Tag Archives: morality

Cantus Firmus at the Movies Ep. 7 – Crimes and Misdemeanors (w/ Bridget Nelson)

My special guest was Bridget Nelson of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Rifftrax fame. The film we discussed was Woody Allen’s 1989 Crimes and Misdemeanors, a film that asks difficult questions about morality and integrity in a godless universe.

Bridget can be found at www.rifftrax.com, on Twitter at @bridgetjnelson, and her podcast Instead of Tweeting can be found on iTunes.


“Octagon Pt 2” by Polyrhythmics. Licensed under CC BY 3.0

PODCAST: Cantus Firmus Book Club Ep. 1 – Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind (w/ Tim the Atheist)

My guest “Tim the Atheist” and I discussed Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion. The topics discussed ranged from sociobiology to polarization to psychopaths to atheistic versus Christian conceptions of morality. A very fun and thoughtful episode!


“Liam Rides a Pony” by Polyrhythmics. Licensed under CC BY 3.0

PODCAST: Cantus Firmus at the Movies Ep. 5 – Batman V Superman (w/ Ben Doublett and Jackson Ferrell)

“The greatest gladiator match in the history of the world–
God versus man.”

In this episode I and special guests Ben Doublett and Jackson Ferrell watched Zack Snyder’s Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and talked about its examination of the problem of evil and how it portrays a Christian answer to the problem by way of Superman’s identification with humanity. We also discussed the idea of one’s view of God being shaped by their relationship with their father, as portrayed in the film. Because Ben is an atheist influenced by the egoistic moral philosophy of Ayn Rand, we also had some excellent discussion of egoism and altruism (and which of the heroes represented which view). A very philosophical episode!

Ben Doublett’s recent novella, Kung Fu Gladiator, can be found on Amazon. Jackson Ferrell’s blog, Chocolate Book, can be found at www.chocolatebook.net


“Octagon Pt 2” by Polyrhythmics. Licensed under CC BY 3.0

Debate, “Who Had the Better Moral Philosophy: Jesus or Ayn Rand?”, to Take Place September 9th, 2014

Objectivism Debate Photo

I’ll have the wonderful opportunity of taking part in a debate with my great friend Ben Doublett on the topic of the relational ethics of Jesus in contrast to the atheistic ethics of rational self-interest that Ayn Rand promoted. If all goes well, the recording will be hosted for free on this blog for anyone who is interested to listen, download, or share.

It will be taking place in Mason, Ohio, and anyone who would like to attend can find more information on our Facebook event page-

In my preparation, I’m revisiting or, in some cases, reading for the first time a number of works that I think should help me to articulate the best case for the ethics of Jesus, as well as the best case against Ayn Rand’s view, that I can. Any other recommendations would certainly be appreciated!

My reading list:
Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness
Leonard Peikoff’s Objectivism
Harry Binswanger’s “Volition as Cognitive Self-Regulation”
Scot McKnight’s commentary on The Sermon on the Mount
Dennis Kinlaw’s Let’s Start With Jesus
John Piper’s Desiring God
Gregory Boyd’s The Myth of a Christian Nation
C.S. Lewis’ The Weight of Glory
and selections from William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith where he deals with the moral argument for the existence of God

Ben’s reading list:
Selected essays from “The Virtue of Selfishness” by Ayn Rand
Selected essays from “Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology” by Ayn Rand 
Selections from “The Fountainhead an
“Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics” by Tara Smith
“Volition as Cognitive Self-Regulation” by Harry Binswanger
“Christian Ethics” by Georgia Harkness
“God in the Dock” by C.S. Lewis
“The New Testament”

Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape

The Moral Landscape is atheist polemicist Sam Harris’ attempt to explicate an objective moral framework that is consistent with atheism and grounded upon science. A summary of this framework could be stated as: (1) Some people experience greater degrees of well-being than others. (2) These experiences are related to states of their brains and states of the world around them. (3) Science can help us to ascertain how to raise levels of well-being in an objective fashion. (4) Maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures is the only thing we could conceivably value, or call morality.

An Issue of Grounding

Points (1)-(3) seem to be quite true. It’s (4) that is the sticking point. Harris’ issue here is that his view of morality amounts to a “just-so” story. He claims that maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures is “the only thing we can reasonably value.” But why? Because he can’t give a good explanation why the well-being of conscious creatures is so important that it ought to be valued by all (other than that it tends to be valued by most), it is essentially a useful fiction. Harris begins with a presupposition that he can’t support (morality just is the well-being of conscious creatures), and then calls his position objective simply because there is a systematic way of going about reaching his presupposed goal.

