Anderson holds that “the most important value judgments we make in life are moral judgments,” adding that “we make decisions based on moral values, and we make moral judgments about other people’s decisions and actions” (pp. 110-111).
We believe that some actions are good and right, while others are bad and wrong - in some cases even wicked and evil. Some of these moral judgments are based on subjective tastes or personal interests, but many times they aren’t. They’re objective moral judgments. (p. 111)
When we agree that it’s wrong what the Nazis did to the Jews, or what the Islamic State has done to innocent civilians in Iraq and Syria, we don’t mean merely that it’s wrong for us (and by implication, not wrong for them). No, we mean that it’s morally wrong period. It’s not just a matter of different personal preferences or cultural traditions. What these murderous people have done is objectively immoral. Indeed, it’s absolutely immoral. (Ibid.)
Also, I find Anderson’s passing reference here to “innocent civilians” rather difficult to integrate with what I know about Christian teachings, especially Anderson’s own brand of Calvinism. From the Christian point of view, who alive today could possibly be considered “innocent”? Isn’t it the case that sin passed to everyone and that everyone is guilty, deserving of hellfire, and in need of salvation? That’s what we learn in Romans chapter 5. Indeed, its author, the apostle Paul, writes that he was the foremost among sinners (cf. I Tim. 1:15), which strikes me as an early example of virtue-signaling to the in-crowd.
But there seems to be an object lesson in the making here. If we apply the “logic” which William Lane Craig presented to defend the bible against the charge of genocide, we very well might not have the judgment that what the Islamic State has done to the people Anderson has in mind was at all wrong, but rather acts of righteousness. Presumably Anderson would agree with Craig that “when [God] issues commands to us, they become our moral duties.” Thus, if the Christian god has determined that certain groups of human beings be exterminated (and what more righteous determination is even conceivable than that which is decreed by the Christian god?), the Islamic State may very well be the instrument which it selects to accomplish that goal, just as “Israel and the armies of Israel became in effect the instrument by which God judged these Canaanite peoples.” Indeed, I’ve never observed any Christian lamenting what happened to any “innocent civilians” among the Canaanites massacred by the Israelites. And yet we’re to believe that all this double-speak is somehow emblematic of the source and standard of perfect moral goodness?
The moment we say that [i.e., that murderous actions are objectively immoral], however, we’re assuming there are moral standards that are objective and absolute. We’re presupposing there are moral laws which transcend human individuals and human societies. (WSIBC, p. 111)
Let’s explore this a bit further. Dictionary.com defines ‘transcend’ as follows:
 to rise above or go beyond; overpass; exceed: to transcend the limits of thought; kindness transcends courtesy.  to outdo or exceed in excellence, elevation, extent, degree, etc.; surpass; excel.  Theology. (of the Deity) to be above and independent of (the universe, time, etc.).
Often the word “transcend” is used to drag our attention away from what’s important rather than to what really is important, sometimes concealing intentions destructive to human values in the process. For instance, Stephen Kotkin, in his 1995 book Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization, points out that for the Soviets, “Socialism represented nothing less than the full transcendence of capitalism” (p. 30) where “the transcendence of capitalism was the vague but grand goal” (p. 108) behind the central planning characteristic of Soviet totalitarianism. In fact, there was a moral dimension to this which the Soviet leadership leveraged to their ideological advantage by means of characterizing the rationing of living space as an “unavoidable situation… heralded as a new model for human relationships which would transcend selfish individualism” (p. 158), where “selfish individualism” was identified as a key essential to capitalism and thus a virtue to be maligned and persecuted.
If one is going to claim that moral standards point to some alleged world beyond the one in which human beings reside, it would be incumbent upon him first to establish the existence of said alleged world and then explain how the moral standards he has in mind in fact point to that world instead of the one in which we reside. To forego this step and instead attempt to argue for the existence of said alleged world by characterizing moral standards as necessitating such a realm, raises the suspicion that an argument ad ignorantiam is being deployed. E.g., “I have no idea how one can account for moral standards by reference to this world, so they must be evidence of something beyond the universe.” And from there it devolves into an orgy of circular backside-grabbing from there.
