If there is no God, the Declaration of Independence is meaningless

Scott Smith —  July 4, 2012 — 48 Comments

Ok, maybe not meaningless, but it certainly starts out on a flawed premise.

It all started when I posted this to Facebook:


What followed was an interesting conversation, but one that failed to provide any reason to counter my contention. Here is a summary of my argument:
According to Stanford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

“Rights are entitlements (not) to perform certain actions, or (not) to be in certain states; or entitlements that others (not) perform certain actions or (not) be in certain states.”

I would contend that rights must be granted by persons. By Stanford’s definition, rights are abstract objects. They are intangible. The only way they may even be conceived of is in a mind, and minds are elements of persons. It is meaningless to speak of rights as existing prior to minds existing. It’s like talking about forests that existed before trees.

Once a right is conceived of, or proposed, it must be evaluated on some basis. Just as prices must be expressed relative to the value of currency, and weight must be expressed relative to the force of gravity, rights must be evaluated with reference to some standard. Without an objective referent, rights are merely expressions of what an individual or culture holds valuable. History is replete with examples of cultures who have held different ideas of the value of humans than we hold today. Even today we see varying rights displayed in other cultures. Whether we examine the inherent value societies afford all human beings, or varying values based upon skin color, sex, pedigree, or other factors, it is clear that there is no agreed upon norm. Many cultures and organizations have attempted to create such a standard, but the fact that the standard must be created and ratified is further illustration that rights is fluid without proper grounding. I believe that the only standard by which the notion of rights may be seen as objective and transcendent is God – if He exists.

I would suggest that rights granted to one’s own species are little more than a codification of preferences. If there is no transcendent being, I see no basis to call my conception of rights as any better than yours, or Lincoln’s as superior to Mao’s. They might seem less abhorrent. We might find them beneficial. We could suggest that they would better promote the flourishing of the human species. But we cannot make any objective comparisons. We can explain the differences, but we have no basis to make imperative statements such as “we ought to do XYZ”. All we can do is appeal to emotions and cultural sensibilities. I’m not saying that is a bad thing – only that it is not necessarily a good thing. After all, who’s to say that a culture 1,000 years from now will not look upon ours with equal disdain?

Legal human rights are those which are defined by governments in accord with their national and cultural values. Since they are defined, by definition they may be defined differently. These rights ought to be delineated as they define what a people group values. However, it can hardly be said that one set of such rights has any bearing with respect to any other people group. In fact, this would be bigotry, a violation of one people’s “human rights” in favor of our own. On what basis could we do such a thing? Legal human rights exist, and they vary geographically, historically, and in other ways. But I don’t believe that these are the types of rights we mean when we speak of “human rights” in sweeping terms. When we speak of human rights, we usually think of things like freedom from persecution, availability of drinking water, and equality. Clearly, on a legal basis, all of these can be defined away – and in many places they are. In order for the notion of universal, inalienable human rights to bear any persuasive or imperative force, we must appeal to natural human rights, if such a thing can be said to exist.

So – back to the title of this post. The founders of the USA and those crafting the Declaration of Independence believed in natural rights. From the Declaration,

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

My argument is that the only way this second sentence of the Declaration makes any sense is literally and as a whole. Obviously, they believed in a Creator (ie, God). Not only did they say so, but they went straight to the notion of inalienable (unalienable is a less frequently used variant) rights. (Un/)Inalienable refers that which may not be taken away. It cannot be transferred or revoked. It could be ignored or not recognized (slavery, anyone?) but it could not be removed or repudiated. That can only be the case if these rights had their source from someone besides ourselves.

I have explained the source of legal rights, and have pointed out their shortcomings. The other type of rights is natural rights. Natural rights, if they exist, are those which are inherent and inalienable. They exist independently of us. They must either precede our species or arise concurrently with our species. Since rights are the products of minds, and natural rights precede human minds conceiving of them, they must find their origin in another mind. And since legal rights may be granted, they may also be taken away, and therefore are inalienable. So, either natural rights do not exist except as some romantic fiction in our minds, or they really do exist. It seems to me, for human rights to bear any weight, they must be natural rights, and therefore must be real. The only way that could be the case is if there really is a God.


So, there you have it. That’s my thinking. What do you think – agree or disagree?

