What Need Forgiveness

One argument often brought against atheists is that they can present no ultimate authority for ethics. This, apologetics argue, will lead down a slippery slope where relative ethics become no ethics; genial coexistence leading to genocide. Should the secular ethicist present the idea of an evolved morality, the apologetic will riposte again with the relativistic argument that evolution implies change – ergo the slippery slope beckons yet again.

But what if there is an ultimate morality. What if ethics is a framework not for prescriptive morals but descriptive reality? What if moral feelings are as “natural” as sight? What if the sense of righteousness is often overlooked, not because it does not exist, but because it is perhaps most easily overridden and ignored (maybe because it is most recently evolved)?

Before I embark on an exploration of morals, I’d like to detour into the realm of our more well understood senses; moving from the precise to the relative, in order to give myself a framework for discussion.

Let us start with that most important sense, sight. If you take an atheist and the most fundamental Christian (or Muslim) out on a beautiful summer day, both would agree that the sky is blue. Before the work of Newton, Foucault and others, the description of light wasn’t understood as a physical phenomena; the sky was “just” blue; now we understand the manner in which the light is scattered giving us a physical understand of such a beautiful backdrop.

As the day passes into evening, the sky might turn a beautiful shade of red. Let us bring a third person to our group. Discussing the evening sky, the first person comments on the beautiful hue, the second agrees. But the newcomer disagrees and says the sky is simply gray. You see our third individual is color-blind, physically unable to detect the color red (a condition far more common than you might think).

Irrespective of our group the sky still has a color, be it blue, red or gray. Key here is that the physical ability of each person limits the capability to see color. That ability is not only inborn but changes from person to person. We accept it as a fact of life, like the fact that some people are taller than others, with no further thought.

We can continue our thought experiment by moving to the idea of smell. Let us take our group and lead them to a flower, asking each to partake of its wonderful aroma. The first, a parfumeur, pronounces the scent exquisitely unique and breathtaking, the second, consumed by a bad cold, smells nothing. The last refuses to consider the idea in the knowledge that the mere attempt will likely produce an allergy attack and literally take his breath away.

Again the flower has not changed. The smell is still there but the reactions: enjoyment, indifference and rejection, all based on secular realities, all completely different.

Finally, our imaginary group chooses to dine together, each preparing a dish for the others. The first makes a vegetable curry, the second roast beef with Yorkshire pudding and the last a wonderful white wine sorbet, creamy and perfectly chilled. But again in our experimental world, all is not right. You see, one is unused to eating spicy foods and the curry is hot enough to make the eyes water; the roast beef unacceptable to the vegetarian and the sorbet unpalatable to the other who refuses alcohol preferring to remain abstinent.

Here the problems arise not from the physical characteristics of our merry band, but the cultural ones. Each person has learned behaviors and proclivities added to physical characteristics inherited at birth and acquired through illness or training.

This brings us back to morality.

Let us assume for a moment that morals are the cognitive translation of right-ness as just as sight is a cognitive translation of electomagnetic quanta, smell and taste the interpetation of minute chemical concentrations in air, liquid or solids.

We accept the existence of color blindness and intuitively understand that height changes from individual to individual; illness, medication or alcohol might temporarily heighten or dampen certain scenes. We all live happily (?) in largely multicultural societies. If we assume all these things are normal, why appeal to a higher power to justify the existence of morality? Could not the perception of right, a sixth “moral” sense, have evolved much like the other senses? And couldn’t that sense differ from person to person, culture to culture? None of the earlier discussion implied that the thing itself changes, the sky remained red, the curry – spicy. It means that we might all differently perceive a single, definite moral reality.

If sight, smell and sound evolved to react to certain specific, concrete environmental conditions, why must one assume morals be a different beast? One might comment that it because morals seem so ethereal; there is no physical “there” there.

Unfortunately perception is not necessary for existence; describe “red” to the blind man; try to prove the existence of “red” to the blind man. You might collect a group of people in a double blind (no pun intended) experiment each telling the blind man whether the color on the card is grey or red. You would do better than chance, so there is something there. But the hits wouldn’t be perfect – color blindness – remember? You might present the theoretical and physical characteristics of light and explaining that red can be found somewhere around a wavelength of 630nm; the blind man would still not feel the emotional majesty of a crimson sky.