On the other hand, if morality has an objective basis, then morality cannot have its basis in something that is merely imaginary. Rather, its basis must be factual, and the facts which provide the objective basis for morality must be relevant to man’s nature and the reasons why he needs morality in the first place. If we ask the question “Does man need morality?” and answer with “Yes, he does need morality,” the next question is “Why does man need morality?” So not only does morality, to be objective, need to have its basis in facts relevant to man’s nature and the reasons why he needs morality, those facts need to be discoverable and knowable by man given the nature of his consciousness.
If one seeks to explain the basis of morality by characterizing moral laws as “transcend[ing] human individuals and human societies,” how does that direct our attention to facts that are relevant to our need for morality? It doesn’t.
But suppose one claims that why man needs morality is irrelevant to what it is, to its basis, to its objective nature. What then does he consider morality to be? Do we hold that why we need something is irrelevant to what it is, what it does, and why we have it in the first place? Do we do think that way when it comes to buildings, automobiles, books, street lights, bug spray, washing machines, kitchenware, musical instruments, doorknobs, etc.? Clearly not. So why would something as important as morality be treated as if man’s need for it were irrelevant? Indeed, if what the theist calls “morality” has no relevance to man’s needs, then why would it matter if a thinker has no explanation for it? Even more, if what the theist calls “morality” does not address my needs, my needs are not going to go away; I will still need a moral code which teaches me how best to address my needs. Which means: what the theist calls “morality” is irrelevant to my life.
When I examine a case such as Anderson’s and find the term ‘transcend’ used as a lever to point to the supernatural, I look to see if there are any warnings against mistaking what readers might merely be imagining for what is characterized as the transcendent origin of the norms or standards in question. I do not find any such concern anywhere in Anderson’s case or anywhere in his book. In fact, what I do find are statements like the following, which I take as a tacit admission that the imagination plays a central role in what Christianity promotes as “knowledge”:
The promise of immortality – the ambition to overcome death itself – has always had a grip on the human imagination. (WSIBC, p. 191)
So who or what accounts for these moral standards or laws? Once again, this is a glaring problem for atheistic worldviews like Naturalism. According to such worldviews, the universe has no ultimate meaning or purpose. In the end, there’s no right or wrong way for the universe to be. It simply is what it is. The only ultimate laws are the laws of physics. But the laws of physics have nothing to say about morality, of course. The laws of physics tell us how things do behave, not how things (including humans) ought to behave.(pp. 111-112)
None of these fundamentals are compatible with a worldview which (a) alleges as its starting point a consciousness which creates reality, (b) holds that everything in reality conforms to some form of conscious activity, and (c) holds that knowledge is revealed to man by a being which is accessible to the human mind exclusively by means of imagination. Which means (among other things) that these fundamentals are not compatible with the Christian worldview. No form of wishing has the final authority is compatible with objective moral principles, whether the theist likes it or not.
Anderson’s objection to “atheistic worldviews like Naturalism,” namely that they cannot “account for” moral standards because according to them “the universe has no ultimate meaning or purpose,” is really just a misfiring owing to Christianity’s own lack of a theory of concepts. As I stated in my post WSIBC: “God and Values”:
Regarding the concepts of meaning and purpose, I question whether it’s even valid to apply these concepts to the universe as such. Generally speaking, meaning is a property of concepts, not of things. One does not pick up a handful of sand and ask, “What does this mean?” The presence of sand may be evidence of something else, but this only means that the context extends beyond the thing in question. But when we get to the universe, i.e., the sum totality of all that exists, there is no such context which extends beyond the sum totality of all that exists to inform a comparison. So to object to a worldview because it does not ascribe meaning to the universe as such is just another exercise in stolen concepts.
