Jesus ‘n’ Mo ‘n’ morals

Here’s the new Jesus and Mo strip, called “say”. The accusation is quite familiar to many of us; not only are we, as secularists, not supposed to have any “grounding” for our morality, but are also said to be arrogant and evincing morally superiority.

Well, if “morally superior” means that we think about how to behave and the consequences of different behaviors and standards, then we are morally superior to those who take their morals directly from scripture or revelations.

Fortunately, many believers (Islam is an exception compared to other Abrahamic faiths) derive most of their morality from secular considerations, something that Plato proved thousands of years ago. His discussion, the Euthyphro argument, is one of the great contributions of philosophy to social thinking. And although Plato framed it in terms of the question “is piety something the gods love because of its quality, or is piety simply taken to be what the god gods love?” the argument can be framed in terms of morality rather than piety.

This leads to the realization—if you’re rational—that when we judge morality, most believers (with the exception of crazies like William Lane Craig) think that God dictates a morality that isn’t just arbitrary, according to his will, but conforms to what seems good a priori. That is, there’s an extra-god morality to which the deity adheres. The conclusion: morality is independent of god. This can be shown by asking a believer the question: “If god told you to murder an innocent child,” (as he did with Abraham and Isaac), “would you do it?” If the believer is horrified and says “Hell, no!”, then that person adheres to standards of morality independent of god.

Most of you know this, but I’m sitting in the Panama City airport with an hour on my hands before flying to El Paso, and so you get to hear the Euthphro argument once again. Whenever someone tells me that philosophy is of no use at all, I simply point out that this realization about ethics—the death blow to religiously-based “morality”, really—came from philosophy.

51 Comments

  1. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted April 18, 2018 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    Well said
    No pun intended
    Almost a haiku

  2. Posted April 18, 2018 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    Whenever someone tells me that philosophy is of no use at all, I simply point out that this realization about ethics—the death blow to religiously-based “morality”, really—came from philosophy.

    True, but it came from philosophy back in the days when philosophy was not distinct from other forms of intellectual inquiry, including what would turn into “science”.

    The accusation that philosophy is little use is an accusation about today’s academic philosophy, which sees itself as distinct from science. I think there’s a lot of truth in the accusation.

    • Posted April 18, 2018 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

      Bad philosophy certain exists. Like bad anything, it probably has existed as long as good philosophy. There are plenty of philosophers that do not view their work as unscientific, Daniel Dennett for one. No need to damn all of philosophy.

      • Tim Harris
        Posted April 19, 2018 at 6:23 am | Permalink

        Thank you, Paul. Craw (and others) might try reading Bernard Williams, Derek Parfit, Martha Nussbaum or Judith Jarvis Thomson (for whom PCC has expressed an admiration) before indulging in what really are lazy generalisations.

        • Tim Harris
          Posted April 19, 2018 at 6:27 am | Permalink

          Sorry! Coel! Not Craw! It’s sometimes difficult to keep these nyms apart.

          • Tim Harris
            Posted April 19, 2018 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

            Also ‘academic philosophy’! Come on! You don’t use ‘academic’ as a pejorative when talking about science, most of which is done in academies…

    • Posted April 19, 2018 at 11:55 am | Permalink

      Not all contemporary philosophers regard their work as disjoint or distinct (in any useful way) from science.

      • Posted April 21, 2018 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

        Right, the disjoint view is well on its way to becoming a minority, if it isn’t already.

    • Diane G.
      Posted April 19, 2018 at 11:57 pm | Permalink

      + 1

  3. rickflick
    Posted April 18, 2018 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    Is Moses drinking coffee out of a Styrofoam cup?

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted April 18, 2018 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

      He didn’t make it to Starbucks today.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted April 18, 2018 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

      It’s a shot glass. “Author” says Moses is on the tequila for this strip. I think he has a different tipple each visit to the Cock & Bull – perhaps a little jest relating to the Hebrew Bible Law of Moses.

  4. BobTerrace
    Posted April 18, 2018 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    Is Islam the exception because it arbitrarily defines morality or because it has no morality, or are those two the same thing?

    • Dale Pickard
      Posted April 18, 2018 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

      I don’t see Islam as an exception or the others as more evolved or less noxious.

    • Craw
      Posted April 18, 2018 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

      It derives morality principally from the imagined actions of Mohammed.