If one assumes the other senses, sight, smell and the rest, all evolved in order improve the chances of genetic survival, couldn’t morals self assemble in much the same way? The simplistic argument that unbridled selfishness leads to evolutionary advantage seems neither to be born out by experiment nor perception. Doesn’t unbridled selfishness lead to short term gains but ultimately to failure (see for example Jared Diamond’s Collapse)? Might one of the very steps on the path of evolution to “man” been the development of a different long term understanding of right-ness; a way of knowing as genetically ingrained but as variable as eye color? Those who did not “see the light” slowly losing out to their more moral competition?

And doesn’t this model seem to fit the “facts” better? The Golden Rule is almost universal. Only the most radical fundamentalist denies that “unbelievers” lack any grounding in moral thought (or they read far too much into Ps 14:3). If one assumes that it is not morality itself but moral sensibility that changes from person to person, culture to culture doesn’t that answer many questions, not of how the world should be, but at least of how the world actually is? Do religions claim to be reality or merely an improvement, optional?

Finally it should be noted that the existence of God is neither explicitly accepted nor denied in this model.

A Deist might make the argument that an omnipotent (and perhaps omni-benevolent) being loaded the dice in order to force intelligent creatures to develop moral feelings. This might be called the Anthropic Gambit. Just like God tweaked all the other constants in the Universe, the speed of light, the various forces, masses and frequencies, She also tweaked the ‘goodness’ constant. Like the Anthropic argument for God, this idea is undeniably, well, undeniable but it is also unprovable. And of course Ockham’s razor warns us to steer clear of these kinds of uncharted waters (but people sink in them every day).

Critical is that the existence of God isn’t necessary. There is no necessity for a God-given authoritative morality any more than there is a necessity for a God-given authoritative blue. There is no need for Kant’s argument that “ought implies can.” (Since we ought to achieve moral perfection it implies that we can achieve moral perfection. But we always fail, we always make mistakes. Thus the only way that moral perfection can be achieved is through God or God’s forgiveness. I call this the Forgiveness Gambit.)

There might be an ultimate morality waiting to be discovered, understood and researched. By refusing to ask the question, indeed by denying the question itself, Deity-based moral systems perhaps lock themselves into an intellectual trap no different than that experienced by Creation “scientists.”

If one assumes that the failing is not in existence or authority, but in perception, what need Christian forgiveness? Must one forgive the color-blind, allergic vegetarian?

37 comments so far

  1. Vance Esler on

    Are you saying that since people have different perceptions about morality, it may as well not exist? Or are you saying that since people have different perceptions, why bother?

    I understand the story. I understand that people have different ideas about things. But I don’t get the rest…

  2. blc303 on

    The first point is perhaps minor, but important. There is a morality without God. Whether it is physical, like light or gravity or simply an emergant strategie for dealing with interpersonal interactions is unimportant. Would you argue that eyes may well not exist because we can’t see ultraviolet or detect radiowaves without a receiver? The question itself is a non sequitor.

    My second point is that the justification of misdeeds by claiming some omnipotent being “forgives” them is unnecessary. It is like thinking you must beg forgiveness for overlooking the best price for something you want or ignoring the best price for something simply because you buy from someone you know. You don’t worry about it.

    I would also use this a a basis to say that different perceptions of morality lead to various behaviors; because these perceptions differ both individually and culturally: differing systems and levels of ethics (codified morality) have emerged.

    Finally, I also think, but can’t site studies right now, that it has been shown that morality works very well on the clan/group level up to about 150 people. Individual morality breaks down with larger numbers as the individuals become strangers. Evolution wasn’t worried about the genetically different tribe in the next valley. Morals are local.

    You can transfer a feeling of family to larger groups though. That is why being “proud to be an America” justifies and underlines an “us versus them” mentality; ultimately leading otherwise moral individuals to create things like Guantanamo (78? prisoners who aren’t “unlawful enemy combatants” – the worst of the worst?`), Abu Ghraib and all the other secret prisons. They are not family, they can be mistreated. Especially if you throw codified morality, i.e. ethics and laws, out the window using the War on Terror as justification.

