Today one of my readers, Jeff, took me to task for my argument in God or Godless in favor of the thesis “If There Is No God, Then Everything Is Permitted”. He asserted that this argument was “very crude and even reckless–not to mention false–and far beneath what I would have expected from you.” (You can see the exchange in the discussion thread for “God or Godless is FREE for Kindle download today only (July 1st)“.) Given the nature of the charge, it was more than a bit ironic that Jeff then proceeded to caricature the argument I’d presented with the following comment:
“And it’s no wonder, with apologists such as yourself endlessly repeating the absurd and reckless line that atheists might as well be serial killers.”
Suffice it to say, I didn’t take such a brazen charge sitting down.
So I stood up.
Then I sat back down and typed the following:
“This is an “absurd and reckless” summation of my argument for the transcendent source of moral value. And it is “far beneath what I would have expected from you.”
“How sadly ironic that you fall victim to the very charges you clumsily mount.”
It was indeed disappointing that my critique of John’s atheistic meta-ethic (or lack thereof) should be reduced to the absurd suggestion that atheists might as well all become serial killers. Talk about a crude and reckless description of an argument.
Well things didn’t get any better as the conversation progressed. From here Jeff and I had several back-and-forth exchanges culminating in this statement summarizing his complaint:
“I think my main concern is this: it would have been very easy for you to briefly say something along the following lines. “I want to be very careful here and make something very clear. You might be thinking that I’m implying that atheists might as well be serial killers. Perish the thought! I’m troubled that atheists are widely and prejudicially regarded as morally untrustworthy folks who are uniquely inclined towards violence and murder. What I am saying is that my atheist friends share the same basic moral intuitions as do we theists, and this poses a conceptual problem for their atheism because non-theistic attempts to ground moral value and obligation are unsuccessful.” I know this is your position but I found your presentation to be woefully unclear and even misleading on this point.”
The first thing that struck me about this painful passage of Jeff’s is that he appears not to know how debates are conducted. The second thing is that he seems to have no idea what concision is.
But the most important observation is that Jeff’s appeal to fairness is highly selective.
You see Jeff is a big critic of Christians who defend biblical violence. Now imagine that a Christian wrote a debate book with an atheist and in the book the Christian defended a particular version of divine command theory ethics according to which our moral obligations are constituted by God’s commands. So the atheist offers a rebuttal by pointing out that this Christian’s view of divine command ethics leaves open the possibility that God could command the slaughter of infants today. Do you think Jeff would take the atheist to task or failing to point out that there are divine command theories that don’t have this implication and that there are many other Christian theories of ethics as well? Don’t bet on it. On the contrary, he’d be cheering the atheist on for mounting a powerful ethical critique on the Christian.
Finally, as I noted, in a book like God or Godless each side is developing a particular understanding of their thesis. I defend a particular understanding of theism, metaphysics, ethics and so on, and John does the same. Consequently each of us seeks to defend our view and defeat the view of our opponent which is precisely what I did. This suggests to me that Jeff’s dissatisfaction with my critique is in fact a sign that he is deeply dissatisfied with John’s reductionistic understanding of morality. On that point I agree with Jeff. So then why is he shooting the messenger?