Demythologizing Progress

This series follows one entitled Demythologizing Values (DV).  Information presented here can be found in standard books or websites.  Corrections and comments are welcome, and may be sent to Vaughn Barnett, B.A., J.D. at

– 1 –

Drawing upon our demythologized account of ethics as the intersubjective harmonization of desires and interests (per my DV series), we can use this concept of intersubjectivity to propose a theory of moral and social progress according to stages of growth, in the following terms:

The nexus of all morality, understood as intersubjective harmonization, is the relationship of any two subjects, that is, any self-other dyad.  Moral growth, then, is any widening of perspective that more effectively includes other as self, and integrates their viewpoints accordingly.

Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987), The Philosophy of Moral Development, appendix

“[Stage 1 of moral judgment] takes an egocentric point of view.  [One does not] consider the interests of others [nor] relate two points of view.  Authority’s perspective is confused with one’s own…  A person at [Stage 2] is aware everybody has individual interests to pursue,… so that right is relative (in the concrete individualistic sense)…  The person integrates or relates conflicting individual interests to one another through instrumental exchange… or through fairness…  [Stage 3] takes the perspective of the individual in relationship to other individuals [with] shared feelings,… which take primacy over individual interests.  The person relates points of view through the ‘concrete Golden Rule,’ putting oneself in the other person’s shoes…”

Since the self-other dyad is the nexus of morality, and since the above three stages cover the spectrum from self to other, it would seem to follow that all moral thinking, regardless of variability or complexity, must reflect one or more of these three core moralities.  An indication of this is the comparison to be made between this first half of Kohlberg’s six stages of moral psychology and his upper three stages respectively, as interpreted here by another researcher.

Evan Simpson (b. 1940), “The Development of Political Reasoning,” Human Development 30, 1987, page 268

“Kohlberg groups 6 stages of moral development into three levels… but his original depiction of the stages makes a dual division – prepolitical and political – equally appropriate.  The evaluative conceptions in the former group [i.e., stages 1-3] are prepolitical in lacking the systematic vision which is necessary for understanding the complex interdependencies of social organizations…  While political thinking is inherently systematic, however, it differs according to one’s conception of right.  Kohlberg’s descriptions of these conceptions make clear the appropriateness of labeling [his] stages of political reasoning (4) conservative, (5) liberal, and (6) egalitarian.  …stage 4 [emphasizes] respect for authority, and preservation of the basic rules and structure of society…  [The] stage 5 orientation assumes a democratic social order in which people coordinate their actions to ensure that all may seek their own good in their own way.  It does not, however, seem to accommodate the importance of respect for personality, at least as this is understood at stage 6 [in terms of substantive equality].”

Questions to consider:

Are not stages 1-3 and stages 4-6, at least in essential form, concrete and abstract versions, respectively, of the same general moral orientations?  Is it possible that the self-other spectrum has some correspondence to the right-left spectrum?

 2 –

Exploring the possibility that moral and social progress is constituted by the achievement of greater intersubjective harmony, and that the sociomoral progression from self to other corresponds to the sociopolitical progression from right to left (see DP-1), we may first note the following link between the conservative right and egocentric or ethnocentric rationales:

To see that egocentricity is a distinctive aspect of the conservative right, we only need to isolate conservatism from the liberal and egalitarian features it tends to incorporate.  What remains, by definition, is the illiberal and inegalitarian extremism of the authoritarian far right, with egocentric doctrines such as “might makes right,” and supremacy of the self or one’s group (religion, nation, race, gender, species).  Moderate conservatism attempts to mitigate such egocentricity by appealing to a moral standard beyond subjective interests, to which all must conform, so that cohesion and order may prevail over division and chaos.  Having concluded that such a moral standard is a myth (see DV-1 to DV-5), we can also conclude that, in supporting anything short of a true harmony of all wills on their own terms – which is to say, a liberal or egalitarian morality – this supposed source of cohesion and order is a projection of narrow interests.

Ted Honderich (b. 1933), Conservatism, chapter 8

“The conclusion to which we come is not that Conservatives are selfish [but rather that] selfishness is the rationale of their politics, and they have no other rationale [grounded in a] recognizably moral principle [apart from selfish or group interests]…  The resistance of Conservatives to decent lives for others has no other rationale but their selfishness [or their] class interest.”

Yet, the conservative right does recognize the harmonizing function of morality, even when seeking to impose cohesion and order without due regard for whether all viewpoints have been truly integrated.  This often implicit norm of intersubjective harmony is the germ of progress to be found within conservatism.

Morton Auerbach (b. 1924), The Conservative Illusion, chapter 9

“We have seen that, in spite of historical variation, the unifying thread of Conservatism is its underlying value of harmony…  The only techniques which are fully consistent with Conservative values are the defense of harmonizing traditions and exhortation to moral improvement…  The constant argument against Liberalism… is that the pursuit of freedom above all else leads ultimately to chaos and to the imposition of repressive authority…  [Yet even authoritarians] will not reject all freedom but only such freedom as conflicts with the need for authority and stability…  Harmony… accepts all other human values, but subject to the need for minimizing (not eliminating) personal desires and for maximizing love of the community.”

In terms of the self-other dyad as the nexus of all morality, this social “harmony” can essentially take only two forms: either the resulting single will is that of both subjects (other as self) or it is that of only one subject (other for self).  Translated in terms of the political spectrum, either there is the genuine harmony of the left, based on mutuality and equality, or there is the false harmony of the right, based on domination and inequality.

Questions to consider:

Can the social harmony sought by conservatives be genuine other than as that which would be acceptable from the viewpoints of all concerned?  Does this not mean that the perspective or preference of every individual is to be respected as much as that of any other individual?  Might this be why, in the West, conservatism has tended to be combined with individualism, or with liberal democratic principles?

 3 –

Further examining the possibility that moral and social progress is defined by the achievement of greater intersubjective harmony, and that the progression from self to other corresponds to the progression from right to left (see DP-1, DP-2), we may next note the following way in which the liberal center can be seen as an intermediate orientation between egocentricity and an equal regard for the other as for the self:

Liberalism brings egocentricity out into the open, as a practical approach that is as valid for others as for oneself, thus combining egoism with a concept of equality to create a system of mutual individualism, appealing to political or legal norms such as an equal right to freedom, the social contract, and democratically coordinated self-interest.

Jurgen Habermas (b. 1929), Communication and the Evolution of Society, chapter 2, section III

“If the needs relevant to action are allowed to remain outside the symbolic universe, then the admissible universalistic norms for action have the character of rules for maximizing utility and general legal norms that give scope to the strategic pursuit of private interests, under the condition that the egoistic freedom of each is compatible with that of all.  With this the egocentrism of the second stage [in Kohlberg’s theory] is literally raised to a principle; this corresponds to Kohlberg’s stage 5 (contractual-legalistic orientation).”

Such a link between the second and fifth stages of Kohlberg’s moral scale is reinforced by empirical findings of a relativistic or egoistic orientation, resembling regression to stage 2, accompanying advancement to stage 5 liberalism.  A similar pattern can be discerned in the development of liberal ideology historically.

Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987), The Philosophy of Moral Development, chapter 4

“…an increased orientation to instrumental egoistic consideration is found [at or around] Stage 5 [with or] without disruptive ethical relativism.  It is understandable, then, that many of the classical arguments for Stage 5 moralities are social contract arguments designed to show that commitment to social law is the best strategy for Stage 2 instrumentally egoistic people.”

The intermediate or transitional nature of liberalism is reflected in its historical evolution from classical liberalism, emphasizing egoistic freedom, towards welfare liberalism, emphasizing the equality underlying the liberal aim of harmonizing individual wills.  Paraphrasing what was said regarding conservatism, in terms of the self-other dyad as the nexus of all morality, the “harmony” of wills sought by liberals essentially takes only two forms: either the resulting single will is that of both subjects (other as self) or it is that of only one subject (other for self).  Again, translated in terms of the political spectrum, either there is the genuine harmony of left-liberalism, based on truly free agreements between moral equals, or there is the false harmony of right-liberalism, based on coerced agreements in an egoistic or unequal power struggle.

Questions to consider:

As an individualistic orientation ranging from egoism to equality, does not liberalism ultimately require a choice between these opposites on the self-other spectrum?  Insofar as egoism is chosen, can liberalism provide a legitimate ground for respecting others as beings with interests distinct from one’s own, which liberalism itself requires to avoid collapsing into right-wing illiberalism?  Yet, insofar as equality is recognized as this ground of legitimacy, must it not then be seen as a first principle from which all other political norms are to be derived?

 4 –

Still exploring the possibility that moral and social progress is defined by the achievement of ever greater intersubjective harmony, and that the progression from self to other corresponds to the progression from right to left (see DP-1 to DP-3), we may finally note the following link between the egalitarian left and ordinary morality’s regard for others as for oneself:

Comparing Kohlberg’s third and sixth moral stages, we again see that the latter is a more abstract or systematic version of the former.  Simply put, stage 3’s pre-political morality is the Golden Rule, while stage 6’s political morality is a second-order application of the Golden Rule.  Whereas Stage 3 adopts the viewpoint of any particular other, Stage 6 attempts to ensure that this role-taking is reciprocal, at least imaginatively, and that all viewpoints are thus coordinated on an equal basis.

Donald R.C. Reed (b. 1959), Following Kohlberg, chapter 8

“The aim of Stage 6 reversible role-taking is… an intersubjective point of view… That justice judgment is valid… which is acceptable from the point of view of every individual involved…  Any one person’s decision on what should be done is to be not only fully reversible but also the decision the relevant community would make were it to be of one mind…  Indeed, [Kohlberg’s] stage sequence as a whole admits an interpretation on which the progression is toward greater and greater intersubjectivity, where the reasoning perspectives are not so much those of individuals as of increasingly intersubjective practical rationality…”

A correspondence between Kohlberg’s third and sixth stages fits certain progressive ideas: the ideas of primitive communalism, of childlike simplicity and sharing, and of women’s care for particular others (all stage 3) as prefiguring or paralleling social justice (stage 6). Drawing an analogy between Gestalt psychology and moral psychology, in support of the last of these ideas, Carol Gilligan has suggested that the ethics of justice and care are two, sometimes gendered, ways of perceiving the same moral reality.

Carol Gilligan (b. 1936), Mapping the Moral Domain, prologue

“Like ambiguous figure perception where the same picture can be seen as a vase or as two faces, the basic elements of moral judgment – self, others, and the relationship between them – can be organized in different ways…  From the [‘male’] perspective of… justice, relationships are organized in terms of equality, symbolized by the balancing of scales…  From the [‘female’] perspective of… care, relationship connotes responsiveness or engagement, a resiliency of connection that is symbolized by a network or web.”

To make the above metaphor more precise, the vase can be converted into a set of scales to symbolize the justice orientation, while the faces can be retained to symbolize the care orientation.  Hence, when we focus on the scales of justice, human faces are separated by a device designed to balance conflicting claims, so that each person is treated equally as an individual whose interests are distinct from those of others.  When we instead focus on the human faces, we see no barrier between people to keep them from connecting with each other, sharing their interests in common, and striving for their mutual good.

Questions to consider:

Once it is recognized that the essence of morality is the Golden Rule, and hence that the ethical ideal is that which all could accept after identifying with each other’s viewpoint, can there be any real dispute that such an ideal must be the first principle of moral and social progress?  Is this not true radicalism, in the etymological sense of going to the root of what morality fundamentally requires, as well as in the activist sense of calling for drastic changes in the political status quo in the direction of substantive equality?

 5 –

Progressive morality, seeking ever broader intersubjective acceptability, is simply an abstract or systematic form of the ordinary regard for particular others based on Golden Rule reciprocity (see DP-1 to DP-4).  Accordingly, ethical and political decisions cannot be guided by universalistic abstractions except as these are interpretable, in the following terms, as provisional generalizations or reflections about the core norm of reciprocity in particular social relations:

Seyla Benhabib (b. 1950), Situating the Self, chapter 1, sections 1 & 4

“The norm of ‘reciprocity’ is embedded in the very structures of communicative action into which we are all socialized, for reciprocity entails that we are treated by others equally insofar as we are [members] of a particular human group…  Thus at one level the intuitive idea behind the norms of universal respect is ancient and corresponds to the ‘golden rule’…  Universalizability enjoins us to reverse perspectives among members of a ‘moral community’ and judge from the point of view of the other(s).  …if we do not view such discourses in legalistic terms as articulating [only] the standpoint of right-bearing ‘generalized others,’ and if we understand them as the continuation of ordinary moral conversations in which we seek to come to terms with and appreciate… concrete others’ point of view, we do not have to submit to the distorting lens of [overly abstract] procedural universalism…  In the final analysis, universalizability requires us to practice the reversibility of standpoints by extending this to the viewpoint of humanity…  But the ability and the willingness of individuals to do so begins with the admonition of the parent to the child: ‘What if others [did that to you], how would you feel then?'”

Every moral issue arising ostensibly from a clash of abstract ideas (whether between right and left or within a progressive movement) can be translated into a relational issue arising in fact from a clash of particular subjective viewpoints, constituted by phenomena such as present desires or future interests, emotional attachments or conventional expectations, formative histories or life meanings.  Recognizing this translatability of the morally abstract into the relationally concrete, a progressive outlook seeks to resolve conflicts by having those concerned, in actual or hypothetical dialogue, reverse their viewpoints so constituted, and thus construct solutions which they can mutually accept.  This empathic intersubjective approach particularizes, and also radicalizes, conservative ideas like social order and love of community, as well as liberal ideas like equal rights and a social contract, while eliminating false abstractions suggesting a pre-existing universal morality.