  3. Vance Esler on

    So a criminal gang might have one moral code while a religious Jewish family has another? In other words, morality is what any small group of people says it is?

  4. Teresa on

    Maybe we’d have more luck if we looked less at the outcomes of morality (or conclusions, if you will) and looked more at the prosses for how something is decided to be moreal/immoral.

    Neuroscientists have been doing a variety of experaments on this, and it ihas had interesting results. It indicates that different areas of the brain, with their different functions, contribute different inputs into a moral dilemma.

    For instance, the old “Toddler on a train track” question.

    You have one part of the brain saying “The needs of the many outweight the needs of the few” you have one part of the brain screaming “But it’s a baby!!”

    You have another part of the brain trying to figure out the alternative to either sending the train over the cliff or sending it runnign over the toddler. and you have yet another saying “If I do nothing, everything will unfold as it was predetermined to do, and I have no moreal input or responsibility”

    In the end, one person may decide one thing, one person another, and they may have certain social or religiously trained inputs that give one part of the brain precident over the other, but though the outcomes are different, the process, and the functions of the different parts of the brain are the same (barring physical injury or malformation of the brain)

    So, while moral OUTCOMES are different due to personal experiance, culture, or religious training, the basline function of how those outcomes are arrived at is the same.

    This is how you can have someone who is very empathetic and can look at someone whose outcomes are different, and can “mirror” their process and say “I wouldn’t choose that,but I can see why you would.” They can see that someone who has different moral outcomes than theirs is still “moral”.

  5. blc303 on

    Thank you Teresa. Well put.

    In the same light. it would seem foolish to ask whether a criminal gang and a religious Jewish family might have language. One would assume both groups of people can speak, use a form of vocal communication. Less clear is whether those individuals would be able to communicate. It clear that people can learn new languages.

    Language centers are also quite strong neurologically. If you read about feral children, they often have a burst of vocabulary learning. They are however never able to develop anything close to what we would consider “normal” speech. They are also quickly able to understand right and wrong. Property and space is a different issue.

  6. Vance Esler on

    Teresa’s observations are interesting. We can also do PET scans and MRI’s while people are experiencing various stimuli, and we can see what parts of the brain respond. It is fascinating, but I’m not sure what it explains with respect to morality and forgiveness. Unless you are trying to say that its all just chemical reactions.

    Regardless of their physical origin, it seems that on a psychosocial level, Ben believes morals are parochial. Each small group defines them for themselves. Is that what you are saying, Ben?

  7. blc303 on

    You seem insistent on separating the mind from the body. I don’t do that. Just as your body adapts and changes when you work out, your muscles get larger and stronger, your tendons stretch and strengthen, your brain physically changes as you learn and think. Thus to say morals are parochial is perhaps true in the sense that a professional athlete will have different physical characteristics than, say, an oncologist. It does not change the fact that both walk on two legs.

    Just as your body defines the way you develop, the physical characteristics of your brain effects how you think. I think the physical structure of the brain is trimmed to a basic form of morality, one based on family and clan. That structure arose, not because there were pre-existent laws created by a divine entity, but because the “psychosocial” pressures supported those developments. This kind of thinking seems to be born out in more and more literature.

    In the last 5000 years, human societies have outpaced evolution’s ability to physically adapt to the ever increasing size of populations and ideas. That is where the cultural factor fits in. Like my comment about language. Which do you think is the deeper “truth,” the need to communicate or the language spoken? I would argue humans – as a species – have a drive, a necessity, to communicate. The language is simply the cultural overlay defining the method chosen. Is one language better than another?

    Morals are similar. I think there is a drive to do what most people would agree is the “right” thing. It is possible to hurt complete strangers but we protect our family and friends. Once the “enemy” becomes personalized, we have problems punishing or damaging them. (That is why there was only one “magic” Christmas on the Western Front during World War I. The politicians and high ranking officers didn’t want the people in the trenches to start thinking they had more in common with the enemy than with high command.)

    This is also why we struggle to find consistent solutions to emerging or borderline ethical problems.

    “Thou shalt not kill/ murder” depending on the translation. What is the line to murder? Is murder actively taking someone’s life; is it accidentally taking someone’s life; self defense? Criminal courts, the social equivalent to personal morals, deal with each of this issues differently. Again our social systems have outstripped our physical capabilities. I just don’t understand the idea behind trying to twist moral/ethical questions into “What would God do?” any more than you ask yourself, “What is the best thing to do here? What do my feelings tell me?”