Scott Smith

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Scott Smith is a lifelong Christian and an active member of his church. He enjoys blogging and teaching on Christian theology and defense as well as engaging skeptics in debate regarding Christian truth claims. Scott is a co-founder of Etcetera as well as TC Apologetics, and in his spare time he runs his own 3D design company.

48 responses to If there is no God, the Declaration of Independence is meaningless

  1. Hi Scott,

    Anyone can claim that the rights they recognize have been granted by a transcendent entity. Can you give some examples of human rights which you believe to have been granted by the god you worship, and explain how you discovered that your god has granted us those rights? Do you suppose that your discovery would have any “persuasive or imperative force” for people who do not believe in your god, or who believe in a god who denies those rights?

    I’m also curious about this peculiar claim:

    “If there is no transcendent being, I see no basis to call my conception of rights as any better than yours, or Lincoln’s as superior to Mao’s. They might seem less abhorrent. We might find them beneficial. We could suggest that they would better promote the flourishing of the human species. But we cannot make any objective comparisons. We can explain the differences, but we have no basis to make imperative statements such as “we ought to do XYZ”.”

    To me, the fact that XYZ is “less abhorrent”, “beneficial”, and “would better promote the flourishing of the human species” is an argument for doing XYZ over ABC, if ABC does not do those things. Of course, that’s only because I think that abhorrent things are abhorrent, beneficial things are beneficial, and promoting the flourishing of the human species is a desirable end; if I didn’t think that, I might not agree that we ought to do XYZ. But, obviously, the same thing can be said about any “ought”: you may claim,  “We ought to do what God wants,” but if I disagree – perhaps I think there are no gods, or that God is a moral monster – it really seems like all you can do is reiterate your claim. What else can you do? You can’t show me the ought-ness, you can only assert that it’s there, but anyone can do that about anything, so how can you make your case?

    Anyway, with regard to the Declaration of Independence: I think it’s pretty obvious that it’s a rhetorical document that doesn’t pretend to be making a philosophical argument. I just can’t see how anyone could simultaneously think that “life” and “liberty” are “unalienable Rights” and that keeping slaves, putting people in prison, executing criminals, and prosecuting a war are morally right things to do. Obviously there are circumstances in which we think that it’s morally acceptable – or even morally required – to alienate people from their right to life and liberty (although many of us no longer think that “you’re black” constitutes a sufficient justification). But the founders couldn’t very well write that all men “…are endowed by their Creator with certain Rights which may only be alienated under certain circumstances, none of which currently hold vis-a-vis King George and the white men of the American colonies…” so they chose to make it a little more flowery.

    One more thing: You wrote, “Without an objective referent, rights are merely expressions of what an individual or culture holds valuable.” I think that’s correct – we identify things as rights when we deem them so important that we want to put very large legal and social roadblocks in the way of anyone who thinks that something else is more important – but I’d add this: With an objective referent, rights are merely expressions of what an individual or culture holds valuable. All “an objective referent” does is move the claim around slightly: the individual or culture holds a particular “objective referent” valuable, and derives the value of their rights from the value they attribute to the objective referent. The referent may be objective, but the value attributed to the referent is – and always must be – a subjective assessment.  

    • I think you’re missing my point Steve. I’m not making any claims about particular rights or even particular Gods. My contention is that natural rights may only exist if there is a transcendent being; ie – some mind greater than ours. That’s it.

      • Rights are ideas, and ideas only exist in our minds.  

        If you hold to the belief of this originating with God, I don’t see how the concept of God granting humans free will and God creating human rights aren’t contradictory.

        • I’m not sure what is contradictory about it. Some would think of free will itself as a human right. Why couldn’t God grant us free will as one of our natural rights?

          • He could grant us free will as a right, yes? (if He exists :)  
            but if rights are ideas, and ideas only exist in our minds, don’t they come out of our free will to create them. Why would God get involved at all?  at any level? 

          • Sure. I’m speaking hypothetically of course. “If there is a God, X would follow”

            But ideas don’t exist only in our minds. They exist in  all minds. If there is a God, then don’t you think his ideas would supersede ours?  (in truth value, moral perfection, etc.)