Similarly with attempting to apply the concept ‘purpose’ to the universe. Purpose is a teleological concept and applies only to a certain category of existents, namely living organisms. Purpose is concurrent with living biology, and this is observable in everything from amoebas to human beings. Again, life is conditional, and all living organisms, whether flora or fauna, require values in order to live. What is the purpose of life? Life is an end in itself. Where does life come from? From existence. What should man do? He should live. See, no appeals to supernatural beings are needed here.
Furthermore, if it’s the case that an existent “has no ultimate meaning or purpose” and therefore “there’s no right or wrong way for [that existent] to be” because “it simply is,” then why doesn’t this reasoning apply to Anderson’s god? On page 96 of his book, Anderson asserts that “God depends on nothing for His existence. God simply is” (emphasis original). And yet, in spite of this “absolute independence or self-existence” (Ibid.), Anderson not only allows that this does not prevent his god from serving as the standard of “moral laws,” but he also insists that the “absolute independence or self-existence” of a mind-independent universe cannot provide an objective basis for moral laws. What he reserves in principle for his theism, he denies outright to “Naturalism.” For indeed, if the Christian god is not a creation and is not subject to moral laws which “transcend” it, then there is, on the terms of his own rationale, “no right or wrong way for [the Christian god] to be,” for the very same reason that “there’s no right or wrong way for the universe to be,” which is, because “it simply is what it is.”
But an even broader point can be made here: morality does not apply to the universe as such, but to human beings. The universe does not need morality, but human beings do, and there are important reasons why. The universe is not a biological organism facing a fundamental alternative between live and death, but human beings are. The universe does not need to act (i.e., to acquire values) in order to exist, but human beings do. There’s nothing in existence which threatens the existence of the universe, but there are many things in the universe which threaten a human being’s existence. Etc. So while it may be true that “there’s no right or wrong way for the universe to be,” it’s irrelevant. Or rather, it does not follow from the fact that “there’s no right or wrong way for the universe to be" that therefore there’s no objective basis for morality to be found within the universe. Such an argument would hinge on ignoring the very basis of objectivity as such.
Anderson’s comments hearken to the so-called “is/ought dichotomy,” which is a problem for many worldviews, just as the Euthyphro dilemma is a problem for theism. But Objectivism is immune to this problem by virtue of its fact-based analysis of moral values. In his essay Fact and Value, philosopher Leonard Peikoff makes this point as follows:
Objectivism holds that value is objective (not intrinsic or subjective); value is based on and derives from the facts of reality (it does not derive from mystic authority or from whim, personal or social). Reality, we hold — along with the decision to remain in it, i.e., to stay alive — dictates and demands an entire code of values. Unlike the lower species, man does not pursue the proper values automatically; he must discover and choose them; but this does not imply subjectivism. Every proper value-judgment is the identification of a fact: a given object or action advances man’s life (it is good): or it threatens man’s life (it is bad or an evil). The good, therefore, is a species of the true; it is a form of recognizing reality. The evil is a species of the false; it is a form of contradicting reality. Or: values are a type of facts; they are facts considered in relation to the choice to live.
Atheists who want to make objective moral judgments will often try to explain those judgments in terms of cultural conventions (i.e., different societies come to a practical agreement about what behaviors are permissible or impermissible) or human happiness (i.e., morality is basically about what gives the most pleasure or the least pain). The flaw in such views is that often we make moral judgments which distinguish between different cultures and different pleasures. For example, some cultures have practiced child sacrifice and female genital mutilation, which we judge to be morally wrong – in which case, we’re assuming some moral standard that transcends human cultures and societies. Likewise, what some people find pleasurable causes distress to others. Some folks get a kick out of other people’s unhappiness! So in practice no one treats human pleasures as the final arbiter of good and evil. Rather, we make moral judgments that distinguish between good pleasures (e.g., finding happiness in marriage) and bad pleasures (e.g., getting aroused by child pornography).
