Morals, Category Errors, and Self-Refutation

In any discussion of morality there is an inherent problem: who defines what is moral?

To answer the question, one necessarily needs to define certain categories. These categories are filled in by facts and presuppositions that ultimately sum up and undergird any ethical system that provides groundwork moral reasoning. There are essentially two positions that people take on morality: it is either relative, sometimes subjective, or objective. Both have inherent problems from a human perspective.

Some, if not the majority of atheists will assume that morality is subjective, that it is dependent upon the person, that is that it is relative. Most often, such relativists will point to two different cultures and observe differences between what they consider to be, or not to be, moral and will conclude that morality is relative. The argumentation is often circular, as they are assuming what they are trying to prove. But this is simply a confusing of categories in that they are confusing how different cultures express morality with what is or is not moral. All cultures necessarily assume that there is a right and wrong way to conduct themselves and the expression of that is expressed in their ethical beliefs and the behaviors that extend from it. To point out differences doesn’t necessarily mean that morality is relative only that the expression is.

We can also look to moral objectivism and say that it also has its problems, especially as it is often presented as being absolute. By stating that there is a moral absolute it poses stumbling blocks and creates a moment for cognitive dissonance and makes morality black and white, rather than reflecting a world of color. It doesn’t allow for movement in life. I’ve taken on this issue on two accounts, here and here.

It would seem that morality lies somewhere in the middle and that it is dependent on a fixed point that is objective, that is to say it is external to us as reference, but has a measure that is personal and relative, giving a person flexibility. That is not to say that it is totally dependent upon the person, but the person is dependent upon the reference to provide direction in any given instance. Making it not either/or but both/and.

Where can I find an illustration of the reality of this fact? I know!

Neil Carter, over at the blog “Godless in Dixie”, provides an excellent example to study the category error that many atheists make in his blog post, “Finding Good Without God“. He bases his observation on a MacGuffin in the movie series Pirates of the Caribbean which he had just seen with his daughter. If you are familiar with the film series, the wily, rum-loving protagonist Captain Jack Sparrow possesses a compass that doesn’t point to north but points to what is desired. To that, Neil writes,

The fictitious compass represents a bit of delicious irony in that a compass is supposed to be nothing if not an objective guide to help you navigate the open sea. Devoid of landmarks or stars or sun under a cloudy sky, you can use a normal compass to discern which way is north, and by that heading, a seafaring crew can set their course toward whatever destination merits their weeks of perilous travel across often hostile waters.

Mm, not quite an “objective guide“, rather something that points to that which is objective, that is a compass normally indicates magnetic north. But he continues,

I am persuaded [Sparrow’s compass] illustrates an irony that is not fictitious at all, namely that our moral systems of guidance are no more objective than the compass Jack Sparrow carries around with him on his many misadventures. (Emphasis original)

That misses a fundamental point: that the compass is pointing to something objective. The compass points to what is desired, which is subjective, but that doesn’t change that what is being pointed to is dependent upon what is desired being real and external, i.e objective. Let’s see how Neil plays this out.

Defenders of the Abrahamic religions make much of the notion that “right vs. wrong” cannot be known apart from assuming the existence of, specifically, their particular deity. I believe they’re mistaken, and what’s more, I don’t think you even have to think very hard to figure that out.

If God created all things, and he created man as his image bearer, that is that man was made to reflect his love, mercy, and justice to him and his fellow image bearers, then it follows that is the objective reference point for man. We only know this because God has made it known to us. That is the standard that we appeal to. Neil will likely assume that there is a way that humans should conduct themselves. We’ll see if he does that.

Under the heading “When Up Is No Longer Up”, Neil writes,

Did you know that our planet’s magnetic poles reverse direction every once in a while? We’re actually overdue for another reversal as we speak, and some argue that we may have already begun to see one. Every few hundred thousand years or so, north becomes south and vice versa…

The fact that the poles of the earth magnetically reverse doesn’t change the fact that the objective directions do not. But let’s see how far he pushes the analogy.

But take a mental trip with me up to the moon for a moment. No…better yet…let’s go farther, to Proxima Centauri, to the closest star to our own sun, about 4.24 light years away from our own solar system. Which way is north, now? And is it distinguishable from south?

Last time I checked, Proxima Centauri was an objective reference point in regards to location in the universe. Hence trying to apply “north” and “south” is simply irrelevant to the question.

Continuing, he writes in reference to another post of his

[…]that even the constellations above us, while useful in providing reference points as we navigate the terrain far below where we actually live out our daily lives, are still constructs produced by our own vantage point. If we were to stand somewhere else, those familiar shapes would be gone and new ones would take their place.