      • Posted April 19, 2018 at 5:23 am | Permalink

        That would be the child-molesting city-sacking chap? Gawd help us all

  5. Ken Kukec
    Posted April 18, 2018 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    “Who are you to say ‘who are you to say’?” — The Cock and Bull Paradox.

  6. glen1davidson
    Posted April 18, 2018 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    Nah, the answer is, “I hear voices, therefore what I say is right.” Or, “I got it from a book written by someone who heard voices.” OK, they heard it “from God.”

    But it was God because the voice said so. Who can doubt that?

    Glen Davidson

  7. freiner
    Posted April 18, 2018 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    Just the other day I saw one of those awful Prager University pieces in which he “explained” that the reason murder is wrong is because you-know-who says it is. My reaction was to wonder if — when one brings god into this at all — murder is wrong because god proscribes it or if god proscribes it because murder is wrong. I thought that tune sounded familiar and thanks to this entry I can now pretend I knew it was Plato all along. It’s good to have somebody else do my homework for me.

  8. Craw
    Posted April 18, 2018 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    That’s my response to “who are we to judge” horrible things like executing homosexuals: “who are we NOT to judge?” What makes it right to look the other way?

    • Posted April 18, 2018 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

      Agreed. That’s what bugs me about the “don’t be judgmental” dictum one hears quite a lot. What’s the point of living if one can’t differentiate between good and bad? Imagine a life of bad bagels and fish and chips and never being able to tell them from the good stuff?

      • freiner
        Posted April 18, 2018 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

        I think “judgmental” as in “don’t be …” carries a connotation other than that of simply “differentiating.” I’d say it refers to a prejudicial attitude that takes no regard for others’ reasons, values, feelings or situations in general. The phrase essentially says don’t be a narrow-minded moralistic jerk. It certainly doesn’t mean to forego being critical, discerning, or, well, judging. Just don’t weaken your case in those instances by being judgmental.
        Admittedly “judgmental” has other connotations, but here I am reminded of an old Simpsons episode where Ned Flanders’ wife says how she just got back from a church retreat where she was learning how to be more judgmental. I don’t think we were meant to conclude “good for her.”

        • Posted April 18, 2018 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

          Maybe that’s why I get along with so few people. LOL.

          • freiner
            Posted April 18, 2018 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

            Ha! But think of all the good bagels and fish and chips you get for yourself!

  9. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted April 18, 2018 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    The “who are we to say” position – which I admit I adopt when under duress – clearly has limits, though – for some things, I think it’s ok – not sure which ones, but…yes?

    I am glad Jesus And Mo poked this notion in the eye – I love how they do that – especially with these notions that always seem to hover around religion, that almost hypnotize the bystanders…

  10. Posted April 18, 2018 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    This can be shown by asking a believer the question: “If god told you to murder an innocent child,” (as he did with Abraham and Isaac), “would you do it?” If the believer is horrified and says “Hell, no!”, then that person adheres to standards of morality independent of god.

    In my experience of putting this question to Christians, the response is invariably “God would not tell me to murder an innocent child”. Of course, you can’t give that answer unless you have decided independently of God that killing innocent children is morally wrong.

    • Posted April 18, 2018 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

      It should also be pointed out that a person’s opinion of their own actions in such a horrendous event is not likely to be accurate. That, coupled with the overwhelming unlikelihood of the event based on the questioner’s beliefs, makes the whole enterprise seem foolish.

      • Posted April 19, 2018 at 3:38 am | Permalink

        It has happened though. Peter Sutcliffe firmly believed that God told him to kill prostitutes with tragic consequences. He was deemed to be mentally ill, by the courts, but how do Christians know God wasn’t talking to him? They don’t except by claiming “God wouldn’t tell anybody to do that”.

        • Posted April 19, 2018 at 5:24 am | Permalink

          God was forever telling people to do just that–in the OT and the Q’ran at least. Sutcliffe would have fitted right in

    • Posted April 19, 2018 at 11:57 am | Permalink

      I do mention the Isaac story at that point. The results are interesting and variable. I *have* had some claim that they would do the Kierkegaardian thing, though generally it has not been Christians. Christians cannot understand the counterfactual because it is “so counterfactual”. (Because of the supposed role of Jesus as being the “last sacrifice”.)