John Rawls (1921-2002), “Kantian Constructivism in Moral Theory,” III: IV-VI, Collected Papers

“…the first principles of justice [are not] true in all possible worlds.  In particular, they depend on the rather specific features and limitations of human life that give rise to the circumstances of justice…  It is not that, being situated impartially, [one is able to] have a clear and undistorted view of a prior and independent moral order.  …there is no such order, and therefore no [moral] facts apart from the procedure of construction as a whole; the facts are identified by the principles that result…  Objectivity is to be understood by reference to a suitably constructed social point of view, [an] example of which is the [social contract] framework provided by the procedure of [an] original position [of equality]…  When citizens invoke these principles they speak as members of a political community and appeal to its shared point of view either in their own behalf or in that of others.”

Questions to consider:

Construction being but an organization of parts, is not a constructed social point of view but an organization of particular subjective viewpoints (see DV-6 to DV-10)?  Is equality anything more than an abstract term for making social arrangements acceptable from all such viewpoints?  Must not all moral abstractions, such as human dignity and respect for life, be translatable into perspectives of sentient beings affected by one another?  Ultimately, can progressive ethics have any concern untied to subjective experience?

 6 –

The constructed intersubjective standpoint of progressive ethics, which treats all universalistic moral abstractions as provisional generalizations or reflections about the primary norm of Golden Rule reciprocity (see DP-1 to DP-5), suggests the following general normative presumptions:

Everyone is presumed to have an equal claim to fundamental respect – a basic right to be considered as a being with one’s own ends, as important as anyone else, including any member of an opposing majority/minority (because group size alone does not alter the intersubjective relations between any two individuals), hence…

Everyone is presumed to have an equal claim to individual liberty – a basic right to pursue one’s own ends as freely as possible (self-preservation, self-gratification, self-fulfillment, self-expression), as that which anyone else would find desirable in like circumstances, hence…

Everyone is presumed to have an equal claim to material goods – a basic right to benefit from an unspoiled environment, and from sufficient external things to make pursuit of ends meaningful, given that natural resources were originally common to all, and that property is socially constructed, hence…

Everyone is presumed to have an equal claim to systemic fairness – a basic right not to be deprived of the liberty to pursue one’s ends, nor denied access to originally common resources, through either regulation or privatization, except on reasonable conditions agreeable or beneficial to all, hence…

Everyone is presumed to have an equal claim to distributive justice – a basic right to an equivalent share in the control of, and the advantages from, any political or economic system with which one is expected to cooperate by limiting or redirecting one’s individual liberty and access to material goods.

Richard Norman (b. ?), Free and Equal, chapters 4-5

“Consider a group of people coming together in some joint enterprise… for instance… to share a house…  The set of arrangements which is adopted by the group must be one which can be justified to each of its members.  …each person has an equal say, [and so] can make an equal claim on the group…  … there is a presumption of equality in the distribution of benefits and burdens…

“The fundamental reason why we should seek to promote and maintain relations of cooperation is that we ought to live and work with others in ways which respect their freedom within the common project, recognizing that they have their own needs and interests which have to be accommodated and their own ideas about how to do this…  If we could live pretty much as isolated individuals, we could respect the freedom of others in a negative way, by leaving them to get on with their own lives.  But as social beings, needing to associate with others and to link our efforts with theirs in common projects, our concern for the value of freedom requires that we shape our social institutions as ones in which all can participate freely, on terms which all can freely accept.  Respect for persons as free beings is thus the reason for making our institutions cooperative institutions, and the principles of justice appropriate to such a cooperative group or community are [those] of equality.”

Questions to consider:

When extricated from religious and metaphysical mythology, are “natural” or “human” rights intelligible other than as general presumptions about what we emphatically want from each other as equals?  Can we not see the above presumptions as constructive steps leading inferentially from moral equality as free beings to socioeconomic equality within a cooperative scheme?  Does the generalization from the house-sharing example (plus the fact that the word “economy” literally means household management), not correctly suggest that egalitarianism applies to both personal and societal relationships?

 7 –

Our progressive idea of society as cooperation among moral equals (see DP-1 to DP-6) provides the following normative basis for both civil obedience and disobedience:

John Rawls (1921-2002), A Theory of Justice, chapter VI, section 59

“…once society is interpreted as a scheme of cooperation among equals, those injured by serious injustice need not submit.  …the principles of justice, the fundamental terms of social cooperation between free and equal persons… underlie the constitution…  Up to a certain point it is better [for cooperation] that the law and its interpretation be settled than that [they] be settled rightly.  Therefore it may be protested that [this] account does not determine who is to say when circumstances are such as to justify civil disobedience.  It invites anarchy by encouraging everyone to decide for [oneself], and to abandon the public rendering of political principles.  The reply to this is that each person must indeed make [her] own decision.  Even though [people] normally… accept the injunctions of those in authority… they are always accountable for their deeds…  This is true on any theory of political duty and obligation that is compatible with the principles of a democratic constitution…  But while each person must decide… whether the circumstances justify civil disobedience, it does not follow that one is to decide as one pleases.  It is not by looking to our personal interests, or to our political allegiances narrowly construed, that we should make up our minds.  …a citizen must look to the political principles that underlie and guide the interpretation of the constitution…  Equals accepting and applying reasonable principles need have no established superior.”

William H. Simon (b. 1947), The Practice of Justice, chapter 4

“…Dominant arguments for obedience demand that we look at the legal system as a whole, ask if on balance it serves some good [order, fairness, democracy], and if the answer is yes, obey its commands categorically.  But unless we have some reason to think our selective disobedience will trigger some independent and unjustified lawlessness, we should not consider it a threat to the desirable aspects of the legal order.  The fact that other people are obeying the law is often a fairness reason why we should, but if the law itself is unfair, the fairness concerns supporting disobedience will usually outweigh those supporting obedience.  And the fact that the law has emerged from a generally democratic political process is a reason for obedience, but not one that should prevail if the process has not been democratic in this particular case.  Now turn to a [different] conception of law…  We can call this conception Substantive, though there are many variations of and names for it.  Some people prefer the term “natural law,” though that term has connotations too exotic and metaphysical for what… is a familiar, mainstream notion…  It acknowledges… jurisdictional rules… as expressions of underlying values, such as order, fairness, and democracy, and it insists on interpreting the rules in the light of these values.  …it denies that jurisdictional principles that prescribe the allocation of authority for dispute resolution are more fundamental than substantive principles that prescribe the just ordering of the social world…  [Substantivism ultimately] leads to anarchy…  For [some,] anarchy is tantamount to lawlessness, but for the Substantivist (and for most anarchists) anarchy is simply the most decentralized legal system imaginable.  In such a system every citizen is a common law judge of what the law requires [meaning] that enforcement takes place through spontaneous citizen action… rather than formally constituted authority.  The tendency to see all conduct in defiance of constituted authority as norm-less or unprincipled is a… prejudice.  The examples of the Boston Tea Party and the Birmingham march remind us that disobedient conduct can be intensely normative [and also] that some of the most radical manifestations of Substantivism have achieved legitimacy in our culture.”

Questions to consider:

If we are to have a non-mythical conception of law, what can morally justify obedience to it other than social cooperation?  Would not the same principle also then place limits on required obedience, and thus justify civil disobedience when fair terms of political or economic cooperation have been seriously violated?

 8 –

An understanding of progressive morality grounded on equality among free individuals within a cooperative scheme (see DP-1 to DP-7) points to the following conception of socioeconomic justice along neo-Marxist or post-capitalist lines:

Jeffrey Reiman (b. 1942), “An Alternative to ‘Distributive’ Marxism,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy, supplementary volume 15, 1989, page 299, section II

“[Justice] places human freedom atop the hierarchy of moral values.  To turn this into a conception of social justice, we express it as an ideal relationship between human beings, namely, that individuals should stand to one another as equal sovereigns…  If we take Marxism as moved by the ideal of equal sovereignty, we can say that Marx’s crucial discovery about capitalism was that it contained a new, and in some ways, invisible form of unequal power over people: private ownership of means of production, which Marx held to be coercive even when it did not seem so…  Overt violence is needed only to protect private ownership [of originally common resources].  Once that is secure, no more violence is needed to force the worker to work for the capitalist on the latter’s terms.  The very structure of property ownership itself supplies the force by putting the worker in a position in which he [or she] has no real choice but to sell himself…  And, once the structure of property ownership becomes so much part of the social landscape that it is taken for granted, the force is not seen at all.  All that remains is the vivid picture of workers freely agreeing to work for capitalists.  …what Marx called ideology is, in capitalism, little more than the tendency of the force built into the structure of property relations to become invisible…  It is surely plausible that a society of equally sovereign people would be one in which people were working for others in an amount equal to that in which others were working for them.  At very least, deviations from equal labor exchanges would require special explanation, while equal exchanges would already be satisfactorily justified by the ideal of equal sovereignty.  This accounts for the distributive ideal that Marx attributes to ‘the first stage of communism’ (what is later identified as socialism)…”

Robin Hahnel (b. 1946), Economic Justice and Democracy, chapter 7

“…to manage our economic affairs… if we had the opportunity to start again [we] could hold a lottery, or perhaps have a brawl, to decide who owns what productive resources.  The unfortunate losers would have to hire themselves out to work for the more fortunate winners, and the goods the losers produced could then be ‘freely’ exchanged by their owners, the people who didn’t produce them.  Of course, this is the capitalist ‘solution’…  Alternatively, we could make the best educated, or perhaps most ruthless among us, responsible for planning how to use society’s scarce resources and for telling the rest of us what to do.  But [now] command planning is in the dustbins of history where it belongs.  …we know authoritarian planning does not yield economic democracy, equity, and efficiency…  In the aftermath of the collapse of communism, debate about alternatives to capitalism has divided into three camps: proponents of market socialism, supporters of community-based economics, and proponents of national democratic planning.  …since everyone in all three camps is thoroughly committed to democracy, all understand that the struggle to eventually replace capitalism must necessarily take the form of fighting for reforms within capitalism for the foreseeable future.  …their differences about the future do not mean they cannot agree [about] reforms to advance the cause of equitable cooperation…”

Questions to consider:

Because virtually all capital is produced by collective labor applied to originally common natural resources, should we not reject, as a class-biased myth, the notion that capitalist relations are the nearest we can get to a free and just system of exchange?  Would this not be more fully realized in a truly cooperative society which put both political and economic decisions under the direct democratic control of those most affected?

 9 –

If moral progress involves reforms within capitalism towards more equitable social cooperation (see DP-1 to DP-8), it would seem to entail the following justifications for providing everyone with a decent standard of living through a universal basic income:

Philippe Van Parijs (b. 1951), “A Basic Income for All” in What’s Wrong with a Free Lunch?, section 1

“If the motive in combating unemployment is not some sort of work fetishism – an obsession with keeping everyone busy – but rather a concern to give every person the possibility of [avoiding unattractive work and] taking up gainful employment in which she can find recognition and accomplishment, then the UBI [Universal Basic Income] is to be preferred [over employer subsidies]…  The availability of such a strategy undermines [excessive capitalist productivism] and thereby improves the prospects for realizing environmentalist objectives [as well as] gives everyone some real freedom… to withdraw from paid employment in order to perform autonomous activities, such as grass-roots militancy or unpaid care work…  Everything we know suggests that nearly all people seek to make some contribution…  On this background, even the principle ‘To each according to her contribution’ justifies a modest UBI as part of its best institutional implementation…  True, a UBI is undeserved good news for the idle surfer.  But this good news is ethically indistinguishable from the undeserved luck that massively affects the present distribution of wealth, income, and leisure…  Such gifts of luck are unavoidable and, if they are fairly distributed, unobjectionable.  A minimum condition for a fair distribution is that everyone should be guaranteed a modest share of these undeserved gifts.  Nothing could achieve this more securely than a UBI.”

Respondents’ comments from the same book…

Herbert A. Simon (1916-2001): “Access to the social capital – a major source of differences in income, between and within societies – is in large part the product of externalities: membership in a particular society, and interaction with other members of that society under practices that commonly give preferred access to particular members…  When we compare the poorest with the richest nations, it is hard to conclude that social capital can produce less than about 90 percent of income in wealthy societies… On moral grounds, then, we could argue for a flat income tax of 90 percent to return that wealth to its real owners.  In the United States, even a flat tax of 70 percent would support all governmental programs [including a UBI] and generously leave with the original recipients of the income about three times what, according to my rough guess, they had earned… [So] it is not clear why motivation to earn more would be reduced.”

Anne L. Alstott (b. 1963): “Even a UBI below subsistence level could make a real difference in women’s lives.  …a UBI would ensure that everyone can count on the same income floor, regardless of work history.”

Ronald Dore (b. 1925): “A basic income would obscure the distinction between those who would find it difficult to get a job and those who simply prefer to live modestly…  That should help with the dignity problem, which in my view is at least as serious an aspect of unemployment as the poverty problem…  Decoupling work – having a job – from the status of citizenship is the first step.  Tying the latter to something else – like doing some form of community service – might be the second.”

Robert E. Goodin (b. 1950): “Suppose workfare requirements are taken to imply an ‘activity test’ that can be satisfied in any of many ways.  …we may well find punitive and draconian workfare schemes being thereby transformed, in effect, into state salaries for socially useful labor of many (if not quite all) forms.  …workfare will have become a first approximation to a participation income [and then] we truly will have backed into progressive social policy.”