          • Then why didn’t He make them more clear, as in the Bible?  Why are there so many religions on the planet? Why doesn’t everyone agree, without question?  Isn’t that part of the concept of free will?  If there is a God, and He is omnipotent, of course His ideas would supersede ours, but how is it relevant if He doesn’t bother to communicate it to us?  I assume, by giving us free will, He has not granted or established any such “rights”  Or, He doesn’t exist.

            I feel like this somehow relates to the old quesiton: if a tree falls in the woods, and there is no one there to hear it…

            It seems we are going in circles, so I’ll say this. Rereading your initial manifesto above, I agree with all except this statement: Since rights are the products of minds, and natural rights precede human minds conceiving of them, they must find their origin in another mind. 

            If the concept of human rights, or “rights,” is an idea, an idea that WE hold that represents how we treat each other, why are natural rights any different?  Why can’t the term inalienable mean one that we all agree on?  

            My point about Thomas Jefferson is relevant, in that, I believe he understood the issue you address about cultures and legal rights and sought a universal ethic, one that was beyond a singular religion, perhaps to be found among all the religions of the world, one that could be considered inalienable because all humans seem to agree on it, regardless of the belief in (or lack of) God.  It could be expressed as the Golden Rule, Do unto others, etc…  

            If you believe in God, of course you’d think it came from Him.  

            It boils down to this: Why can’t this concept come from that moral compass that all humans seem to have?  Why can’t that come from a respect we have for each other?  

            Why can’t a concept exist as a collective thought? Why does an idea have to come from one mind, a singular creator? 

            Chicken or egg anyone?

          • “I assume, by giving us free will, He has not granted or established any such “rights”  Or, He doesn’t exist.” Kim, I think there are more options than this. Is it not possible that (if God exists), He has established rights, and He has communicated them to us, but He has given us the ability to think, reason, and make decisions apart from Him (that seems like a good thing, right?).  In so doing, He certainly allows for us to overlook or ignore that universal moral compass.  So I think we have a possibility that escapes the horns of your dilemma :)  Also, I have another question. You seem to agree that rights are ideas, and ideas only exist in the mind.  This seems to mitigate against a strictly materialist view of the world.  Yes or no?

          • Anthony– wouldn’t it be fair to say that if God has communicated those ideas to us clearly, we wouldn’t be having this conversation?  Because then Scott’s assertions would be correct, that His would supersede ours.  

            And yes, we can overlook or ignore the moral compass, but isn’t that what this conversation is about?  We are seeking a definitive description of that very moral compass (to follow, I presume)   Perhaps I’m not clear on your point…

            I don’t understand what you mean by a materialist view of the world in this context.  Please explain.

          • I will rely on numbered points so I don’t have to  think up transitions :)
            1) Perhaps God has revealed human rights in a murky fashion to force us into community. We learn together; we discover together; we live and experience and agree together.  As I mentioned last night, we discover rights like we discover math – it may take time, but the time is well spent.
            2) I was attempting to note that we are not robots – we can choose to discover these right and adhere to them, or not. 
            3) By materialist I mean a worldview that claims all of reality can be explained by showing how physical processes unfold. If that were true, then rights are ultimately biological secretions (the brain “secretes” thoughts, thoughts are ideas, ideas are rights). 
            Ideally, I have not actually made my points even more unclear :) Was my explanation helpful?

      • Yup, I understand that. My question to you is: if you think that there are natural rights which are based in a transcendent being, what are these rights and how did you find that out? If you can’t do better than “we hold these truths to be self-evident”, then I don’t think you’ve done much for the epistemic status of natural rights…

        • Good. Sounds like we’re on the same page here.

          How did I find this out? That’s a long discussion. Here’s the short version: God has communicated to humanity through the bible. The bible speaks of our imago dei – the idea that we are created in God’s image. If that’s the case, it is easy to see sufficient grounding for human rights. If it’s not the case, I fail to see any other basis.

          (Also, for whatever it’s worth, I never intended to claim that the Declaration of Independence was evidence of these rights. It was merely a jumping off point I used to propose that without the existence of God, the statements about inalienable rights in that document are nonsensical.)

    • “You can’t show me the ought-ness, you can only assert that it’s there, but anyone can do that about anything, so how can you make your case?”

