Thursday, October 08, 2009


Materialism and Morality: If the One, Then How the Other?

At today’s Uncommon Descent, attorney Barry Arrington posed a couple of intriguing questions in his post "Child Rape in a Materialist World ":

Here’s today’s question: “Is it wrong in all times and at all places (even Hollywood) for a 44 year-old man to drug, rape and sodomize a 13 year-old girl?”

For our materialist friends who answer “yes” to the question (as I hope you will), I have a follow-up question: “How can you know that you are right and Polanski’s defenders are wrong?”

In no short order, he received a number of responses (65 as of the time of this post). Most respondents simply got themselves distracted with the wrong question, namely, whether or not such a thing is wrong, which only answers the first question and ignores the second, such as in this response:

Even if the legal age of consent was 13, rape is still rape and a violation of the victim’s right to liberty. I don’t see how anyone could defend Polanski of the young woman was 20, never mind 13!

To which I reply: of course it’s wrong. That’s not the issue. The issue is whether a materialist—that is, one who believes that the universe can be explained strictly in terms of the matter which comprises it, and that appeals to supernatural forces such as God are at best unnecessary and at worst completely false—having answered “yes” to the first question, can adequately explain how he KNOWS he is right and that Polanski’s defenders are wrong. In other words, can the materialist come up with an adequate rationale for saying that the rape of a 13-year-old is absolutely wrong without making an appeal to any non-materialist force such as God?

The answer is: Nope. He can’t, no matter how hard he tries or how refined his argument.

Here’s BA’s assessment:

After reviewing nearly two dozen comments, the response from the materialists was exactly as I predicted: When confronted with the ethical poverty of their worldview, they instinctively attempt to change the subject. I will not allow it. Some of the braver materialists [including a functional materialist who claims to be a diest], have attempted to defend their ethics. However, NOT ONE OF THEM has even attempted to answer the last question I posed. Their silence speaks volumes.

Never mind that he misspelled “deist.” His assessment is 100% spot-on correct. No one ever answered the question.

Instead, all they had to offer were various rhetorical strategies, such as:

1. Pretending the question is invalid:

How many times can you ask an atheist “where do you get your ethical guidelines if you have no ultimate moral framework (ie the Abrahamic god)to hang them on??” before you get tired of it and move on.

[Answer: we’ll keep asking until either we get an answer or the materialist realizes his ethical guidelines are illusory, in which case he has no adequate response even for the first question, let alone the second.]

2. Answering with a non-sequitur (in this case, proffering a legal, emotional, or teleologic (ends-oriented) rationale rather than a moral or ethical one):

Because the society in which I and Polanski (at the time) live in define it as such. Had Polanski lived in 6th century Arabia, he probably would have been treated differently, no?

[Anyone who responds “yes” to the first question has already acknowledged that raping a child is bad “in all times and at all places.” The 6th century and Arabia are not germane to the second question.]


1. US laws are very clear on this. He broke laws. I think it’s sick how people are defending him and wanting to let him off the hook.
2. Empathy. I have a daughter, a mother, a wife and a sister, etc. Something like this would have ruined their lives, so it’s easy to assume this made the 13 year old’s life very hard. (not to mention how her parents must have felt)
3. Logic. His actions had negative consequences toward himself and a non-developed human. (a child)

[If rape is always bad, then the issue is one of morality, not of laws or ethics or even logic. Laws can be changed. One person may feel empathy to the rape victim; others not (the rapist, for example). What is logical to one individual may not be logical to the other. “Wrong at all times and in all places” means always and everywhere, without exception or a differing point of view.]

3. Begging the question:

because, by acting without consent, he violated her liberty.

[The theist can say the girl has liberty because it is an unalienable right endowed to her by her Creator. The materialist, however, can't use that argument; he has to explain how liberty is something that she HAS intrinsically, given a material universe. Saying that she has liberty is simple bluster, which begs the question of how the materialist KNOWS that Polanski’s defenders are wrong.]


Lets say I’m a atheist materialist that favors property rights. No god, I just like my stuff. The first and foremost property is one’s own body. Violations to that right (and particularly minors who are less able to defend their right) should be prosecuted.

[Uh-huh. And by what materialistic principle can we claim that the first and foremost property is one’s own body? How can we, as material entities, “own” ourselves, or, for that matter, any part of the universe? One sort of material owns another sort of material? By what logic? And how does the one sort of material have property rights, while the other sort of material doesn’t? Doesn’t the other sort of material have a right NOT to be owned? Human beings claim that right, so why can’t a waterfall or a grassy meadow?]