Questions to consider:

Must economic cooperation be equated with the labor market or trade narrowly construed?  Can it instead be understood simply as people providing for each other through mutually acceptable arrangements?

 10 –

Reinforcing the arguments for moral progress via egalitarian reforms (see DP-1 to DP-9) is our previous rejection of acausal free will, ultimate responsibility, and harsh values not grounded within a naturalist-determinist framework (see DV-11 to DV-15).  Hence, for the following kinds of reasons,  desert or merit cannot justify fundamental inequality:

Saul Smilansky (b. ?), “Egalitarian Justice and the Importance of the Free Will Problem,” Philosophia 25, 1997, page 153

“…if people lack the sort of self-creating ability which only… free will might have provided us with, then ultimately everything – including a person’s choice – must be viewed as arbitrary, and cannot… be seen as up to the person…  She could not have ultimately chosen to be (or not to be) this very person, who would choose as she did.  …there was an original self… for which the later selves cannot be responsible.  This original self, from which the later selves follow, could not have created itself, but was rather most arbitrarily ‘given’… Starting from a presumption of equality in what people ought to get, a hard determinist conception of justice would [consequently] see any unequal well-being… as unjust; [the] idea that there can be the sort of non-arbitrary ‘genuine choice’ which could justify some inequality would be simply seen as mistaken.  …the assumption that people can deserve forms of treatment or situations in the strong sense of desert that only… free will (if it could exist) would provide… lies behind much of the thinking that inequality of distribution can be morally justified.”

These implications of determinism for distributive or egalitarian justice also apply to retributive or punitive justice, and indeed reduce the latter to the former.

Ted Honderich (b. 1933), How Free Are You?, chapter 10

“The theory of punishment that is likely to come to mind first in connection with determinism is that punishment is right because it is deserved.  This is the retribution theory…  There has never been agreement on what these desert-claims are to be taken as meaning… [Yet there] must be something substantial in talk of desert and punishment…  It is that punishing the offender will give satisfaction to the victim or others, perhaps to society as a whole.  The offender by his offence has created a grievance… a desire on the part of other people for exactly his distress.  Punishing him will satisfy that desire.  Further, there is one particular penalty that in a clear sense will be equivalent to his offence.  This is the penalty that does not do more and does not do less than exactly satisfy that grievance…  What is needed for this kind of punishment is… a free action [not compatible with determinism]…  The means of great distress [for people not ultimately responsible] is not justified by the end of satisfaction.  …punishment is right… when it has fair consequences… in accordance with a certain moral principle.  That principle is the Principle of Equality, which is that we should take really effective steps to make well-off those who are badly-off.  …determinism [thus also] has consequences for… the social actions that enter into… distributions of income and of wealth, distributions of power and rank, and official praising and blaming…  The truth of determinism… requires that we change our social institutions and practices in so far as they are owed to our image of [free will]…  If that is so, should one part of the response of affirmation [to determinism] be a move to the Left in politics?  I leave you with that bracing question.”

Questions to consider:

Posing the above “bracing question” in reverse, should one part of social progress, or moving to the political left, be an affirmation of determinism?  Without free will and a strong sense of desert, can retributive or punitive justice be a valid norm meaningfully distinct from distributive or egalitarian justice?  To be consistent with the no-fault implications of determinism, must not every form of political or economic justice be a matter of non-judgmentally distributing the benefits and burdens of cooperation under conditions acceptable to all?

 11 –

While our naturalist-determinist framework validates progress towards substantive equality from a moral point of view (see DP-1 to DP-10), it also shows there to be no objective reason why a moral viewpoint must be accepted in the first place, over a rival amoral perspective.  Consequently, to all that has been said so far, we need to add the following major qualification:

Philippa Foot (1920-2010), “Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives,” Virtues and Vices

“Attempts have sometimes been made to show that some kind of irrationality is involved in ignoring the ‘should’ of morality…  Irrational actions are those in which a [person] in some way defeats his [or her] own purposes…  Immorality does not necessarily involve any such thing…  People talk… about the ‘binding force’ of morality, but it is not clear what this means if not that we feel ourselves unable to escape…  Perhaps it makes no sense to say that we ‘have to’ submit to the moral law, or that morality is ‘inescapable’ in some special way…  The conclusion we should draw is that moral judgments have no better claim to be categorical [or absolute] imperatives than do statements about matters of etiquette…  It will be said that this way of viewing moral considerations must be totally destructive of morality, because no one could ever act morally unless he accepted such considerations as in themselves sufficient reason for action…  [Yet one] may care about the suffering of others, having a sense of identification with them, and wanting to help…  If one wants to know whether there could be a truly moral [person] who accepted moral principles as hypothetical rules of conduct,… one must consider the right kind of example…  [Some people] are prepared to fight hard for moral ends – for example, for liberty and justice – [because such ends] arouse devotion…  Perhaps we should be less troubled than we are by fear of defection from the moral cause; perhaps we should have even less reason to fear it if people thought of themselves as volunteers banded together to fight for liberty and justice and against inhumanity and oppression.  It is often felt, even if obscurely, that there is an element of deception in the official line about morality.  And while some have been persuaded by talk about the authority of the moral law, others have turned away with a sense of distrust…”

Note 15:  “I am therefore putting forward quite seriously a theory that disallows… saying that [one] ought… to have ends other than those [one] does have, e.g., that the uncaring, amoral [person] ought to care about the relief of suffering or the protection of the weak.  …we must start from the fact that some people do care about such things [and] they may therefore talk [i.e., morally] about what should be done presupposing such common aims.  These things are… only subjectively and contingently necessary…”

Kai Nielsen (b. 1926), Why Be Moral?, chapter 8

“…from the moral point of view ‘Because it’s right’ must be a sufficient answer…  …it cannot possibly be a sufficient answer from the point of view of self-interest or from the point of view of an individual challenging the sufficiency of the whole moral point of view, as a personal guide for his [or her] actions.  …we have two strands of discourse here with distinct criteria and distinct canons of justification.  We just have to make up our minds which point of view we wish to take.  …whether it would or would not be in your ‘true interests’ to be moral or non-moral would depend on the sort of person you are. [Generally] we are, as a matter of fact, partly egoistic and partly other-regarding in our behavior.  There can be no [completely] non-personal, objective justification for acting morally [rather] than non-morally.  …[Although one may] not want to be in the position of finally having to decide… the subjectivists are right in suggesting that this is just what [one cannot] avoid doing…  We need not have existential dramatics here, but we do need to recognize the logical and practical force of this point.  Most rationalistic and theological ethical theories seem to be mythmaking devices to disguise this… uncomfortable fact.”

Questions to consider:

Does the rationality of morality imply the irrationality of amorality?  Conversely, does the rationality of amorality imply the irrationality of morality?  Are not both perspectives valid as normative guides?

 12 –

Morality’s standpoint of equality between self and others (see DP-1 to DP-10) and amorality’s self-regarding point of view (see DP-11) are both valid guides for social conduct, within our naturalist-determinist framework.  As unconventional or even subversive as this might seem, the following suggests that we assume the validity of both of these moral and amoral perspectives in common real-life decisions about how to treat others:

J.L. Mackie (1917-1981), Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, chapter 6, section 2

“All real societies, and all those which it is of direct practical use to consider, are ones whose members have to a great extent divergent and conflicting purposes…  People simply are not going to put the interests of all [others] on an equal footing with their own interests and specific purposes and with the interests of those who are literally near to them.  Such universal concern will not be the actual motive of their choices, nor will they act as if it were.  …a large element of selfishness… is a quite ineradicable part of human nature…  Even what we recognize as unselfishness or benevolence is [often] incompatible with universal concern.  It takes the form of… self-referential altruism – concern for others, but for others who have some special connection with oneself: children, parents, friends, workmates, neighbors in the literal, not the metaphorically extended, sense.  Wider affections than these usually center upon devotion to some special cause… not upon the welfare of human beings, let alone sentient beings, in general.  …in becoming capable of acting [primarily] out of universal concern, people would have to be stripped of the motives on which most of what is of value in human life is based – close affections, private pursuits…”

Up to a point, our preferential treatment of ourselves, and of those near and dear to us, can be morally justified on practical or affective grounds.  However, insofar as we favor ourselves, or those who are physically or emotionally close to us, over others who have a much greater need for our concern, to that extent we are taking an amoral stance towards those others.  Justifying our variable concern for them as ethical discretion or aspiration is only a more palatable way in which our morality concedes rational space to our amorality.

Peter Railton (b. 1950), “Alienation, Consequentialism, and the Demands of Morality,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 13, 1984, page 134, notes 34 & 42 (cross-referenced)

“The consequentialist may [recognize agent-centered prerogatives but] also argue that at least some of the debate [about moral demandingness] is more properly concerned with the question of the relation between moral imperatives and imperatives of rationality than with the content of moral imperatives as such…  One need not be a sceptic about morality or alienated from it in any general sense in order for the question ‘Why should I be moral?’ to arise with great urgency.  If in a given instance doing what is right or having the best sort of character were to conflict head-on with acting on behalf of a person or a project that one simply could not go against without devastating the self, then it may [even] fail to be reasonable from the agent’s standpoint to do what is right.  It is always morally wrong (though not [necessarily] morally blameworthy) to fail to perform morally required acts, but in certain circumstances that may be the most reasonable thing to do – not because of some larger moral scheme, but because of what matters to particular individuals.  Therefore, in seeking an answer to ‘Why should I be moral?’ I do not assume that it must always be possible to show that the moral course of action is ideally rational or otherwise optimal from the standpoint of the agent.”

Questions to consider:

Should we not, morally speaking, admit our amoral disregard for the great needs of many human or sentient beings in the world, instead of rationalizing their neglect in terms of ethical permissibility?  Because everyone is validly amoral, and cannot avoid making subjective or existential choices in balancing morality and amorality, what can be said against extreme pluralism?

 13 –

Social progress as widening intersubjectivity can now be seen as creating a dialectical tension between two diametrically opposite positions: a radical morality based on concern for all human or sentient beings; and a radical freedom due to the lack of an objective requirement for any moral concern at all (see DP-1 to DP-12).  This tension leads to a paradoxical nihilism, in the following sense:

One of the factors in social progress is the growing awareness, central to both of these positions, that there are no objective values “out there,” privileging one subjective viewpoint over any other.  From a perspective which seeks to be fully intersubjective, this equal legitimacy of viewpoints translates into an egalitarian morality, but from a skeptical perspective which realizes that it cannot go beyond the intersubjective, any such morality lacks external objective support.  Intersubjectivity both grounds and bounds any theory of moral or social progress.

Ross Poole (b. ?), Morality and Modernity, chapter 4, last section

“If intersubjectivity is to serve as the foundation for a theory of justice as a good, it must be established at the level of individual identity [such that] the concerns of the self include a reference to the concerns of others…  This concept… presupposes a certain form of social life – a ‘community’…  [However, those] who have invoked the concept [of community] against liberalism have simply evaded the central problem which liberalism is attempting to confront: the place of values in a value-free social world…  Nihilism arises in part through the collapse of objective values and the incapacity of individuals to provide their own.  It is the emptiness of absolute freedom: freedom as arbitrariness…  Liberalism is a diluted nihilism.  It implicitly recognizes the nihilism at the center of modern social existence, and attempts a holding operation: to contain nihilism within the limits necessary for social life to continue.”

This relationship between nihilism and morality might be compared to the relationship in science between Einsteinian and Newtonian paradigms.  In each instance, the former perspective is one of ultimate relativity, while the latter is one of proximate absoluteness useful for human purposes, but only properly understood against the background of the former perspective.  Hence, drawing again on the psychological theories of Kohlberg and Gilligan (see DP-1 to DP-4), we can speak of moral development culminating in an alternation between two gestalts.

Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987), The Philosophy of Moral Development, chapter 9 (with Clark Power)

“…after attaining a clear awareness of universal ethical principles valid against the usual skeptical doubts, there still remains the loudest skeptical doubt of all: ‘Why be moral? Why be just, in a universe that is largely unjust?’…  Such despair [occurs] when we begin to see our lives as finite [and] the meaninglessness of the finite from the perspective of the infinite.  The resolution of the despair… represents, in a sense, a shift from figure to ground [when we] sense the unity of the whole [of life] and ourselves as part of that unity.”

Contrary perhaps to Kohlberg’s wish, the figure-ground metaphor suggests that the shift is always possible in both directions.  Nihilism remains a valid perspective, arising from moral progress and challenging it dialectically, but still allowing for it as a useful construction incorporating an enlightening awareness of the universe’s intrinsic meaninglessness.  This is one variation of what has been called the paradox of nihilism.

Questions to consider:

Is it not a conceptual necessity that our naturalist-determinist framework, just as its opponents claim, leads to some type of nihilism?  Yet, can there be any purer sense of morality than being moral when one has no reason other than empathy for its own sake?

 14 –

Ultimate subjectivism and nihilism as products of moral progress (see DP-1 to DP-13) account for the countervailing persistence of religious movements attempting to create meaning within an increasingly liberalized and secularized world.  Such movements range from regressive forms of authoritarianism or fundamentalism to the following progressive types of non-dogmatic spirituality:

1.  Progressive spirituality is essentially a quest for intersubjective harmony that has been given the deepest significance, consistent with the sense of unity in Kohlberg’s theory.  At its starkest, it is a straightforward extension of paradoxical nihilism, wherein empathy becomes a highest purpose in the absence of any other.  Muted by figurative language, this benign nihilism is also expressed by certain kinds of liberal theology, pantheism, Neopaganism, New Age or Eastern mysticism (see DR-18 to DR-20).

