral relativism are put forth by recognized philosophers, not just by biblical scholars.

P.Coyle said...

I also could use this rationale:

A. It is morally permissible to use any action that achieves the highest proportion of saved souls.

B. Abortion, with its 100% salvation rate, is an action that achieves the highest proportion of saved souls.

C. Therefore, it is morally permissible to use abortion as an action to achieve the highest proportion of saved souls.


If one strengthens premise "A" from "It is morally permissible..." to "It is morally required...," the conclusion would be similarly strengthened: It is morally required (not merely permissible) to use abortion to use any action that achieves the highest proportion of saved souls. For the Christian who believes that all aborted fetuses are people who get a free pass to heaven, the problem would is to explain why the argument, in either its weaker or stronger variant, does not hold.

Chuck O'Connor said...

All I can say after reading this back and forth is I am glad I have put Christianity behind me as a life-style phase. The Triablogue dudes come off as defensive and thin-skinned littel boys defending their pet cognitive bias. I see not arguments in any of the TID I've read tod date or any of their comments here or at their site. I am very grateful to John and Hector for their scholarship. You have helped me regain cognitive hygiene.

Dr. Hector Avalos said...

Re: P. Coyle
Yes, you are absolutely correct. I used "permissible"
because that is the term that Manata used in his challenge: “It is morally permissible to murder children.”
http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2010/07/thc-hector-confusion.html

Double A said...

I can sense the wry smile on Loftus's face as he constructs his throaty, 'gotchya' responses, hugging tightly to his expansive intelligence as the bitter cold air of emptiness tacks around him.

GearHedEd said...

Dr. Avalos said,

"...First, note that Manata changes “kill” to “murder.” Both are not necessarily the same. Killing describes the simple act of taking a life. “Murder” is a moral and legal judgment that a killing is unjustified."

That's one culled directly from the Christian playbook:

"Thou shalt not kill." (Ex. 20:13, KJV)

Becomes "Thou shalt not murder." (Ex. 20:13, NIV)

NOT the same! More revisionism to make Christianity seem a kinder, gentler version of nonsense.

Jayman said...

(1) The question and answer about killing children tells us nothing about whether the person answering the question believes in objective or subjective ethics. Suppose I believe it is absolutely immoral not to take the action that leads to the most happiness in the world. The mere fact that I believe it is sometimes permissible to kill children (because it makes the world a happier place in some circumstances) does not change the fact that I hold to an absolute and objective form of ethics.

(2) Using your reasoning, it would appear there are no objective facts, period. Consider the following simplified example: (a) the sun is a star because it has characteristics S; (b) something with characteristics S is a star because something with characteristics S is a star. Are we now to conclude that astronomy is relative as well? No, we recognize that the names we apply to concepts are arbitrary while facts in the external world determine whether something matches a concept or not. As long as the Triabloggers are appealing to something other than mere human opinion they are objectivists.

(3) I admittedly have much to learn about natural law theory, but you seem to be attacking a caricature of it. One merely needs to know something about human nature, not God's mind, to make moral judgments. If I have a heart attack the doctor knows, whether he is a theist or atheist, that my heart's function is to pump blood around my body and that he needs to maintain that function.

Brap Gronk said...

"As long as the Triabloggers are appealing to something other than mere human opinion they are objectivists."

The problem is what they are appealing to was written by humans with opinions, with no input or guidance from an objective source. Unless they can convince the skeptics otherwise, it's pointless to appeal to it as being objective.

Richard H said...

How are the words "moral relativist" being used?

I'm used to it being used as MetaEthical Moral Relativism (see: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-relativism/ )

So, we could ask, "Is 'good' a matter of subjective opinion, or is it some objective thing?"

Given this, moral absolutism doesn't really speak to the content of the ethics. So, a moral relativist could hold a strict virtue ethic. Or a moral absolutists could be a utilitarian.

Is there another sense in which the article should be read?

Kingasaurus said...

"That should be clear from my statement that there are only two types of people
(those who admit they are moral relativists; and those who don't)."

Quite true, Dr. Avalos. Claiming you have objective morals and actually having them are two different things. A Christian and a Muslim live side by side, both claiming objective morality based on believing their respective holy book to be authoritative. But neither can prove their deity actually exists, nor can they prove the books they're holding are anything more than the creation of other subjective humans. The books obviously aren't the same and contradict each other, so even if one of them happens to be correct by accident, the other one logically can't be correct. Can someone explain to me what's "objective" about that state of affairs? It sounds like one of the most "subjective" situations of which I've ever heard.

Dr. Hector Avalos said...

Jayman,
I think you are not understanding the differences I make between moral judgements and statements about our physical universe. The two are not the same. Again, read The End of Biblical Studies for my basic epistemology.

That is also why Manata appeals to Cuneo's book, which Manata thinks makes the case that moral judgments can be treated like statements or "facts" about our physical universe.

I and many other philosophers disagree. Natural facts can be detected by one or more of our five senses and/or logic.

Moral judgements express how we value actions or entities. They are "facts" only to the extent that they accurately describe our values.

In your example, the characteristics of a star can be detected by our senses and/or logic. Those characteristics can be verified by your natural senses and/or logic whether you are an atheist, a Muslim, or a Christian.

Moral judgements can differ by religion, culture,
etc. Saying the sun has X luminosity is not the same type of judgment as saying "I value the sun."
Different religions might value the sun (even worship it), but that will not change the luminosity of the sun.

Moral judgements involve acts of the will, while natural facts do not. Natural facts exist outside of human existence and will. The Sun would have X luminosity whether humans existed or not. The earth would go around the sun whether human beings existed or not.

Saying "I value the sun" is a judgement that only exists where human beings (or analogous organisms) exist.

It can get much more complicated, of course. But the bottom line is that moral relativism does not imply relativism about the physical universe because value judgments are not the same as statements about natural phenomena and entities.

Jayman said...

Brap Gronk and Kingasaurus, if the Triablogguers are appealing to human nature then they are not merely appealing to the Bible. It's conceivable that you could accept natural law theory without becoming a theist.

Hector, can human nature be detected by the five senses or logic?

Anonymous said...

"Part of the evidence that there are no such thing as objective moral absolutes is the fact that one can dissolve any moral statement into a tautology---a completely circular statement."

This is such a strange line of argument, especially given Professor Avalos's previous post that dealt in part with whether the authors of 'The Infidel Delusion' met, in that work, a certain standard of scholarship. After all, we could just as easily, using Professor Avalos's method, reduce any proposition about the standards of scholarship to a tautology. For example,

(1) A person is a competent scholar if he checks his facts, understands his subject, has developed the prerequisite skills for dealing with his subject in depth, and presents the positions of other scholars accurately,

reduces to (given Professor Avalos's curious methodology)

(1') A competent scholar checks his facts, understands his subject, has developed the prerequisite skills for dealing with his subject in depth, and presents the positions of other scholars accurately because a competent scholar checks his facts, understands his subject, has developed the prerequisite skills for dealing with his subject in depth, and presents the positions of other scholars accurately.

So, by parity of reasoning, our ability to reduce Professor Avalos's previous remarks about scholarly standards to a tautology shows that his statements and presuppositions about the standards of scholarship are contentless. (I don't really believe that, of course, and I doubt Professor Avalos does; I'm merely showing the odd conclusions that seem to me to follow if one consistently applies Professor Avalos's methodology.)