Response to John Loftus on the Problem of Evil Part 6 of 7: Loftus’ “Atheistic Ethic”

John Loftus’ Atheistic Ethic

In our exchange, Loftus offered up this series of articles in response to my three-question challenge to (1) affirm or deny his belief in objective morality and (2) either account for evil on his own worldview if he affirms, or (3) show an internal inconsistency in the Christian defense against his use of the problem of evil if he denies.  He claimed after having posted a link to this series that he had “answered” my questions.  We’ll look at the series, focusing on areas that might be relevant to the questions I asked.

The series is written in seven parts, and, in the interest of brevity (which I’ve hardly focused on up to this point!), I’ll pass over responding to those areas that don’t address the issue at hand.  For example, part 1 of the series is not about his ethic at all, but is a rebuttal of the Christian ethic, as Loftus sees it.  No positive presentation of his ethic except to point out that it’s not the same as what he considers the Christian ethic to be.  I think he’s misrepresenting the Christian ethic, and I will illustrate that as I look at his positive presentation for his own ethic, so I won’t spend any more time here on part 1 except to point out one quote.

I’m also going to try to answer as many objections as I can, and offer some reasonable test case scenario’s to show how this ethic can and does describe what we in fact do, and what we ought to do. (emphasis mine)

For Loftus to claim that his ethic tells us what we “ought” to do, is ambiguous.  Does he mean that he will give us some basis upon which to say that his ethical system is the morally correct one?  Or does he only mean to say that his ethical system tells us what we ought to do if we think that it’s the right one.  Case in point, will it tell me why I as a Christian ought to do what his ethic says to do, or will it merely build a case for why his system’s “command” statements are consistent with his own starting point?  If it answers the former of these two either/or questions, then it is claiming to be objectively true.  If this is so, then Loftus must account for his belief in his own objective moral truths.  If it only answers the latter question in these either/or questions, then it is merely another ethical system to add to the list with utilitarianism, Epicureanism, and the like.

I have my suspicions about which of these two types of questions Loftus hopes to answer, but he is vague about it.  If it’s only the second type of question, then Loftus answers it again and again, clearly and unambiguously.  I suspect, however, that he hopes to answer the first type of question, and we will examine his ethic to see if it really does.

Part 7 is really just a recap, so I’ll also skip that section.

Part 3 is mainly devoted to Ecclesiastes as a bit of a side-note, so we’ll skip that, too, to stay focused.

That leaves parts 2, 4, 5, and 6 that really contain Loftus’ case for his atheistic ethic.  I’ll try to present Loftus’ ethic as it is, and save my comments and rebuttals until the end, as much as possible.

The root of Loftus’ ethic is what he calls “rational self-interest”.  He appeals to this because he says he wants “an ethic based upon some solid evidence about who we are as human beings and why we act the way we do.” (part 2)  The ultimate goal of his ethic is happiness. The things that make us happy are “…power, love, friendship, riches, health, freedom, significance, importance, self-esteem, affirmation, approval, knowledge, understanding, long life, safety, good looks, sex, and so forth. We want enough challenges to make us strong and enough pleasures to motivate us to continue wanting to live. These things are undeniable, in my opinion. They are obvious.” (part 2) So, the basis is the way people act.  He argues that this is not what the Christian ethic does (part 1), but that this is what everyone, including Christians, in fact do.  Loftus claims that those who do not pursue rational self-interested goals are being irrational.

I should say at this point that his description of what people do and why they do it seems true enough to me.  I agree that most people do pursue happiness through the means he describes, even Christians.  In fact, I think that, for the most part, his ethic is completely compatible with Christianity.  In part 1, he claims that the Christian ethic is “fundamentally” self-denying.  I disagree.  The Bible repeatedly appeals to our desires for happiness and security, saying that we should “store up treasures in heaven”. (Matt. 6:20-21) Self-denial in Christianity is not the foundation, but the means to an end that is even more happy than what we can hope to achieve if we pursue happiness as our primary goal here and now.  Self-denial in itself is also condemned as useless:

If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations– “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)–according to human precepts and teachings?  These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (Colossians 2:20-23)

So, self-denial is not a goal in itself.  God has made us in order to express His glory in a relationship with Him and to find happiness in Him.  We can pursue other sources of happiness, and they are not necessarily evil, but only by having eternal life can we be truly, ultimately happy.