2.  Given that subjectivity is the only source of value in the universe, a second form of progressive spirituality mitigates the nihilistic implications of this contingency by fallibilistically postulating an infinite subjectivity (universal consciousness, eternal afterlife).  It motivates, without detracting from, a secular morality based on empathy. Versions of the figurative spiritualities listed above could also fit in this category, as could spirituality guided by near-death experiences, whatever their real source might be.

3.  A third form of progressive spirituality seeks to reform religious institutions from within, and to move them towards a society which all of it members can accept insofar as they are able and willing to identify with each other’s needs, including religious needs. This type of spirituality might include faith-based social activism, interfaith cooperation and ecumenism, or advocacy for greater church democracy.

Gordon Lynch (b. 1968), The New Spirituality, introduction

“…progressive spirituality… has emerged out of four key concerns: the desire for an approach to religion and spirituality that is appropriate for modern, liberal societies, the rejection of patriarchal forms of religion and the search for religious forms that are authentic and liberating for women, the move to re-sacralize science… and the search for a nature-based spirituality that will motivate us to try to avert the impending ecological catastrophe…  [The] notion of the divine can take either pantheist or panentheist forms in progressive spirituality…  This view of the divine is often held in conjunction with an emphasis on the value of mystical union with [the] grounding source of life, and it is common for advocates of progressive spirituality to either actively endorse, or be sympathetic to, feminine metaphors for describing the divine.  …advocates of progressive spirituality [also] regard all constructive religious traditions as containing insights that can be valuable…  Religious tradition is therefore valued in so far as it points to the core assumptions of progressive spirituality – and other meaning-systems, such as rational secularism, or even eastern and New Age spiritualities that are also subject to critique where they differ from these core assumptions.  …the perspective on demoralization broadly shared amongst many advocates of progressive spirituality is that moral decline arises out of an instrumental secular world view (or its ‘other’ – patriarchal religion) which provides the ideological support for a rationalized, capitalist structure that exploits both humanity and the wider natural world.  …it could be argued that if we are indeed living in the throes of a cultural crisis in values then progressive spirituality offers a viable world view and ethos…”

Questions to consider:

Given that even secularists recognize the need to rise above nihilistic despair, must they not also recognize the vitalizing function of some type of religion or spirituality in an otherwise meaningless universe?  Might this be a socially useful function as long as it leaves intact the substance of progressive morality?

 15 –

Within our philosophy of ultimate subjectivism and nihilism (see DP-1 to DP-14), a progressive morality would reject the finality of any external authority, religious or secular, in favor of the following principles of radical anti-authoritarianism, associated with anarchists or left-libertarians:

Susan Brown (b. 1959), “Anarchism, Existentialism, Feminism, and Ambiguity” in The Anarchist Papers 2

“The recognition that our world is neither divinely nor naturally [planned] does not imply that meaning does not exist [in any sense at all], as the nihilist [might] have us believe, but rather that meaning is humanly created.  …if the ambiguity implied in a world where meaning is created by human individuals is fraught with anguish, it also brings with it the possibility of freedom…  This focus on individual liberty… is at the heart of anarchist thought…  …human individuals are free – free to project themselves into a meaningful future, free to assert their own value as ends in themselves…  To live ethically, one must reach out towards the future, and in freely doing so, one must open up freedom not only for oneself but for others…”

Bonnie Haaland (b. ?), Emma Goldman: Sexuality and the Impurity of the State, chapter 4

“From an absolutist perspective, human desire is bad and social control is good…  Libertarians [or anarchists] call for an end to sexual [and other kinds of] repression as it manifests itself through the socializing agents of the church, the family, and the State…  Through the unfettered expression of… impulses [in harmless ways], the individual may gain her/his physical and emotional well-being, while the society may gain integrity and honesty, throwing off the shackles of moralist hypocrisy…  [Similarly,] radical pluralism recognizes the needs of the individual… and, like libertarians, it recognizes the legitimacy of ‘denied’ sexual practices [or alternative lifestyles].”

Paul McLaughlin (b. 1974), Anarchism and Authority, chapter 1

“…anarchists take as their starting point the open question of authority [and so] are especially keen to highlight the superstitious, mythical, and generally irrational features of the justification of authority.”

Noam Chomsky (b. 1928), “Anarchism, Marxism and Hope for the Future,” Chomsky on Anarchism

“…it only makes sense to seek out and identify structures of authority, hierarchy, and domination in every aspect of life, and to challenge them; unless a justification for them can be given, they are illegitimate, and should be dismantled, to increase the scope of human freedom.  …the essence of anarchism [is] the conviction that the burden of proof has to be placed on authority, and that it should be dismantled if that burden cannot be met…  One major element has been… ‘libertarian socialism.’  …tendencies in anarchism draw from the best of Enlightenment and classical liberal thought…  …they contrast sharply with Marxist-Leninist [‘socialism’], the ‘libertarian’ doctrines [of capitalism], and other contemporary ideologies, all of which seem… to reduce to advocacy of one or another form of illegitimate authority, quite often real tyranny.”

Questions to consider:

Having concluded that there can be no demanding “must” apart from subjective ends, how can one accept a final authority independent of what one wants, all things considered – without being irrational by definition, and hence under an illusion?  From a moral perspective of treating others as equals, does this not mean recognizing others as also ultimately not bound by any external authority?  In terms of moral and social progress from right to left, should there be much wonder that, as the direct opposite of the illiberal and inegalitarian extremism of the authoritarian far right, we have the libertarian and egalitarian radicalism of the anti-authoritarian far left?

 16 –

Recapping, we can describe moral progress as the egalitarian pursuit of mutual harmony among conflicting wills (see DP-1 to DP-9), recognizing that such wills are predetermined, sometimes validly amoral, and normatively unconstrained by any higher meaning or external authority (see DP-10 to DP-15).  Therefore, as the following writers have suggested, although for less radical reasons, progressive morality ironically accepts people as given, with their biologically and socially conditioned wills as they are, rather than as they supposedly ought to be or might have been under more ideal conditions:

Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997), Political Ideas in the Romantic Age, chapter 2

“…there is a metaphysical method of trying to have it both ways – of at once permitting and denouncing coercion by denying that it is in any important sense coercive.  This is done by [requiring a person] to act in a way in which he would [require] himself to act, if his reason [or consciousness, or whatever] were fully developed…  In this way, [one gets] the identification of coercion with complete self-government.  For freedom is after all only doing what I want; [and] what I want is that which will satisfy… my rational nature… [However,] there is every difference between what in fact I wish, and what someone else thinks I ought to wish; between what I do wish, and what, because I ought to wish it, I am said to be wishing already in some deeper sense…  At some stage I am bound to protest, as oppressed minorities and majorities have always protested and always will protest, that to be free is to be in a position to secure the satisfaction of one’s actual wishes, not of… ‘potential’ or ‘ideal’ wishes…”

Antony Flew (1923-2010), Equality in Liberty and Justice, chapter 5, section 4

“…whereas I remain the best expert on my own actual wishes and wants, others may claim special skills in identifying my true needs [while] discounting or discrediting [my] actual, present, wishes and wants…  [Yet,] to say that this or that is needed is to say that it is a necessity for the fulfilment of some… end.  …although some expert may be qualified to tell me what I need for [an] end, there is no room for an expertise referring not to means only but to ends.  …the obnoxiousness [of the latter is] that of pretending to enjoy privileged… access to ultimately authoritative values, [or] of claiming… the right… to impose what are alleged to be uniquely authentic ends…  In the name of their own pretended moral and intellectual superiority, [some] are demanding unequal power… for themselves and for other would-be members of an elite of professing egalitarians…”

Jeremy Waldron (b. 1953), Liberal Rights, chapter 2, section 2

“To talk about my freedom… is not to talk about the thought or decision-making of an entity cleansed of the ‘false consciousness’ that characterizes my present experiences and desires.  Sometimes liberals are [wrongly] accused of taking the beliefs and preferences of individuals as given and hence of ignoring the fact that forms of society may determine forms of consciousness…  [But this] is in principle something that people as they are can recognize in themselves and take into account in their reflective deliberations…”

Questions to consider:

Although non-progressive forms of society may determine people’s consciousness, does that make their resulting desires any the less real, compelling, or legitimate?  Can an ascribed wish give anyone a sufficiently rational motive to change except insofar as, due to reflective thought or consciousness raising, it emerges from and transforms one’s present desires?  From a morally progressive standpoint of respecting pluralistic freedom and opposing authoritarianism, should not those attributing unacknowledged wishes to others accept those wishes rather as their own, to be harmonized with the others’ actual desires on mutually agreeable terms?  When a laudable social initiative is of dubious success, in light of current human nature, might it not be reasonable for an individual to withhold full cooperation in that experiment, especially if an additional contribution would be merely symbolic, or negligible compared with the repression involved?

 17 –

An egalitarian and non-authoritarian pursuit of harmony among predetermined wills, taken as given within a pluralistic context (see DP-1 to DP-16), has the following implications for human diversity:

Davina Cooper (b. 1965), Challenging Diversity, chapter 2

“In the main, proponents of diversity concur in the importance of sustaining and strengthening private life [but also] many are anxious to distinguish their notion of a private sphere from that pervading traditional liberal thought.  Within the politics of diversity, the private is not usually identified as a literal place, such as the home.  Instead writers emphasise the importance of individuals being able to construct their own ‘private’ sphere…  We can see this revalorisation of the private sphere, like the emphasis on freedom, as a reaction to the perceived hyper-politics of movements… where every individual decision and action was deemed a legitimate object for account.  At the centre of this hyper-politicisation, opponents claimed, was a normative monism: the assertion of a single right way of doing things.  Thus, the insistence on a private domain is linked to the affirmation of diversity, and the insistence that there should be spheres of life free from the imperative to confess, justify and be judged.”

The distinction between private and public demarcates, not literal places nor sharp boundaries, but a continuum from the subjective to the intersubjective.  Near the subjective end of the continuum, insofar as one subjectivity is not impinging on another, we have a private domain, to be free of social accountability for individual differences.  Conversely, near the intersubjective end of the continuum, to the extent that subjectivities interact, we have a public domain in which, from a moral standpoint, differences can be assessed for harm, but not otherwise for content, and then are to be included within open society on mutually agreeable terms.

Anna Galeotti (b. 1953), Toleration as Recognition, chapter 3

“Differences should be publicly recognized… because they are important for their bearers, and because expressions of public contempt for them, on the grounds that they depart from the social ‘norm,’ are a source of injustice…  What is important and must be stressed is that, in this sense, public recognition, with the aim of legitimating the public presence of diversity, is content-independent and hence, can be fitted into the ideal of neutrality… [However,] it requires a more active and positive attitude toward differences, which goes beyond the usual interpretations of neutrality.  …public recognition ultimately aims to distribute the benefits of inclusion enjoyed by the majority to all citizens, whatever their ethnic, national, cultural, or gender membership…  If this notion of recognition can be reconciled with a revised notion of neutrality, it can also be reconciled with impartiality.  In fact, it does not entail favoring some particular group, and therefore giving up the principle of universal justice…  While public toleration cannot be denied to any identity (once the harm test is passed), after this first step towards inclusion has been made, then all other claims should be subject to negotiation and reciprocal accommodation.”

Questions to consider:

Biologically and socially determined as they are, can people help but be who they happen to be, with all their diverse personalities and identities? Since people also cannot help but sometimes be validly amoral, and hence only be moral in various limited ways, would it not be hypocritical for anyone to impose a single strict code of morality?  In the absence of a higher meaning or external authority, how can a way of living be morally better or worse than alternatives in any inherent sense, rather than in the sense of being more or less in harmony with others’ lives?

 18 –

Sharing the usual leftist concern about the social causes of diversity, the egalitarian and non-authoritarian pursuit of harmony among predetermined wills (see DP-1 to DP-17) cannot overlook the following considerations about biological differences among human beings:

Mary Midgley (b. 1919), “On Not Being Afraid of Natural Sex Differences” in Feminist Perspectives in Philosophy

“Moral pluralism, the notion that there are different kinds of goodness, is quite acceptable to modern thought.  What worries people is the idea that these differences… are in any way naturally determined and therefore out of the control of the individual.  …much of the individuality which people show has been the result of their upbringing…  But this fact cannot save [an] inflated concept of freedom… because people’s upbringing is normally just as far out of their control as their genetic constitution is.  …race difference is, among all the differences… used to justify oppression, probably the most trivial.  Where it does not coincide with cultural frontiers, it is insignificant.  …treating differences of status built on it as idle and artificial is just as appropriate as it is in the case of class.  It cannot follow, however, that this is true of all other differences…  [Age] certainly has a biological basis as well as a social one [and so does sex]…  To insist on denying the reality of such causes is to draw a bizarrely hard line between the physical and the mental aspects of a human being… which seems very badly suited to the realistic description of our lives.  …human experience on the matter… must of course be critically used…”

Recognition of humans as socially interacting organisms, determined at two levels, can avoid the politically undesirable implication that human nature, or one of its genders, must have a fixed common essence.

