Eleven articles appear below in which Dr Mark Newbrook challenges "Anonymous" on the topics of
 Divine Command, Utilitarianism, the meaning of moral goodness, and the Bible:

 


CAN GOD MAKE SOMETHING
MORALLY GOOD OR EVIL BY DECREE?

(Investigator 177, 2017 November)


Comment on final paragraph of 'Anonymous', 'Corruption', Investigator Magazine 176, p 49

I would argue that even if God exists his 'guidance' cannot help here.  As I have said before, contrary to the assumptions of many believers there appears to be no secure grounding for ethics even within a religious world-view.  Either a) the statement that what God says is morally good or bad is thereby to be deemed morally good or bad is a tautology, a matter of definition, with which those with other meta-ethical views might legitimately disagree ("That's not what we mean by 'moral'"), or b) treating God's statements/commands on morality as correct and thus as binding involves assessing them against an independent standard of good and evil.  The notion that God could actually 'make' something moral or immoral by decree appears to embody a category error.

Mark Newbrook






MORAL GOODNESS

Anonymous

(Investigator 178, 2018 January)


Mark Newbrook writes:

I would argue that even if God exists … there appears to be no secure grounding for ethics even within a religious world-view.

 Either a) the statement that what God says is morally good or bad is thereby to be deemed morally good or bad is a tautology… or b) treating God's statements/commands on morality as correct and thus as binding involves assessing them against an independent standard of good and evil. (#177, p. 4)

I agree with Mark Newbrook and base my agreement with him on the Bible.

The Bible does not offer a definition of "good" (or of other moral words) that explains what all good actions have in common to identify them as good. The Bible is also correct in not offering such a definition, for the following reason:

Suppose the Bible defined a "good action" as, for example, "Any action that saves a person's life." This definition would be refuted by cases of frail elderly persons getting operations they don't want because the operations won't cure them, merely prolong the dying process.

Whatever definition of "good" we might think of, situations can be imagined where the defined "good":
•    Either becomes something unwanted, in effect "evil",
•    Or fails to include actions everyone considers "good".


Biblical position

The biblical position is analogous to a parent who tells his child, "Be good and stay off the road when you play."

The child might not be aware that an unexpected speeding car can injure him but the parent knows this and has it in mind. The parent's decree is justified by his greater knowledge. The child will also be motivated to obey, although not fully understanding the reason for the decree, because he knows his parent cares about him.

The Book of Proverbs repeatedly mentions various benefits that generally follow if we base our conduct on the proverbs. The benefits include longer life, better health, prosperity, peaceful relationships, respect from peers, contentment, and success in one's goals.

These are consequences most people would consider "good". Yet most people ignore the proverbs because they don't know about them or about the potential benefits. Others know at least some of the proverbs but lack the motivation to obey.

The idea that humans need to rely on God to make right decisions first appears in Genesis 3 where we read:

The woman said to the serpent, "We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, 'You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.'"

But the serpent said to the woman, "You shall not die, for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." (3:2-5)

The rest of the Bible can be viewed as a record of humans inventing their own standards in ignorance of God and suffering for it. Genesis 19 — the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah — is a hint of what human rejection of God will mean for the entire world thousands of years later.

Put concisely, it is not God's decree by itself that makes something morally good, but God's decree based on His superior knowledge of what benefits humans, which humans often cannot work out for themselves and may lack motivation to follow if they do work it out.




 
Rejoinder to Anonymous, 'Moral Goodness',
Investigator Magazine 178, pp 17-18

Mark Newbrook

(Investigator 179, 2018 March)


Anonymous responded to my short piece on p 4 of Investigator Magazine 177 in reply to his own earlier material.  

Anonymous is very clear in this article, and his earlier use of the term guidance with respect to God's pronouncements makes more sense in the light of his comments here. The (initially surprising) fact that he agrees with what I said in Investigator Magazine 177 arises from his very unusual interpretation of metaethics from a Christian standpoint. In my experience, thoughtful Christians very generally accept the view that God actually creates moral truths, i.e. makes actions (etc.) morally good or bad by decree. This stance might appear, prima facie, to be preferable to both Position a) and Position b) as specified by me (both of which are unacceptable to Christians); but Anonymous and I agree that it does not hold up (in my own view, it embodies a category error).

As Anonymous says, the Bible does not itself explicitly offer or endorse any particular metaethical theory; thus this is a matter of interpretation, generalising across specific Biblical passages (and then deciding whether or not one accepts the theory one finds is implied by the text as a whole).

Anonymous' view is that God's decrees about morality are not 'performative' (as if they really did create moral truths) but merely 'informative'; God, with his superior knowledge and wisdom, reports to us on independently existing matters of fact. These matters of fact are not themselves genuinely ethical facts existing outside of God's will (as in my Position b), which Christians would struggle to accept, to say the least); they are matters of benefit (advantage).  Although he is sometimes reported as presenting his decrees as genuinely moral in character, God actually tells us to do X and not to do Y because obeying these commands will confer advantages upon us.  (God might be criticised in this context as duplicitous!)

This position has some similarities with the metaethical theory known as 'utilitarianism'. Utilitarianism is itself a position involving many issues; but the main issue here is that utilitarianism in its various forms relates to the consequences of our actions in respect of the advantage or disadvantage of humanity as a whole, or at any rate to the consequences of one's actions for others – not to the consequences of one's own actions for oneself. But the consequences of one's own actions for oneself must be included here if Anonymous' general interpretation of ethics in terms of advantage is to hold up, and indeed Anonymous includes references to self-advantage. And most moral philosophers (and many other people) would hold, in contrast, that the consequences of one's own actions for oneself alone – and I realise in saying this that the notion of 'oneself alone' is compromised somewhat, even for the single and childless, by the 'welfare state' and other such institutions where these exist – are one's own business and are not a legitimate target for moral judgments. The advantage or otherwise to oneself arising from a given action is one thing; the morality or otherwise of that action is another – even if it should turn out that the two sets of actions largely overlap.

Thus, the metaethical question of the status of ethical precepts per se is not resolved, or even really addressed, by Anonymous' account.  In my view, his position leaves him with no account of what morality actually is, or of which acts really are moral or immoral (as opposed to advantageous or disadvantageous).

Maybe on this account there is no such thing as an ontologically independent objective system of ethics per se; this is the position which i) scientifically-oriented philosophers such as Sam Harris and ii) moral subjectivists would uphold. However, Harris' position is philosophically controversial, and the problems associated with moral subjectivism are well known. And of course Anonymous' own position is different from both i) and ii) (though closer to i)).

As noted above, most Christians would surely adopt a very different view from that of Anonymous here; but naturally that is not to say that they are right and he wrong. Whatever the strengths or weaknesses of the metaethical theory attributed by Anonymous to the Bible, that theory might indeed be what the words of the Bible, properly interpreted, proclaim.

There are further problems with this metaethical theory. For example, is it really the case that one set of general quasi-ethical rules based on advantage will benefit all? Even within one culture, humans are very diverse; what goes well for one person (psychologically, for instance) may not go at all well for another. In addition, some of the reported decrees of the Christian or Muslim God involve the arbitrary prohibition of harmless (and in some cases advantageous) acts, such as the pursuit of knowledge (as in the Eden myth), engaging in consensual gay sex (even if in a stable loving relationship) and drinking moderate amounts of beer. In such cases a reasonable person, even a believer, might prefer (in the continuing absence of a coherent objective basis for moral rules) to run with the 'pagan' principle 'As long as you harm no-one else, do as you will', which is itself not wholly trouble-free but prima facie makes excellent sense. The more arbitrary reported pronouncements of a deity are, it seems, 'trumped' by this principle and can thus be ignored (unless they are followed out of sheer fear of divine retribution on the part of a tyrannical deity, which pace Pascal is surely an unworthy motive).