This also means that Objectivism’s moral principles do not rest on personal preferences, feelings or emotions, likes or dislikes, wishes, imagination, temper tantrums or outbursts, ambitions or passions. As with other areas of philosophical inquiry, Objectivism takes the Sgt. Friday approach here: “Just the facts, ma’am.” That is why reason is so important in Objectivism: it is by means of reason that we discover, identify and integrate those facts which are relevant to man’s life and the task of living. Given the nature of man’s consciousness, starting with sense perception and developing his ability to form and integrate concepts, alleged alternative modes of “knowing,” such as faith in invisible magic beings, prayer to supernatural agents, tree-hugging, tea-leaf reading, crystal worship, women’s way of knowing, astrological star charts, incantations, Tarot decks, spell books, etc., will not provide man with the knowledge he needs in order to make right choices – i.e., those choices which make his life possible and worth living. On the contrary, all such forms of mysticism will only distract him from the facts he needs to discover and consider and cripple his ability to live as a rational human adult. Sort of like saying that “moral laws transcend human individuals.”
It’s curious that Anderson finds it relevant to point out that “what some people find pleasurable causes distress to others,” adding that “Some folks get a kick out of other people’s unhappiness!” Unfortunately, this is true. I remember back when I belonged to a church many years ago how some of the “brothers” there would vocalize a recurring fantasy of theirs, namely that when they get to heaven, they’ll be able to look down and watch sinners blazing away in agony as they roast in hell, and how they looked forward to being able to laugh at their eternal misery. Their resentment of people outside the faith was very acute, and it certainly had its grip on their imagination! Their faith had pretty much driven all whiff of empathy out of them and replaced it with self-righteous puffery.
Of course, my guess is that Anderson would exempt his god’s pleasure from being disqualified as a moral standard and source of goodness, for we find indications in the bible’s own passages that the Christian god’s pleasure reigns without limits. But on Anderson’s own premises, this could not at all serve as an objective basis for morality. Rather, it simply turns morality on its head!
In Psalm 115:3, we read the famous words “But our God is in the heavens: he hath done whatsoever he hath pleased." The use of “whatsoever” here implies utter lack of restriction and inhibition, what some might call wild abandon. As characterized in the bible, the Christian god is clearly not a model of self-restraint, nor does it appear to have any capacity for introspective self-examination.
In Isaiah 46:9-10 we read the following:
Remember the former things of old: for I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me, Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure.
If history is any indicator of the character of the being which created the world and controls whatsoever comes to pass, it clearly must delight in cruelty, for being omnipotent, it could very well prevent cruelty and stop it in it tracks. All this comes from a worldview which teaches that a most terrifying fear is the beginning of knowledge (cf. Prov. 1:7).
In contrast, the Christian worldview makes sense of our moral judgments. There are transcendent moral laws because there is a transcendent moral law-giver.
Moral laws cannot come from an impersonal source. They must come from a personal source, and one with moral authority.
Suppose I imagine an almighty conscious being and claim that it is “one with moral authority.” Would that not be a “personal source”? After all, is not possession of consciousness a distinguishing factor behind personality? It certainly would not be “impersonal.” How is Christianity any different here? Indeed, I was a Christian at one time in my life, and I know from firsthand experience how it goes: the believer imagines the god described in the Old and New Testaments, takes their teachings seriously, and shudders in terrific fright throughout his psychology that what he imagines might actually be real, and even more terrified of questioning whether it’s all just a fiction (this is how Christianity turns one’s psychology against itself), when in fact that’s all it is. But all along, he can claim that the deity he imagines is the “personal source” that is supposedly needed for morality, that it is a “moral law-giver,” that it is the “one with moral authority,” for whatever it wishes, goes, because all reality springs from and conforms to its wishing. Moral authority, then, per the Christian worldview, is divine preference guided by the Christian god’s wishes and pleasures. And the purpose of morality, per the Christian worldview, is to terrify man into obedience. This is why imagination is so central to Christian morality, for it is not what is real that is to terrify man into submission, but what he imagines that scares him out of his wits. This turns what the believer will dub “moral judgment” completely against rational judgment.