Drucilla Barker (b. ?), “Dualisms, Discourse, and Development” in Decentering the Center, essay 10

“Emphasizing the embodied nature of the feminist [or other] subject does not entail essentialism, because bodily experience cannot be reduced to either the purely biological or the purely social.  The body is the site of intersection of the natural with the cultural, and cannot be wholly explained by either.”

However, given our naturalist-determinist framework, we must regard biological causes as ontically preceding and constraining social forces and constructions.  Otherwise, we imply that human beings do indeed have a fixed common essence, some disembodied quality separating them from nature and animals, contrary to both environmentalism and Darwinian science.

Peter Singer (b. 1946), A Darwinian Left, chapter 1

“If Darwinian thinking tells us that we have been too ready to assume a fundamental difference in kind between human beings and nonhuman animals, it could also tell us that we are too ready to assume that all human beings are the same in all important respects.  While Darwinian thought has no impact on the priority we give to equality as a moral or political ideal, it gives us grounds for believing that since men and women play different roles in reproduction, they may also differ in their inclinations or temperaments…  …the core of the left is a set of values, [but] there is also a penumbra of factual beliefs that have typically been associated with the left.  We need to ask whether these factual beliefs are at odds with Darwinian thinking and, if they are, what the left would be like without them…  Belief in the malleability of human nature has been important for the left because it has provided grounds for hoping that a very different kind of human society is possible.  …Darwinian thought… dashed the left’s Great Dream [of infinite malleability].”

Questions to consider:

Might Darwinian biology explain the historical constancy of societal male dominance even amid great variation in social structures?  Does this not support the feminist argument that patriarchy is a/the primary form of oppression against women and men?

 19 –

In the egalitarian and non-authoritarian quest for harmony among predetermined wills (see DP-1 to DP-15), the diversifying interplay of biological and social forces (see DP-16 to DP-18) is especially relevant to the debates around gender variance, suggesting the following models for different types of transgenderism:

1) Intersex Condition Model –

Deborah Rudacille (b. 1958), The Riddle of Gender, chapter 7

“All the evidence… points to the critical importance of circulating testosterone in establishing a male reproductive anatomy and brain structure [during pregnancy].  …testosterone deficiency… is one of the… effects of exposure to… estrogenic chemicals in males…  [Many] individuals with confirmed prenatal… exposure [to such chemicals] indicated that they were… transsexual, transgendered, gender dysphoric, or intersexed…  …the scientific literature shows quite clearly in animals that in utero exposure to exogenous hormones and hormone mimics affects the brain and behavior.  …most of my sources trace their feelings of gender dysphoria to their earliest childhood… usually before the age of five.  Many transgendered people believe that these feelings… are the result of ‘hormone surges’ in prenatal life…  …science liberated the victims of [other conditions] from the stigma of mental illness, just as I am certain it will eventually reveal the actual biological mechanisms that produce [many] anatomical and neurological intersex conditions.”

2) Chosen Expression Model –

Leslie Feinberg (1949-2014), Trans Liberation, chapters 1-2

“The sight of pink-blue gender-coded infant outfits may [bother you or] you may be a woman or a man who feels at home in those categories.  Trans liberation defends you both.  Each person should have the right to choose [those or many other] gender categories…  Millions of [people] do not fit the cramped compartments of gender that we have been taught are ‘natural’ and ‘normal’.  …I have no hesitancy in saying I was born female…  The problem is… trying to understand my gender expression by determining my sex…  …I am a masculine, lesbian, female-to-male cross-dresser and transgenderist [without need] to change my body to ‘match’ my gender expression…”

3) Sexual Orientation Model –

Anne Lawrence (b. 1950), Men Trapped in Men’s Bodies, chapters 10 & 12

“With the exception of cross-dressing, we autogynephilic transsexuals rarely display female-typical behaviors, attitudes, or interests during childhood or adulthood…  Our gender dysphoria and our resulting cross-gender identities are direct outgrowths of our paraphilic desire to turn our bodies into facsimiles of women’s bodies…  Autogynephilia [‘love of oneself as a woman’] is another variety of sexual orientation: It is an unusual variant form of [male] heterosexuality.  Like other sexual orientations, it is something we autogynephilic transsexuals did not choose and something we cannot change.”

4) Ungrounded Identification Model –

Mirha-Soleil Ross (b. 1969), interviewed by Viviane Namaste, Sex Change, Social Change, chapter 7

“[A man who] his entire life [had not done] anything that could have made people see him as anything other than a straight masculine man… wanted to go to a women’s shelter because he ‘identified’ as a woman.  This is [an] example where… special privileges [should not be] accorded to trans people solely by virtue of their identities, [when they] have no grounding in actual cross-living experiences.  Policies that pertain to us [trans people] have to be grounded in [reality], otherwise they are postmodernist head games taken to extremes.”

Questions to consider:

Could policies and debates in this area benefit from the above distinctions?  Have not trans people sorted themselves into similar groups?  Should we not treat these different kinds of transgenderism the same way we should treat intersex conditions, chosen expressions, sexual orientations, and ungrounded identifications, respectively?


Harmonizing diverse wills in an egalitarian and non-authoritarian manner (see DP-1 to DP-17) entails the following methodology for reconciling differences, not just at the level of bodily experiences (see DP-18, DP-19), but also at the level of cultures or beliefs:

Rainer Forst (b. 1964), “A Critical Theory of Multicultural Toleration” in Multiculturalism and Political Theory, essay 11

“…every use of force, or… any morally relevant interference with others’ actions, needs to be justified by reciprocally and generally non-rejectable reasons in order to be seen as legitimate.  …one party must not make any claim to certain rights or resources that are denied to others, and [must] not project [one’s] own reasons (values, interests, needs) onto others…  One must be willing to argue… with reasons that are not based on contested ‘higher’ truths or on conceptions of the good which can reasonably be questioned and rejected [and with reasons that are]  shareable among all persons affected, not just dominant parties.  …it makes an essential difference whether a democratic state asks a cultural group to respect ‘personal autonomy’ because of a notion of the good that they might not and need not share, or whether they are asked to respect a form of autonomy to which they themselves need to take recourse when they demand a justification for a political or legal norm and reject ethical ‘colonization.’  If the democratic state argues on the basis of a principle of reciprocal justification which gives equal chances to raise claims to all involved, members of majorities, minorities, and minorities within minorities, it can justifiably claim to establish a system of multicultural justice.  …reason is not sufficient to provide us with the one and only, ultimate answer about the truth of the good life which would show that all other ethical beliefs are false.”

Anthony Simon Laden (b. 1967), Reasonably Radical, 5.6 & note 39

“…in all cases, [moral or political] legitimacy rests on the reasonableness of deliberation. Nondeliberately attained results, such as from majority votes, trace their legitimacy not only to the original deliberative approval of the procedure as a means for reaching decision, but to the ongoing deliberative environment in which the result could be challenged at any time…  These two grounds of legitimacy will be related in a properly functioning democracy, since a [majority] vote gives citizens a further reason [to argue] in support of the winning policy…  …keeping in mind the contingency of the factors that lead to what looks to us like [social] progress can keep us from falling into a kind of moral triumphalism that excludes others who disagree with us in the name of a supposedly reasonable consensus.”

Georgia Warnke (b. ?), “Discourse Ethics and Feminist Dilemmas of Difference” in Feminists Read Habermas

“…it remains one of the major contributions of feminism to have allowed us to recognize new and different normative perspectives, first those of women in opposition to those of men and subsequently those of different groups of women…  This sort of pluralistic feminism… precludes those differences that themselves preclude difference. If we are to recognize the legitimacy of different voices, then we cannot allow any to retain a monopoly on the discussion or to exclude the possibility of listening to others.  These standards arise out of a critical pluralism itself…  Whatever specific solutions we decide most adequately reflect the diversity of our legitimate normative difference, we can work for those solutions in a united and consensual way…  We agree to disagree [while acknowledging that] our common work arises out of a recognition of the legitimacy of our differences.”

Questions to consider:

Are multiple cultures and divergent beliefs not a sure sign of moral progress?  Is it not a sad irony, then, when progressive movements cannot accept such differences among themselves?

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Demythologizing Values

This series follows one entitled Demythologizing Religion (DR).  Information presented here can be found in standard books or websites.  Corrections and comments are welcome, and may be sent to Vaughn Barnett, B.A., J.D. at

– 1 –

Conventional and alternative religions alike have often presented myths as facts with significant implications for our values (per my DR series).  Yet, if these facts were true, their evaluation would still be a separate issue.  As the following thinkers argued, even assuming the existence of God or gods, or any such being, divine precepts are not the same as moral or normative values:

Plato (c. 427-347 BCE), Euthyphro, 10-11:

“Is the holy loved by the gods because it is holy?  Or is it holy because it is loved by the gods?…  We agree that what is holy is loved by the gods because it is holy, and not holy because it is loved by the gods…  But what [the holy or the good] really is, you have not yet said.”

Ralph Cudworth (1617-1688), A Treatise Concerning Eternal and Immutable Morality, 1.1.5:

“[Some theologians contend] that there is nothing absolutely, intrinsically, and naturally good and evil, just and unjust, antecedently to any positive command or prohibition of God; but that the arbitrary will and pleasure of God… is the first and only rule and measure thereof.  Whence it follows unavoidably that nothing can be imagined so grossly wicked, or so foully unjust or dishonest, but if it were supposed to be commanded by this omnipotent Deity, must needs upon that hypothesis forthwith become holy, just and righteous.”

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), “Natural Religion,” Lectures on Ethics:

“Religion is the application of the moral laws to the knowledge of God, and not the origin of morals.  For let us imagine a religion prior to all morality: then this would imply a relation to God, and would therefore consist in recognizing Him as a mighty lord whom we should have to placate.  All religion assumes morality, and morality cannot, therefore, be derived from religion.”

Antony Flew (1923-2010), God and Philosophy, 5.20:

“[Plato asks] whether conduct is right because the gods command it or whether the gods command it because it is right.  The question is both profound and typically philosophical.  Indeed one good test of a person’s aptitude for philosophy is to discover whether he can grasp its force and point.  The point is this.  If you accept the first alternative then you are in effect defining moral words like right and wrong in terms simply of the will of the gods, or of God [such that] there can be no inherent moral reason why this rather than that ought to be thus commanded [and] the glorification of the righteousness of God [becomes meaningless].  If you accept the second alternative then you are insisting on standards of right and wrong… independent of God’s will.”

James Rachels (1941-2003), “God and Human Attitudes,” Religious Studies 7, 1971, page 325, 6(2):

“We cannot determine whether some being is God without first checking on whether he is perfectly good [and] whether his commands to us are right.  Thus our own judgment that some actions are right, and others wrong, is logically prior to our recognition of any being as God.   …we cannot justify the suspension of our own judgment on the grounds that we are deferring to God’s command… for if, by our own best judgment, the command is wrong, this gives us good reason to withhold the title ‘God’ from the commander.”

Questions to consider:

Are moral or normative values as divine precepts not instances of mythology?  Does the legitimacy of any religion not presuppose an independent basis for evaluating its worth?

– 2 –

While Plato and his successors discredited the conception of moral values as divine precepts (see DV-1), the same tradition introduced the equally mythological notion that moral values are intuitive metaphysical absolutes, akin to eternal or immaterial entities occupying a reality beyond the empirical or natural realm.  However, thinkers such as the following helped to discredit this notion as well:

G.E. Moore (1873-1958), Principia Ethica, 67:

“[It has been argued] that some knowledge of supersensible reality is necessary as a premise for correct conclusions as to what ought to exist…  [Such a view] rests upon the failure to perceive that any truth which asserts ‘This is good in itself’ is quite unique in kind – that it cannot be reduced to any assertion about reality… This confusion as to the unique nature of ethical truths is… involved in all those ethical theories which I have called metaphysical.”

A.J. Ayer (1910-1989), Language, Truth and Logic, chapters 1 & 6:

“In general, the postulation of real non-existent entities results from the superstition… that, to every word or phrase that can be the grammatical subject of a sentence, there must somewhere be a real entity corresponding.  …as there is no place in the empirical world for many of these ‘entities,’ a special non-empirical world is invoked to house them…

“In admitting that normative ethical concepts are irreducible to empirical concepts, we seem to be leaving the way clear for the ‘absolutist’ view of ethics – that is, the view that statements of value are not controlled by observation, as ordinary empirical propositions are, but only by a mysterious ‘intellectual intuition.’  A feature of this theory, which is seldom recognized by its advocates, is that it makes statements of value unverifiable.  For it is notorious that what seems intuitively certain to one person may seem doubtful, or even false, to another.  …the reason why [such claims] are unanalysable is that they are pseudo-concepts.”

J.L. Mackie (1917-1981), Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, chapter 1, section 9:

“If there were objective values [in the Platonic sense], they would be entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe.  Correspondingly, if we were aware of them, it would have to be by some special faculty of moral perception or intuition, utterly different from our ordinary ways of knowing everything else.  These points were recognized by Moore when he spoke of non-natural qualities, and by the intuitionists…  When we ask the awkward question, how we can be aware of [these entities], none of our ordinary accounts… will provide a satisfactory answer; ‘a special sort of intuition’ is a lame answer, but it is the one to which [this type of] objectivist is compelled to resort.”

R.M. Hare (1919-2002), Moral Thinking, 12.5:

“The vice of intuitionism lies in the surreptitious transition from… psychological facts to alleged moral properties which actions are supposed to have, but which are really nothing but the tendency to evoke [certain kinds of] feelings.  Intuitionism is only a cloak for subjectivism…”

Questions to consider:

Is intuition not a sense of knowing “that” without knowing “why,” thus requiring critical examination for possible prejudice?  When intuitionists assert that certain moral absolutes are incapable of proof, might we take this to mean that such values are indefensible assumptions?  Are not absolute metaphysical or non-natural values (that just “are”) too odd and actually counterintuitive?