      I think you’re misunderstanding this argument as well Steve. I have never attempted to prove there is an “oughtness”. My position is that the only sense in which an oughtness could exist is if there were a higher authority. That’s it. Any other imperative we posit would be based on something like pragmatism, the desire to “do no harm” or to “live and let live”. Not that these are bad reasons – they just don’t imply an ought. They may show a desire to treat humans as though they have value, but they give no basis for doing so – it is simply assumed.

      • It’s rather strange to say that our desires “don’t imply an ought”. Many people would say that our desires are the only things that imply an ought; it’s natural to say things like, “If you want some water, you ought to dig a well,”  while it feels like something is missing if you say, “If there is a mountain, you ought to climb it.” 

        You seem to be saying that the imperatives “you ought to do no harm” and “you ought to live and let live” do not imply an “ought”. That’s literally true – they don’t “imply” an ought, they explicitly state it – but I don’t understand what point you intend to make here. Are you saying that you think it just doesn’t matter when people say “ought”?   

        • Steve, I think the trouble lies in the definition of ‘ought’. You seem to be conflating a number of very different uses of the word.

          I’ve found at least four senses of the word. I am referring only to the first meaning of ‘ought’ that most dictionaries list, ie – “Used to indicate duty or correctness, typically when criticizing someone’s actions”. The other uses are things like indication of reasonable expectation, desire, preference,  advice, and probability.

          The difference lies here. The first sense carries a moral imperative, a requirement, a duty to act – those sorts of things.

          Saying “you ought to dig a well” is a logical outflow of the need for water.

          Saying “you ought to try this ice cream” is merely a suggestion.

          “It ought to take you 15 minutes to get to the pub” is a reasonable expectation.

          “I ought to head home” just expresses that I’m aware of my wife’s desire to see me once in a while.

          None of these uses of ought carry an imperative.

          I think you’re getting hung up on these other uses. I maintain that you can’t get an ought from things like desires. Sure, people can say ‘ought’ all they want, but there is no force of duty compelling me to follow those whims. And further, without sufficient grounding, any ought statement is merely an expression of preferences.

    • “Anyway, with regard to the Declaration of Independence: I think it’s pretty obvious that it’s a rhetorical document that doesn’t pretend to be making a philosophical argument.”

      I don’t know about that Steve. I think your examples fall into two groups. The first group contained things like putting people in prison, executing criminals, and prosecuting a war. You said these could never be called morally right. Separating harmful people from society is the moral thing to do, if for no other reason than to protect the innocent from a known predator. I don’t think this contradicts the opening of the Declaration. The Declaration says that all men were endowed by their creator with these rights. I think there are two things of note here. One is that they start out with these rights. They are not granted, but rather they exist at the outset of life. (This was my focus in this post.) The other is that the source of these rights was their Creator. If there was a creator who granted rights, then he could certainly remove them. They believed in the God of the Bible. They believed he did the creating, that he granted us certain rights and responsibilities, and that he prescribed rules for living. Therefore, to their way of thinking, if God created us, and he provided such a book, then it followed that they should follow the rules laid out in that book. You may think it’s silly to believe in God, but you can’t call their reasoning illogical if such a God actually exists.

      Your other set of examples, slavery and racism, fall in another category . I’ll throw women’s rights in there as well. These I think arose because of their selective application of the term ‘men’, and I would agree with your outrage on this point. They cannot invoke God (and with him, the bible) and then mistreat groups of people as it suits them. In these cases, my position is that blacks, women, and all other humans were indeed granted the same inalienable rights as mentioned in the Declaration from the beginnings of their lives as the men in power were, but those in power were unjust and ignored these rights when it was convenient for them – just as many do today.

      • With regard to the “first group”, I don’t think I’ve said or implied that imprisoning or killing people could never be called morally right; I was just pointing out that killing and imprisoning people looks a whole lot like alienating them from their rights to life and liberty. Of course, as you point out, it’s possible to phrase it in terms of competing rights – “You have a right to liberty, but other people’s right not to be killed by you trumps that right” – but in the case of a war I think you must say that soldiers on the other side have forfeited – become alienated from – their right to life purely in virtue of the fact that they are on the other side. The meaning of “unalienable” becomes rather unclear in that context. In any case, I don’t think that kind of maneuvering can get the founders around the fact that they were holding slaves when they wrote that line about unalienable rights. That puts the lie to the idea that they held “these truths to be self-evident”, and makes me confident that the DoI can only reasonably be treated as a rhetorical gesture, not a philosophical manifesto.