My main point here, however, is (as I said above) that in my view (and I think in that of many if not most others) the morality (or immorality) of an action, on the one hand, and the benefit/advantage (or disadvantage) derived from it, on the other, are conceptually distinct, and that Anonymous' account of morality is thus incoherent. This is simply not what I think is meant by terms such as morally good/bad.


 



  DIVINE HELP NEEDED
FOR MORAL GOODNESS

 Anonymous

(Investigator 181, 2018 July)


Dr Newbrook, responding to my position on morality, wrote:

Anonymous' view is that God's decrees about morality are not 'performative' (as if they really did create moral truths) but merely 'informative'; God, with his superior knowledge and wisdom, reports to us on independently existing matters of fact. These matters of fact are not themselves genuinely ethical facts existing outside of God's will (as in my Position b), which Christians would struggle to accept, to say the least); they are matters of benefit (advantage)...

Utilitarianism is itself a position involving many issues; but the main issue here is that utilitarianism in its various forms relates to the consequences of our actions in respect of the advantage or disadvantage of humanity as a whole, or at any rate to the consequences of one's actions for others – not to the consequences of one's own actions for oneself. But the consequences of one's own actions for oneself must be included here if Anonymous' general interpretation of ethics in terms of advantage is to hold up....

In my view, his position leaves him with no account of what morality actually is, or of which acts really are moral or immoral (as opposed to advantageous or disadvantageous).

... the morality (or immorality) of an action, on the one hand, and the benefit/advantage (or disadvantage) derived from it, on the other, are conceptually distinct, and that Anonymous' account of morality is thus incoherent.


RESPONSE

I did not wish to imply that God's commands benefit only the individuals who obey them. Commandments advocating generosity and charity, for example, benefit many others.

Furthermore, commands that enhance peoples' lives in one type of society can sometimes kill them in another type. For example, the prohibition on idol worship sometimes got Christians who obeyed it in ancient Rome executed. Important benefits came later when idol worship declined and this in turn promoted the coming of modern science.

Individuals who rejected idolatry therefore set an example that would benefit humankind long after their own deaths. Benefit for themselves was initially psychological, the satisfaction of agreeing with the God who knows best and who would ultimately be vindicated. Any further advantage to executed Christians depends on the validity of their belief in the resurrection.

And here is the crux of the problem, the reason why conclusions in normative ethics and meta-ethics should upon analysis turn out inadequate. The reason is that we cannot calculate the future with accuracy. Utilitarianism, to which my position, as Newbrook notes, has similarities, relates to the consequences of our actions. But who can calculate consequences accurately into the future? "Chaos" theory reveals that tiny events, including seemingly inconsequential decisions, can over time have huge consequences. Consider renewable energy from solar power. Augustin Muchot (1825-1912) demonstrated solar power at the Paris Exhibition in 1878 and used sunlight to convert water to ice, but his funding was cut because coal was cheap. Today global warming from overuse of coal and oil has started, and some countries already have a "heatwave problem". In Russia in 2010 a heatwave killed 55,000 people (Coghlan 2018) which the people who cut Muchot's funding failed to foresee.

Our inability to foresee long-range consequences reduces utilitarianism, sometimes described as "the decisions that produce the greatest good", to a platitude.

Relying on God's "superior knowledge" for guidance on what is best may not constitute "genuine ethical facts", as Newbrook puts it, but it is doable whenever "God" supplies the necessary information. I know people who follow the Bible and have never had any confrontations with the police and also avoided debt, sexually transmitted disease, gambling, smoking, illegal drugs and many other problems that reduce the quality of life.

When I enrolled to study basic ethics at university my expectation that students will not learn to distinguish right from wrong was soon confirmed. The lecturers explained each theory of conduct and quoted philosophers who advocated it, and then quoted other philosophers who refuted it. Students who wanted to find out which acts are moral remained confused.


EVERYONE IGNORANT

Biblical guidance is often vindicated, as its opposition to idolatry has been, by its later general acceptance, and by afflictions suffered by ignoring it.

In Australia AMP shares: "crashed to a six-year low ... wiping more than $600 million from its market capitalisation." (May 12-13, 2018) This occurred because the banking royal commission exposed a "fees-for-no-service scandal" and 310,000 customers received $219million in compensation. "Fees for no service" sounds similar to theft and lies, which are both condemned in the Bible. Executives who endorsed the practice could have known better by consulting the Bible.

Consider also "corruption" including "bribery" which I discussed in Investigator 173 and now comment further on:

In 1938-1939 Britain and France appeased i.e. bribed Hitler to keep the peace by giving him Czechoslovakia. From Czechoslovakia Germany confiscated 7000 tracked armored fighting vehicles. Tucker-Jones (2006) writing about "Hitler's Great Panzer Heist” says: "At the height of his military success, over 25% of the German tank fleet was of foreign origin..." Hitler's ultimate aim was world rule, world domination! (Bell 2014) Bribery, even huge bribes of giving away whole nations, does not make bad men good and could in Hitler's case have led to enslavement of the entire world!

Plenty of people, however, have not yet learned:

The former president of South Korea was recently sentenced to 24 years in prison for corruption i.e. "bribery, abuse of power, extortion and other charges." In Brazil another former president started a 12-year sentence for receiving bribes.

In Iraq: "Iraq's leaders have done deals that guarantee most parties a share of power and its spoils. This has led to corruption and stagnation, not unity. Jobs are handed out by sect and ethnicity, not merit, and ministries are plundered. The state is so dirty that many Iraqis have come to doubt the merits of democracy."

In Afghanistan: "Afghans paid bribes of nearly $US2.5 billion—worth almost a quarter of the country's GDP... Bribes were requested and taken by politicians, prosecutors, tax officers… US officials have long maintained that public outrage over government corruption and inefficiency has driven Afghans into the ranks of the insurgents…"  (The Australian, January 21, 2010, p. 10)


The book Bribes (Noonan 1984) mentions over 100 U.S. judges and legislators indicted for corruption in the 1970s and U.S. presidents also used to take bribes, although the Constitution states that the President and civil officers could be impeached for, "treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors."

The Constitution writers probably included bribery because they knew the Bible. A review of Noonan's book in Time (February 25, 1985) says:

Bribery … is a betrayal of the public trust necessary for society's survival. Beyond that, he sees a theological principle at work: "The imitation of God lies at the root of the bribery prohibition. God 'does not take shohadh' the book of Deuteronomy proclaims."

Bribery has pervaded all human history and reduced the quality of life in all nations. People who followed the Bible and acted differently rarely got rewarded. The benefits would come long after their own lifetimes when biblical principles progressively became part of modern law. In 1977, for example, the U.S. initiated a "World War on Bribery" — See Investigator #173.


EVERYONE WRONG

Other commonly practiced evils include sexual promiscuity, kidnapping, female genital mutilation, gambling, smoking, dishonesty, tax evasion, child abuse, illegal drugs use, rape, robbery, dangerous driving, murder, etc.

McNeil (1968) wrote: "unreported taxable income is about 7% of the total". The Bible, however, opposes taxation cheats. The Advertiser in 1984 reported: "...9 p.c., or 462,700 of Australia's households, experienced a break and enter or a property theft." (December 22, 1984, p. 3) The Bible, however, condemns burglary and theft. The German Tribune in a report titled "Legal system paved way for Third Reich" says: "In 1933 a majority of German judges, public prosecutors and court officials were quick to accept anti-semitism, exaggerated German nationalism and obedience to authority. They had arguably paved the way for the Nazi takeover…" (6 March, 1988, p. 4) The Bible, however, is against anti-Semitism, "exaggerated nationalism" and unqualified "obedience to authority". In the USA: "In 2013, 10,076 people died in drunken-driving crashes... Some 290,000 people were injured by drunks." (Hamill 2015) The Bible, however, opposes drunkenness.