And of course, the notion that “moral laws… must come from a personal source” is an open invitation to any autocrat, dictator or despot who lays claim to being that personal source, or at least its mouthpiece. For even early Christianity needed its human vessels. Whether it was the apostle Paul, Justin Martyr or Augustine of Hippo, we always learn of the supernatural from other human beings claiming to be divinely inspired and demanding that we obey the commands they claim to be repeating from revelations given exclusively to them. Adolf Hitler and the Ayatollahs have all done the same.
Anderson couches his case in the hypothetical mood:
If the universe is God’s creation then God has authority over us. He made us for a purpose and therefore He has the right to say how we should live. Just as the rules of a board game are determined by its inventor, so the rules of human life are determined by our Creator. God’s laws have real moral force, but they aren’t arbitrary or capricious, because God only commands what is consistent with His perfect love and His good purposes for His creation. In short, God gives us moral laws for our own good. They’re the Maker’s instructions. (p. 113)
Also remember that “God and Morality” is supposed to be a case for the existence of Anderson’s god. Reduced to its essence, the gist of this section of chapter 4 can be encapsulated as: “Morality, therefore God.” But here he’s saying: “If God, then divine authority, meaning (at the very least) a moral authority.” In the very next paragraph, Anderson will announce his conclusion that “objective moral judgments… presuppose the existence of God.” But if there’s any argument for the existence of a god to be teased out of any of this, it’s hard to see how it’s not viciously circular.
Indeed, it is only by ignoring the fundamental nature of objectivity and its incompatibility with mysticism that Anderson thinks he can conclude that “objective moral judgments, then, presuppose the existence of God” (p. 113). Unfortunately it seems to escape his notice that no progress in securing any legitimacy on behalf of his theism, for whatever conclusion we’re supposed to draw from his points, we still have no alternative but to imagine the god whose existence Anderson apparently thinks he’s proving.
Anxious to find confirmation of his position, Anderson then chooses to cite non-Christian thinkers who have echoed key aspects of his case. Among them he makes reference to Nietzsche and Sartre, though he does not quote any of their writings. Of course, neither Nietzsche nor Sartre were Objectivists, and in general their viewpoints were far more aligned with religion given their mystical inclinations, than with any Objectivist position (in particular to Nietzsche, Stephen Hicks has done the homework here already in his paper Egoism in Nietzsche and Rand; Hicks also discusses Sartre here and here).
He then quotes a statement from someone named Joel Marks, an academic at the University of New Haven, which I reproduce here. The statement Anderson quotes from Marks comes from Marks’ paper An Amoral Manifesto (Part I) (for the follow-up to this, see Marks’ An Amoral Manifesto (Part II)):
The long and short of it is that I became convinced that atheism implies amorality; and since I am an atheist, I must therefore embrace amorality…. [T]he religious fundamentalists are correct: without God, there is no morality. But they are incorrect, I still believe, about there being a God. Hence, I believe, there is no morality.
