My trust in Soulster's intellect is well founded. Soulster quickly grasped the dilemma, and even asked me to interject if I thought he was misinterpreting the issue. I don't think he was.
Having said that, I must note that I respectfully disagree with his conclusions. This itself isn't a surprise, since he is a Christian and I am an atheist. But what did surprise me was the kind of response he gave considering his Christian worldview. Although his response was surprising to me, this was not a bad thing. Indeed, it was refreshing, even if it was a bit relativistic:
So my answer to the question “Is what is moral commanded by God because it is moral, or is it moral because it's commanded by God?” is this:
1. Some of what is moral is moral because it is defined within a culture. That does not insure that such a thing would be moral to every person or to God. For example, some premodern tribes in Southeast Asia practice ritual rape and consider it moral because it is "demanded by the spirits." I would not consider it moral, along with many other people, and I do not think God would consider it moral.
2. Some of what is moral is moral because it is judged to be so by a person. I may not agree with the morality of my culture on an issue, but I generally agree there are morals and hold to some and agree to hold others in common with groups. A personal God would also make such judgments with regards to human behavior and his own behavior towards humans, but such judgments are meaningless outside of that context. (For example, can you do something immoral to a rock?) Where people disagree in this case, the solution is rhetorical and relational, but not absolute.
3. Some morality is commanded by God in his interaction with culture and individuals, just as certain morals are commanded by any authority in interaction with humans. For example, God did not originally command against nudity in Genesis. The prohibition of nudity was the invention of humans who had taken the responsibilty of judgment upon themsevles apart from God (human judgment outside divine relationship). However, much later in the Law God does make at least one rule concerning nudity and underpants for temple priests. Likewise, there are rules of modesty throughout the Bible. The conclusion that I see is that God is working with this moral because it matters to us and has real consequences, not because it is an absolute. To claim modesty is an absolute simply because God commanded it in interaction is neither necessary nor reasonable, just as God's interaction does not imply or require himi to be the originator of the more.
Soulster's first point (1) is refreshing in that he bases morality (or "some" morality) on humans rather than God. Soulster is the first Christian I've ever encountered that doesn't assign all moral foundations to "God says so," and in that regard, I am both surprised and encouraged. Soulster may not like to hear me say this, but I believe that founding morality on humans, or founding it on anything other than God, is an un-Christian thing to do.
But nevertheless, I disagree with Soulster when he says, "Some of what is moral is moral because it is defined within a culture." My moral framework is composed of universal principles that apply equally to everybody, and those principles are derived from axioms. Most importantly, the axiom of self-ownership. Rape is wrong because it violates another’s sovereignty, or their self-ownership and self-determination. No amount of popular opinion (like justifying rape in a cultural ritual) can make the violation of self-ownership moral or just. Like gravity, morality is what it is regardless of our ability or inability to understand or abide by it.
The second part (2) of Soulster's answer is similar to the first part, but this time instead of a culture defining morality, Soulster states that an individual may define morality. Again, I am refreshed and surprised by his answer, as it seems to me to be un-Christian and full of independent thought. Again, I appreciate Soulster’s independent and critical approach to the whole issue, even if I don't agree with him.
In the Second part of Soulster's answer, he says, "A personal God would also make such judgments with regards to human behavior and his own behavior towards humans, but such judgments are meaningless outside of that context. (For example, can you do something immoral to a rock?)" Now, I definitely agree with Soulster that moral judgments are meaningless outside of a proper context, and his question about the rock illustrates this point. Morality is not arbitrary nor is it relative, but it is definitely contextual. What that means is that it is only relevant when applied to conscious human agents. Well, a Christian would like to include God in that category too, but since I don't believe in God, I don't include him. However, I could grant the inclusion for the sake of argument.
But getting back to the rock and the context, could I do something immoral to a rock? No. But I could do something immoral to a person using the rock as a method. For example, let's say that Soulster owns a rock. If I take it from him, then I just did something immoral. Not to the rock, mind you, but to Soulster. I stole his property and violated his self-ownership. Stealing property is a violation of self-ownership because one's property is a result of their time and energy, so in a way I would be stealing a piece of Soulster, or more specifically, I would be stealing some of his time and energy.
The third part (3) of Soulster's answer falls into the arbitrary category. Can a non-human conscious agent (or even a human one) dictate moral rules to humanity? I don't think so. Just like gravity, morality is what it is, regardless of the decrees of any conscious agent. But if God invented morality, like he invented the universe, (assuming he exists), then morality truly would be defined by God. However, it would be arbitrary, just like gravity. In this case, we fall into the problem of the Cartoon Universe, a term that was coined by the esteemed Dawson Bethrick. See here and here for details on the Cartoon Universe.
There is only one way to have a morality that is not arbitrary, nor relative. There is only one way to have a morality that is firmly grounded. And that is to have morality based on facts of reality, not on decrees by conscious agents (omnipotent or otherwise). The axiom of self-ownership, of the sovereignty of the individual, is the only firm ground with which to base morality upon.
Indeed, we already do so, even if we don't always realize it. While a pre-modern Asian tribe may endorse cultural rape rituals due to their cultural traditions, if I were to simply waltz in to their territory and steal their food, they would surely recognize my action as immoral. And while a Christian, due to his or her doctrine, may think that it is good to punish an innocent man (Jesus Christ) for the wrongs of others, if I were to put an innocent 6 year old in death row for the crimes of a homicidal adult, surely no Christian would see that act as moral.