    Abortion, stem cell research, even some medications and penal systems are all areas where knowledge change pushes up against the need to do the “right thing.” (Do you merely punish the paedophile or put him away for life? Since paedophilia might be a neurological problem wouldn’t the death sentence be more practical, i.e. cheaper, can’t escape, doesn’t face an existence of LWOP – a fate many prisoners are coming to realize is worse than death? With current knowledge, how do you make an informed moral choice? Is the paedophile evil or sick?)

    If you choose to write off the physical basis for how humans have created things like chairs, clothing, houses as being merely parochial, be my guest. I think the moral imperative is much stronger than you do. And I don’t think the groups are small. I do, however, think you can be taught to think that way. Perhaps the difference is that I live in a world of basically nice people, you seem to want to live in a world of evil people who manage to occasionally stumble on the good.

  8. Vance Esler on

    So I guess your answer to my question is “no.”

    Once again, I feel you are arguing with what you think I think. Yet I have not made any claims at all (here).

    I’m just asking questions to try to understand you. Your arguments are hard for me to follow.

  9. Vance Esler on

    Okay. Now I have had the chance to re-read your last response a few times.

    So what causes criminal behavior?

  10. blc303 on

    I think criminality has a number of causes.

    Like I have said, there is a natural variation in the ability to perceive what is good. Just as there are those who are blind or deaf at birth, there are those who perceive morality either not at all or only with difficulty. I would argue this is the major cause of lifetime criminality, the hard core base if you will. It is also why not all people become hard core criminals; they literally don’t have it in them; born to kill if you will.

    Second, just as humans physically change as they age, the ability to accept and follow inner moral feelings grows over time. Perhaps better, the impulses to do foolish things drops. This can also be viewed through the idea that older people generally take fewer risks and are more conservative than teenagers.

    I think that is the cause of “crime” among teenagers who often attempt to push certain limits. Which limits get tested is often based on current trends, popular culture and local focus, that global ideas. (I also think the local part of this is now massively being changed thanks to video phones and YouTube giving teens the ability to globally network foolishness.) That means that European teens might not do the same bad things as kids growing up in a Miami ghetto.

    Often teenage “crime” is also done with less thought of the consequences; both in the sense of self harm (how risky is this behavior for me) and the damage done to others(how much might I hurt someone else). The availability of tools for mischief, cars, guns, um, black power (have you ever gone “anvil shooting”?) increases the likelihood of something going very wrong.

    This idea means I definitely approve of a “positive feedback” where poor teenage behavior is dealt with early in the cycle. Once a teenager reaches adulthood having never exercised his or her “moral muscles”, those “muscles” may have atrophied. Like a coma patient who awakes after several years and attempts to walk, it is very difficult (but perhaps not impossible) to undo the damage done.

    Socio-economic levels also play a role. If I am raised to believe I have no other avenue to success or income other than crime, I will likely also overcome my internal moral compass. Military training does the same thing with soldiers in order to get them to follow orders and kill people. (Note: I am not making a moral comment there, just a realistic one.)

    Finally there is the problem of prisons which is also one of the most serious facing America today. Once I have been to prison, the odds of my ever being a “valuable member of society” of “having paid my debt” are basically gone. Further, the people on “my side” in prison are other criminals. Thus I think prison, concentrating people with low morals is like trying to slow an epidemic by putting all people, infected and suspected, into the same quarantine; few come out unscathed.

    The prison system in America has exploded in the past 30 years with currently about 1 in 135 people behind bars. (Two asides here. First it would seem Paris Hilton is in trend. Second, this number is or like 1 in 1050 for Germany.) It is more likely that a black male will have spent time in prison than having gone to college. Interestingly, according to a Harris Poll taken in 2003, 78% of whites absolutely believe or are somewhat certain that God exists; for Blacks it is 91%, Hispanics – %81. I don’t need to look up the prison racial statisics for you do I?

    I could go on but does that sufficiently answer your question?

  11. Vance Esler on


    So are you saying morality is an innate drive which has evolved, and criminal behavior results when one cannot respond to the drive?