        I’m not sure where you got the idea that the founders got “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” from the Bible, or that they thought the Bible laid out rules we ought to live by. Some of the founders did, no doubt about it, but many of them did not. Which of the ideas in the DoI or the Constitution can you find support for in the Bible? Can you give some chapters and verses?

        “They cannot invoke God (and with him, the bible) and then mistreat groups of people as it suits them. ”

        This is actually pretty good evidence that they were not heavily inspired by the Bible. You may have noticed that the Bible has a few passages in which it explain how you ought to mistreat various groups of people – although, to be fair, you aren’t allowed to do it “as it suits” you, you have to do it the way that God wants you to. 

        • I’m not suggesting that passages of the DoI (thanks for the abbreviation!) were copied from the Bible. What I am stating is that the DoI was written by people whose worldview and motivation were expressly Biblical.

          • I’m pretty sure that Thomas Jefferson would disagree. In fact, I think it’d be accurate to say that in Jefferson’s mind it made more sense for the Bible to be shaped by his worldview and motivations than the other way around. Have you heard of the Jefferson Bible

          • Scott– I just want to mention that we cannot know with certainty what Jefferson believed, even if he stated he was a deist (which I believe was once, in a letter to a close friend, but I may be wrong about that) because we have to take into account the culture of the time.  Puritans!  Can you imagine what would happen to his credibility if he stately publicly that he was an atheist?  Look what happens today, in 2012!  In 5 states in the union, there is still law that an atheist can’t hold public office.  

            I’m not saying he was or wasn’t, just that we can only look at what statements he did make.  I think there is quite a bit of evidence to show he did not believe in the supernatural.  He was concerned about a moral compass in a secular society.

          • Well, now that’s an interesting suggestion. I’ve heard him referred to with certainty as a deist and a Christian, and a passing suggestion that he was Unitarian. Atheist is a new one on me, as he invoked God fairly often (which doesn’t fit the deist template). Apparently everyone wants to claim Jefferson. :) But I digress…

            I think my point still holds. TJ was not acting alone. This was a document with many signators – the vast majority of which were Christian. But even is history has lied to us about every one of them, that doesn’t affect the argument I made in my post.

          • Just because someone is a Christian does not mean that he or she holds Christian ideals for government.  In other words, maybe they were actually leaders in tolerance, plurality, acceptance, which was what they wanted from a King that they didn’t get.  (His way or the highway) and in SPITE OF their own beliefs, Christian or otherwise, they were more concerned about how that overlapped in a secular society.  I think this does speak to your point. I believe if TJ were here today, the first thing he would say is, what I believe (my religion) is not relevant.  How we create a government to allow for differing religions is.  I think he sought for commonality and what was “right” for all.  

            I guess my issue, is it feels like you, and other Christians, are the ones who want to claim him, as you say, so you can tie those concepts in with other biblical concepts.  If that’s what he and they wanted, they would have done it.  To say his motivation was expressly biblical is a stretch.  A really big stretch.  Those common “rights” are found in many religions, not just the Judeo-Christian bible.  You dont’ get to claim them. 

          • Your suggestions as to what Jefferson would say are a bit doubtful. All accounts have him as a deist or theist – by his own words. This is not something I’m forcing on him.

            All but a handful of the founding fathers were Christian. I’m not forcing facts that don’t fit or claiming people I want in my camp – I’m simply reporting history.

            As to your “holding Christian ideals for government”… I see a part of what you are saying. I think few Christians in office would push to close businesses on Sunday or ticket people who do not turn the other cheek. But to say that anyone would possibly govern contrary to their ideologies sounds ludicrous. If you were in office, would you ignore your impulses toward protecting animals? Would you vote for a guy who claimed to have no attachment to his ideals?