Why do I now accept hard atheism? I was struck by salient parallels between religion and morality, especially that both avail themselves to imperatives or commands, which are intended to apply universally. In the case of religion, and most obviously theism, these commands emanate from a Commander; ‘and this all people call God,’ as Aquinas might have put it. The problem with theism is of course the shaky grounds for believing in God. But the problem with morality, I now maintain, is that it is in even worse shape than religion in this regard; for if there were a God, His issuing commands would make kind of sense. But if there is no God, as of course atheists assert, then what sense could b made of there being commands of this sort? In sum, while theists take the obvious existence of moral commands to be a kind of proof for the existence of a Commander, i.e. God, I now take the non-existence of a Commander as a kind of proof that there are no commands, i.e. morality. (quoted on p. 114 of WSIBC)
However, if there were ever a clear case of what Greg Bahnsen would characterize as an atheist “borrowing from the Christian worldview” (cf. here), this would be one. By all appearances, Marks has accepted the generally mystical view of morality that is common to theistic religions, specifically the view that morality consists of commands which imply the existence of a “Commander” – i.e., a supernatural being which religionists call “God.” Here is where Marks and Anderson are in agreement, not on a premise that is true, but on a premise which is false. That one is a theist and the other is an atheist is actually incidental here: both accept a mystical account of morality, which makes them “kissin’ cousins” in bayou talk. Their agreement here does not vindicate theism; rather, it simply confirms that secularists may very well be prone to accepting mystical premises. Like god-belief itself, indeed, as part of the whole package, this typically starts in childhood and is often carried into adulthood without rational scrutiny. Indeed, there is no actual argument here for the assumption that an objective account of morality entails that it is comprised of commands from a supernatural source. It may be that neither Anderson nor Marks understands how morality has its basis in facts relevant to man’s nature, but such ignorance is not a reasonable basis to conclude that it must have its source in a supernatural being.
Notice how the conception of morality common to both Marks and Anderson presupposes the primacy of consciousness. Morality, on their view, is a list of commands, and the commands are issued by a supernatural consciousness, a “Commander” who issues its wishes for men to obey and follow. In other words, someone’s wishes hold metaphysical primacy over everything and “apply universally.” Everything in reality is assumed, in such a view of morality, to conform to a Commander’s wishes. That’s the primacy of wishing makes it so.
Also notice that Marks does not reject this understanding of morality; he throws the baby out with the bathwater. He rejects theism, but he gives no indication that he rejects theism’s metaphysical basis, namely the primacy of consciousness. And given that he accepts the view that morality is underwritten by theistic presuppositions, it seems to be a reasonable inference that he in fact does not reject the primacy of consciousness. He may not even know what that is!
For an atheist to reject morality as such on the false assumption that it consists of commands from a supernatural “Commander,” is analogous to him rejecting knowledge as such on the false assumption that it consists of revelations from a supernatural revealer. Marks accepts the first false assumption, so why doesn’t he accept the other?
If morality is a real human need based on facts relative to man’s nature as a biological organism and his need for values, these facts and his need for values do not simply go away because of anyone’s conscious intentions. Reality does not conform to conscious intentions – that’s the primacy of existence. One can believe anything, wish anything, prefer anything, imagine anything, endorse a position, reject an assertion, etc., but man’s need for values will continue to obtain. Thus rejecting theism does not entail that the objective basis for morality is therefore no longer available to one, or that the basis for morality is incongruent with his rejection of theism. Indeed, the theist would hasten to state, in effect, “Just because you don’t believe in God doesn’t mean that his commands don’t apply to your life,” wouldn’t he? But this would be an instance of the theist borrowing from Objectivism, for he would essentially be saying that something obtains regardless of what anyone believes, just as Anderson himself does when he characterizes “objective value judgments” as “saying that something is good or bad regardless of anyone’s personal tastes or preferences” (p. 107).
Anderson closes out this section with the pithy words “Conscience and consistency conspire together to drive us to God” (p. 115). But why not go for authentic consistency and build your understanding of reality, knowledge, morality, etc., on the fundamental recognition that wishing doesn’t make it so? Why, on the one hand, defend positions by appealing to people’s implicit recognition that wishing doesn’t make it so, while, on the other hand, informing those positions with the assumption that wishing does make it so? The content of such a position is diametrically contradictory to assumptions employed in defending it. But this is exactly what’s happening in Christian apologetics, Anderson’s case being no exception.
Yes, I am very glad these aren’t my problems.
By Dawson Bethrick