  12. blc303 on

    Yes! By Jove, I think you’ve got it! 🙂

    I wouldn’t limit it to criminals though. Much like you can learn different languages and are able to communicate certain concepts more effectively in one than another, different cultures have developed different ways of channelling and defining this drive. The language used is sometimes an anathema to the non-speaker.

    I think morality arises, self organises if you will, because altruism is a very effective evolutionary strategy at the family and clan level. Much like the cape buffalo in my video from last week, herding behavior is very strong in African herbivores, other species have developed altruistic, moral drives.

    Our intelligence tries to make sense out of the drive for morality. Interestingly, many people will think emotions such as love or hate are innate, morality “merely” learned. I would say morality an emotion just like love. It can be misplaced and misused, sometimes not returned in kind.

    Ethics is the attempt to codify our moral drive, moving from the family to society in general.

  13. Vance Esler on


    So if criminal behavior occurs because an individual is incapable of responding to his innate drive (or perhaps lacks the innate drive due to some deleterious mutation), then is it fair to hold him responsible for doing bad?

    For example, alcoholism runs in families. People who become addicted to alcohol and cocaine have different, measurable responses to these substances than those who do not become addicted. They crave the substance, sometimes even more than food. So is it fair to punish an alcoholic for killing someone while operating a vehicle under the influence?

  14. blc303 on


    So, if someone is blind, is it fair to help them?

    If some cells in the body mutate and form, say, cancer, is it fair to remove them?

    One simply needs to stop thinking of punishment. But perhaps we still need prisons because we can’t cure people. After all, we accept involuntary quarantine, no?

    Unfortunately, as seen from my side of the Atlantic, I think the number of real criminals isn’t that high. The people in prison could be retrained – recultured. Unfortunately they, innate economists that they are, will ask “What is in it for me?” If you get out of prison and can’t feed your family without breaking the law, what do you do?

  15. Vance Esler on

    Is that a yes or a no?

    Let me try it this way. If we are asked to sit on a jury in the drunk driver’s trial, is he guilty, or is he “not guilty by reason of … (whatever you would call it)”?

    I’m not asking for a legal opinion. I’m asking for a moral opinion. If the guy is just a product of his genes and the external forces which have shaped him, is it fair to hold him responsible for his actions?

  16. blc303 on

    Again, you want to press my answers in the current American legal system.

    First. Why don’t your patients go to a group of 12 doctors to get a diagnosis? If a “jury of your peers” is such a good idea, why didn’t it ever catch on as a truth producing method for other professions – like medicine?

    But more to your question. I disagree with the idea of “Not guilt because of…” A person is “guilty”, if they committed a crime. But justice has two steps and that’s only the first one. What really interests you isn’t whether someone is guilty, but what you do about it when you find that out.

    The second question is what do you do with guilty people? Do you assume a punishment, a treatment or a quarantine paradigm?

    With punishment, the assumption is that a slap on the wrist might work as a wake up call and get people to reexamine how they live. They will react rationally and begin to work and live in a moral manner. This works for some although I doubt the prisons are designed for “readjustment” and psychologists probably aren’t the people to run “rehabilitation” programs.

    The treatment paradigm assumes you can change their behavior and appropriately “adjust” it using different means. This has lots of implications. Perhaps one of the strongest ways to get people to act better, might simply be to put them in environments where the rest of the people act morally.

    The final paradigm, quarantine, assumes the people are sick and will remain so, thus must be separated from the healthy. That can either be through physical separation, prison or through social separation, think electronic monitoring or the scarlet letter. A troubling result of this is the current legislation about where pedophiles are allowed to live thus pushing them out of any “system” and to the very edges of society.

    Isn’t less important to ask whether someone is guilty and far more important to ask, how to deal with the problem. The critical questions are how the damage can be repaired and whether this person is still a major threat.

    Do you really think the American justice system effectively achieves either of these goals? (Please remember while answering Guantanamo – a legal gulag with 80 admittedly innocent of the “worst of the worst” locked in a judicial limbo.)