Is it just me or does he seem to be missing that he is still saying that he requires an objective reference to which to refer in order to locate himself on a map? The problem with such analogies is that they eventually fall apart. Let me explain.

If you’ve ever had to navigate by map and compass, a map has an objective direction that identifies north so as to locate particular points. A compass has two references, magnetic north and true north which can vary depending upon a variety of factors. Knowing that such a variation exists allows for accurate location and course plotting of something that exists in three dimensions(north-south, east-west, elevation) compared to the two dimensions of the map. In order to navigate one has to align the the reference direction on the map with the compass and adjust the difference. All are dependent upon the existence of an objective reference point being in existence. That would allow for the tools of reason an emotion to act as the means of locating the direction that one needs to travel and how one could appeal to a definitive direction of travel to arrive at a destination.

Under the heading, “Not So Objective After All”, Neil writes,

Christian apologists fancy their religion a bedrock reality rooted in something larger than life, and all other ideologies are like the shifting waves and sediment that crash against its ever-shifting shores.

There’s something of a straw man here, and I would argue that it is because the Christian apologists, which would include myself, have taken certain facts for granted, rather than actually looking to what we are appealing to. It is largely built out of a misunderstanding on both sides what is actually being said and what is being appealed to.

To borrow a misapplied title, the moral landscape, what humans have to navigate in life, is best compared to a mountain range filled with treacherous crags and ravines. There are two ways to navigate the terrain, one is simply by trial and error. We can all see the peak, the goal, which stands objectively. Everyone has to navigate through the mountain to the goal. Everyone has a compass so that they can reference the objective goal. Now, the relativist say that he has all that he needs (his compass and his goal) and he can navigate. We’ll call this all man-made morality and moralism, and it says we may never reach the goal, but we’ll die trying. Some people who call themselves Christians do this.

But suppose that someone had a map of the mountain range to go along with the goal and the compass. And that map showed that the goal was much farther away than it appeared and that between your starting point and that distant peak lie a wide, deep raging river. Those who don’t believe the map just take off, making their own path, and many follow after them. We can call these philosophies and religions. Some say, we can never reach the goal, so we can do what we want. Others say, no we need to try to live like we can reach the goal even though we can never reach it. We’ll call these the relativists and the objectivists, respectively. Then there’s some who look at the map and can see a dangerous path that leads to a narrow bridge that crosses the river and leads to the summit, and the only reason that they can do that is because of a light that revealed it, and they take off in a completely different direction than everyone else.

Now those who choose not travel, think that group is just like the others even though they say that they have a fundamentally different argument, but because they choose to assume rather than travel they are blind to the reality of the situation. Shall I demonstrate?

Neil says,

First, their own religion is as guilty of relativism as any other ideology, they just don’t realize it. At one point in their ancestral past, pork was bad, men could marry multiple women at once, and people could own other people as property, doing with them as they please and trading them for so many heads of cattle or whatever.

Neil, buddy, what’s wrong with any of that? I would argue that during the time that you were playing Christian, you never actually listened to what was being said. (See earlier responses to such bad arguments here and here.) I would also like to point out the anachronistic fallacy that he’s engaged in, not to mention the category errors.

He continues,

Ultimately the entire Christian religion was predicated on the sacrifice of an only child—a firstborn, so to speak, which always seems to be God’s preference for some reason. Which means among other things that there are circumstances under which just about anything could be okay, provided it’s what God wants. This follows what some apologists call the Divine Command Theory of morality, and I cannot imagine a system more subjective and unreliable than that. (link removed)

I’m not particularly fond of Divine Command Theory but am more in line with Divine Character Theory and that God only commands what is in line with his character and that human morality is judged on the basis of its alignment with the character of God. God’s commands reflect his nature, which is not subject to change, therefore his commands to his creatures can change in regards to circumstances, but do not vary from his love, mercy, and justice. Christianity is predicated on the self-sacrifice of the Son of God taking the just condemnation of one man in his humanity in order to justify every person that he intends to save in his divinity. So, it makes me curious as to where he gets the right to be indignant about what the God whose standard he has to appeal to in order to make any judgment on how God decides to relate to those who are rebels?

Suppose for a moment that we were debating morality and I told you that right and wrong ultimately depends on what my invisible rabbit friend Harvey likes and dislikes. Could we then have a rational discussion about what is and isn’t moral?