In practice we cope by appealing to common grounds such as fairness and compassion. If we tried to solve ethical problems by agreeing the fundamentals [sic] of morality then no ethical disputes would ever get settled.

[Well, in that case, no ethical disputes ARE ever settled. We just think they are. So maybe we just think that Polanski did a bad thing, and maybe we’re wrong. And, by the way, how does matter explain the existence of fairness and compassion?]

4. Changing the subject:

I have followed the ongoing discussion, spread now over 4 blog posts, and I never saw any of the materialists supporting sexual slavery or pedophilia.

[Any materialist who supports sexual slavery and pedophilia has already answered “no” to the first question and therefore is not being asked to answer the second. It’s those materialists who DON’T support sexual slavery or pedophilia that concern us here. At any rate, the question is NOT whether materialists support slavery or pedophilia; the issue is: can the materialist formulate an argument showing that Polanski's defenders are wrong? It's a red herring to say you've never seen materialists supporting slavery.]


Given that the Bible has this piece of advice…

[Just because you think the Bible is wrong, that doesn’t mean you’re right. Answer the question, please.]


May I remind you that Mohamed…

[Just because you think Mohammed etc, etc.]

5. Fluffy non-answers:

I struggle to think of extenuating circumstances. I guess it depends on what happens if he doesn’t. Imagine a scenario if an evil tyrant will nuke New York if doesn’t.

["Guess?" That's an argument? Secondly, even if you truly believe that someone might choose to rape a child in hopes of preventing some evil tyrant from nuking New York, that’s only saying that the end justifies the means. The question is not whether the rape may be justified; the question is whether the rape can be considered absolutely immoral. Even to save a life, the rape itself is still bad. And then there's the more telling point, to quote Inspector Sidney Wang from “Murder by Death,”: “Is stupid. Is most stupid theory I ever heard! HA!]


My answer is that most people have a natural moral compass that helps them decide, and there seems to be considerable overlap between the compasses of different people from a wide variety of cultures and backgrounds.

[“Considerable overlap” is no means of establishing an ethos.]


Since morality is a subjective term…

[Ditto my previous reply.]


When we refer to an action as good or right we are blending an implied description of the facts of the case with an exhortation to others to do similar things and applause for the doer – plus other elements.

[Exhort all you want. I’m sure, had Roman Polanski been on the phone with his attorney while raping a 13-year-old, his attorney would have exhorted him to cease and desist. It’s still up to Polanski to heed the exhortation or to ignore it. Are you saying Polanski’s rape of a child was permissible, so long as no one exhorted him not to? Otherwise, how is the exhortation even relevant to the moral issue of whether rape is ever permissible?]

In summary: In every case, no materialist was ever able to answer the question adequately. The reason is: a materialist CAN’T answer the question adequately, because the only possible way of answering it is to speak in terms of moral absolutes; to say ABSOLUTELY that the rape of a 13-year-old is wrong and is ALWAYS wrong, regardless of whether society condones such a thing, or our laws forbid it, or what the Bible or Mohammed have to say, or if we have a "natural moral compass" (whatever that is). Appeals to legal codes or social mores are inadequate precisely because of their fluidity: what is legal or socially acceptable in one part of the world can be illegal or socially unacceptable elsewhere, or in other times in our history. A prime example would be slavery. Is slavery right or wrong? The legalist can only say that slavery is wrong because at present it is illegal. But slavery WAS legal in the United States in 1832. Was it right then? Oh yeah, who says?

And poor Roman Polanski! Had he only drugged, raped and sodomized a 13-year-old in some society where that sort of thing is acceptable or there weren’t any legal codes forbidding it. Then he’s be off scot-free.

Materialists can’t appeal to moral absolutism, because this implies the existence of You-Know-Who (or some other cosmic, supernatural entity like Wotan or Baal or Allah or the Flying Spaghetti Monster), a supreme authority of what is right and what is wrong. As Norman Geisler put it in his essay “Any Absolutes? Absolutely!”, “Only an ethic rooted in a Moral Law-Giver can be truly prescriptive in any objective sense of the word. A descriptive ethic is no ethic at all.”

Score one for Norman Geisler. Zero for the materialists.

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