We could go on and on and discover that no one knows right from wrong.


BIBLE ETHICS

The Law of Moses has 613 commands which consist of 365 prohibitions and 248 positive commands many starting with "If" or "When" and describing specific situations. At the centre were the Ten Commandments and two more — to love "God with your whole heart" and "your neighbor" — which Jesus called the "greatest" commandments. The other 600 commands showed how the basic twelve applied within ancient Israel and its setting and culture.

The New Testament focuses on the two greatest commands along with qualities of character and dispositions consistent with them such as compassion, patience, kindness, joy, generosity, peace, self control, gentleness, etc. With qualities like these, large numbers of rules become unnecessary; but without such qualities we could not obey the incontrovertible "theory of conduct" even if philosophers discovered it.

If the Bible is trustworthy then the morality of an action and the benefit/advantage derived from it correlate — imperfectly in the present world, but 100% considered over eternity.


REFERENCES:

Bell, K. Axis Visions of Victory, World at War, Jun-Jul, 2014, 34-46

Coghlan, A. Extreme heat for Russia, New Scientist, 24 March, 2018, 12

Hamill, D. http://www.pressreader.com/usa/new-york-daily-news/ 20150721/ 281616714059145.pdf

McNeil, A. 1968 World of Crime, Hodder & Stoughton, 103

Noonan, J.T. 1984 Bribes, Macmillan

The Weekend Australian, Another $600m wiped off value, May 12-13, 2018, 20

The Weekend Australian, Ex-president Park gets 24 years in jail, April 7-8, 2018, 14

The Weekend Australian, Iraq has a chance to be normal, March 31-April 1, 2018, 11

Tucker-Jones, A. Military Illustrated, March 2006, 9-15

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augustin_Mouchot


 



Rejoinder to Anonymous, 'Divine Help Needed
for Moral Goodness', Investigator  Magazine 180, pp 15-20

(Investigator 182, 2018 September)


Anonymous has not offered a persuasive response to my last article.

I never said or implied that Anonymous meant that obeying God's commands benefits only those who obey them.  If obeying them were said to benefit only others, or if only the benefitting of others were seen as relevant, Anonymous' position might be a prima facie plausible (utilitarian-type) theory of morality.  But in so far as they do benefit those who obey these commands (in cases where there are no morally-relevant upshots for others with a legitimate stake in the issue at hand), they are simply not about morality as normally defined, but rather about prudence.  In my view, Anonymous should stop talking as if he were discussing morality here – or else he should offer an entire new definition of the very words/notions ethics and morality (which others would then be free to accept or reject).

Maybe Anonymous misunderstood my comment that God's reports to us on independently existing matters of fact (as per his account) are not about 'genuinely ethical facts'.  His rejoinder that relying on God's guidance is nevertheless 'doable' misses the point. My comment concerned the metaphysical status of such facts, if facts they be.  As I have, I think, made clear, in so far as they relate to the consequences of one's actions for oneself alone they would not be genuinely ethical in character (on normal definitions of this term; see above) but merely (intended as) prudential (real meaning: 'You'd better do X, because you'll be in a better state if you do').  (This says nothing about whether or not each such recommended action would actually be 'doable' or, if 'doable', genuinely advantageous to the individual actor.)  And thus Anonymous is indeed left without any coherent account of what morality actually is, or of which acts really are moral or immoral (as opposed to advantageous or disadvantageous).

Further: because they are expressed as having general application rather than directed at individuals, God's commands (despite his supposed superior factual knowledge about the world) might in some cases not even be factually correct in respect of what would benefit some particular individuals, regarded either as actors or as experiencers of the actions in question.  As I noted, human beings and their circumstances are surely too varied in such respects for this approach to work reliably. Even behaviour-patterns identified as 'God's best for humanity' simply will not work for some. This is why even those who believe, for example, that God condemns homosexual behaviour as sinful generally accept that some people are temperamentally unable to live as heterosexuals. For these people, the option of abstinence – much less satisfactory for most – will be necessary if they accept these injunctions and wish not to 'sin'.

I acknowledge that Anonymous recognises the issue of varied circumstances as applied to the consequences of actions performed in different situations and under different human regimes, for example when he makes his point about the various consequences of rejecting idolatry; but I am (obviously) not here discussing such cases but rather whether or not a command of God inherently suits each individual in the sense that obeying it would benefit her/him.

In any case, even if God's commands were more sensitive to individual differences they would still not be about morality in so far as they related to the effects of actions on the actors themselves as opposed to others.

I did not suggest that the tradition of work on normative ethics and metaethics has yielded adequate solutions to metaethical or general ethical issues – whether one favours or tries to develop a specifically utilitarian metaethics or not.  (I myself do find some forms of utilitarianism, seen in the light of the 'pagan' principle to which I referred, relatively promising in this respect; in my view, Anonymous is tendentiously overstating his case by regarding utilitarianism as platitudinous.) Some non-Christian philosophers adopt subjectivist accounts of morality; some do seek objectivist accounts but simply find no satisfying solution; some (such as Ayn Rand and Sam Harris) propose objectivist accounts in non-religious terms but typically without strong persuasion. And, because of the issues which I have rehearsed in this exchange and elsewhere, it seems clear that Christianity itself – either as idiosyncratically interpreted by Anonymous or as interpreted more generally – provides no valid metaethical principle either.  Its claim to do so does not hold up; the idea that a creator-god is entitled to lay down 'moral' laws for created beings to obey is, as Bertrand Russell and many others have observed, incoherent. And on Anonymous' account Christian 'ethics' is (as noted above) not even squarely addressing ethical matters as such where it deals with the effects of actions on the actors themselves as opposed to others.

The fact that basic metaethical issues remain unsolved – to the confusion of many beginning ethics/philosophy students (as mentioned by Anonymous) who are over-optimistically seeking authoritative guidance as well as theoretical understanding – does not justify the adoption of a fatally weak religion-grounded 'solution'.  (But teachers obviously should assess each ethical theory discussed, not merely present it.)

This is not to deny that people in general would do well to follow many of the specific recommendations stated or implied in the Bible; and Anonymous rehearses various examples of this.  But thoughtful unbelievers (or indeed misotheists) can come to each such position on their own, just as well as believers can. The reported words of God are not an essential factor in such considerations.

In addition, Anonymous has not addressed my point that some of the reported decrees of the Christian (or Muslim) God involve the arbitrary prohibition of harmless (and in some cases advantageous) acts.  There are also various cases where the Bible, as quoted by Anonymous here, positively advises us to do things which some of us would regard as unjustified; for example, some of us hold that income tax is a counter-productive and indeed a tyrannical institution which should be replaced by fairer taxes and in the meantime should be resisted as far as possible. Furthermore, some of God's own reported acts appear far from ethical; on the Biblical account, he provides us with a very poor model for moral behaviour, for instance by threatening to punish future generations for the 'offences' of the current generation.

Furthermore, many patently evil deeds have been perpetrated in the name of Christianity over the centuries. It is of course open to Anonymous to say that the people involved were confused and were not behaving in a genuinely Christian manner; but the onus is upon him to support this analysis.

In fact, thoughtful human beings of good will appear morally superior to the God of the Bible in many respects.  They should rely on their own moral sense rather than on the Bible.

Anonymous' closing statement that following the Bible's moral precepts would be 100% effective 'over eternity' is, obviously, only a matter of doctrine.  But he does acknowledge this by beginning his comment with a conditional clause.