      • Posted April 20, 2018 at 7:50 am | Permalink

        My theory is that Abraham actually failed the test. He was supposed to refuse to do God’s bidding and that is why almost all of the rest of Jewish history consists of slavery, massacre, exiles and holocausts.

        • ThyroidPlanet
          Posted April 20, 2018 at 7:57 am | Permalink

          Allow me to not address your point and insinuate my own stuff :

          This particular Jesus N’ Mo made me wonder : what would a debate between theologians sound like?

          Put another way, what would give one theologian the advantage in a debate over another, and how would that work?

          My thought is that there is nothing any theologian can use to win any debate because, as we know, theology is a subject without an object, and operates independently of knowing truths….

  11. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted April 18, 2018 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    Whenever someone tells me that philosophy is of no use at all, I simply point out that this realization about ethics—the death blow to religiously-based “morality”, really—came from philosophy.

    Personally I do not say “of no [social] use”, but due to their fact ignorance I see little difference between philosophy and theology. As for example demonstrated by the Euthyphro theological argument.

  12. Posted April 18, 2018 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

    I can’t help seeing Moses’ shepherd’s staff as Mohammed’s monkey tail.

  13. Posted April 18, 2018 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

    “Well, if ‘morally superior’ means that we think about how to behave and the consequences of different behaviors and standards, then we are morally superior to those who take their morals directly from scripture or revelations.”

    When we “think” about how to behave, we are really just pondering how to respond to emotions, or behavioral predispositions, if you will, that evolved. There can be no such things as “moral superiority” or “moral progress” because good and evil have no independent existence. They are, at bottom, manifestations of emotions in individuals that exist because of natural selection. Belief in moral realism is the final form of “spiritualism” that most atheists cannot let go. The only major thinker I know of who was free of the illusion that the “ghosts” of good and evil are somehow real was Edvard Westermarck. Darwin certainly suspected as much.

    • AC Harper
      Posted April 19, 2018 at 3:44 am | Permalink

      I’ve often considered ‘morality’ as a socially driven and accepted ‘set of rules’. ‘God’ or ‘scripture’ may be merely decals stuck on social attitudes.

      But the nub of the debate over the “who are you to say” position is an argument over collective attitudes versus an individual’s attitude. ‘God’ is (in my opinion) just a rhetorical device used by the collective to reinforce their rules. Evidence for this includes how ‘Christian societies’ now reject slavery and how in the Western world pre-marital sex has gone from always frowned upon (but practiced) to generally practiced (with only mild tut-tutting).

      As a thought experiment: Could a modern day Robinson Crusoe alone on a desert island *do* anything immoral when there is no-one else to harm? Some behaviours might warrant censure if he did them in a social setting but then who are we to say when he is remote and alone.

      • Posted April 19, 2018 at 5:22 am | Permalink

        Today we attempt to make decisions affecting millions of people and the relationships between giant nation states by blindly consulting moral emotions that exist because they happened to increase the odds that individuals would survive in a Pleistocene environment. In the process we bamboozle ourselves into seriously believing that we are making “rational” decisions. Doesn’t it strike anyone that attempting to blindly apply morality in a context utterly different than the one in which it evolved could be (and has been) extremely dangerous? Morality certainly didn’t evolve “for the good of the species.” Perhaps we need to start asking political decision makers and ideologues, “How will the action you propose benefit your individual genes? If you don’t think it will, what’s the point?”

  14. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted April 18, 2018 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    Modernist believers certainly get some (I would say at least 60 to 75%) of their morality from entirely secular considerations.
    But it’s given a definite amount of spin from religious considerations, and modified as such.

    St. Augustine’s views on what constitutes a just war are largely taken from Cicero, and many of his other ethical views are derived from Plato.

    But when secular pagan ethics runs smack into differing views from Christianity, re suicide, abortion, then Christian beliefs always trump what pagans said.

    Finally, Christians deeply disagree on issues like homosexuality, alcohol, and divorce and don’t seem to agree on what the implications of the Bible actually are.

  15. josh
    Posted April 18, 2018 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

    About the “is philosophy useful” question: It’s a bit misguided. “Are professional philosophers useful” is more to the point in my opinion, and the answer is “not particularly.”

    As noted by others above, the Euthyphro dialogue comes from a time when “philosopher” meant, roughly, “public intellectual”. Moreover, the thought that morality should be independent of any individual preference is not especially esoteric or complex. It’s available to everyone.