In other words, when Harris calls his moral framework objective, he is committing a category error. The two categories he confounds are “how do we get to A?” and “are we obligated to value A?” When someone asks if morality is objective, they are really only concerned with the second category. Harris claims to have an objective moral framework, but he isn’t answering the question he’s purporting to answer. At times, he seems to acknowledge this, but he doesn’t seem to be very troubled by it. As Harris writes later in his book, “science cannot tell us why, scientifically, we should value health. But once we admit that health is the proper concern of medicine, we can then study and promote it through science” (p. 37). Sure. Of course. But you can’t simply assume that we should value health. Is it a transcendent truth that we are morally obligated to value health? Can we arrive at that position objectively if our starting presupposition is materialism? No. Neither science nor reason require it. But once we have reached such a position (that we ought to value health), both science and reason can be incredibly useful. Harris spends the majority of his book confusing these categories and arguing that if there is an objective way to get from A to B, that means we have an objective reason to go to B in the first place.

For a moral system to be called objective, it must provide “oughts.” These are not the oughts of practicality, but of obligation. If we are, as Harris believes, creatures which have as our primary biological objective survival and the passing on of our genes, why should the value of other humans matter? If we grant to Harris that no one could ever be more satisfied harming others than working with them, then his system has some practical merit. But why should we? Harris himself acknowledges that there are psychopaths and sociopaths who these kinds of concerns wouldn’t apply to. His solution is to, not surprisingly, point out that they don’t share his presuppositions, so they are doing evil. However, since he gives us no reason to accept his presuppositions, this isn’t a very persuasive argument. Furthermore, obligations, which are fundamental to morality, imply that one can make choices. Since Harris flatly denies free will, this further disqualifies his position.

An Inadequate Framework

While Harris’ view could provide some areas of moral agreement among atheists and all types of theists alike, there is one major place where Harris’ moral framework seriously self destructs. It is in fact Harris who stumbles onto this fact, though he seems to, like a moral Mr. Magoo, step right over this gargantuan evidence against his claim without ever noticing:
“Rather often, a belief in souls leaves people indifferent to the suffering of creatures thought not to possess them. There are many species of animals that can suffer in ways that three-day-old human embryos cannot… Concern over human embryos smaller than the period at the end of this sentence—when, for years they have constituted one of the most promising contexts for medical research—is one of the many delusional products of religion that has led to an ethical blind alley, and to terrible failures of compassion” (p. 171).

Set aside the debate over the efficacy of embryonic vs. adult stem cells in medical research for the moment. What is Harris’ criteria for determining what has value? Its ability to experience suffering or happiness, of course! As a result, he very consistently notes that a three day old embryo cannot be of much value, particularly when contrasted with grown animals. This is precisely the argument of ethicist and animal rights advocate Peter Singer, but he applies it far more consistently: It is not just the three day old embryo that lacks “rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness” (Singer’s criteria for what makes a human being valuable, which is similar to Harris’ criteria– i.e. “the experience of conscious beings”). It is also the three day old newborn.

The newborn human baby can only be deserving of (at least) equal protection to adults or even full-grown non-human animals if human beings are, in and of themselves, valuable. Because Harris places value not on what someone is inherently, but only on how they are able to value their experiences, he cannot defend the value of the most defenseless of human beings.

Because Harris’ moral theory, though quite often helpful and practical, is not on a solid foundation, there are reverberations of this which demonstrate its inadequacy.

What is the origin of objective morality?

I recently engaged with an atheist friend about the question of objective morality. He has claimed that morality is objective, though it is not based upon God and that in fact God does not exist. My claim is also that it is objective, but that it can ONLY be grounded in the existence of God. I wanted to write out my argument carefully, and he has been invited to respond to it. Should he do so, I will gladly post his replies on this post.