 



MAKING MORAL GOODNESS DOABLE

Anonymous

(Investigator 183, 2015 November)


INTRODUCTION

In his initial article Dr Newbrook pointed out:

"Either a) the statement that what God says is morally good or bad is thereby to be deemed morally good or bad is a tautology… or b) treating God's statements/commands on morality as correct and thus as binding involves assessing them against an independent standard of good and evil."
 
I agreed and chose "b". I also argued that the "independent standard"  or "standards" (plural) are those that promote goods or ends such as health, long life, prosperity, peaceful relationships, knowledge, security, respect from peers, happiness, and similar.

Conduct biblically advocated and likely to produce such results include truthfulness, generosity, tolerance, industry, knowledge, wisdom and virtue, combined with avoiding idolatry, murder, envy and laziness.

This makes biblical ethics testable. Finding out, for example, whether prosperity correlates with knowledge, peace and work becomes a matter of statistics and observation.


PRUDENCE, BENEFIT, MORAL GOODNESS

I previously argued that:

The Bible does not offer a definition of "good" (or of other moral words)... (#178, p. 17)

Relying on God's superior knowledge for guidance on what is best may not constitute "genuine ethical facts", as Newbrook puts it, but it is doable whenever "God" supplies the necessary information. (#181, p. 16)

Newbrook writes that this "misses the point" and is not coherent because:

My comment concerned the metaphysical status of such facts, if facts they be.  As I have, I think, made clear, in so far as they relate to the consequences of one's actions for oneself alone they would not be genuinely ethical in character (on normal definitions of this term; see above) but merely (intended as) prudential (real meaning: 'You'd better do X, because you'll be in a better state if you do')… And thus Anonymous is indeed left without any coherent account of what morality actually is, or of which acts really are moral or immoral (as opposed to advantageous or disadvantageous). (#182)

What does "Coherent" mean? The Standard English Desk Dictionary says: "Cohering; consistent; not rambling or inconsequent."

However, I'm not trying to define "moral goodness" since the Bible doesn't either. What the Bible supplies are standards which benefit oneself and if widely adopted also the wider society and the future.

Moral goodness, prudence and conduct that benefits oneself or others, are not necessarily mutually exclusive since behavior can exhibit just one of these features or all three, or combinations of two. [Think of three intersecting circles where one circle represents moral goodness, another prudence, and the third conduct that benefits.]


GET PRACTICAL

If a person behaves by standards such as listed in my Introduction would Newbrook accuse him of not being "a moral person"? Alternatively, if another person kills, lies, rapes and lives off crime would Newbrook call him a "moral person"?

Here, the Bible's discussion about faith and works is helpful. Some 1st century Christians concluded that they have "faith" and therefore works or conduct is irrelevant. However, James 2:18 says: "Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith." (2:18)

We can paraphrase this, "Show me your morality apart from anything you do, and I will show you my morality by what I do."

One of my reference books at university was Human Conduct (Hospers, 1972). This book has 450 pages of densely packed analysis, yet ultimately left students baffled regarding how to conduct themselves.

I'm not trying to provide a coherent account of "what morality actually is" — I'll let Newbrook do that. I suggest that Biblical standards are prudential and beneficial, and practical because they're empirical and doable, and by their nature should often coincide with "what morality actually is".


PEOPLE EVERYWHERE WRONG

Fang and Casadevall (2013) discuss various types of cheating such as performance-enhancement drugs, financial scams, and fabricating the results of experiments, and argue that cheating is harmful:

Despite its ubiquity, cheating can be quite detrimental to individuals and to society. Cheaters are stigmatized and may lose their jobs. Resources are squandered on fraudulent work. Individuals who play by the rules are deprived of rewards that they deserve. There is also collateral damage... Dishonest scientific research can misdirect other investigators, lead to misguided public policy and harm patients when clinical decisions are based on faulty information...

Even single acts of dishonesty can have serious and lasting consequences. One famous example is a retracted 1998 article in the Lancet ... that suggested a link among autism, bowel disease and vaccination [and] helped to fuel the modern antivaccine movement that ... leads to cases of infection that could have been prevented....

The Bible doesn't say "Don't cheat" but does oppose lies, greed and deceit without which cheating is hardly possible. Newspaper reports of cheats appear virtually every day. For example:

False, stolen identities costing 1bn a year — Identity fraud is costing the nation [Australia] more than $1 billion a year… (The Advertiser, November 15, 2003, p. 50)

Dentists put the bite on Germany — Almost 500 dental surgeries have been accused of fitting cheaply manufactured Chinese dentures and passing them off as high-quality German products… (The Weekend Australian, September 11-12, 2004, p. 17)

Electricity theft is a problem in Brazil ... some nations see as much as 40 per cent of their supply siphoned off... (New Scientist, 30 September, 2017, p. 16)

A South Australian software designer who stole the identity of dead children was among welfare cheats from whom the Federal Government has recouped $1.4 billion over the past 18 months. (Smethurst 2018)

Former El Salvador president Tony Saca pleaded guilty yesterday to embezzling hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds during his 2004-9 tenure. (The Weekend Australian, August 11-12, 2018, p. 11)

China's second largest producer of vaccines, Changsheng Bio-tech cut costs by using expired materials ... and faked the results of tests. It's estimated the company produced almost half a million substandard vaccines ... given to hundreds of thousands of babies. (Korporaal 2018)

The Supreme Court of Queensland last week found directors of MPS had breached 217 laws and illegally shifted $147.5m of investor funds, then forged and backdated documents to cover up the crimes. (Klan 2017)


CHANGE OF "HEART"

Jeremiah predicted:

The days are surely coming says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors...  
I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts...
(Jeremiah 31; Hebrews 10)

The New Testament directly condemns lies, theft, immorality, murder, and idolatry. Otherwise the emphasis is on acquiring motivations, dispositions and character-traits such as kindness, hospitality, honesty, compassion, wisdom, gentleness, love (Greek: "Agape"), peace, generosity, truth, forgiveness, gratitude, humility, etc. Hebrews 10:22 refers to "our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience" and James writes "Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts..."

People like this would be morally excellent without studying "theories of conduct" such as egoism, hedonism, utilitarianism and whatever, because their "pure hearts" guided by rules that bring benefit would demonstrate if not "what morality actually is" certainly something close.


REFERENCES:


Fang, F.C. & Casadevall, A. Why We Cheat, Scientific American Mind, May/June2013, 31-37

Klan, A.  The Weekend Australian, June 17-18, 2017, p. 7

Korporaal, G. The Weekend Australian, August 18-19, 2018, p. 12

Smethurst, A. Nabbed: Bludgers who pilfered $1.4bn, Sunday Mail, February 11, 2018, p. 2


 



Rejoinder to Anonymous, 'Making Moral Goodness Doable',
Investigator Magazine 183, pp 50-54

(Investigator 185, 2019 March)


I think we are getting somewhere at last!

What Anonymous is talking about, in so far as it involves the effects of one's actions on oneself, is not what I (and, I believe, most others) would call morality/ethics. I regard the promotion of one's own well-being as a matter of prudence, not of morality/ethics.

On the other hand, in so far as Anonymous' theme involves the effects of one's actions on others it is about what I would call morality/ethics. Thus I would agree with Anonymous by answering 'No' to the second question in his section headed 'Get practical' (p 51), and also to the first question in so far as the behaviour in question affects other persons.

Anonymous' notion of ethics is thus broader than mine, in that it includes prudence (self-interest). His notion of ethics is one which was totally unfamiliar to me before this present exchange of views, despite my wide reading etc. in this area. And, even though I think I have now grasped what it is, I still find it bizarre; it runs against my educated-native-speaker grasp of the words morality and ethics.

If I had understood this earlier there would have been much less to say. But I will not myself adopt Anonymous' notion of morality/ethics; from my standpoint, it is confusingly broad and worse. If Anonymous and I discuss this further, we will need to bear in mind our divergent uses of these terms, or perhaps use prefixes or the like (A-ethics vs N-ethics?).