    Think of your daily work. You try to solve the problem of your patients cancer to solve the problem, get rid or control the cancer. You don’t ask why it is there and you don’t ask your patients to ask for forgiveness from someone. Why wouldn’t that approach work better for criminality? Would you ever pass a verdict of “not guilty by reason…” on a cancer?

  17. Vance Esler on

    Let’s go back to where I “had it.”

    If morality is an innate drive, and if criminal behavior is what happens when one CANNOT follow the moral instincts, then are you saying that although a legal system might judge a crook to be guilty, morally we should not look down upon him because he cannot help it?

  18. blc303 on


    if criminal behavior is what happens when one CANNOT follow the moral instincts

    No. criminal behavior is what happens when you don’t follow ethical frameworks of moral behavior. The issue here isn’t “CANNOT” but rather “DOESN’T”.

    Why the criminal doesn’t follow the ethical, legal, moral framework can be mental (they don’t see crime as being wrong), social (they learned or were taught to ignore the signals their feelings were giving them) or situational (they either didn’t see a different path or didn’t fully consider the consequences of what they were doing).

    If you want me to start looking down at people, I guess I’d have to refer you to your Bible, to John 8:7.

    I might be able to look down at someone if I were absolutely convinced that in the same circumstances I would have been different, acted “better”.

    The cases might vary. It might mean a momentary lose of control, like the American troops in My Lai, or a more systematic loss of control, like the more recent case of Abu Ghraib.

    It might mean never having learned to understand what you were seeing. Like an adult, never taught to read as a child, but now being asked to understand the writing on the wall.

    As it is, I would take the far more pragmatic approach, how do we solve the problem. Perhaps the question is can an ill physician heal a sick patient?

    If I could truly say, with the same history, in the same position as another, I would do differently; I could look down on others. But then again, being a non-theist, I am perhaps not as good as you are. No?

  19. Vance Esler on

    Me on June 14: So are you saying morality is an innate drive which has evolved, and criminal behavior results when one cannot respond to the drive?

    You in reply: Yes! By Jove, I think you’ve got it!

    But now you are saying does not, not cannot.

    What changed?

    BTW: How do you indent the quotes?

  20. blc303 on

    The blind can learn to read, the blind can learn to stay on the sidewalk. But it takes training, it takes time and it takes a teacher. Some things a blind person can’t learn (like driving a car).

    Most people aren’t completely blind; but they are visually impaired. I really thought you were starting to understand, apparently not.

    And again. You seem to be taking a very black and white view here. Is that true, or am I reading something that isn’t there? I believe there is a continuum of moral behavior. Most criminals don’t aren’t the worst of the worst. Most will do good things to some people bad things to other people.

    They sometimes they will try to convince themselves that the “really” don’t hurt anyone (for example robbers). This is untrue, they convince themselves that “insurance” will pay for it.

    Could you please try to recap what you have understood of my position. Or are you simply looking for holes? Are we going forward here?

  21. Vance Esler on

    I’m trying to go forward…

    I did just recap what I thought I understood of your position, but then you seemed to contradict yourself, so now I don’t know.

    It is incorrect to think I am taking a black and white view. I’m not arguing. I’m inquiring.

    Correct me where I am wrong, but I understand your position as follows:

    You think morality is a product of evolution (what isn’t?). There is no single, absolute moral code. Rather, every group — perhaps every individual — determines for itself what is moral and what is not.

    How is that so far?

  22. blc303 on


    No, there isn’t a moral code, there is a moral perception; perhaps better defined as how people feel when following a fairly good evolutionary strategy. Ethical codes are contracts formed by cultures to define the limits and taboos within a community. These codes or laws are used to define criminals.

    So. Basically
    A. Morality is the perception of an interactive behavioral strategy. (You could define moral code to mean interactive, behavioral strategy, but it would probably confuse things.)
    B. This perception is evolved and not limited to the human species. (As a matter of fact, plants!? might have altruistic “feelings” for kin. *blink*)
    C. The individual has a different perception of the moral strategy that is culturally the same.
    D. Advanced cultures have attempted to extend the behavioral strategy, morality, from it’s original meaning (family and clan) to larger groups with more or less success. The discipline used is called ethics, the results – an ethical code or laws.
    E. Not all people have the same perception of morals. All people within a culture are bound by the ethical frameworks defined by that society.
    F. Ethical difficulties and legal ambiguities arise when issues arise that don’t fit into the evolutionary schema. We have various sentences for murder not because the act was different, but because we perceive the act differently.