            Lawmakers who happen to enact laws in keeping with Biblical morality do not do so  to strongarm others toward Christianity. They do so because they believe ordering society along the guidelines of what they believe is true is the best way for that community to thrive. In fact, that is how everyone from every worldview governs. But this is way off topic…

            I’m not claiming anyone. If TJ had been a Buddhist and enacted laws that flowed out of his beliefs, and those laws also were compatible with my worldview, I would champion the laws while happily admitting that he was Buddhist. I have nothing to lose in that. The fact is, TJ was not Buddhist. He spoke of God. His writings and actions show definite deist or theist beliefs. But regardless, that is entirely separate from my point.

            My question remains:  if there were no God, how could anything be called inalienable?

            I contend that the phrase would be absurd absent God. I’m not claiming this as an argument for God – I’m merely pointing out that the notion of natural human rights, when championed by an atheist, is a statement made on borrowed currency. On atheism, it is illogical to make such a statement.

          • Kim, I am not of the camp that wants to lasso every founder into the Christian corral if they were not adherents to the Christian faith.  However, I believe history is pretty clear that the vast majority were either expressly biblical or at least indebted to biblical principles. Jefferson had his own version of the Bible; he took out the miracles because he was a Deist – he didn’t believe God interacted with the world.  But…..he still had a Bible.  I’m not sure what to do with the idea that he kind of had to put up this front because he lived in the culture he did. That seems to be reading more into history than is warranted. 
                I would note that English Common law – from which the US form of law came- had an interesting history.  At one point plaintiffs would bring a case to the court, and the lawyers on both sides would cite Scripture to make their point.  Obviously, as time went on, a more secular form of this replaced the original.  But, yes, the American model traces its roots back to a biblical foundation.  Jefferson’s motivation may not have been expressly biblically, but it was biblically formed.

        • Those are examples of changes of mind or changes of state. None indicate a change of nature.

    • “The referent may be objective, but the value attributed to the referent is – and always must be – a subjective assessment.”
      This is straying a ways off the topic of my post, but I’ll reply briefly. The only way your statement would be true is if God had libertarian free will all the time, but don’t think this is the case. Certainly, there are countless times when God can choose to do one thing or another, and in his sovereignty he chooses as he will. However, at the same time God is constrained by his nature – he can’t lie, for instance. So it seems to me that God has a unique blend of libertarian and compatibilist free will.

      With regard to your claim though, God does not have libertarian free will. He cannot issue decrees simply on a whim. They must be in accord with his nature. So when it comes to moral claims, God is indeed objective. He does not make decisions with respect to the circumstances (subjectively) – but rather he does so with respect to his objective nature – and he cannot do otherwise.

      • God is constrained by his nature… What does that mean?  He cannot issue decrees simply on a whim?   Isn’t he omnipotent?  He can’t lie.  To whom would he lie?  Where does this description/understanding of the nature of God come from?  Is it described specifically somewhere in the bible (I’m not aware of it) or is this an image compiled from many references in the bible?  Is this the kind of thinking that is aligns with the concept of a personal God?  (I’m still struggling with this idea…)

        • Good question Kim. It’s easy to just throw these things out there.

          What I meant by “God is constrained by his nature” is that God cannot violate who he is – his essential characteristics. For instance, God cannot cease being an eternal being, decide not to be a Trinity, or cease being good. These are essential aspects of his nature.

          Just a few examples:

          God cannot lie – Hebrews 6:18, Numbers 23:19, and others

          God is unchanging – Malachi 3:6

          God is faithful and cannot deny himself – 2 Timothy 2:13
          God is eternal and self-existent – “I Am” references such as Exodus 3:14

          Hopefully that helps with some basis for the claim.

          You asked “to whom would he lie?” Good question. To us, I suppose. (Telling us something with the intention to mislead) Or to himself. (denial) That’s what comes to mind first anyway.

          You also asked “isn’t he omnipotent?” Sure – but this is a word that gets misunderstood quite often. My best shoot from the hip layperson response would be that God’s power is unlimited for those things which are logically possible. So, for instance, being unable to lie is not a violation of omnipotence because saying someone can violate their nature is neither a virtue nor logical. Being unable to create a stone he can’t lift isn’t a failure of omnipotence either – it’s a category mistake, and an absurdity. It’s like saying God doesn’t know what color the number 8 is. Or that God can’t make square circles. Or that God is limited because he doesn’t have experience with married bachelors.

          Does that help?

