Thursday, August 04, 2005

Conversations with Angie: Greg Koukl and relativism

At this point, Angie and I had a conversation about faith and reason, but I'm skipping all that. Here's an email by Angie:

Oh, dear. Well, Sam, I have to say that there's a lot in this email I have a hard time agreeing with. Before I elaborate, though, I want to listen to the tape you sent me and read some more. That way I can cover more information. This might take me a while, as I'm notoriously bad about reading multiple things at once, which makes finishing anything take a lot longer. I'll try to focus, though. When I respond again, I'll start a fresh email chain, because this one is getting very long.


I sent Angie a copy of Relativism by Frank Beckwith and Greg Koukl, and copy of a debate between Koukl and Sabina Magliocco call "Does objective moral truth exist?". Here was her response.


Hey, Sam. Just a bit of reflection on the topic of relativism ...

The book definitely makes some pretty compelling arguments against
relativism. And, they make sense to me. But one of the things that i
noticed is that, at its base, the argument against relativism seems to
be emotional rather than rational. It always seems to boil down to
"Are you saying that torturing children for pleasure is okay?" or some
such thing. Of course everyone recoils at that! It's human nature to
do so. I don't feel like what I've read satisfactorily settles
whether human nature recoils at such things because of biological /
cultural / environmental development, or because we have some
awareness of an objective moral standard to which we should adhere.

That's all I'll say for now, as I have laundry to do. And, I imagine
that you might already have something to say in response...

Have a good week!


Conversations with Angie:  emotions and human nature as clues to moral knowledge


daleliop said...
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daleliop said...

If a person recoils when they hear in the news that last night a man abducted a little girl and murdered her, there ought to be a reason behind the person recoiling at all. The question of what caused the recoiling is secondary to whether or not the recoiling had any justifiable basis behind it.

Even if we grant that evolution or society has pressed that moral code into our genes, if you say that that proves morality is a sham, then I ask you what else do you think is a sham. Is logic a sham, then? Is our perception of the real world a sham? Just like morality, our logic and sensory perceptions are things that we innately and instinctively believe in. Once you deny morality as an illusion, you open yourself to denying anything else that your mind perceives as an illusion too, since they are both operated by the same cognitive faculties.

Also, even if turns out that evolution is the tool that helped sculpt our morality, it doesn't mean that morality suddenly becomes subjective. If evolution correctly develops human beings according to an external reality, and morality is something that all human beings share, then I think it is justified to say that there must be some sort of external basis for every person's sense of morality. So, it is not impossible that the external basis for our moral senses is an objective moral code grounded in reality.

ephphatha said...

Dale, you're going to get a kick out of the next two blogs. It's as if you read my mind.

Steve said...


Perception is often wrong, as any scientist knows. Its difficult to think of the world in terms that we cannot see it. Before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, im sure many people believed Atoms, and all those crazy theories about things that were undetectable to microscopes weren't true either.

But I feel that you've mixed some ideas together. I believe that logic IS the basis of morality. The problem is you might be implying that logic provides inescapable conclusions, which is not always the case. Thats where Greek Sophists made their money!

You can use logic to validate many ideas that are only true in a narrow, rather than a broader, context.

Therefore, even those of us who believe morality is subjective believe a justifiable basis is behind morality.

I also agree, for example, that our logic and sensory perceptions are only apparently true, not necessarily true.

Think of it like Einstein verses Newton. Some people say that the Theory of Relativity proves most of Newton's equations wrong, or not absolutely true, because they only approximate what is true.

But more correctly understood, physics professors often explain that relativity expains why Newtonian physics seems correct, it provides a new paradigm that is inclusive of the old one.

And I believe many perceptions are like that. We see the world in only a certain spectrum of colors, at certain brightnesses, and primarily through a few important senses. That doesn't mean a reality beyond the reality we see isn't true, or even MORE true in approximating what surrounds us, merely that our reality could be encompassed within a greater reality!

ephphatha said...


I think some of the points you make could be used to support Dale's position (and mine). You rightly point out that sometimes our perception or knowledge of the external world is wrong, and sometimes different people have different perceptions or ideas about the external world. The same seems to be true of morality in some cases. But because we all have perceptions of an external world, and those perceptions tell us all that the external world exists. Likewise, we all have moral perceptions, and that tells us that there really is a difference between right and wrong. The fact that our perceptions of the external world can sometimes be wrong doesn't mean we aren't justified in believing there is an external world. Likewise, the fact that our perceptions of right and wrong may sometimes be mistaken doesn't mean we aren't justified in believing there are objective moral values.

