One of those accusations was leftover down the list of pending comments which I haven't had time to deal with this week or so and it happened to come that I'd just listened to a sort of debate between the Yale University ethicist, Shelly Kagan and the Baylor University philosophy professor William Lane Craig on the question Is God Necessary for Morality?
I do have to say that it was nice, for a change, to be listening to Craig arguing with someone else trained in philosophy instead of a big name scientist or so-called scientist (social "scientist") and who had the kind of grasp of the problems that a PhD in some STEM topic doesn't generally carry these days. It was nice to hear something other than the cartoonish arguments of eminent scientists who don't deal with these matters in a rigorous fashion. I can't say that I was entirely happy with either Kagan's or Craig's presentation, though I clearly agree with Craig that for any significant morality to exist that there has to be an ultimate giver of moral law. As he pointed out sometime during the exchange a number of atheists had come to the same conclusion, I recall he mentioned Nietzsche and Bertrand Russell and Sartre and how they faced their conclusion that there was no objective morality.
But I'll let you listen to the debate except for one point which I'll get to, later.
I kept feeling annoyed by the tone of the debate, particularly Kagan's assertions about the possibility of atheists acting morally, something which Craig pointed out he hadn't denied and which was a distinct difference from the question under debate. That gets back to the comments I get on this in which so-and-so is given as an example of an atheist of high moral character. Sometimes the example chosen I'd pick a bone or two over, sometimes I'm tempted to present another atheist as a better example to illustrate the assertion. But that's not really what's important in my thinking on the subject.
Listening to Kagan's complex, detailed, nuanced, not all that convincing arguments which would require the mastering of a lot of complex vocabulary and the ideas which those serve, I was wondering just who he thought was going to adopt it as their reason for doing the right instead of the wrong thing. One of the problems of academic theology is that sometimes, quite often, in fact, it is talking about God of the specialists, by the specialists and for the specialists, quite often having not much to do with the morality taught by Jesus and the other prophets. I doubt Jesus would be able to get into any university theology program in the English speaking world, certainly the apostles couldn't, with the possible exception of Paul.
My question is just who is supposed to adopt Kagan's basis of morality as their guide to being a moral person and just how effective it is going to be in doing what is, after all, the point of the matter, not doing what is bad and doing what is good. My question always boils down to how do you get people to treat other people as they would want to be treated even when it's decidedly not what they want to do? How to you get the to make the choice to not do to others as they would not want done to them but to, in fact, do even for the least among us as they would God, if they believed in God.
I doubt there is any secular, atheist, materialist, etc. substitute for religious morality that is going to have even the spotty success that religions have at influencing the behavior of their members. I do think that having any hope of having that happen on the most consequential level, the community, the society, the country and, ultimately, the world can only happen through a religious articulation of moral laws in the form of moral absolutes. Simple enough to be widely understood by non-specialists, really believed in so as to have a real effect in producing moral behavior.
Someone engaged me in a short spat on another website yesterday over something I've mentioned here before, John F. Kennedy naming Robert Taft as a "Profile in Courage" due to his opposition to the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals on the legalistic basis that the genocidal murders, the crimes against humanity, morality and even the most basic decency were all legally legal in Nazi Germany and under their own imposition of law where they had invaded. The person I argued with pointed out that William O. Douglas had come to the same conclusion.
The Nazis, as mentioned in the debate, the stand-in of choice as example of evil, came up in the debate and the place that the denial of moral absolutes play in such evil. I think Craig's arguments on that, especially him citing a Soviet concentration camp guard saying that he loved that what he took as the fact that there was no God, no prospect of an accounting in an afterlife meant meant that he was free to give free reign to the evil that filled his heart. If I'd been debating I'd have pressed Kagan to say what there was in atheism that would hold he wasn't correct. But I do most of my arguing online these days where things aren't as decorous as they are at a university debating hall.
In my last comment in the spat mentioned, I said that anyone who held that if they'd survived and been captured that Hitler and Goebbels should have been allowed to walk because under their dictatorship they'd made what they did legal was someone I found it impossible to take seriously. Though such people, if pressed, apparently comprise not an inconsiderable number of American's legal minds, scholars, politicians and, as in the case of Douglas, even Supreme Court Justices and icons of some kind of liberalism sufficiently comfortable with depravity to contain that POV.
I think that thinking is entirely compatible with what, in that totally abused words, "secular" academic culture has been led to by, first, its formalistic adoption of materialist secularism and, in the end, its universal secularist-materialist-scientistic and intellectually hegemonistic, required view of the world.
I've mentioned this before, but the scene of Winston going to the movies and enthusing over the actual footage of an aerial attack on a lifeboat, the technical achievement of watching children's body parts flying through the air came to mind when I was reading the responses in that spat supporting the view of Taft and Kennedy and Douglas.
There is no realistic code of fairness or niceness or academic openness or secularist pseudo-virtue that requires me to pretend that just because there was no existing legal convention under which to hold the Nazis accountable that there was no absolute moral necessity to do so. And, oddly, even someone as cold and cynical as Francis Biddle found that to be a necessity when confronted with the crimes of the Nazis. It took Harvard trained lawyers and politicians - remarkably enough a decorated war hero - to pretend that wasn't the case. Such is the effectiveness of the kind of training that allows people to assert depravity deserves to walk and get another chance as taught in the secular university that it overcame his own experience.