Anonymous did indeed miss my point when he discussed 'doability', probably because he and I have such different understandings of what can and cannot be regarded as a matter of morality/ethics. But I did not say that this discussion, specifically, was 'not coherent', as he suggests. And, if one could accept Anonymous' own view of what can and cannot be regarded as a matter of morality/ethics, his general account of morality/ethics (which was the target of my comment about coherence) would be arguably coherent – and his discussion of 'doability' more relevant. (Given my own view, his account of morality/ethics would indeed be incoherent in part, not in the sense of the word coherent which he rehearses but in the more relevant sense that it would embody a category error.)

I never suggested that the same act might not be both moral (which on most accounts usually involves benefitting others or at least not harming them) and prudential (for oneself). But on my view the prudence is a separate thing from the morality (which Anonymous in his Venn-diagram conceptualisation described on p 51 appears to acknowledge) and prudence is certainly no part of the definition of morality; and many acts might have one feature and not the other (again as Anonymous appears to acknowledge on p 51).  

I am now confused by Anonymous' treatment in this description on p 51 of morality/ethics and benefit as also overlapping, rather than equivalent; but I will not press that point here.

A few points remain to be addressed:

On Anonymous' interpretation of the Bible (p 51), it does not try to define 'moral goodness'. But does he think that it actually says what it is doing when it deals with ethical matters?  I suggest that it does not. So: is he so confident that his own interpretation of the Bible's meta-ethical approach to morality/ethics – which, as I have noted, is a most unusual interpretation of morality/ethics, to say the least – really does represent the thrust of its message, as understood by generalising across the individual cases recounted?

The question of 'what morality actually is' (p 52) is ambiguous: are we talking of meta-ethics (the metaphysical status of ethical statements), or of general principles at a less abstract level which determine whether particular acts are morally good or bad?  (The discussion on p 54 does not resolve this ambiguity.)

Although I now accept that Anonymous has an account (a near-utilitarian one) of what morality is and of which general kinds of acts are moral or immoral as far as the consequences of one's actions for other persons is concerned, his account still appears to require the addition of more specific ethical principles aimed at the resolution of morally contentious issues such as the acceptability or otherwise of abortion. Those who find themselves in doubt on such issues (for Christian believers, this arises especially where no specific and unequivocal injunction is provided in the Bible) will find the need for ethical/meta-ethical theories, which Anonymous (over-optimistically, I suggest) regards as unnecessary for the 'pure-hearted' (p 54) – or else they must be willing to remain in doubt.  

In this context: Is Anonymous saying on pp 53-54 that the 'pure-hearted' (how defined?) will never disagree on morality and will always behave with moral excellence (as judged by him)? This position is very strongly-stated; can it be justified?

Anonymous has still not addressed my points about: a) the fact that obedience to God's commands (as reported in the Bible or extrapolated from same) would not appear advantageous for all, b) the fact that thoughtful non-Christians, including unbelievers or indeed misotheists, can readily come on their own to moral stances similar to those which he cites the Bible as endorsing, c) the fact that some of God's reported decrees involve the arbitrary prohibition of harmless acts, d) the fact that some of God's own reported acts appear far from ethical – all of which undermine his God-based account of morality/ethics.


 



DIVINE COMMAND and UTILITARIANISM

Anonymous

(Investigator 186, 2019, March)


In Investigator 176, Dr Newbrook criticized the ethical position known as "Divine Command":

Either a) the statement that what God says is morally good or bad is thereby to be deemed morally good or bad is a tautology, a matter of definition … or b) treating God's statements/commands on morality as correct and thus as binding involves assessing them against an independent standard of good and evil.

I accepted "b" — God's commands conform to "an independent standard of good and evil":

The Book of Proverbs repeatedly mentions various benefits that generally follow if we base our conduct on the proverbs. The benefits include longer life, better health, prosperity, peaceful relationships, respect from peers, contentment, and success in one's goals. (#178)


UTILITARIANISM

Newbrook noted the similarity with Utilitarianism:

Anonymous' view is that God's decrees about morality are not 'performative' (as if they really did create moral truths) but merely 'informative'; God, with his superior knowledge and wisdom, reports to us on independently existing matters of fact...

I agreed, and explained that intended benefits are not always solely for oneself nor realized fully in the present life:

Furthermore, commands that enhance peoples' lives in one type of society can sometimes kill them in another type. For example, the prohibition on idol worship sometimes got Christians who obeyed it in ancient Rome executed. Important benefits came later when idol worship declined and this in turn promoted the coming of modern science.

Individuals who rejected idolatry therefore set an example that would benefit humankind long after their own deaths. Benefit for themselves was initially psychological, the satisfaction of agreeing with the God who knows best and who would ultimately be vindicated. Any further advantage to executed Christians depends on the validity of their belief in the resurrection.

And here is the crux of the problem, the reason why conclusions in normative ethics and meta-ethics should upon analysis turn out inadequate. The reason is that we cannot calculate the future with accuracy. (#181)

By these words I implied that my position is a variation of Utilitarianism in which Divine command is "informative" and motivational. It is "Informative" because it informs people on what they often cannot calculate, and "motivational" because when they recognize benefits from some commands they can feel confident (by inductive inference) of further benefits from other commands.


ADDITIONAL POINTS

After further discussion in #182 and #184 Newbrook wrote in #185:

Although I now accept that Anonymous has an account (a near-utilitarian one) of what morality is and of which general kinds of acts are moral or immoral as far as the consequences of one's actions for other persons is concerned, his account still appears to require the addition of more specific ethical principles aimed at the resolution of morally contentious issues such as the acceptability or otherwise of abortion. Those who find themselves in doubt on such issues (for Christian believers, this arises especially where no specific and unequivocal injunction is provided in the Bible) will find the need for ethical/meta-ethical theories, which Anonymous (over-optimistically, I suggest) regards as unnecessary for the 'pure-hearted' (p 54) – or else they must be willing to remain in doubt.  

In this context: Is Anonymous saying on pp 53-54 that the 'pure-hearted' (how defined?) will never disagree on morality and will always behave with moral excellence (as judged by him)? This position is very strongly-stated; can it be justified?

Anonymous has still not addressed my points about: a) the fact that obedience to God's commands (as reported in the Bible or extrapolated from same) would not appear advantageous for all, b) the fact that thoughtful non-Christians, including unbelievers or indeed misotheists, can readily come on their own to moral stances similar to those which he cites the Bible as endorsing, c) the fact that some of God's reported decrees involve the arbitrary prohibition of harmless acts, d) the fact that some of God's own reported acts appear far from ethical – all of which undermine his God-based account of morality/ethics. (#185)

The "pure hearted" — who strive to do good out of a caring disposition — may still, due to differences in knowledge and experience, disagree. Furthermore, hypothetical situations can be imagined in which evil cannot be avoided. For example, suppose a student fails an exam and feeling peeved confronts his lecturer with a rapid-fire gun and the ultimatum: "If you kill one other lecturer I'll let everyone else live; if you refuse you will all die."

When no "unequivocal injunction is provided in the Bible", but circumstances make decision necessary, believers might have to estimate for themselves the relative utility of choices confronting them. I still call this "Divine command" instead of "Utilitarianism" because the intention behind Divine command, i.e. to maximize the long-term good, is retained, and the Bible still gets first consideration and independent assessment comes second.

Regarding queries a), b), c) and d):

 (a) Obedience to "Divine command" won't maximize benefits in a demonstrable way on every occasion. Sometimes we have to trust the command and inductively infer its long-term beneficial role. We previously considered cases, such as idol worship and corruption, where Divine command requires believers to set an example that may get them hurt but contributes to social changes that will later enrich the world. The full benefits to the example-setters depend on the Bible being correct about judgment, salvation and eternity.