– 3 –

Given that supernaturalism is implausible (see DR-18 to DR-20), and also that values cannot be grounded on divine precepts or metaphysical absolutes (see DV-1, DV-2), we may conclude that values must be wholly explainable within a naturalistic framework.  As indicated by the following thinkers, however, moralistic appeals to the laws of nature have posed theoretical problems similar to those associated with religious or metaphysical mythology:

J.S. Mill (1806-1873), “Nature,” summary/conclusion:

“The word Nature has two principal meanings: it either denotes the entire system of things, with the aggregate of all their properties, or it denotes things as they would be, apart from human intervention.  In the first of these senses, the doctrine that man ought to follow nature is unmeaning; since man has no power to do anything else than follow… some one or many of nature’s physical or mental laws.  In the other sense of the term, the doctrine that man ought to follow nature [is both] irrational and immoral: irrational, because all human action whatever consists in altering, and all useful action in improving, the spontaneous course of nature; immoral, because the course of natural phenomena [is] replete with everything which when committed by human beings is most worthy of abhorrence…”

Elizabeth Anscombe (1919-2001), “Modern Moral Philosophy,” Philosophy 33, 1958, page 1:

“To have a law conception of ethics is to [imply] that what is needed for conformity with the virtues… is required by divine law [even though] it is not possible to have such a conception unless you believe in God as a law-giver; like Jews, Stoics, and Christians.  But if such a conception is dominant for many centuries, and then is given up, it is a natural result that the concepts of ‘obligation,’ of being bound or required as by a law, should remain though they had lost their root; and if the word ‘ought’ has become invested in certain contexts with the sense of ‘obligation’ it too will remain to be spoken with a special emphasis and a special feeling in these contexts.”

Kai Nielsen (b. 1926), “The Myth of Natural Law,” introduction & V, God and the Grounding of Morality:

“Natural moral law conceptions, grounded as they traditionally have been on metaphysical or theological principles, are myth-eaten…; aseptic, demythologized conceptions of ‘natural law’… are essentially sound and are fundamental in displaying the moral foundations of legal systems…

“…even if there are natural laws of the kind the Thomist and classical natural law theorist talks about, it still does not follow that they have provided us with an adequate foundation for a rational ethic.  …it cannot be the case that we can discover what we ought to do simply from apprehending what is [a fact]… for in making an ascription of purpose [to nature] we have already made a moral judgment in which we have of necessity brought into play our own [preconceived values].  We cannot discover or apprehend what we ought to do [simply] from observing the behavior of men, from observing what the universe is like, or from hearing what God commands.”

Questions to consider:

Does this concept of natural laws not rely on a misleading analogy between laws in the sense of physical regularities and laws in the sense of commands by a ruler, as well as between these essentially factual claims and laws in the evaluative sense of binding norms?  Is it not obvious that these are very distinct types of propositions, and more particularly that the first two cannot dictate the third?  Should it make any theoretical difference whether the supposed laws, considered only as facts, are held to be natural, metaphysical, or supernatural, insofar as they would still be mere facts, incapable as such of dictating normative principles?

– 4 –

Once we realize that our values must be wholly explainable within a demythologized, naturalistic framework (see DV-1 to DV-3), we also find, like the following thinkers, that all of our values must originate with those we just happen to have “naturally,” as subjective feelings and interests:

David Hume (1711-1776), An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, appendix I, section V:

“It is impossible… that one thing can always be a reason why another is desired.  Something must be desirable on its own account, and because of its immediate accord or agreement with human sentiment and affection.  Now as virtue is an end, and is desirable on its own account, without fee and reward, merely for the immediate satisfaction which it conveys, it is requisite that there should be some sentiment which it touches…  Reason, being cool and disengaged, is no motive to action, and directs only the impulse received from appetite or inclination, by showing us the means of attaining happiness or avoiding misery.”

William James (1842-1910), “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,” II:

“[Evaluative] words can have no application or relevancy in a world in which no sentient life exists.  Imagine an absolutely material world, containing only physical and chemical facts… without a God, without even an interested spectator…  Surely there is no status for good and evil… in a purely insentient world…  Betterness is not a physical relation.  In its mere material capacity, a thing can no more be good or bad than it can be pleasant or painful.  …the first step in ethical philosophy is to see that no merely inorganic ‘nature of things’ can realize [values].  Their only habitat can be a mind which feels them…  The moment one sentient being, however, is made a part of the universe, there is a chance for goods and evils really to exist…  So far as he feels anything to be good, he makes it good.  It is good, for him.”

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), What I Believe, I:

“The philosophy of nature is one thing, the philosophy of value is quite another…  Undoubtedly we are part of nature, which has produced our desires…  In the world of values, Nature in itself is neutral, neither good nor bad…  It is we who create value and our desires which confer value…  It is for us to determine the good life, not for Nature – not even for Nature personified as God.”

J.L. Mackie (1917-1981), Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, chapter 1, section 10:

“…both the adjective ‘good’ and the noun ‘goods’ are used in non-moral contexts of things because they are such as to satisfy desires.  We get the notion of something’s being objectively good, or having intrinsic value, by reversing the direction of dependence here, by making the desire depend upon the goodness, instead of the goodness on the desire.  And this is aided by the fact that the desired thing will indeed have features that make it desired…  It is fairly easy to confuse the way in which a thing’s desirability is indeed objective with its having in our sense objective value.  The fact that the word ‘good’ serves as one of our main moral terms is a trace of this pattern of objectification.”

Questions to consider:

Whatever may happen to be the status of objective values, is it not a given that we at least have desires and the like?  Are not subjective experiences then, by default, the source of all our values insofar as no other source can be found?  Can there be any other possible source of values for us except reason and external facts?  Yet, can these have any relevance to our values except to the extent that they are also relevant to the feelings and interests which we or others might have?

– 5 –

Because subjective feelings and interests are the source of all values (see DV-1 to DV-4), thinkers such as the following have helped to demythologize normative “ought,” “should,” or “must” values by limiting them to what have become known in philosophical circles as hypothetical imperatives, defined as instrumental norms which say, in effect, that we ought to do A if we desire or seek B:

David Hume (1711-1776), A Treatise of Human Nature, book III, part I, section I:

“In every system of morality… the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden… instead of the usual… propositions is and is not, I meet with [a] proposition… connected with an ought or an ought not.  This change is imperceptible, but is, however, of the last consequence.  For as this ought or ought not expresses some new relation or affirmation,… a reason should be given for… how this new relation can be a deduction from others which are entirely different from it.  …this small attention would… let us see that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason [apart from feelings and interests].”

Brand Blanshard (1892-1987), Reason and Goodness, chapter XII, sections 14-16:

“[We are] so made as to desire [certain things], and fulfilling and satisfying such desires is what ‘good’ means…  Now this gives the meaning of ‘ought.’  To say that I ought to do something is ultimately to say that if a set of ends is to be achieved… then I must act in a certain way…  But to make dutifulness itself a good… independently of other goods [is] hardly intelligible… it is derivative from the good that such regard for duty brings about.   …by itself it is a vacuous good.”

Philippa Foot (1920-2010), “Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives,” conclusion & note 8, Virtues and Vices:

“…those who think they can close the matter [of duty] by an emphatic use of ‘ought’… are relying on an illusion, as if trying to give the moral ‘ought’ a magic force…  Either it is possible to create reasons for acting simply by putting together any silly rules and [then] introducing a non-hypothetical ‘should,’ or else the non-hypothetical ‘should’ does not [as such] imply reasons for acting.”

A.C. MacIntyre (b. 1929), “Hume on ‘Is’ and ‘Ought’,” Philosophical Review 68, 1959, page 451, V:

“[Hume] is asserting that the question of how the factual basis of morality is related to morality is a crucial logical issue [and that] we can connect the facts of the situation with what we ought to do only by means of one of those concepts which Hume treats under the heading of the passions and which I have indicated by examples such as wanting, needing, and the like.”

Richard Joyce (b. 1966), The Myth of Morality, 2.5 – 2.6:

“Moral obligations exist… only if reasons for action exist…  This wider non-moral notion… comes from practical rationality…  Practical rationality… yields only hypothetical imperatives, and therefore cannot be appealed to as a way of vindicating ‘moral inescapability’.”

Questions to consider:

To establish normative “ought” values without begging the question, do we not have to begin with purely factual “is” premises?  Yet when we begin with facts other than those about what is desired or needed, can we ever reason from “is” to “ought”?  Is the hypothetical imperative not the only type of norm that can avoid Hume’s fallacy of deriving a new relation from others “entirely different from it”?

– 6 –

Since all normative values are means for pursuing subjective ends (see DV-1 to DV-5), moral values can only be means for pursuing the subjective ends of others as one’s own.  Hence, the ground of our morality, divested of mythical authority, is nothing more than our natural human capacity for empathy or sympathy, as the following thinkers explained:

David Hume (1711-1776), A Treatise of Human Nature, book III, part III, section I:

“To discover the true origins of morals… we must take the matter pretty deep…  We may begin with considering anew the nature and force of sympathy…  Now, as the means to an end can only be agreeable where the end is agreeable, and as the good of society, where our own interest is not concerned, or that of our friends, pleases only by sympathy, it follows that sympathy is the source of the esteem which we pay to [conventional] virtues…  From thence we may presume that it also gives rise to many of the other virtues, and that qualities acquire our approbation because of their tendency to the good of mankind.  This presumption must become a certainty, when we find that most of those qualities which we naturally approve of have actually that tendency…  For having found that such tendencies have force enough to produce the strongest sentiment of morals, we can never reasonably, in these cases, look for any other cause of approbation or blame; it being an inviolable maxim in philosophy that where any particular cause is sufficient for an effect, we ought to rest satisfied with it, and ought not to multiply causes without necessity.”

R.B. Perry (1876-1957), Realms of Value, chapter VI, section 5:

“[Morality] depends on benevolence, that is, one person’s positive interest in another person’s interest.  To be benevolent here means not that I treat you well so far as it happens to suit my existing interests to do so; my concern for your interests is an independent interest [via empathy].  Taking your desires and aversions, your hopes and fears, your pleasures and pains, in short, the interests by which you are actually moved, I act as though these interests were my own…  When you are at the same time benevolently disposed to my interests, we then have the same problem of reconciling the same interests, except that my original interests form the content of your benevolence and your original interests the content of mine…  No will [or norm] is here introduced over and above the wills of the two persons, but since the two wills now represent the same interests, they will have achieved a community of end and a cooperative relation of means.  In each person the new socialized purpose will have become dominant over his original interests.”

Annette Baier (b. 1929), “Hume, the Women’s Moral Theorist?” in Women and Moral Theory, essay 2:

“Self-interest, and the capacity to sympathize with the self-interested reactions of others, plus the rational, imaginative, and inventive ability to think about… likely human consequences… rather than an acquaintance with a higher law, are what a Humean appeals to…  Morality, on Hume’s account, is the outcome of a search for ways of eliminating contradictions in the ‘passions’ of sympathetic persons who are aware both of their own and their fellows’ desires and needs, including emotional needs.  …what corrects [one sentiment] will be contrary sentiments [and the] drive to minimize conflict both between and within persons.”

Questions to consider:

Can it be just a coincidence that, despite religious and secular disagreement about what grounds morality, there is a consensus that morality at least involves putting oneself in the place of others?  Is it possible that the disagreement reflects the lack of any further ground of morality?

– 7 –

Our capacity for empathy or sympathy is the only non-mythical ground of our moral values (see DV-1 to DV-6).  Normative morality is thus relative or contextual in the sense that its requirements are entirely dependent on what those in any given situation would find acceptable after identifying with each other’s desires and needs, but it is also objective or universal in the sense that such intersubjective harmonization implies a constant norm in the form of a mutual Golden Rule.  This concept of relativized objectivity in ethics has been suggested by thinkers such as the following:

R.B. Perry (1876-1957), Realms of Value, chapter VII, section 6, & chapter VIII, section 8:

“…there is no [final moral] court of appeal short of the reflective social agreement in which all persons acting as representatives of their interests, and expanding their interests to embrace the interests of others, arrive at a unanimous decision.  This is the principle, never fully applied, which serves as a guide to the creation of a society that shall be as just as possible…  Among precepts the ‘Golden Rule’ holds a unique place.  Its wide acceptance in both ancient and modern times, in paganism and in Christianity, and among [many diverse] moralists… is not a coincidence.  For it is of the essence of morality that each moral agent should accept the interests of others as he accepts his own; that he should put himself in the other’s place, and the other in his place, and so recognize an interest as an interest in its own terms no matter to whom it belongs…

“[This intersubjective standard] satisfies the requirement of cognitive universality and objectivity…  It places itself in all points of view, and fits them together.  …since it is interest as such which generates good, and a harmonious relation of interests which constitutes moral good, [this principle] is applicable to all interests and persons…  Hence the norm of harmonious happiness is doubly universal.  It is universal in the theoretical sense: its nature and its implications are objective, and the judgments in which it is employed are equally true for all judges; and being abstracted from particular interests, it is applicable to all human situations.  It is also universal in the social sense: its promised benefits accrue to all…”

Peter Singer (b. 1946), How Are We to Live?, chapter 11:

“…I am just one being among others, [with] a personal perspective on the world…  But [I can] see that others have similarly subjective perspectives, and that from ‘the point of view of the universe’ my perspective is no more privileged than theirs…  Consistently… the major ethical traditions all accept… a version of the Golden Rule that encourages equal consideration of interests [as] a universal ethic…  Yet I am not defending the objectivity of ethics in the traditional [strong] sense.  Ethical truths are not written into the fabric of the universe: to that extent the subjectivist is correct.  If there were no beings with desires or preferences… nothing would be of value and ethics would lack all content [but] once there are beings with desires, there are values that are not only the subjective values of [an] individual being…  When my ability to reason shows me that the suffering of another being… matters just as much to that other being as my own suffering matters to me, then my reason is showing me something that is undeniably true.  I can still choose to ignore it, but then I can no longer deny that my perspective is a narrower and more limited one than it could be…  [This outlook] is as close to an objective basis for ethics as there is to find.”