This being said, there is a lot to argue with in Loftus’ atheistic ethic, mostly in how he contrasts it with the Christian ethic.  But my purpose is more focused here than pointing out every small error.  I’m interested in how he answers my three questions.

It seems to me that there are four separate issues that all ethical systems answer or seek to answer.

1. What do people do?

2. Why do people do it?

3. What should people do?

4. Why should people do it?

Every ethical system will have almost the same answer to the first question.  On the second, there might be some slight disagreement.  For example, Loftus might say that the reason someone does something “wrong” is that he is being irrational, whereas a Christian might point to sinful nature.  I say it is a slight disagreement because the Christian would affirm that immorality is irrational as much as Loftus.  Christians would just add what they believe to be a more basic cause.  The second two questions are the ones I treated in my article on ethics and objective morality.  The fact is that in most cases, most ethical systems would also agree on the third questions.  Most ethical systems condemn murder, incest, rape, theft, and dishonesty.  The only question that finds any significant disagreement between ethical systems is the last question.  And, actually, in almost any case where they disagree on the third question, that disagreement can be traced back to a difference on the fourth question.  Why should people do what an ethical system says?

I would say that Loftus’ articles answer the first two questions well, perhaps better than most writings I’ve read on the subject.  Unfortunately, his answers to the third and fourth questions are at best unhelpful.  Why do I say this?  Unsurprisingly, Loftus’ system, much like most systems that do not contain any direct commands, does not answer the third question directly.  He does say:

I claim that the advantages will never outweight (sic) the disadvantages in unlawfully and unjustly killing someone, period. Give me a scenario and I doubt that rational self-interest will ever conclude the right thing to do is to kill someone (except in self-defense). My position is that people who kill are not acting rationally. (part 6)

Of course, Christians would agree.  Earlier, Loftus says this: 

Since I’m arguing that every human being is motivated to act from self-interest, then if these conditions obtain for someone, they will therefore kill. And it doesn’t matter what a person’s religious or non-religious beliefs are at that point, because these beliefs also factor into whether the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. Whether one is a Christian or not, people will kill under these circumstances. (part 6)

If Loftus thinks that this shows a great difference between his ethic and the Christian ethic, then he’s badly misinformed about the Christian ethic.  The only difference between his position and the Christian’s is that the Christian has a wider range of advantages and disadvantages to consider.  The Christian has the righteous Judge of the universe to take into account.

The key question for any ethical system is that fourth question.  Why should someone do what Loftus’ ethic says he should?  Loftus’ answer, as we’ve seen, is twofold:  First, everyone wants to be happy and pursues the things on Loftus’ list to do so.  Second, doing so is rational, while not doing so is irrational.

So, rationality seems to be the “ground” of Loftus’ ethic.  If we don’t pursue what he says, then we’re irrational.  I’ve already pointed out that, fundamentally, according to Loftus’ argument, Christians have a rational ethic, even though he claims they don’t.  So, everyone wants to be happy, and every rational person pursues that happiness through whatever he believes will bring it to him.

Does this adequately answer the question of why someone should adopt Loftus’ ethic over some other?  That really is the practical meaning of that fourth question.  Why should someone adopt one ethic over another?  There may be many reasons given as an answer to this question.  Loftus’ answer is that his ethic is rational.  But is there any moral reason to adopt Loftus’ ethic?  Is his ethic morally right?  Does it accurately encompass objective moral truth?  These are all ways of asking the same question.  And it is important to note that an answer to this question cannot be simply that his ethic is “rational”.  This question goes further than that.  One could ask, “is rationality morally required of anyone who is capable of it?”  Notice that Loftus does not answer this question anywhere in his ethic.  So, his ethic, like many others, becomes merely a way of pursuing happiness.  No moral imperatives can be derived from it, only conditional imperatives. “If you want to be truly happy, don’t kill, steal, etc.”  I submit that, even if these conditional imperatives are true, you still don’t have a real moral or ethical system, just a pragmatic one.