When we being discussing the origin of morality, we have to be clear about what we mean. So, for instance, the question of how humans come to their understanding of morality (from parents, culture, intuitions, etc.) would not have the same answer to the question of the origin of morality proper, supposing morality is in fact not simply a product of human minds and human culture. Morality in the first sense (how we form our moral opinions) has a large degree of subjectivity attached to it. But for morality to be objective, it must be independent of our opinions of it, and we must be obligated to follow it.
There are at least three necessary components required for
1. objective morality to exist, and 2. for human beings to be obligated to obey said objective moral standard. They are:
(1) There must be a transcendent mind who is in a position to obligate us. When we say that a man “should not” do x or “should” do y, we are asserting that he is held to a standard outside of himself– his tastes, desires, and even his genetically contributed proclivities. He can thus be condemned for failing to live up to a standard of human behavior that he *ought* to live in accordance with.
(2) Human beings must be able to exercise free choices to obey or disobey the objective standard.If a human being has no freedom of the will, she cannot be told that she “should” do anything. She will simply do what she is programmed to do in any given scenario. This means that her conclusions (whether moral or intellectual) are not reasoned to because the conclusion follows from right premises, but because the atoms in her brain are so arranged that she will reach that conclusion, whether or not her premises are valid. So even if there is an objective standard, without free will humans cannot be obligated to follow it.
(3) Human beings must be able to access this standard. One cannot be held accountable to do something that she has no idea exists.
Christian theism meets all of these qualifications (it could be argued that some forms of Calvinism don’t meet the second qualification, but I’m not arguing for that type of Christian theism).
Atheistic materialism (from here on out referred to as AM), the worldview of most atheists today, meets none of them. The closest it comes is to the third point, since proponents of AM will often claim that the human being (whether his mind or his genetics) IS the source of morality. Some go further in an attempt to make this morality objective and claim that it, though originating FROM the subject, is somehow objective TO the subject.
However, for (3) to really be met as a qualification for objective morality, it must hang on the condition that (1) and (2) are also true. If the atheist attempts to satisfy (3) without (1) and (2), he is left in a position where a human being behaves the way she does because she is compelled by her nature– the atheist is simply trying to squeeze an “ought” out of an “is.” But the problems this poses are too heavy a load for AM to bear. If a man commits rape or murder because he desires to, or because his genetics compel him to, this must now be called objective morality, because it is valuable and desirable to him. In other words, according to a consistent AM which bases objective morality on the individual, the actions of any human being, from Mohandas Gandhi to Mao Ze Dong, are by definition equally moral. To borrow an apothegm from a contemporary cultural influence, if AM wants to place objective morality on genetic propensity, they must concede that since the sociopath or pedophile is “born this way,” he’s on “the right track.” Broadening the scope from the individual to the society or the state does not alleviate this problem, because the group is simply made up of individuals.
A proponent of AM might try to refocus their claim that genetics determines morality by pointing out that genetic propensities, according to naturalistic evolutionary theory, exist for the purpose of keeping ourselves alive and passing on our seed (something like this is found in formulations of Dawkins’ selfish gene model or Ayn Rand’s Objectivism). Thus, behavior which doesn’t accomplish this goal may be said to be dysfunctional or immoral– we have no inherent obligations to others, only obligations to ourselves that sometimes require, for rational self-interest, that we defer to others. As a result, according to our genes, other beings exist only to prop up our existence and propagation. It may be necessary to treat them favorably to get something from them (the so-called social contract), but what we call morality is essentially selfish at root. When treating others how we’d like to be treated is at odds with our self-interest, our moral obligation is to act in our self-interest. In other words, loving behavior without self-interest must be a malfunction on AM+SG. This not only still fails to be objective, but doesn’t correspond to even the most basic of universal moral intuitions.
In contrast, the Christian worldview posits that there are objective moral standards which humans are obligated to follow. Because God has created the universe and made human beings in His image, He can obligate us to follow His guidance, and these principles will be consistent with living a harmonious existence in the universe which He has created. It doesn’t matter if we glean these principles from Scripture or if we access them through our God-given mental and spiritual faculties (that is a question of epistemology– how we know things; not ontology– the way reality actually is)– if objective morality is to exist at all, it must find its origin in a transcendent Creator, and not in the opinions of human beings.
That is not to say that God determines this moral code on a whim. Christianity posits that the two greatest commandments are built upon love (love for God, love for neighbor). This in turn is built on the premise that God is love. This can only logically be true of the Christian God, because the Christian God is three persons in one God, existing in love and full communion. Without love, God could not exist. Love is God’s most essential quality. As a result, the moral values which flow from His nature into His creation will be based on love. This is not an arbitrary divine fiat (as it might be on Judaism or Islam), but the world reflecting the nature of its Creator.
It is only on Christian theism that morality can be objective and meaningful. On any other view it becomes subjective and arbitrary.