…remind them that this phrase is a line from a Christmas song whose message is that you should be good so that you are rewarded for it on Christmas.
Source: Be Good for Goodness Sake?
No, not “Cecil”—that unfortunate feline whose death is the recent cause of a global (but undoubtedly faddish) uproar. Cecile, as in Mrs. Cecile Richards—the no less unfortunate president of Planned Parenthood.
This coincidental lexical similarity between the names of two major figures in separate, but heavily reported, current events is in this case more than a mere curiosity, for the apposition serves to illustrate a regrettable reality: a contemporary milieu which—if I may—doesn’t know its head from its ass, morally speaking. Though it is easy to over-generalize in such discussions, there is at least a prima facie truth to the morbidity lurking behind the apparent comedy currently unfolding in the media over the death of Cecil the lion. What is comedic is not the lion’s death, but the resulting overreaction (e.g., here and here); what is morbid is the relative quiet of those same incensed individuals with regard to recent footage (here & here) leaked from discussions with those in the upper echelons of Planned Parenthood and its affiliates, which at least appears to show them nonchalantly haggling over the price of aborted fetal body parts. Whether Planned Parenthood is guilty of such allegations is irrelevant to my point; for if they are even possibly guilty, then the case is worthy of our full attention. In any case, if abortion is in most instances but a particular brand of unjustifiable homicide—as it is in my view—then this latest scandal only renders more egregious the moral aberrations which comprise Planned Parenthood’s standard (and advertised) operating procedure. As aptly remarked by Brit Hume, these latest revelations have “parted the veil of antiseptic tidiness” behind which Planned Parenthood has couched its gruesome operation. But the real problem is not the sale of fetal body parts; it is that there are such parts to sell.
That a large segment of the population exhausts itself in paroxysmal fits over the killing of a large, if impressive, cat, yet barely manages to produce a stifled yawn over the killing (and possible sale) of human babies is nothing less than appalling. Jimmy Kimmel, while quite concerned to defend Cecil, has apparently not seen fit to devote any portion of his show to rousing the moral sensibilities of his audience with regard to the cavalier execution of underdeveloped children. Perhaps among his audience there are few such sensibilities left to rouse. I have no special distaste for Mr. Kimmel; I mention him as but one among a large swath of the population whose attitudes appear to confirm Francis Schaffer’s observation that what was unthinkable a short time ago has not only become thinkable, but commonplace.
Likewise, National Geographic, despite being a longtime advocate for the oppressed around the world, aired a regal portrait of male lion “in memory of Cecil” on its Instagram account, complete with an impassioned plea to stop the hunting of endangered animals—an entreaty any true conservationist could easily endorse. But when synchronically juxtaposed with the chorus of crickets surrounding the ongoing scandal at Planned Parenthood, signing a petition to “save the lions” is worse than hollow; it is evidence of a severe disorder among our moral priorities. If “lions are people, too,” perhaps it is time to remind ourselves of what ought to be a trivial truth: that “people are people, too.” To call this epidemic of moral confusion “unfortunate” insofar as it concerns the murder and mutilation of our young is an understatement on the order of calling Michelangelo’s painting in the Sistine Chapel “nice.”
It is in this vein that I have referred to Mrs. Richards as “unfortunate”: anyone who has convinced herself that an institution offering to screen you for cancer with the left hand and to crush your unborn child into pieces with the right is an important instrument in facilitating the common good is morally debased. Such a person is not to be hated, but pitied. I have no doubts that Planned Parenthood does provide services which are of benefit to various communities. Indeed, Mrs. Richards does not hesitate to remind us of this fact in an article—rife with euphemism of Orwellian proportions—that she penned for The Washington Post, lest we should undergo amnesia amidst all this malicious hullabaloo brought on by “the extremists.” Clearly, however, if abortion is the unjustified killing of a human being—and that is the issue—then there is no other healthcare “service” one may provide such that abortion is rendered morally justifiable. A single abortion is not made acceptable by performing a million successful STD screenings. Even including abortion under the “healthcare” umbrella is a sort of sick joke; for it does little for the health or the care of those aborted.
I wish to make one other point, and that is to register an observation regarding Mrs. Richard’s pejorative use of the term “extremists.” So long as they are willing to put forth an argument, two individuals might civilly disagree over the question of whether unborn humans possess an intrinsic right to life. But if the matter is epistemically unsettled (i.e., we do not know whether unborn humans possess an intrinsic right to life), then it is at least epistemically possible that unborn humans possess a right to life. If it is possible that unborn humans possess a right to life, then it is possible that killing them results in a moral transgression (i.e., it is possible that abortion is murder). In such a case, far from being an “extremist,” the person who maintains that unborn humans possess a right to life chooses the “safe” option; for if he is himself uncertain whether unborn humans possess a right to life, it is clearly preferable in the abstract to choose the option which is least likely to result in a moral transgression.