A better analogy than the external world, I think, is our memory perceptions. We all have them. But they are notoriously unreliable. Sometimes we even fabricate memories in order to fill gaps in our real memories. Sometimes, they just aren't clear at all. A person can walk in a room, have a conversation with you, and walk back out, and you can't for the life of you remember what colour their shirt was or picture it in your mind. Two people can have completely different memories of an event they both participated in. Is this a good reason for us to doubt that there's really any past at all? Of course not. We're quite convince, no matter how fallible our memories are, that there really is a past that corresponds to those memories. In the same way, as fallible as people may be in their moral assessments, and as much as they may even disagree with each other, we're all still very convinced that there's a difference beween right and wrong.

And that's why moral decision-making is difficult. It's only difficult becuase you have to go through the trouble of figuring out what the right thing to do is in a given situation. You know there's a difference between right and wrong; it's just sometimes hard to figure out how to apply it in a situation. If there were no right and wrong to be discovered, moral decision-making wouldn't be difficult at all. We wouldn't even have to consider it. We could adopt pragmatism or self-interest instead. The decision may still be difficult, but for completely different reasons. We wouldn't agonize over feeling guilty later, becuase there would be no wrong done to feel guilty about. We wouldn't have to worry about doing wrong at all, and there would be no reason to feel good about ourselves for doing right either.


Steve said...

Sam - I have to say that your comment about memories being like morality is probably the best explanation of morality decision making i've ever heard. That really connected with me.

Im still hesitant on the whole objective morality thing... because I think the moment I accept that concept I would essentially be saying I believe in God. So for me Im very reluctant to accept objective morality because I really believe in the implications you have discussed on your blog.

This sounds funny, but i truly hope there ARENT objective moral values.

If that were to happen, it would be a lot like an engineer building a bridge he's very proud of, but on both sides the cement he connected it to melts away... and all his wonderful creations and imaginations will all fall into the river.

As much as I like to think of myself as being unemotional about these topics... i've spent so much of my life as an agnostic (about 8 years) that im extremely unwilling to challenge the philosophies and ideas I've built up for so many years critsizing God and the religions around him!


ephphatha said...


I really appreciate your honesty, and I can sympathize with agnosticism, having been an agnostic myself in my early 20's. I even wrote philosophy papers about the meaninglessness of life and everything else. The reason I talk so much about morality and the moral argument for God is because once I started being honest with myself, I could not deny that there was a God. I may not be able to prove that there are any objective moral values, but I can't shake my strong belief that some things really are wrong and other things right. That entails that God exists.

Morality isn't the only thing I had to be honest with myself about. When I was younger, I was full of ideas and possibilities. I even toyed with solipsism as early as the second grade, and kept coming back to it until I was around 20 years old, because it always seemed at least possible to me that everything going on in the sensory world was just in my mind. But I eventually started being honest with myself, and admitting to myself that regardless of the possibility that things may be quite different than they seem, deep down, I don't really believe that they are.

Since then, I have given a lot of weight to common sense. There are some things that are impossible to prove, but you still have to ask yourself what is more reasonable to believe. It's possible we were created five seconds ago complete with memories of a past that never actually happened. But just because it's possible doesn't mean it's reasonable to believe. You can never really prove there was a past, that there's an external world, that the laws of nature will act the same tomorrow, and many other things, but the truth of these things appeals very strongly to common sense. People assume that what they remember really happened. They assume that what they see, smell, hear, and feel around them really exists outside their minds. They assume that the more something happens in the past, the more likely it is to continue happening. And, they assume that there's a difference between right and wrong, good and evil, and that there's justification for praise and blame, reward and punishment. These common sense notions are so strong, in fact, that even people who deny them live as if they think they are true. Those who deny the external world still live as if it's real. Those who deny having a self that endures through time and change still live as if they think their self as well as everybody elses does endure through time and change. And people who claim there are no objective moral values still place blame and accept praise as if people really deserve anything because of their behavior and motivations. Cultural relativists still make cross-cultural moral judgments.

I think there are some things we just happen to know that don't need to be proved. The knowledge is just sort of built in. Now we could be mistaken about some of these things, but it seems to me that if, on their surface, they seem more reaonable to believe than not, then we should believe in them unless there is very good reason to deny them.