    A criminal, by definition, doesn’t follow the law. Whether the criminal knew the crime was wrong or not makes little difference as to whether the crime was committed. But whether the criminal is culturally and physically capable of understanding the moral problem with the crime has major implications with how you deal with it.

    If the person just doesn’t “get” morals, like a sociopath, they should be quarantined. If someone has learned that the only group morals apply to are the immediate family, they can probably learn different behavior. The way to teach it might not be to put them in an atmosphere behind bars where the only safety is a new family, a prison gang.

    But it is the line between moral perception and ethical coding that you don’t appear to understand; where I thought you had “gotten it.”

    It is this line in Western cultures, that make it OK to kill someone in war (even while attacking) but only OK to kill in self defense when a civilian. Those are ethical codes developed by a community. Some communities, like Quakers don’t make the distinction in killing. And soldiers having obeyed orders, come back to society with PTSD.

    Finally, that indenting trick is done by putting the text between the tags <blockquote></blockquote>.

    For example, <blockquote>How do you do that? </blockquote> becomes

    How do you do that?

  23. Vance Esler on

    I think you just said what I said you said … only I used fewer words. I said that you said there is no moral code, but that groups (of people, animals, whatever) define morality for themselves.

    Didn’t realize blockquote was a valid tag here. Thanks.

  24. Vance Esler on

    But I don’t mean to put words in your mouth. Sorry if it comes across that way.

    I do understand the concept of the line between moral perception and ethical coding. In fact, that seems to me to be the crux.

    You seem to believe that the line is drawn by the group (of whatever size), not by a deity. Yes?

  25. blc303 on

    I think we disagree on the definition of the word morality. That is causing the communication gap.

    I guess I have to turn the question around. If the line is drawn by a deity, why hasn’t it remained constant over time within cultures have worshipped one deity? And why is the line largely similar if not identical for all cultures regardless of whether they have had contact to the “word” or not? Why is a deity necessary?

  26. Vance Esler on

    A deity is not necessary.

  27. blc303 on

    Does that make a deity optional?

  28. Vance Esler on

    Explain the question.

  29. blc303 on

    If the moral line isn’t necessarily drawn by a deity, doesn’t that make believe in a deity optional. You don’t need belief to be moral or have moral systems. Thus the use of ethics as an argument for the existence of God becomes redundant.

    It also seems to answer the question I posed at the end of the post.

    If one assumes that the failing [in morals] is not in [its] existence or authority, but in perception, what need Christian forgiveness?

    Answer: None really. If you don’t need a deity to define sin, you don’t need Him/Her or Them to forgive your sins. Right?

  30. Vance Esler on

    Clarification: A deity is not necessary. A deity simply is. If free will exists, then belief in that deity is optional.

    I cannot speak for other religions, but the rabbis understood that their relationship with God differed from His relationship with everyone else. They viewed their relationship as a contract. In return for belief and adherence to certain provisions, they would receive certain benefits (blessings). The Hebrew word for “sin” is better translated or understood as “breach of contract” — for which, like most contracts, there were penalties (curses) and remedies (sacrifices).

    So in such a paradigm, God is necessary because one cannot have a contract with … nothing.

    If one chooses a paradigm in which there is no god, then there is no contract, no possibility of breach, no sin, and no need for forgiveness. Or if one chooses a paradigm in which god exists but is disinterested in a formal relationship (Deism), then the same is true. No contract –> no sin –> no need for forgiveness.

    So the end seems to be determined by the starting assumption, i.e., whether or not one believes God exists.

  31. blc303 on

    A deity is not necessary. A deity simply is.

    Actually, no. Depending on which school of philosophy you believe in a deity would actually be necessary for a causal universe. I guess this is where we part philosophical ways; the root of our communication difficulties. That was more or less the discussion stopper right there.

    I do have to take umbrage with one minor thing though.

    So in such a paradigm, God is necessary because one cannot have a contract with … nothing.

    Don’t secular humanists assume the contract not with God, but other humans? Doesn’t a moral contract with God actually explain why things like the Inquisition, the Thirty Years War and suicide bombing become possible; because the contract is only with God – people don’t matter?