Moreover, if it is the deceptive methods used to obtain the footage in question that Mrs. Richards considers the criterion of “extremism,” I demur yet again. On the contrary, if a person believes that it is even possible that a moral transgression is taking place in the case of abortion, this is exactly the kind of activity in which he should engage. He should expose the practice for what it is. We laud (and ought to laud) the undercover operations of those involved in liberating women from the sex trade. Likewise, the person who sees abortion as a crime against human individuals has no recourse but to appeal to the moral sensibilities of his peers (if any remain) and to the Almighty. Even if we disagree with the conclusion of such a person, surely we must applaud his motives. Indeed, if an “extremist” is simply a committed abolitionist—someone whose actions reflect a serious commitment to ending the practice of feeding our children to the proverbial lions (or lionesses, as the case may be)—then I count myself among their number.
At the root of any stereotype there is at least some kernel of truth; for a stereotype, even if it is rarely true, is at the very least not always false. The fact that I tend to regard employees of the Transportation Security Administration as a largely disagreeable bunch is not because it is true that they are always disagreeable, but because in my experience they have seemed to make a peevish attitude rather the rule than the exception; though I suspect that anyone whose job it is to daily perform the practical equivalent of herding cats might find their patience understandably stressed. Still, if one is to be violated, it might at least be with a smile.
Likewise, there is a general sentiment among skeptics that Christians are essentially like the TSA: always patting people down and cavalierly putting fun or apparently useful objects into the rubbish. “Christian” may as well be synonymous with “killjoy.” I wish this sentiment were entirely untrue, but I have encountered these unpleasant types myself. They are like the person who thinks it their sacred duty to cheerfully broadcast their diet regimen to everyone in the vicinity of the hors d’oeuvres. There is nothing wrong either with diets or hors d’oeuvres, but there is something to be said for tact.
But poor tact is not the real problem of the legalist. Finding life much easier to navigate when separated neatly into clearly defined compartments, he can make little sense of the notion that it might be perfectly acceptable for him to drink alcohol in his own home and sinful for him to drink it at his alcoholic brother’s. For the legalist, “alcohol” is synonymous with “drunkenness”. He thinks that since recreational sex is immoral outside of marriage, recreational sex is always immoral. He thinks that an expletive uttered in pain is the same as an expletive uttered in anger. Rather than trouble himself with considerations of an act’s proper context, he finds it simpler either to perform it wantonly or to banish it altogether. The world in which the legalist lives is not the one in which he finds himself, but the one he fashions in his own conscience. He worships himself as Judge, at the feet of his own law. A legalist knows little about mercy and everything about judgment. Wielding a microscope, he is ignorant of planks but an expert on specks. In his own failings he grants himself a pardon; in the failings of others he issues only a sentence. In his zeal to subdue the world with his gavel, the legalist has forgotten his real place in the defendant’s chair.
Though there is some truth to the charge of Christian legalism, it would be equally in error to suppose legalism the result of Christian doctrine as it would be to suppose fascism the result of being German. If there was one thing that drew the ire of Christ, it was the religious hypocrisy and legalism of the Pharisees. Christ was, first, Savior and, second, the great anti-legalist; and to be Christian without following Christ is (crudely) even worse than being French and having no regard for cheese. Legalism is as much a thorn in the side of Christianity as it is annoying to the skeptic. Nevertheless, the skeptic, being predisposed to believe anything that might serve to justify his skepticism, will eagerly take any example of abuse and hold it up as doctrine. Thus, every Christian becomes a hypocrite, a Pharisee, an Inquisitor, and a Crusader; for the rejection of a faith which produces moral abominations is clearly much easier than one that produces Pauls, Livingstones, Müllers, Elliots, Bonhoeffers, and Liddells. The late Mr. Hitchens said quite soberly that religion poisons everything. It is difficult to take such statements seriously. That some religions poison some things is certain, but I think I should just as soon point to unruly school children as evidence that education poisons everything. Nevermind that atrocities are committed only in spite of Christ’s example; the skeptic would have us believe that He is at best a fiction and, at worst, Lucifer himself.