          • I will ponder…

          • This is way off topic, but what do you mean by saying, “God is unchanging”? Setting aside the enormous number of times that YHWH is depicted making decisions, changing his mind, making plans and executing them, and reacting to events as they play out… do you think that God didn’t change when he was incarnated as the human Jesus? For a long time He wasn’t Jesus, then He was, then He wasn’t for three days, then He was, then He went back to heaven. Do you not consider these things changes? 

          • Steve, the Christian belief is that God does not change ontologically.  He was,is and always will be faithful, true, etc.  Of course He changes in the ways you described. Those are not contradictory things. I think Scott’s earlier description of “constrained by His nature” was helpful.

      • I’m pretty sure you’ve entirely missed my point here. My point is that when we – humans – attribute value to something, that attribution is always subjective. It doesn’t make sense to say that something would have value even if no one valued it; that’s not what value means. If God existed, and cared about stuff, that fact wouldn’t automatically make that stuff valuable to each person in the world; it’s only valuable to those who subjectively think that God’s opinion is valuable. The idea of objective value is incoherent.

        • There’s a lot to agree with here, but you lose me in your last sentence.

          If God exists, and he is the being described in the Bible, he is an objective standard of truth. Whether people recognize that he exists or that truth exists is another issue entirely. Absolutely people can ignore him.

          Try this on. To follow your argument, I could say that while there may be actual correct answers to the SAT, many people do not acknowledge them. Furthermore, those correct answers (if they really exist) are only valuable to those who think that colleges care about them. Therefore, the idea of correct answers on an SAT is incoherent.

          Where have I gone wrong?

          • I think you went wrong when you swapped “truth” for “value”. I think it make sense to say that a proposition is objectively true even if no one is aware of the proposition or acknowledges its truth, but I don’t think it makes sense to say that something is objectively valuable even if no one knows about that thing or values it. To me the word “value” must imply a relationship, as in “X has value to person Y”. That judgement – the judgment that X has value to me – is what I’m calling subjective here. 

            That’s why I said that the idea of objective value is incoherent. “Objective” implies that something is the same without regard for any subjective assessment, but the attribution of value just is a subjective assessment. It makes as little sense to say that something is objectively valuable as to say that something is objectively comfortable, or objectively sexy, or objectively delicious; all these properties are relational, and do not make sense outside of a relational context.

            The correctness of answers on the SAT is a bit different. For an answer to be correct is just for the answer to be the one that the writers of the SAT say is the correct answer. The answer may or may not be correct in some other context (for example, the authors may have made a mistake about how the world actually is), but the fact that the SAT authors call one answer correct is an objective fact.   Whether or not you care about that fact is, of course, up to you.

          • Now I see where you’re going Steve. Thanks for clarifying. I agree with you in terms of the meaning of value when we are talking in terms of subjective assessments like you mentioned or transactions (a house isn’t *worth* $500k if you can’t find a buyer willing to pay that price).

            However, my initial thought is that value can be objective as well. For instance, take my house example above. While it is possible that no one is willing to pay $500k for it, that is different from saying what I have put into it. If I have put $500k worth of purchased parts and labor into that house, it has an objective value of $500k. Now, you’re right that there may be no one who is willing to pay my asking price, but that’s a different thing. The resources I have invested are tangible and objective. The value that others ascribe to it is subjective.

            So, I agree with your observations but not your conclusion. An object may retain its objective value regardless whether those interacting with it recognize it as such.

          • I think there’s a difference between a historical record which captures the values which have been attributed to things in the past and the value that something currently has. At the time that you purchase the parts and labor to improve the house, the value of the parts and labor to you is expressed as $500K; that’s how much you think the improvements are worth at that point in time. The fact that you made that assessment is a fact, but it’s a historical fact. You may, for example, decide that the improvements “weren’t worth it”, and retroactively decide that the value was not $500K. You haven’t erased history, but neither has history constrained (or had any necessary effect) on your subsequent assessment of the value of the parts and labor nor the current value of the house. 

          • You’re missing my point. I didn’t set the value – Home Depot did. My changing feelings about my expenditures only says something about me. It says nothing of the cost involved in building a house.