(b) Unbelievers often conform to biblical morality unknowingly, having worked it out themselves. (Romans 2:15) The downside is that self-reliance will also get many important things wrong.

(c) Commands that prohibit what seems harmless could instead be ahead of their time (as with the prohibitions on idolatry and corruption). They seem arbitrary because scientific discovery may not have caught up with God's greater wisdom.

(d) What about when God's actions appear "far from ethical"? This was considered years ago when Dr Potter and Mr Straughen brought it up. The answer lay in considering broader contexts wherein "God" prevents greater evils than the evils suffered.  


IS DIVINE COMMAND FOR EVERYONE?

Another question by Newbrook not yet answered is:

There are further problems with this metaethical theory. For example, is it really the case that one set of general quasi-ethical rules based on advantage will benefit all? Even within one culture, humans are very diverse; what goes well for one person (psychologically, for instance) may not go at all well for another. (#179)

The New Testament is addressed to believers who ideally undergo conversion and teaching with the result:

For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome... (I John 5:3)

Divine command overlaps with laws enacted by Parliament. The main difference is that the Bible is often more demanding than secular law. This is evident in matters of sexual morality. The Bible opposes all unmarried sex, whereas Western secular laws permit almost everything except rape, sexual harassment, sexual enslavement, and child abuse. Nevertheless, although these remaining secular proscriptions are few and apply to everyone, they are flouted by people in hundreds of millions, causing much suffering.

EFFECTIVE

To demonstrate potential benefits of Divine command I packed previous articles with reports of people who ignored the Bible and caused harm. Here are some more:

•    Sunday Mail: "Facebook culls 2m bully posts...two million abusive posts in three months alone." (November 18, 2018, p. 22)

•    Sunday Mail: "More than 12,000 scams have been reported to Scamwatch by South Australians in the past 11 months." (December 9, 2018, p. 14)

•    Sunday Mail: "... identity fraud is on the rise and one in four Australians have had their personal information misused." (December 30, 2018, p. 9)

•    Sunday Mail: In 2016, "one in six Australians put themselves or others at risk of harm while under the influence of alcohol." (January 20, 2019, p. 21)

•    "45 per cent of principals were threatened with violence in 2018, and 37 per cent were attacked..."
https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-02-27/school-principals-attacked-by-students,-parents-says-acu-report/10850336

•    "women 53% (5 million) [and] men 25% (or 2.2 million) had experienced sexual harassment during their lifetime."
https://www.humanrights.gov.au/our-work/sex-discrimination/ projects/sexual-harassment.htm

•    Sunday Mail: "Impact of Cybercrime... $45 billion+ the cost to Australian businesses in 2017." (April 28, 2019, p. 2)


ONE MORE POINT

Newbrook wrote: "The advantage or otherwise to oneself arising from a given action is one thing; the morality or otherwise of that action is another – even if it should turn out that the two sets of actions largely overlap..." (#179)

To divorce the intended consequences of conduct, whether benefits or injuries, from the notion of morality, would let us (similar to the Nazi leaders and ISIS) ascribed decency and morality to ourselves merely for acting on a flawed and deadly ideology.

If Dr Newbrook can amend his understanding so as to regard law-abiding people who consistently act in ways generally considered good and beneficial, to be moral people acting morally we'd be in agreement.

 



Rejoinder to Anonymous,  'Divine Command and Utilitarianism',
Investigator Magazine 186, pp 24-25, 28-30

Mark Newbrook

(Investigator 187, 2019 July)


Apart from caveats regarding the notion 'law-abiding' (not all laws deserve to be obeyed), it would obviously be difficult to disagree with Anonymous' final paragraph (p 30). And I do not have to 'amend' my understanding of anything in order to agree with him at this point; I myself already agree with him. The fact that Anonymous imagines that I might have to amend my views in order to agree with him suggests that he has still failed to grasp my most major point.  And this interpretation of his words is supported by his totally irrelevant reference to the Nazis and ISIS just above.

I repeat my main point: as I understand the notion of morality/ethics, one's actions can be judged in ethical terms in respect of their consequences for others (and indeed, as Anonymous indicates, these consequences cannot be 'divorced' from such judgments); but the consequences of one's actions for oneself alone, or indeed for any other competent adults who specifically seek or welcome these consequences, cannot be judged in ethical terms. Ethics is irrelevant to them; in these respects one's actions cannot be regarded as either moral or immoral, and one can be under no moral obligation to alter one's behaviour or to seek 'forgiveness' for it.


If Anonymous does not accept this, then he and I really are working with different notions of what counts as morality; and I for my part am not willing to adopt his wider notion, as it clashes with my philosophically-informed native-speaker understanding of the concept of morality. We can still discuss these matters, but each of us needs to bear in mind this basic difference of conceptualisation and usage.

On my understanding of these things, I therefore stand by my view that Anonymous' version of Christian meta-ethics has nothing legitimate to say about the morality of actions inasmuch as they concern oneself or one's willing associates alone. God may tell us, for example, that two unmarried people should not engage in consensual sexual activity, but on Anonymous' account this is purely a piece of advice offered on the basis of prudence as perceived by God (involving factors which exist independently of the pronouncements of God). We may or may not (see below) come to grief if we disregard God's words in such cases – through lack of interest in his words, lack of concern for the consequences of our actions for ourselves, or considered disagreement. But this 'disobedience' cannot be deemed immoral, and there can be no legitimate punishment for 'disobedience' to such pronouncements (as there might possibly be if the pronouncements genuinely had an ethical character, as they do have to the extent that one's actions affect others).

I remain unsure, to say the least, as to whether Anonymous' interpretation of the message of the Bible is actually correct in this respect. The wording used in the Biblical texts generally suggests moral imperative (often with threats of punishment), not prudential advice (God is usually quoted as saying, in so many words, 'You must [not] do X' rather than 'You'd better [not] do X'). And that is certainly the most popular view of Christian meta-ethics. Anonymous might think of seeking to defend his alternative interpretation, and should certainly be more 'up-front' in acknowledging the difference between his ideas and those of most Christians.

Anonymous continues (p 24) to discuss the disadvantages which may arise in some particular societies from obedience to Biblical moral rules – but, as I made clear, this point (while of course valid) is unconnected with my argument that obedience to Biblical moral rules is, as it seems, inherently un-prudential/disadvantageous for some people, because their temperament and feelings clash with these rules.  This was my point (a) in my previous piece, in Investigator 185.

Neither is the threat of future punishment (failing to obtain salvation, etc.), as is implied by Anonymous on p 28, relevant to my point here.  In any case, on my view (as noted) such punishment would itself be an illegitimate and indeed an immoral act on God's part. (The whole idea of a further life after physical death, where salvation might apply if obtained, is of course heavily disputed.  For those who reject it, such as almost all atheists, consideration of the meta-ethical and ethical points in question here must be restricted to physical life.  Naturally, such people might conceivably be mistaken in rejecting the idea of life after physical death, but as far as (meta-)ethics is concerned they can only be expected to 'run with' their existing world-view unless it is shown to be mistaken – and even then they might be uninterested on principle in modifying their behaviour in the hope of salvation or the like; see below on 'misotheism'.)

On p 28 Anonymous urges us to trust God's 'commands' in managing our own lives, but he gives us no adequate moral or even prudential grounds for doing so in cases where these commands appear to be arbitrary and where it seems unlikely that we will come to grief by behaving as we do.  What harm is actually done to us – or indeed to others who are influenced by our behaviour – if we worship idols (stupid as that might be), or engage in consensual non-marital sexual activity with people of the same or the opposite sex?  In this and in some other such cases, the Biblical rules are indeed 'more demanding', as Anonymous states on p 29 – but the extra demands often appear not to be justified, and indeed are burdensome to many (contrary to the quotation provided).  And we cannot reasonably be 'obliged' to give up our harmless activities (gay sex for example) and behave all our lives in ways which do not suit us at all, merely so that we can set an example that supposedly contributes in a general and indirect way to the 'enrichment' of the world.