Sometimes, cultural traditions or beliefs will obscure the natural sense of right and wrong. This occurs when people give undue reverence for traditions, or cultural beliefs, by mere virtue (or pseudo-virtue) of "culture" and "tradition" itself. But when the fog of culture or tradition is cut away, the sovereignty of the individual is automatically recognized, even subconsciously so, and people will act with appropriate outrage when that sovereignty is violated, even if they don't understand that they are relying on the axiom of self-interest. A baby need not understand the axiom of self-ownership to know that it has been wronged when candy is snatched away from it's chubby little palm.
There is one more thing I would like to address before I post this blog entry, and that is the comment left at Philaletheia by Ben. Commenter Ben had this to say:
Calling something immoral is basically an appeal to a higher power: Someone with more authority than you and me doesn’t like what we’re doing.
If we can speak of morality at all, then what is moral is moral because it is commanded by God.
I don’t see any other basis for calling something immoral or not. Immoral to whose standards? If there’s no God, then I don’t see how anyone can set up any kind of standard and expect that it should have authority. This is part of the reason I’ve never understood atheist attempts to define a general morality apart from God: “Sez who?” (This is not to say atheists are immoral, simply that their morality, ultimately, is simply their personal preference, and is not binding or authoritative to anyone beyond the individual holding that morality.)
Perhaps some of the atheists can enlighten me on this.
Now Ben has it half-right when he says that calling something immoral is an appeal to a higher power. The problem is that Ben incorrectly identifies that higher power as God. To correctly appeal to morality, one must appeal to a firm foundation. Namely, an axiom, or a principle derived from it. So to appeal to the axiom of self-ownership would be the correct appeal "to a higher power," while appealing to God would be an appeal to a cosmic cartoonist, a completely arbitrary source.
Ben speaks of atheists as having no solid standard with which to base their morality on. Ben is incorrect, and this is due to his erroneous worldview. He believes that consciousness has primacy over existence, mostly because he believes that conscious entity created the universe, and therefore the universe is subject to said entity's slightest whim (think: Cartoon Universe). But even if there were a God who created everything from you, to me, to morality, and even gravity, it would still be an arbitrary "higher power." I don't know if it ever occurred to Ben that the only solid foundation that one can appeal to is the nature of existence itself? No conscious entity required! We don't need God to provide "intelligent falling," for we can demonstrate the natural property of matter, and it's accompanying property, gravity. Similarly, we don't need God to provide a moral framework, for we can attain a superior and firmer framework from the properties of entities themselves, namely their identity or self-ownership.
In all universal principles, the "higher power" or "higher authority" is a natural property, not a conscious entity making decrees. People often make this mistake by failing to recognize the primacy of existence over consciousness, and that the universe has a definite nature, not an arbitrary cartoon nature. Allow me provide some examples of an appeal to a true "higher authority":
Bodies of mass attract because of the natural law of gravity, not because of "intelligent falling" or of God's constant pushing of bodies of mass towards each other.
A prosperous economy is based on free trade where the invisible market hand of capitalism naturally sets prices and controls supply and demand, not by price and production quotas dictated by some president or minister of economy.
An action is moral or immoral through its adherence to the axiom of identity, or self-ownership. An action is not moral or immoral because of the decree of any conscious agent, or tradition, or cultural norm (traditions and cultural norms are invented by conscious agents anyway). I can act morally on my own values, but I cannot morally force another to act on my values. At best, I can ask them if they want to share my values, and let them choose whether or not to act within my (or rather, our) values.
One contention that I anticipate from the theist side runs along these lines, "God is eternal and never changes, so He is not arbitrary, and basing morality on Him is as solid as it gets." Well I have are two main responses to this nihilistic objection:
1. Whether or not God will change bears no relation to whether or not he can. Without getting too far into the Cartoon Universe argument (refer to the Dawson Bethrick links earlier in this post), the truth is that a conscious entity, by definition, makes decisions, and can potentially change his mind at will. To base a universal principle on a conscious entity is folly, for the conscious entity is always arbitrary by the very nature of a singular consciousness.
2. Occam's Razor would prefer the principles that are based on properties of the natural universe rather than the decrees of a conscious agent. This is because of the fact that basing a principle on a property of the natural universe guarantees a constant and universal nature. The law of gravity, for example, does not have the potential to "change its mind." The axiom of self-ownership does not have the potential to "change its mind." And even if we have a God who will not change his mind, and will, in effect, be as reliable of a foundation as a property of the natural universe, at best this God based morality will only equal the performance of the morality based on the natural universe. And when two possible answers are possible, both being equal in all other matters, the simpler one is the preferred choice. Cut out the middleman.
Natural law inherently provides a superior, non-arbitrary performance. The best that a conscious agent can do, even in the most unrealistically ideal scenario (like a consistent God), is merely to match the performance of a natural law based moral framework, but not best it. Plus, the necessarily arbitrary nature of conscious agents always leaves a hole open - a potential - to perform less consistently than the natural law does. Combine this with the fact that a God or conscious agent based moral system is unnecessarily complex (for the simpler natural law morality performs just as well or better with less components), and it becomes clear that the conscious agent based moral frameworks are all inferior choices.
Cultural norms, traditions, and even decrees from a God cannot hope to match the consistent and excellent performance of a moral framework based on natural axioms.
I hope that my response helps Ben understand my side of the argument. I would like to note however that not all atheists agree with my take on morality. Since atheism is itself a negation, it does not offer a morality of its own. But my moral framework is perfectly compatible with atheism, and materialism, etc. I would like to see it more recognized among atheistic circles, but just because you’re and atheist doesn't mean you will understand a self-ownership moral framework.
Getting back to Soulster, while he and I may disagree, I think we are both working together to discover the truth. Soulster's desire to question and critically examine even his own faith is admirable, and I definitely appreciate the opportunity to dialogue, and disagree, with him.