          • Home Depot set the price, which is the guess a seller makes about the value a product will have to a buyer compared to the value the product has to the seller. When you buy something, you are validating that guess by indicating that a piece of lumber, for example, is more valuable to you than having $X in cash; at the same time, Home Depot is making a statement that they value the lumber less than they value $X in cash (if either of you valued the other thing more, the transaction wouldn’t take place). In any case, the transaction price becomes part of the historical record, but it isn’t controlling on the future value of the house to any entity. If you think it is, imagine offering to sell $500K worth of lumber in the form of a house back to Home Depot. I suspect their initial estimate of the value of the lumber would have changed.

          • All analogies will fail. I guess if you are dead set against the idea of something having objective value, then we are at an impasse.

            Its probably worth going back to the original point anyway. On your thinking, since a load of milled Ipe is less common than a human, and you disbelieve in objective value, is Ipe more valuable than a person?

          • To whom?

          • Ah, but that’s my point. :)
            It is impossible to speak sensibly of inalienable human rights if everything is subjective.

          • I’m not sure why that would be the case. Deists believe God created us with the imago dei just like theists. It’s the details after that where they differ. But even so, Jefferson was one man. The Founding Fathers were almost unanimously Christian. And deists, theists, and Christians would all agree on the meaning of that opening phrase of the DoI.

  2. Hello, Steve,

    Are there absolute objective moral truths? Fer instance: Is it always wrong, in every situation, throughout the corridors of time, for a soldier to kill the children, babies, and fetuses of a defeated foe? Talk about an “ought” experiment!

    • Nope, I don’t think there are “absolute objective moral truths”. In addition, I don’t think that I’m an absolutely objective judge of whether something is a moral truth or not, so the existence or non-existence of “absolute objective moral truths” is a moot point; even if they did exist, I wouldn’t be able to identify them with “absolute objective” certainty, so the situation would be the same as it is now. I have to use my judgement and compassion to decide whether or not I should do anything I might do.

      So. Is there a conceivable scenario where it would be right for a soldier to kill a bunch of children? Yes, of course. For example, a soldier may know that his compatriots will use the children in fatal and sadistic experiments if they are captured, and so decide that it would be better to kill the children painlessly before they can be tortured to death.

      But this is a contrived example, and hopefully doesn’t happen very often. In fact, I think it’s so rarely the case that a soldier in such a situation should probably assume that their assessment of the situation is incorrect, and that they would be making a mistake if they killed the children. Since it’s more likely for a person to be making a mistake when they decide to kill a bunch of children than it is likely that they should kill the children, soldiers should not kill children if they want to minimize the chances of committing a moral wrong. Unless, of course, the soldier is very sure that it is morally better to kill the children than to let them live. In the right (wrong?) circumstances, this could be a very difficult decision.

      This pattern of analysis is useful for anyone who admits that they are not an absolute moral authority. If you’re willing to admit that, but you still care about doing the right thing, you should pursue the action that is least likely to be wrong in the event that your moral or empirical judgments are flawed. A simpler way to put it is that if you need to ponder whether or not an action is moral, you may be better served by assuming that it is immoral and finding some other course of action. But if there is no other course of action – or if you must choose between a very small number of possible courses, as in the case of my hypothetical soldier and the inevitably doomed hypothetical children – then you must, obviously, use your best judgement and live with the consequences. We’re only human, after all.

      It should go without saying (but probably doesn’t) that the possibility that some god somewhere thinks the children should die does not count as a good reason to kill them. It’s exactly as likely that a god wants the children to live as that a god wants the children to die (because no human knows the mind of God, right?) so it would just be stupid to base a moral judgement on such a possibility.

      • Steve, now I have to decide whether you or Jesus had a better grip on life. (Wow, that was a fast decision.)
        Sort of joking with you, sort of not.

  3. I’ve been pondering…  Perhaps God IS absolute moral truth.  Rather than a being who created the concept.

    • I’d say you’re close. God is absolute moral truth, but he is also a being. He is not a being who created morality, or a being who complies with morality, but rather a being whose very nature entails morality. (Seems like we always come back to Euthyphro, eh?)

    • I don’t think that God is a Being who created the concept of absolute truth, but the Being who personifies the absolute truth and lives by it and demands it–and will get it–from His creation. (This is my attempt to paraphrase Jesus, who, I think, was seldom (as in never) wrong.)

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