Let’s think about that for a second: is what is moral dependent upon what one likes or dislikes,  on mere preference? If it’s merely preference, then you might know some things, but then they would be subject to change and purely arbitrary. Harvey might not like it if you killed your wife and kids, but that doesn’t actually mean that there’s anything wrong with killing them. Further, what about Tommy and the preferences of his Invisible Pink Unicorn named Clarence? It’s simply trying to plug something into the position of God, which is idolatry.

[To] me, sounds like the most relativistic morality imaginable. And yet that’s precisely what happens when we are told that “right vs. wrong” hinges on the contextually-conditioned feelings of an invisible deity who we are told speaks to representatives to communicate his will, and yet no one seems to be able to agree on which people that should be or on whether or not they are accurately perceiving his will.


First, it has nothing to do with God’s “feelings“, it has everything to do with his character. Second, I’m guessing that Neil is just not that familiar with the biblical texts and the fact that God  chose to speak personally with his people, and that they were the ones who wanted him to speak with then through a representative. Third, there’s plenty of agreement on substance just not implementation, which is two different things.

And we humanists are the relativists?

Straw man. There are humanists who are objectivists, I’ve dealt with them (see above) and demonstrated that they have no grounds for their claims.

I would argue that while humanists of every stripe can agree that human beings should never be treated as someone else’s property, theists of many kinds would argue that under the right circumstances it was okay.

On what grounds would you make such an argument, Neil? Asserting it and arguing it are two different things.

Furthermore, if we narrow our discussion to the Christian Bible, I would argue that one cannot assemble a clear and consistent case that humans shouldn’t be someone else’s property using that text because even in its later chapters it is still referring to human beings as “bought with a price” and “not their own.”

And that would be considered eisegesis, Neil.

Even on a purely human level, the Bible never clearly denounces slavery as an institution. It assumes its cultural normalcy and never clearly states there is anything wrong with it. You would think that divine revelation wouldn’t be subject to social convention, but there you have it. Apparently God can only show people what the natural progress of social evolution has already shown them, and little more. One wonders, then, what the point of divine revelation really is.

That’s because Hebrew and Roman “slavery” served a different societal purpose than American slavery, the form of which is roundly condemned in both Old and New Testaments. (See my discussions here and here.) And the “social evolution” that brought the end of it about in both the Roman Empire and the West was Christianity and its fundamental presuppositions about man and how man is to be treated. Just the amount of historical ignorance in these statements is staggering. As to the “point” of “divine revelation”, Neil, it is to demonstrate who God is in nature and character, and that man is far removed from him.

Under the heading of “Straw Humanism”, Neil writes,

Whenever Christian apologists want to demonstrate the superiority of their worldview to those which are nontheistic, they almost always accuse the rest of us of the very relativism which I’ve just argued plagues their own system.

“Argued”? Saw a lot of assertions, but nothing that provides justification for anything that he actually believes, such as this,

In one sense I will have to agree with them that both of us are working from human constructs.

I believe that I demonstrated in the mountain analogy how fallacious such an assertion is.

In that sense, the difference between theirs and ours is that at least we are aware of the artificiality of our system, which makes us far more inclined to critically evaluate our own system in order to improve upon it as time goes on. (Emphasis original)

Question: how do you know that your system needs to be improved much less “critically evaluated”? Sounds like he’s trying to smuggle in Christian assumptions, namely that believers are to be more and more like Christ, that means that we not only have to critically examine ourselves but have grounds to do so and a standard to which to appeal.

They, on the other hand, have to keep doing hermeneutical gymnastics to constantly prove to themselves that whichever way they just changed their interpretation of God’s will was merely a rediscovery of what God was intending to communicate from the very beginning.

Two phrases: sola Scriptura and tota Scriptura. Christians hold to the sufficiency and efficacy of Scripture, the totality of Scripture, as the final standard and our absolute authority. Usually, if one has to engage in “hermeneutical gymnastics” then they’re trying to hide something. That’s why there’s hermeneutical rules, so that we can expose false conclusions. 

In conclusion, Neil is confusing how with what. The fact that we refer to a “moral compass”, which is subjective, does not negate the fact that the compass requires an objective reference point to operate. There are factors that can interfere with its operation, but that doesn’t refute the fact that you require a reference point in order to operate from. Denying it is not a refutation. Renaming it is not a refutation. Even the example of the fictional compass of Jack Sparrow demonstrates the fact of an objective moral reality because the compass can only direct you to what objectively exists.

Congratulations, Neil, your example is it’s own refutation.


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