In discussions concerning the ontological foundations of objective morality, there has traditionally been an understanding among atheists and theists alike that if God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist. The word “objective” is being used here to mean that the ontological foundation (being) of moral values is not rooted in or subject to opinion or belief. This acknowledgement lay at the heart of nihilism, in which Nietszche famously proclaimed the death of God and, consequently, the destruction of any objective foundation for morality or meaning. Likewise, the French existentialist, Jean Paul Sartre, reflecting upon a statement uttered by a character in Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov (1880), says:
“Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist, and man is in consequence forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself…. Nor, on the other hand, if God does not exist, are we provided with any values or commands that could legitimize our behavior.” (1)
Elsewhere, Sartre argues that value is attached to the choice itself, such that “…we can never choose evil.” (2)
The affirmation that God’s existence is the necessary prerequisite for objective morality is still frequently recognized by many atheists as being consistent with materialism:
“The idea of political or legal obligation is clear enough… Similarly, the idea of an obligation higher than this, referred to as moral obligation, is clear enough, provided reference to some lawgiver higher…than those of the state is understood. In other words, our moral obligations can…be understood as those that are imposed by God…. But what if this higher-than-human lawgiver is no longer taken into account? Does the concept of moral obligation…still make sense? …The concept of moral obligation [is] unintelligible apart from the idea of God. The words remain but their meaning is gone.” (3)
“The position of the modern evolutionist is that humans have an awareness of morality because such an awareness of biological worth. Morality is a biological adaptation no less than are hands and feet and teeth. Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory. I appreciate when someone says, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself,’ they think they are referring above and beyond themselves. Nevertheless, such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction, . . . and any deeper meaning is illusory.” (4)
“The central question about moral and ethical principles concerns their ontological foundation. If they are neither derived from God nor anchored in some transcendent ground, are they purely ephemeral?” (5)
Stated formally, one could construe the argument against objective morality this way:
While the second premise possesses a clearly insurmountable burden of proof, most atheists are content with arguments in favor of its plausibility rather than its certainty; and the inability to prove the truth of a negative does not render the argument invalid.
For many years, atheists nearly universally maintained the validity of this argument (or some variation thereof), but it has recently been scrutinized by such figures as Sam Harris and Richard Carrier, who have sought eagerly to make a case for the objectivity of moral values apart from the existence of God. While the attempt is undoubtedly worthy of some admiration in its intent, being an overt recognition that there is such a thing as “good” and “evil,” and therefore at least attempting to provide some sort of meaningful foundation for morality and ethics, the justification for the case made in its favor is suspect.
The basis for morality, suggests Harris, is the “flourishing and well-being of conscious creatures.” That is to say, that which contributes to the flourishing of conscious creatures constitutes the Good and that which harms conscious creatures is Evil. But this seems merely to define the “good” to mean “the flourishing of conscious creatures,” such that “…it makes no sense at all to ask whether maximizing well-being is ‘good.’ He continues: “It seems clear that what we are really asking when we wonder whether a certain state of pleasure is ‘good,’ is whether it is conducive to, or obstructive of, some deeper form of well-being” (6).
And yet Harris seems to have ignored the deeper question with which we are immediately presented: what good reason is there to think that the flourishing of conscious creatures actually is morally Good? An arbitrary definition certainly cannot constitute any kind of ontological ground; and if Harris’ definition is not, in fact, arbitrary, then by what criteria has he fashioned it? If there is such a thing as Good and Evil there must be a Moral Law by which to distinguish one from the other. The question, then, granting as Harris does that objective moral values exist, is not “what is good?,” since this concerns moral epistemology; rather it is “by what Standard do we differentiate between Good and Evil, and why is it the Standard at all?”
The flourishing of conscious creatures cannot be the Good simply because we, as conscious creatures, desire it. This seems an obviously insufficient ground; for desire is inherently subjective. Even so, a universal desire does not constitute an ontological foundation for why one ought to do anything. Indeed, Harris acknowledges that our apparently universal desire to flourish cannot itself form the foundation for the Good: “We must continually remind ourselves that there is a difference between what is natural and what is actually good for us” (p. 101). In other words, there is no necessary correlation between that which we desire and that which positively affects our flourishing. This seems evidently true; for one’s desire to achieve happiness through the use of methamphetamines, for example, will eventually end in ruin.
But again, why think that the “good” is that which contributes only to the flourishing of conscious creatures, rather than unconscious creatures, or why the “good” must involve flourishing at all? If materialism is true, are not we all destined for utter annihilation? Musing upon such thoughts, Soren Kierkegaard wrote:
“If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the bottom of everything there were only a wild ferment, a power that twisting in dark passions produced everything great or inconsequential; if an unfathomable, insatiable emptiness lay hid beneath everything, what would life be but despair?” (7)
Whence comes goodness? And life? And consciousness? “From the abyss,” answers the materialist, “And to it we shall return. But cheer up.”
1. Sartre, Jean Paul, “Existentialism and Humanism,” French Philosophers from Descartes to Sartre, ed. Leonard M. Marsak (New York: Meridian, 1961), p. 485
2. Sartre, Jean Paul, “Existentialism,” Reprinted in A Casebook on Existentialism, ed. William V. Spanos (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1966), p. 279
3. Taylor, Richard, Ethics, Faith, and Reason (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1985), p. 83-84
4. Ruse, Michael, “Evolutionary Theory and Christian Ethics,” in The Darwinian Paradigm (London: Routledge, 1989), p. 262-269
5. Kurtz, Paul, Forbidden Fruit. Prometheus. 1988, p. 65
6. Harris, Sam, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (New York: Free Press, 2010) p. 12
7. Kierkegaard, Soren, Fear and Trembling (Penguin Classics, 1985), p. 14