As far as my point (b) is concerned: on p 28 Anonymous acknowledges that unbelievers can arrive on their own at moral stances similar to those enjoined by the Bible, but claims that they will also 'get many important things wrong'.  It will be clear from my previous para that in my own view unbelievers, who deny the authority of the Bible on such matters, are in general terms just as likely to get things right where the Bible gets them wrong, notably where the Bible makes unjustified demands. For example, they may arrive at the 'liberal' or 'pagan' stance that all actions are morally acceptable unless they actually inflict harm on others or on the world; and this stance appears to have much in its favour.

On my point (c): Anonymous' claim (pp 28-29) amounts to no more than special pleading.  Again, he gives us no grounds for believing that future scientific discoveries will support the Bible's injunctions against acts which currently appear harmless.

On my point (d): again, Anonymous gives us no grounds for believing that God prevents greater evils by himself acting in ways which appear immoral.  In any case, an omnipotent God could surely prevent these greater evils in other, non-harmful ways; on Anonymous' account, he clearly chooses not to do so.  And what good can possibly be achieved, for example, by 'punishing' innocent people for what their now-deceased ancestors did?  

All in all, my points (a)-(d) stand as undermining Anonymous' God-based account of morality/ethics. (But I am glad that Anonymous now acknowledges (p 28) the need for believers to arrive at their own moral judgements in cases, especially complex cases, where they cannot obtain unequivocal injunctions from the Bible.)

It is no secret that I myself am an atheist, and I am glad that I find no reason to believe in a God resembling the God of Anonymous, whom I judge to be self-indulgent (if he existed, he would have had no need to create beings in the human condition), immoral and tyrannical.  If I did come to believe that such a God exists, I would become a 'misotheist' (a 'God-hater') and would adopt and advocate a policy of rebellion against God.  But I am glad that Anonymous and I, despite our very profound differences on this front, can discuss these present matters in a rational and civilised manner.

 



DIVINE COMMAND  and UTILITARIANISM CONTINUED

Anonymous

(Investigator 189, 2019 November)


EUTYPHRO DILEMMA

I'll begin by recalling what's gone before.

In the ancient Greek dialogue Eutyphro, Socrates asks: "Is that which is pious, pious because the gods love it, or do the gods love that which is pious because it is pious?"

We can replace:
•    pious with morally good or morally right, and
•    gods with God or society, and
•    love with command or approve

We then get the question: "Is something morally right because God commands it, or does God command what is morally right because it is morally right?"

In Investigator #177 Dr Mark Newbrook explained:

Either a) the statement that what God says is morally good or bad is thereby to be deemed morally good or bad is a tautology, a matter of definition, with which those with other meta-ethical views might legitimately disagree ("That's not what we mean by 'moral'), or b) treating God's statements/commands on morality as correct and thus as binding involves assessing them against an independent standard of good and evil.

Both Newbrook and I rejected the first alternative:

In my experience, thoughtful Christians very generally accept the view that God actually creates moral truths, i.e. makes actions (etc.) morally good or bad by decree ... but Anonymous and I agree that it does not hold up (in my own view, it embodies a category error). (#179)

The second alternative, that "God commands what is morally right because it is morally right", implies a method of assessing moral rightness independently of God.


INDEPENDENT ASSESSMENT

Although Newbrook and I had agreed, disagreement followed.

The notion of moral rightness that I presented is that biblical standards — now using "biblical standards" as equivalent to "God's commands" — are such as to generally result in benefits if obeyed. The "benefits" include health, long life, respect from peers, prosperity, peace, happiness, contentment, etc, and ultimately "salvation" and eternal life.

Newbrook correctly noted that this is a form of Utilitarianism which Dictionary of Philosophy (2005) defines and explains:

...a moral theory according to which an action is right if and only if it conforms to the principal of utility... An action conforms to the principal of utility if and only if its performance will be more productive of pleasure or happiness, or more preventative of pain or unhappiness, than any alternative. Instead of 'pleasure' and 'happiness', the word 'welfare' is also apt: the value of the consequences of an action is determined solely by the welfare of individuals. (p. 636)

Humans, I argued, often cannot work out the actions that will benefit themselves and others, or how to balance immediate benefits against future benefits. God's commands, therefore, are informative/educational, telling us what we otherwise have to guess.

An example is the Bible's story about Eden. The first humans were commanded to not eat from a particular tree because eating from it would kill them. (Genesis 2 & 3) The command was utilitarian (for human benefit), and informative (since the humans could not have worked it out), and it was, according to Genesis, God's command.

My replies to Newbrook cited many newspaper reports about people who acted contrary to God's commands and ended in prison, in poverty, in despair or dead, and/or their victims did. I picked mainly people of high position and education to show that even superior people cannot consistently work out and follow beneficial standards.


SOME MORE REPLIES

I failed to convince Newbrook that biblical standards are beneficial, therefore finished my article in #186 in general terms:

If Dr Newbrook can amend his understanding so as to regard law-abiding people who consistently act in ways generally considered good and beneficial, to be moral people acting morally we'd be in agreement.

Newbrook at last found disagreement "difficult":

Apart from caveats regarding the notion 'law-abiding' (not all laws deserve to be obeyed), it would obviously be difficult to disagree with Anonymous' final paragraph (p 30). And I do not have to 'amend' my understanding of anything in order to agree with him at this point... (#187)

Newbrook next repeated his "main point":

...one's actions can be judged in ethical terms in respect of their consequences for others ... but the consequences of one's actions for oneself alone, or indeed for other competent adults who specifically seek or welcome these consequences, cannot be judged in ethical terms. Ethics is irrelevant to them; in these respects one's actions cannot be regarded as either moral or immoral, and one can be under no moral obligation to alter one's behaviour or to seek 'forgiveness' for it...

And we cannot reasonably be 'obliged' to give up our harmless activities (gay sex for example) and behave all our lives in ways which do not suit us at all, merely so that we can set an example that supposedly contributes in a general and indirect way to the 'enrichment' of the world...

Newbrook is saying that behavior that does not hurt others and the consequences of which the competent doer welcomes for himself is OK — it's neither moral nor immoral. He implies that some biblical commands prohibit what is harmless and are therefore arbitrary:

However, my standpoint that God's commands are utilitarian implies that the consequences of flouting those commands are indeed hurtful in the long run, and if foreseen by "competent adults" might not be welcomed.

Newbrook adds:

Anonymous ... gives us no grounds that future scientific discoveries will support the Bible's injunctions against acts which currently seem harmless.

Our disagreement at this stage is empirical. Settling it involves examining biblical commands one at a time for their likely effect on health, longevity, prosperity, soundness of mind, and the future of civilization and planet Earth.

Consider immorality: There's emotional trauma; negative impacts on people's assets; and 1.5 billion cases of sexually transmitted disease per year. Worse consequences were prevented by antibiotics but that could change if "superbugs" evolve faster than science discovers methods to destroy them. When AIDS became widespread it killed immoral people including practicing homosexuals by millions.

Consider bribery: That bribery in politics, justice and commerce slows the economic growth of nations became knowledge in the 20th century. ("The Bible Versus Corruption" #173) Now that this is known it supports the Bible's prior injunctions against bribery as being injunctions for our benefit.