    It doesn’t require science, in the sense of rigorous experiment, or math, in the sense of rigorous application of carefully defined rules, but that is because it is a simple thought available to any rational person. It’s not from outside the toolbox of scientists and mathematicians, it is just that it doesn’t require any of the more professional tools.

    So, if we want to call this kind of generic argument-making philosophy, that’s fine. But I object to the notion that it is the special province of philosophers. As far as professional philosophers go, as a class they don’t seem to be particularly good at even this kind of arm-chair reasoning.

    • Posted April 18, 2018 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

      It’s true that we can all do a little philosophizing and should. But virtually everyone dances but a professional dancer dances really well. A well-educated philosopher knows the various positions other philosophers have taken in the past, their names, and arguments pro and con. Although experimentation is not usually something that philosophers do directly, they make use of psychological and sociological experiments and help suggest new experiments.

      • AC Harper
        Posted April 19, 2018 at 3:49 am | Permalink

        On the other hand someone enjoying ‘dad dancing’ at their grownup child’s wedding disco doesn’t need and won’t benefit from professional criticism.

      • josh
        Posted April 19, 2018 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

        The problem is that professional philosophers don’t philosophize well. The one thing they are good for is knowing what other philosophers have said, but even then it is limited by sub-field. This is not to say there aren’t philosophers who I think do a fair job, it’s just that I can find as many or more who are arguing poorly, missing the point entirely, or simply chasing after irrelevancies.

    • Diane G.
      Posted April 20, 2018 at 12:11 am | Permalink

      I couldn’t agree more, Josh. I distinguish between “small-p” philosophy and “capital-P” philosophy, the former of which we all do (consciously or not), the latter being the academic “professionals.” Don’t most sufficiently intelligent people come up with their own versions of the Euthyphro argument at one time or another?

  16. eric
    Posted April 18, 2018 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

    I will certainly opine about what behavior is morally wrong. Because I’m human. But in terms of passing judgment in a pragmatic, punitive sense, that’s what the law does…and by accepting and supporting democracy, I’m agreeing that my voice should be given no more weight than anyone else’s. That contrasts quite sharply with theocratic methods of law and morality, in which the prophet or theologian at the top claims his voice should be given all the weight.

    • Posted April 21, 2018 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

      There’s a truism in politics that says “elections are decided by those who show up.” And in a democracy, elections ultimately determine what the laws will be, even if only indirectly. So, as to “who are you to decide?” – you do the math.

  17. Posted April 19, 2018 at 4:35 am | Permalink

    Just reading Chris D Thomas’s book Inheritors of the Earth – recommended. He accidentally flew to that Panama City instead of the OTHER Panama City! Bet that happens a lot!

  18. Nobody Special
    Posted April 19, 2018 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    The inspiration for this J&M seems to be a troll going by the name Joe Mello; a real whackjob claiming to be a former Franciscan friar who isn’t religious because he had a ‘personal visit from God’. Apparently, religion requires faith, but he has no need of such a thing because he ‘knows Jesus the Living God’.
    Joe appeared* in the Cock & Bull two strips previous to this one and spent a fortnight getting his arse handed to him by the regulars, getting increasingly irate until the usually mild-mannered Author (PBUH) banned him (only the third banning in the history of J&M).
    His superiority complex, both moral and intellectual, is a joy to behold. It’s worth a half-hour reading those previous two threads.

    *His very first comment asked if atheists took J&M into hospitals to show to dying children, because in Joe’s mind atheists’ lack of morals means they enjoy tormenting the terminally ill in their last days. He went downhill from there!

  19. Sastra
    Posted April 19, 2018 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    The conclusion: morality is independent of god. This can be shown by asking a believer the question: “If god told you to murder an innocent child,” (as he did with Abraham and Isaac), “would you do it?”

    Or, alternatively, you could ask the believer “When you first learned about (or encountered) God, what were the characteristics which caused you to conclude that God was morally good?”

    • Posted April 19, 2018 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

      Reading a very “sophisticated” and scientifically literate theist on this question is always an exercise in “what the crap?” – Leibniz, for example. (Spinoza bites the bullet and basically says god is not good or evil, just there. A person with the right attitude *towards* the divine can be good, according to him, which is an interesting twist.)


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