Questions to consider:

Is the Golden Rule, considered apart from religious or metaphysical claims, not a principle of objectivity understood in terms of intersubjectivity (other as self)?  Does its universality not derive paradoxically from its complete relativity to every context as viewed from all perspectives?

– 8 –

Normative morality, without the support of myth, seeks only to harmonize interests on the basis of a secular Golden Rule (see DV-1 to DV-7).  Yet, because the harmony sought is an evaluative standard transcending the actual interests it unites, in the way that a unified whole is greater than the sum of its separate parts, it accounts for the sense of morality’s unique irreducible features as depicted here by the following thinkers:

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), Critique of Practical Reason, part I, book I, chapter III:

“[Moral duty] can be nothing less than a power which elevates man above himself [and] connects him with an order of things that [determines] the sum total of all ends (which totality alone suits such unconditional practical laws as the moral).”

W.D. Ross (1877-1971), Foundations of Ethics, chapter XIII:

“…I must consider equally all the elements, so far as I can foresee them, in the state of affairs I shall be bringing about.  If I see that my act is likely to help [one] and to hurt [another], I am not justified in ignoring the bad effect…  It is the whole nature of that which I set myself to bring about, not that part of it which I happen to desire, that makes my act right or wrong…  This relation [of an interest in others’ welfare] is not one which can be stated in purely non-ethical terms, as the relation of being an object of interest can be stated; it involves the ethical… term ‘worthy’ or ‘suitable’.”

C.L. Stevenson (1908-1979), Facts and Values, chapter 2, sections 5-6:

“The traditional interest theories… neglect emotive meaning [and] dynamic usage [in our moral language]…  Ethical judgments are social instruments.  They are used in a cooperative enterprise that leads to a mutual readjustment of human interests.”

R.M. Hare (1919-2002), Moral Thinking, 12.8 & 12.9:

“…what will determine our final moral judgment is our total system of preferences.  …it is that principle which we prefer, all in all, should be applied to situations like [the given one] regardless of what position we occupy.  …if we are to arrive at a moral judgment about the case, [we need] to coordinate our individual preferences into a total preference which is impartial between us.”

Mark Platts (b. 1947), Ways of Meaning, chapter X, section 1:

“…moral judgments are autonomous of non-moral judgments.  The parallel to exploit in understanding this autonomy is the relation [between] a certain arrangement of black dots on a white card and… a face there pictured to be seen.  …we do not see the face by attending to that dot-arrangement… in terms free of picture and face vocabulary…  [Similarly, we do not] make moral judgments… by attending to the non-moral facts… in vocabulary free of moral import…”

Questions to consider:

Although opposed to reductive ethical naturalism, do these thinkers here depict anything inconsistent with a conception of morality as the mutual harmonization of interests on their own terms?  Is this not an irreducibly normative standard which nonetheless is implied by actual desires which people seek to reconcile, just as a harmonious whole, which cannot be explained solely by its separate parts, nonetheless is implied by their adjustment to each other?  Does the opposing argument that non-moral facts can yield only a non-moral conclusion not then commit the fallacy of composition by reasoning that what is true of parts must be true of the whole?

– 9 –

Morality transcends subjective feelings and interests in the way that a whole transcends its summed parts (see DV-1 to DV-8).  A demythological corollary of this holism is that, just as there is no whole beyond its interrelated parts, each an integral element in the unifying process, so there is no morality beyond mutually adjusted desires, each an integral element in the process of seeking social harmony.  Some of the implications of such a realization have been captured by the following thinkers:

William James (1842-1910), “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,” II & III:

“I know well how hard it is for those who are accustomed to what I have called the superstitious view, to realize that every de facto claim creates in so far forth an obligation.  We inveterately think that something which we call the ‘validity’ of the claim is what gives to it its obligatory character, and that this validity is something outside of the claim’s mere existence as a matter of fact.  It rains down upon the claim, we think, from some sublime dimension of being, which the moral law inhabits…  But… such an inorganic abstract character of imperativeness, additional to the imperativeness which is in the concrete claim itself, [cannot exist].  Take any demand, however slight, which any creature, however weak, may make…  The only possible kind of proof you could adduce [against satisfying it] would be the exhibition of another creature who should make a demand that ran the other way…  Any desire is imperative to the extent of its amount…

“Since everything which is demanded is by that fact a good, must not the guiding principle for ethical philosophy (since all demands conjointly cannot be satisfied in this poor world) be simply to satisfy at all times as many demands as we can?  That act must be the best act, accordingly, which makes for the best whole, in the sense of awakening the least sum of dissatisfactions.”

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), The Conquest of Happiness, chapter VII:

“In a rational ethic it will be held laudable to give pleasure to anyone, even to oneself, provided there is no counterbalancing pain to oneself or to others…  [One] should be destitute of superstitious morality [based on sin].”

R.B. Perry (1876-1957), Realms of Value, chapter VI, sections 2-3:

“Owing to the fact that it requires inclinations to be overruled and disciplined, duty comes to be identified with disinclination – with doing what one does not want to do or leaving undone what one wants to do…  [Yet any] denials derive their only moral justification from the affirmations for which they make room…  In order to promote an organized harmony of life [people] must limit and adjust interests without destroying them…  …in moral organization the whole serves the parts, or the whole only for the sake of the parts.  The parts are interests, and they are organized in order that they, the constituent interests themselves, may be saved and fulfilled.”

Paul Edwards (1923-2004), The Logic of Moral Discourse, conclusion:

“Intuitionism and… non-naturalism in ethics… support the morality of self-denial and sin…  [but] usually have very little to offer [as] empirical justification… In the last resort [such moralists] fall back on God’s alleged prohibitions… conscience or… our moral sense…  Now, once a person rejects non-naturalism, he will demand a factual justification for moral judgments…”

Questions to consider:

Paraphrasing James’ question, should we not satisfy as many desires as possible?  What can morally count against any desire, however apparently bad, except the interests of others?

– 10 –

There being no morality beyond mutually adjusted desires, the only grounds for moral appraisal of anyone’s subjective ends are the affected ends of someone else (see DV-1 to DV-9).  A further step in demythologizing morality can thus be taken by recognizing that ideals of the self, whether in terms of self-interest, self-consistency, self-purification, or any other self-regarding norm, are simply matters of individual preference, with no moral significance, except as they concern others.  Similar or related positions have been proposed by thinkers such as the following:

J.S. Mill (1806-1873), On Liberty, chapter IV:

“[Self-regarding matters] are only a subject of moral reprobation when they involve a breach of duty to others, for whose sake the individual is bound to take care for himself.  What are called [our] duties to ourselves are not socially obligatory, unless circumstances render them at the same time duties to others.”

John Dewey (1859-1952), Human Nature and Conduct, introduction, & part 4, section IV:

“There are [those] who take seriously the idea of morals separated from the ordinary actualities of humanity…  Some become engrossed in spiritual egotism.  They are preoccupied with the state of their character, concerned for the purity of their motives and the goodness of their souls.  The exaltation of conceit which sometimes accompanies this absorption can produce a corrosive inhumanity which exceeds the possibilities of any other known form of selfishness.  In other cases, persistent preoccupation with the thought of an ideal realm… induces a futile withdrawal into an inner world [where] needs of actual conditions are neglected…

“If a [person] lived alone in the world… the question ‘Why be moral?’ … would [not] arise.  As it is, we live in a world where other persons live too.  Our acts affect them.  …Right is only an abstract name for the multitude of concrete demands… which others impress upon us, and of which we are obliged… to take some account.  Its authority is the exigency of their demands…”

Kai Nielsen (b. 1926), Why Be Moral?, chapter 14:

“…pure practical reason [or consistency], even with a good knowledge of the facts, will not take you to morality…  Underlying morality, for it to be what it purports to be, there must be a pervasive attitude of disinterested care for all human life [or] all sentient creatures…”

Jan Narveson (b. 1936), Morality and Utility, chapter VIII:

“…self-regarding acts have no specifically moral worth… notions of moral duty ‘to the self’ are out of place…  The reason why it is improper to speak of its being a ‘duty’ in the moral sense… is that it’s my business, and I can call it off whenever I want.  The matter is entirely up to my own judgment.  …moral [judgments] just don’t come into the self-regarding sphere.  This does not mean that we are demeaning the self-regarding sphere or claiming that it is unimportant.  Quite the contrary: in a sense, it is the only important sphere, for it is everyone’s interest that is the concern of morality, [hence] everyone’s ‘self-interest.’  The point is, there is no need for [moral judgments], which have an impersonal authority independent of self-interest, in matters of self-interest.”

Questions to consider:

How could a personal ideal ever morally justify disregarding the interests of others?  Would this not rather disqualify the ideal as a moral one?  Yet, insofar as others’ interests are not concerned, why cannot one be, in moral terms, completely liberated?

– 11 –

Evaluative ends being naturally determined by given subjective experiences (see DV-1 to DV-5), and moral demands being determined by the natural sharing of others’ experiences (see DV-6 to DV-10), it seems that, within a non-mythological naturalistic framework, these causal determinants would render largely illusory the free or responsible will generally assumed by normative judgments.  Thinkers such as the following make a case for such free will skepticism:

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), Beyond Good and Evil, 21:

“The causa sui [or cause of oneself] is the best self-contradiction that has been conceived so far; it is a sort of rape and perversion of logic…  The desire for ‘freedom of the will’ in the superlative metaphysical sense… involves nothing less than to be precisely this causa sui and… to pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the swamp of nothingness… [Thus] we act once more as we have always acted – mythologically.”

Galen Strawson (b. 1952), Real Materialism, chapter 13, section 1, & chapter 14, section 6:

“It is undeniable that one is the way one is, initially, as a result of heredity and early experience, and… that these are things for which one cannot be held to be in any way responsible… …both the particular way in which one is moved to try to change oneself, and the degree of one’s success in one’s attempt at change, will be determined by how one already is as a result of heredity and previous experience… [Further,] it is absurd that indeterministic or random factors, for which one is [supposedly] in no way responsible, can in themselves contribute in any way to one’s being truly morally responsible for how one is…

“…if we are to be truly deserving of praise and blame for our actions, then, since our intentional actions are necessarily a function of how we are, mentally, we must be truly responsible for how we are mentally, at least in certain vital respects.  We must be genuine ‘originators’ of ourselves, and our natures…  But the attempt to describe how we could possibly be true originators of ourselves in this way leads self-defeatingly to infinite regress (quite apart from being quite fantastically unrealistic): for even if one could somehow choose how to be, and then bring it about that one was that way, one would in order to do this already have to have existed prior to that choice, with a certain set of [unchosen] preferences about how to be, in the light of which one chose how to be.”

Derk Pereboom (b.1957), “Hard Incompatibilism” in Four Views on Free Will, essay 3, section 7:

“…agents cannot be responsible for decisions that are undetermined because they are not produced by anything at all, for then agents quite obviously cannot be the source of the will to perform them…  [Also] agents are not morally responsible for decisions causally determined by factors beyond their control.  …consider the first [assumed] free choice an agent ever makes.  …she cannot be responsible for it, since she cannot be responsible for the effort of will from which it results…  Because the agent cannot be responsible for the first choice, she also cannot be responsible for the resulting character formation.  [Then] she cannot be responsible for the second choice either [and so on] for all subsequent choices.”

Questions to consider:

By necessary implication, must not everyone, to the extent identically constituted and identically situated, have an identical and hence predetermined will?  Could acausal free will be an illogical, mystified holdover from pre-scientific supernaturalism?  Would even an immaterial, self-existent soul or deity be responsible for how it just happened to be?  Is not ultimate free will meaningless?

– 12 –

Acausal free will is a mythical entity, for our ends and choices are determined by subjective experiences ultimately beyond our control (see DV-1 to DV-11).  Though this means that we can only act “as if” we were free and responsible, such as-if responsible freedom paradoxically constitutes a real type of practical autonomy, because of our predetermined ability to resist certain predetermined desires for the sake of other such desires, as described by the following thinkers:

John Locke (1632-1704), An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, book II, chapter xxi, 47-48:

“…the mind having… a power to suspend the execution and satisfaction of any of its desires… is at liberty to consider the objects of them, examine them on all sides, and weigh them with others…  [Such] power to suspend the prosecution of this or that desire [is] the source of all liberty [and] that which is (as I think improperly) called free will…  [Yet this] is the very improvement and benefit of [freedom].”