Both immorality and bribery have inflicted horrific financial loss on all nations. This brings up the question of "opportunity costs" — wealth wasted on bad conduct means lost opportunities because it is unavailable for other things. On a worldwide scale the costs of evil conduct, or what the Bible calls evil, may leave the human race unready to prevent climate change or deflect a world-threatening asteroid. Both immorality and bribery therefore are harmful in ways people didn't even anticipate.

Confirming biblical ethics sometimes requires generalizing from past to future i.e. reasoning inductively. The Bible has often turned out correct in its moral, scientific and historical statements, from which we can inductively anticipate more confirmations in the future.

Newbrook points out:

The wording used in the Biblical texts generally suggests moral imperatives (often with threats of punishment), not prudential advice (God is usually quoted as saying, in so many words, 'You must [not] do X' rather than 'You'd better [not] do X').  

Australian law does similar. It defines dangerous, lethal, fraudulent, and unfair actions, and also inaction or negligence, and stipulates penalties. People who want to definitely avoid the penalties "must" do as the law says although the word "must" is rarely employed. Australian law also avoids the word "prudent" although to avoid penalties it is prudent to observe the law.

The Book of Proverbs speaks in terms of "wisdom" rather than morality, and informs readers of conduct that is "wise" because of benefits it brings.

Newbrook also queries biblical teaching of "future punishment". Obedience to biblical standards is supposed to be motivated by "love of God" and by the benefits, not by fear of punishment. However, this would take us outside of the topic of Divine command as a valid ethical theory.

Newbrook says there are: "no grounds for believing that God prevents greater evils by himself acting in ways which appear immoral. In any case, an omnipotent God could surely prevent these evils in other, non-harmful ways..." We touched on this topic years ago when arguing about why there is evil if God is both good and powerful and I may elaborate another time.
 

CONCLUSION

Whenever we hear of serious crime such as "Ex-union boss gets six years for rape" (The Weekend Australia: February 23-24, 2019) it's certain that the criminal ignored "God's commands".

I linked God's commands to Utilitarianism — what is right is whatever is beneficial and does good.

I answered the "Euthyphro dilemma" with the biblical point that God's commands are informative. They inform people on what they often can't work out, i.e. the conduct and standards that are ultimately beneficial. My general statement with which Newbrook found it hard to disagree expressed this as, "law-abiding people who consistently act in ways generally considered good and beneficial, are moral people acting morally".  

I thank Dr Newbrook for his many helpful comments.





 

Rejoinder to Anonymous, 'Divine Command and Utilitarianism Continued',
Investigator Magazine 189, pp 11-15

(Investigator 190, 2020 January)


It is encouraging that Anonymous and I do agree on a number of important issues, including our rejection of the solution most commonly offered by religious believers to the 'Euthyphro Dilemma'.

Another of Anonymous' points with which (as I said before) I agree is his point that 'moral' behaviour in one's relations with others (including obeying the law except where the law itself is clearly immoral) is behaviour of a type which generally has beneficial consequences. But this is not a position that I came to 'at last'; I would never have disputed Anonymous' point here. So I repeat that his comment about my (actually or possibly) 'amending' my understanding is irrelevant to the issues that continue to separate us. He must not imagine that he has induced me to change my mind here.

What certainly is relevant is my view that morality is not in question where one's actions affect only oneself (or other competent adults who are happy to be so affected).  Anonymous obviously still disagrees with me here, and he now attempts to justify his stance in empirical terms, by supporting his view that it is reasonable to expect that future advancements of knowledge will demonstrate that some actions which are at present deemed harmless are in fact harmful and are therefore rightly proscribed by God. In fact, he argues that it is already clear that some such actions are harmful. But he has failed to convince me of this, and more particularly he has failed (as he notes) to convince me that biblical standards of morality, specifically, are systematically beneficial to all or fair.

And the examples which Anonymous uses here in attempting to justify his stance do not actually help his case. Firstly: bribery usually involves not only the one who bribes, nor even only the one who bribes and the person who is bribed, but also those who suffer unfairly as a consequence of bribes being taken, and arguably entire communities.  In respect of such cases, I have at no stage disagreed with Anonymous, and I do not think many would. Bribery, as normally understood, is clearly not harmless to others. Whether or not it harms the one who bribes – which would relate to my main current disagreement with Anonymous – is thus irrelevant.

Anonymous' other example involves 'immorality'; but the question of whether an act should or should not be deemed immoral is precisely what we are discussing. Anonymous seems here to be, to a degree, 'begging the question'. He refers to 'immoral people including practising homosexuals'.  I am not sure whether he means here to label as 'immoral' all practising homosexuals or only some practising homosexuals, presumably those whose promiscuous lifestyles and carelessness with 'protection' expose them (and their partners) to illnesses such as AIDS. (I grant that Anonymous words do not exclude heterosexuals from being labelled 'immoral' in this context, but he does not discuss heterosexual activity here.) Now some non-promiscuous homosexuals – and heterosexuals – have contracted AIDS through bad luck.  But in any case I do not see how homosexuality per se can be labelled 'immoral' without argument (many homosexuals are caring and faithful to their partners). And even promiscuity is not always transparently immoral. In this context, indeed, I suggest that promiscuity is not immoral unless one's sexual partners are being deceived or one is recklessly or knowingly infecting others once one knows that one has the AIDS virus or some other STD.

Indeed, I urge once again that people cannot reasonably be 'obliged' to give up their normally harmless activities (gay sex, for example) and behave all their lives in ways which do not suit them at all, merely because God disapproves of what they do, perhaps because certain risks are increased for others by the lifestyle in question combined with carelessness.  On this interpretation, in fact, heterosexual activity could also be deemed immoral and needing to be avoided, because it too may involve the spreading of deadly diseases (including AIDS) and (unlike gay sex) may also lead to unplanned pregnancy with all the ensuing moral dilemmas and troublesome consequences.

In any case: my claim that it is not reasonable to expect that future advancements of knowledge will demonstrate that actions at present deemed harmless are in fact harmful was only part of my case against Anonymous, and indeed by no means the most important part.  Even if it were indeed shown that various actions at present deemed harmless are in fact harmful to the person performing the action, this would still not overthrow my own view of the scope of morality.  As I see it, people are free to harm (or even kill) themselves if they so decide, as long as no unwilling parties are genuinely harmed thereby, and such actions cannot be regarded as immoral – or indeed as positively moral – as I understand the notion of morality. Morality simply does not apply in such cases.

If Anonymous still rejects this position, I think we are at an impasse.  Our ideas of what does and does not come under the scope of morality (however defined) are deeply different.  (But at least we now know this.)

I grant, of course, that if it were shown that actions which are at present considered to have no effect on other (unwilling) parties are in fact harmful to other parties these actions would now come under the scope of morality.  But in most cases this appears unlikely.  For example, what harm could idol-worship per se possibly do to other (unwilling) parties?

Anonymous' paragraph about the parallels between biblical wording on morality and the wording of legal codes supports my view that his interpretation of biblical morality in terms of prudence is mistaken, or at least involves an odd focus.  Much of the time, as I noted, the God of the Bible talks like a law-giver.  But, conceptually speaking, morality is one thing and law is another – especially, I would urge, where the actions in question are private and affect no unwilling party. (And in my view prudence is yet a third thing.)

I stand by my point that some of God's own reported acts, notably (but not solely) his threats to 'punish' innocent parties, appear far from ethical. Together with my other points, this fatally undermines any account of morality/ethics based on the God of the Bible, who is represented as an immoral and indeed a most unpleasant character.

Indeed, Anonymous has not been able to convince me to retreat from any of my previous claims. But I am glad that our discussion has been so civil.




"Anonymous" has defended the Bible in Investigator Magazine for about 30 years. Most of his articles are on this website:


http://users.adam.com.au/bstett/

http://ed5015.tripod.com/