Posted by: 15shekels | October 16, 2009

“Everything is permitted.”

rman1934l“If God is dead or does not exist, as these people [who are committing human rights abuses] believe, why are not all things permitted? Why should they restrain themselves? Because it’s just wrong? Because it’s not the way civilized people behave? Because what goes around comes around? Because they’ll end up feeling terrible inside? Within tidy circles of properly socialized and reasonable people, such appeals can seem like they actually have the power to restrain people from doing what they otherwise feel like doing. But in the real world outside the philosophy seminar room, oppressors frankly don’t care that you think it’s just wrong. Who are you, they ask, to foist your moral intuition on them? –Gary Haugen, Good News About Injustice, page 110

“Only someone who is religious can speak seriously of the sacred… We may say that all human beings are inestimably precious, that they are ends in themselves, that they are owed unconditional respect, that they possess inalienable rights, and, of course, that they possess inalienable dignity. In my judgment these are ways of trying to say what we feel a need to say when we are estranged from the conceptual resources [i.e. God] we need to say it… Not one of [these statements about human beings] has the power of the religious way of speaking… that we are sacred because God loves us, his children.” -Raimond Gaita, atheist thinker. “A Common Humanity: Thinking about Love and Truth and Justice,” quoted by Tim Keller in Reason for God, page 154.

“‘Everything is permitted.’ It was true what you taught me, sir, because you told me a lot about that then: because if there’s no infinite God, then there’s no virtue either, and no need of it at all.” -Smerdyakov, explaining why he used Ivan’s atheism to justify killing Ivan’s father. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Brothers Karamazov, Book 11, Chapter 8, page 632.

We don’t have a common language of faith in this country. We can’t appeal to cross-sections of the population on the basis that, “God says so.” The closest common language we have, the one that few will deny (at least not openly), is the language of human rights. The increasingly trendy position in intellectual circles is to laugh at the outdated idea of God, but to be a passionate and involved activist, and to protest any form of oppression. And yet in what can we ground the idea of a human being’s intrinsic value? We point to the Declaration of Independence, to the “American” idea of rights:


“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.”

But wait, there’s that word, “Creator.” Could it be, that we have held fast to the idea of human rights, but thrown out the beliefs that grounded them in the first place? If there is no God, and we are nothing more than more highly developed versions of the animals from which we have evolved, then why don’t we have a “survival of the fittest” mentality? Why does the idea of a powerful man killing babies bother us more deeply than the idea of a lion killing baby antelope?

I took a semester-long class on Meta-ethics that sought to answer this question. Meta-ethics is the study of what grounds or explains our ethical discourse. It’s the study of why we might believe that baby-massacres are wrong. The class should really have been called, “Meta-ethics, assuming there is no God.” Because there is a very easy answer to why we have ethics, and that is because an all-powerful, perfect, and loving God created us, values each of us, and values our relationships with Him and with each other. But God was not mentioned in my Meta-ethics class. Instead we discussed theories such as Emotivism, Prescriptivism, Constructivism, Truth Minimalism and Non-Cognitivism. Most of them express the idea that there is no absolute moral truth, and that morality is something that we have created in order to protect ourselves and help society function in an orderly fashion. The idea that we “ought” or “ought not” to do something is a product of various unspoken contracts and agreements, not of anything that exists outside of us.

Yet, in a world in which there is no omniscient judge, no eternal consequences, and we are nothing more than bones, muscles, and firing brain synapses, then don’t all of those theories really boil down to “everything is permitted,” or at least, everything that we can get away with? If morality is just what we’ve implicitly agreed upon to prevent mass chaos, then what will prevent you from doing that crime when nobody is looking? Your conscience? But if you don’t believe in the Holy Spirit, then what the heck is your conscience anyway? Why would we have a moral voice in our heads if those lions don’t?

Anthropologists in particular have struggled with this question as they study other cultures. Many anthropologists subscribe to cultural relativism, the idea that there is no “right” or “wrong” in how other cultures live and what other cultures value. We are all different, but that doesn’t mean our values are ever better than those of another culture. That would be socially arrogant. This leads to great problems, however, when an anthropologist’s imaginary conscience flares up. Anthropologist Carolyn Fleuhr-Lobban expresses her uneasiness at this tension:

codezmendoza“One of the most contentious issues arises from the fundamental question: What authority do we Westerners have to impose our own concept of universal rights on the rest of humanity…[But] the cultural relativists’ argument is often used by repressive governments to deflect international criticism of their abuse of their citizens…I believe that we should not let the concept of relativism stop us from using national and international forums to examine ways to protect the lives and dignity of people in every culture… When there is a choice between defending human rights and defending cultural relativism, anthropologists should choose to protect and promote human rights. We cannot just be bystanders.” –“Cultural Relativism and Universal Human Rights”, Carolyn Fleuhr-Lobban, The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 9, 1995, quoted in Tim Keller, Reason for God, page 149.

As Tim Keller points out in his critique of Fleuhr-Lobban, “she doesn’t answer her own question.” While recognizing that what she perceives as oppression is probably just a Western concept of individual freedom, she nevertheless insists on intervening with our Western values. She backs herself into a politically incorrect wall: “Our values are better than theirs. Period.” (Keller, page 150)

Without God, morality collapses. As Kant, Lewis and many others have argued, there would be no “ought” without God. There would be no right and wrong. There would just be the way things are, and what we like and don’t like. Of course, our desire for a moral system doesn’t mean there is one. But I think a close inspection of our reactions to specific “human rights abuses” would indicate a standard greater than “like” or “don’t like.” Our sense of justice, dignity and human worth, I would argue, points to a deep (if denied) understanding of a God of justice and love.

So why treat people with respect? Because God tells us how He feels about His children:

Because you are precious in my eyes,
and honored, and I love you. (Isaiah 43:4)

“Can a woman forget her nursing child,
that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you.
Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; (Isaiah 49:15-16)

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