    What are the last lines of the modern Hippocratic Oath?

    I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.

    If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of healing those who seek my help.

    A contract with nothing?

  32. Teresa on

    Never forget the idea of a contract with oneself.

  33. blc303 on

    Never forget the idea of a contract with oneself.

    Nah. I stopped trusting him years ago! 🙂

  34. Vance Esler on

    Wait a minute! You can’t have a contract with an entity that doesn’t exist on any level. Even if a deity doesn’t exist in reality, his existence in the imagination is minimally required if one is to appeal to him and contract with him (or her, or it).

    In the Hebrew paradigm, the assumption is that God exists and that He wants to enter into a contract (covenant) with a group of people. The Hebrews could not contract with someone who does not exist, even if only in their minds. This is not a proof of God, but rather, an assumption of God’s existence on their part.

    This says nothing about other contracts that others may enter into, social or religious. It also says nothing about the nature of those contracts any more than my contract with my employer says anything about your contract with yours. I was not making value judgments, only observations. So, sure, secular humanists can contract with whomever they please, or not contract at all. It makes no difference to me.

    Doesn’t a moral contract with God actually explain why things like the Inquisition, the Thirty Years War and suicide bombing become possible; because the contract is only with God – people don’t matter?

    In a twisted sort of way, I’m afraid so. But why is it we remember the bad that has been done in religion’s name more than we remember the good?

  35. blc303 on

    I say the non-theist paradigm doesn’t require the extra supernatural step. Again we’re back to your basic assumption, “A deity is not necessary. A deity simply is.”

    Isn’t your defined paradigm a bit of a circular argument? You have to have a deity to have a contract and you can only have a contract with a deity. Like I said that was the show stopper. Again. Our paradigms aren’t compatible. The ethical (better than moral) contract in my system is with other people, no supernatural being necessary. It seems implicit in your argument that deity is required for that kind of contract.

    You say the Hebrew paradigm allows for more that just the contract with God. Indeed, I would argue further contracts aren’t just a good idea, they are a necessity for a functioning society. (It’s not just a good idea, it’s the law.) Since you admit contract outside your deist circular logic, why assume a deity in the first place?


    But why is it we remember the bad that has been done in religion’s name more than we remember the good?

    Perhaps because we seem to have spent an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out what a criminal is in a non-theist ethical universe. Isn’t the reverse question fair?

    You didn’t seem to have trouble with people doing good without God; I don’t have trouble with people doing wonderful things “in His name.” But after all, isn’t it the bad guys we worry about?

  36. Vance Esler on

    I say the non-theist paradigm doesn’t require the extra supernatural step.


    Isn’t your defined paradigm a bit of a circular argument? You have to have a deity to have a contract and you can only have a contract with a deity.

    No, because I have not said one can only have a contract with a deity. What I said was, the Hebrews assumed a deity, therefore they were able to enter into a contract with him.

    The inverse of that paradigm is to assume that no god exists, so if any contract is to be made, it must be with someone else.

    The paradigms are inverse, and therefore are incompatible insofar as hot can’t be cold and black can’t be white. But they are compatible in the sense that some things are hot while others are cold, and some things are white while others are black.

    So, one person can operate out of one paradigm while another views the world from a different perspective.

    The problem — and I bet we agree on this — occurs when one one individual or group starts trying to force his or her worldview upon others.

    But after all, isn’t it the bad guys we worry about?

    Only if they have a gun and we don’t … 😉

  37. blc303 on


    Not all paradigms are equal. Science usually moves from one to another, not discarding all the old ideas but adapting new ways of looking at old things. For example the paradigm of an “ether” required for the transmission of electromagnetic waves and measurement of a constant speed of light in all directions wasn’t compatible. Thus a new paradigm was developed.

    But hey. If you like overarching paradigms.Just to make sure.

    You must support really the immediate American troop withdrawal from Iraq right.

    Don’t you just break into righteous indignation every time you hear about American troops searching a house for weapons and then arresting everyone. The weapons might have been for self-defense, right?

    And haven’t the Iraqis already formed militias for their common defense?

    You must really dislike American foreign policy, if I use your views on gun ownership as a measuring stick.

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