It was David Hume who said that you can’t derive an “ought” from an “is”.  What this means is that no imperative statements or moral commands can be derived from statements about how the world is.  The only imperatives that you can derive are conditional, not moral.  You just can’t get moral imperatives unless you start with moral imperatives.  For Hume and many other skeptics, this has meant that you just can’t get moral imperatives, period.  For the Christian, it means that, without a morally perfect God who issues moral imperatives, you can’t get moral imperatives.

Basically, Loftus’ ethic boils down to a form of Epicureanism, the pursuit of the maximization of pleasure and the minimization of pain over time.  Loftus speaks of a “life plan”. (part 7)  Epicurus didn’t believe in pursuing fleeting pleasures without counting the cost, and neither does Loftus.  It’s just that neither Epicurus nor Loftus offers any reason why someone should be morally obligated to follow his ethic.

It is for this reason that Loftus’ atheistic ethic does not answer the first of my three questions, “Do you, yourself, believe in objective morality?”  As such, it does not, of course, answer the second question, “If you do, then how do you account for it on a naturalistic worldview?”  Loftus seems to be attempting to answer this second question when he appeals to rationality, but, as we’ve seen, that doesn’t get you to morality.  Without getting to a real, moral “ought”, Loftus can only say, “If you want X (to be rational, to be happy), you should do this…”  I’ll go into the issue of whether Loftus really believes in objective morality later, but this is enough to show that his “atheistic ethic” does not answer the question of objective morality for just the same reason that most other ethical systems do not.  They offer a list of imperatives and a rationale for those imperatives, but not a moral rationale.

So, to sum up, the “Atheistic Ethic” makes an attempt to ground morality, which shows, at least, that Loftus wants to affirm some kind of objective morality.  But since it doesn’t succeed in doing so, Loftus’ ethic ends up as just another way to express Epicurus’ opinions about what people should do if they want to be happy.

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4 thoughts on “Response to John Loftus on the Problem of Evil Part 6 of 7: Loftus’ “Atheistic Ethic””

  1. Drew says…<>Loftus can only say, “If you want X (to be rational, to be happy), you should do this…”<>Actually I say more than this. I argue you do not have a superior moral foundation in chapter 2 of my book. So we’re in the same boat when it comes to ethics, except I don’t have to gerrymander around the hideous things we find in the OT, and I don’t have to explain away the evidence of good morally decent non-Christians in the world down through history. Think of it this way. If you came to the conclusion that God didn’t exist then all you have left is what makes people happy within an over-all life plan. Put your “no God” glasses on for a second. If you no longer believed would you kill your dog, your kids your wife and mother? Would you do this even if you knew you would not get caught?Nevermind. I should never ask a question that I don’t already know how you will answer. But I’m here to tell you that I don’t and I won’t. I like people. I always will. They make this short blip of existence pleasurable. And I cannot do this to strangers either, because I cannot turn morality on and off like a faucett without it changing me. So I refrain in the interests of having a pleasurable life with friends and family. Surley you can understand this, and if you can at least understand this then you should be able to understand that I do not need an absolute objective standard for morality to live a decent law abiding pleasurable life, which is what I am doing, rationally.

  2. So, John, your appeal falls to “If God didn’t exist, surely you would still behave reasonably well!” Keep in mind that the evidence of “morally decent non-Christians” hardly ever amounts to “morally decent non-religious” or even “morally decent non-theists”. And of the modern examples of supposed morally decent non-theists, they tend to be such within the context of historically religion or theism-influenced states and cultures – and are actively hoping to change both. Just look at Peter Singer for the most common example.Your response to “What reason should we act this way under your system?” amounts to “Just do it, come on man! Surely people who don’t think there’s any objective morality won’t be prone to anything too horrible!”Good God. You’re either naive or fundamentally dishonest. You love to tell people to put their “no God” glasses on, but the one person who clearly has never done so and peered through the lenses for awhile is you.

  3. Roger, you need a basic history lesson about the many cultures throughout history that never had any Christian influence at all…at all! See the last chapter in my book.Cheers.

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