Harry Frankfurt (b. 1929), “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person,” Journal of Philosophy 68, 1971, page 5, IV:

“A person’s will is free [to the extent that] he is free to have the will he wants.  This means that, with regard to any of his first-order desires, he is free either to make that desire his will or to make some other first-order desire his will instead…  There is no more than an innocuous appearance of paradox in the proposition that it is determined, ineluctably and by forces beyond their control, that certain people have free wills [in this sense] and that others do not.”

Keith Lehrer (b. 1936), “Freedom and the Power of Preference” in Freedom and Determinism, essay 2:

“…we at a certain stage have no preferences [but only] impulses and desires… that drive our behavior…  Then we acquire the higher-order mind… that allows us to represent and think about our desires and beliefs, to prefer the satisfaction of some desires and not others…  There might be causation all the way around, before and after my preferences.  But some of them would [in a sense] be free.  When I prefer what I do because I prefer to have the preference structure I do… I have all the freedom of preference that interests me.”

Ann Ferguson (b. 1938), “Can I Choose Who I Am?” in Women, Knowledge, and Reality, 2nd edition, essay 7, II, 4 & note 7:

“…it is the possibility of… second-order reflexive consciousness that allows one way out of the Determinism / Moral Responsibility dilemma.  Although the inputs… are determined by the material and social conditions in which I find myself, my ability to reflect on, adopt, and act on reconstitutive self-strategies… is what gives me the space for agency and moral responsibility [and thereby] clarifies the sense of the claim that I can choose who I am.     …even reconstitutive self-projects may be completely socially determined [although] we agents… think of ourselves as freely choosing them.  [The] problem of moral agency… may have to be simply dissolved by the pragmatic need to assume that we are not completely determined…”

Questions to consider:

Just as a free act is a matter of acting in accordance with one’s will, might we think of a free will as a matter of willing in accordance with one’s will?  Can a will be free, in a practical sense, other than to the degree that it accords with itself, so that what one prefers at any given time is in harmony with what one would choose as most important, all things considered?  Is this not why autonomy, and even psychological or spiritual authenticity, are often associated with an integrated personality?

– 13 –

Rather than depend on the myth of acausal free will or ultimate responsibility, genuine morality need only assume a naturally predetermined ability to harmonize naturally predetermined desires and interests, plus a predetermined capacity for sharing the desires and interests of others (see DV-1 to DV-12).  This naturalist-determinist framework, far from diminishing morality as some fear, yields the most humane equitable outlook, illustrated by thinkers like the following:

Ted Honderich (b. 1933), How Free Are You?, chapters 9-10:

“Determinism offers… escape from a mordant kind of self-dislike and self-disapproval…  Consider personal feelings about others…  We have the prospect of withdrawing from the negative or resentful ones which [are] owed to our image of origination, the idea that those who disregard or injure us really could have done better by us…

“…our retributive desires… are dependent on taking the other person’s action as not only voluntary but also originated…  All of these desires are vulnerable to belief in determinism. They cannot persist.  …any institution of punishment [insofar as its] recommendation is that it is retributive… should be abandoned…  What is true of punishment is true to a greater or lesser extent with… other institutions or practices [based on] political and social philosophies [with] elements having to do with desert [as opposed to need].”

Bruce Waller (b. 1946), Freedom without Responsibility, chapter 14:

“…the no-fault naturalist denial of [ultimate] moral responsibility is likely to enhance individual freedom by encouraging a more egalitarian society.  Careful focus on the full details of our environmental histories [and our genetics] eliminates moral responsibility and thus offers solid, worldly grounds for equality: exact equality of just deserts.  That brings the principle of equality down from the transcendent realms… and anchors it in the gritty environments that shaped us and were – at critical points – not of our own choosing or making.  And, if everyone is precisely equal in just deserts, then the vast differences in wealth and power among individuals in our society are unjust [as are] the severe practical restraints… imposed by such inequities.”

Sam Harris (b. 1967), Free Will:

“…I have to admit that if I were to trade places with [someone else], atom for atom, I would be [that person]…  If I had truly been in [his place] – that is, if I had his genes and life experience and an identical brain (or soul) in an identical state – I would have acted exactly as he did.  There is simply no intellectually respectable position from which to deny this.  The role of luck, therefore, appears decisive…

“In fact, it seems immoral not to recognize just how much luck is involved in morality itself…  This shift in understanding represents progress toward a deeper, more consistent, and more compassionate view of our common humanity – and we should note that this is progress away from religious metaphysics.  Few concepts have offered greater scope for human cruelty than the idea of an [eternally punishable] soul that stands independent of all material influences, ranging from genes to economic systems…  And yet, ironically, one of the fears attending our progress in science is that a more complete understanding of ourselves will dehumanize us.”

Questions to consider:

Upon reflection, can we not see a clear link between determinism and the empathic core of morality that compels us to see others as ourselves in like circumstances?  Is the basis of our common humanity not the fact that we are ultimately the same when under identical influences?

– 14 –

Having seen that even God has to be justified by an independent morality (see DV-1), explainable within a demythologized, naturalist-determinist framework in terms of mutual empathy (see DV-2 to DV-13), we also find, for reasons given by thinkers such as the following, that instead of requiring God, morality actually points to atheist ethics:

J.L. Mackie (1917-1981), The Miracle of Theism, chapter 6, section (e):

“…to explain an intrinsic to-be-done-ness or not-to-be-done-ness [as more than a human] reflection or projection, it is natural to take this as an injection into reality made by a universal spirit, that is, something that has some analogue of human purposiveness… [Yet,] although the objectivity of prescriptive moral values would give some inductive support to the hypothesis that there is a god, it would be more reasonable to reject the kind of moral objectivity that is required for this purpose than to accept it and use it as a ground for theism…  When this moral objectivism is replaced by a subjectivist or sentimentalist theory… it is easy to explain [our] moral sense as a natural product of biological and social evolution [without God]…  There is no good reason for introducing a god even as an essential part of the content of moral thinking.”

J.J.C. Smart (1920-2012), Atheism and Theism, essay 1, section 13:

“Since God [traditionally conceived] is not constrained by physical necessity [or anything comparable] there is no need for him to use painful means to attain a good end [in this or another life]…  A common argument that is meant to reconcile God’s omnipotence, omniscience and goodness with the existence of evil is that evil is due to misuse of the free will with which God has endowed us…  Natural evils… provide a formidable difficulty for the free will defence.  They have nothing to do with free will.  …even if we ignore natural evils the free will defence does not work.  …any sensible notion of free will [must be] compatible with determinism…  [Therefore] God could have set up the universe so that we always acted rightly, and so for this reason alone the free will defence does not work…  In any case natural evils provide the biggest difficulty for the theist.”

Elizabeth Anderson (b. 1959), “If God Is Dead, Is Everything Permitted?” in Philosophers without God, essay 17:

“…morality, understood as a system of reciprocal claim making, in which everyone is accountable to everyone else, does not need its authority underwritten by some higher, external authority.  It is underwritten by the authority we all have to make claims on one another.  Far from bolstering the authority of morality, appeals to divine authority can undermine it…  Appealing to God rather than [to] those affected by one’s actions amounts to an attempt to escape accountability to one’s fellow human beings.  …if we take with utmost seriousness the core evidence for theism, which is the testimonies… found in Scripture, then we are committed to the view that the most heinous acts are morally right, because Scripture tells us that God performs or commands them.  Since we know [for the above reason] that such acts are morally wrong, we cannot [accept the] evidence for theism recorded in Scripture.  We must at least reject that part of the evidence that supports morally repugnant actions…  The moralistic argument, far from threatening atheism, is a critical wedge that should open morally sensitive theists to the evidence against the existence of God.”

Questions to consider:

Even if the classical or biblical deity were real, would we not be morally bound to reject him as our God, because of the evil with which he is associated?  Might atheism be viewed, not just as religious disbelief, but as an ethical way of life, or a form of moral protest?

– 15 –

With a case having been made for a non-mythical account of ethics from a naturalistic, atheistic standpoint (see DV-1 to DV-14), it can be further argued, as implied by the following thinkers, that even if there is a perfect God, or an all-benevolent will, we should still live according to a worldly morality:

Thomas Paine (1737-1809), The Age of Reason, part 1, section 14:

“…the practice of moral truth, [as] a practical imitation of the moral goodness of God, is no other than our acting toward each other as he acts benignly toward all.  We cannot serve God in the manner we serve those who cannot do without such service; and, therefore, the only idea we can have of serving God is that of contributing to the happiness of the living creation that God has made. This cannot be done [through] selfish devotion…  Religion, considered as a duty, is incumbent upon every living soul alike, and, therefore, must be on a level with the understanding and comprehension of all.  Man does not learn religion as he learns the secrets and mysteries of a trade…  When men, whether from policy or pious fraud, set up systems of religion incompatible with the… works of God in the creation, and not only above, but repugnant to human comprehension, they were under the necessity of inventing or adopting a word that should serve as a bar to all questions, inquiries and speculation.  The word mystery answered this purpose, and thus it has happened that religion… has been corrupted into a fog of mysteries.”

R.B. Perry (1876-1957), Realms of Value, chapter 23, section 6:

“True religion must [seek] the moral end of harmonious happiness [and thus] ally itself with the secular conscience…  The only [moral] good for which it is possible to claim preeminence is that harmony of all interests, which is the object of an all-benevolent will: a will which wills the fulfillment of all wills.  …an otherworldly and supernaturalistic religion… in its straining after [a supposed] image of perfection attempts to transplant it to another realm in which the actual human interests are purged away [so that it] is less, and not more, than the fullness of life on earth…  There appears to be no loftier and more impelling vision of the good than the prolongation and progressive betterment of that life which is experienced and enjoyed here and now… whether those who have died survive to participate in [such a life].”

Robert McKim (b. ?), Religious Ambiguity and Religious Diversity, chapter 6, section 4:

“There is… some reason to think that, if God exists, it must not matter greatly to God whether we believe…  If it were very important that we should accept theism or any particular form of theism, our circumstances probably would be more conducive to it [for all equally]…  The situation, in effect, probably is that either God does not exist or God exists, but it is not terribly important that we believe here and now that God exists…  …the puzzles that surround God’s hiddenness provide us with some reason to doubt that it is important, even from God’s point of view, that we should hold theistic beliefs.”

Questions to consider:

Insofar as it would be morally wrong to sacrifice others’ present needs for the sake of uncertain remote consequences, should we not apply the same principle to uncertain eternal consequences?  Could a good God expect us to go against conscience in using others this way?  Given the uncertainty, is not the most likely divine plan for earthly life some type of blind experiment to see how we respond to this world on its own terms?

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Demythologizing Religion

This is a series offered by a spiritual agnostic/atheist.  Earlier, a different version of the series appeared as campus leaflets.  Information presented here can be found in standard books or websites.  Corrections and comments are welcome, and may be sent to Vaughn Barnett, B.A., J.D. at

– 1 –

There is considerable evidence that Judeo-Christian religion is filled with mythological elements from ancient pagan cultures.  Among the earliest and most fundamental of these are Mesopotamian/Canaanite themes, as found in the following motifs of the Bible:

1. Polytheism implied by God as “elohim,” a plural Semitic word for gods or the pantheon of El

2. “Let us” spoken by the elohim, like the council of gods consulting before creating or acting

3. World created in stages from watery chaos, with a sky dome between waters above and below

4. Creation and repose matching the week and Sabbath based on seven heavenly bodies or gods

5. Man formed from dust in God’s image, similar to the mythical mixing of clay and divine blood

6. Adam, like Adapa/Adamu, as the first man, and one who gains divine knowledge

7. Eve as the lady of the rib, and as the lady of life

8. Paradise guarded by cherubim, linking food and a serpent to death or mortality

9. Humankind required to work the ground, comparable to workers created to serve the gods

10. Cain and Abel competing with offerings, like the rival farmer-god and shepherd-god

11. Sin crouching for Cain, as in the myth of the evil croucher lying in wait for his offering

12. List of pre-flood patriarchs living for centuries, paralleling Sumerian/Babylonian king lists

13. Enoch as the seventh patriarch, who was taken to heaven, like the seventh king or sage

14. Great men born from unions between sons of God (sons of the elohim) and daughters of men

15. Divinely caused flood survived by a favored family and animals in an ark covered with pitch

16. Noah’s ark stranded on a mountain, and birds sent out from it, after the flood

17. God smelling a sacrifice, then promising by the rainbow as by the mythical divine necklace

18. Building of a Babylonian tower towards heaven, and confusion or diversification of language

19. Anthropomorphic depiction of God as walking, searching, making mistakes, being cruel, etc.

20. Willingness of Abraham and Jephthah (and even God as Jesus’ father) to offer child sacrifices

21. Jacob’s dream of a ladder to heaven, comparable to the myth of a tree or pole to heaven

22. Infant Moses in a basket floating on water, similar to the legendary king Sargon

23. Law of Moses comparable to codes such as Hammurabi’s, also said to be of divine origin

24. Henotheism or monolatry implied by worship of El/Yahweh as one god above others

25. Male God implying a goddess, such as the consort of El or Yahweh found by archaeologists

26. People of Israel given to Yahweh, one among many patron gods inheriting from Elyon

27. Yahweh, like Baal, as a warrior storm-god or cloud-rider, with a mountain brickwork palace

28. War in heaven, and defeat of fierce or multi-headed dragons such as Leviathan and Rahab

29. Astrological symbols, such as man-lion-bull-eagle imagery, and stars for signs

30. Christ as both human and divine, dying and rising, like pagan heroes/saviors/gods

Questions to consider:

How likely is it that pagan mythology borrowed elements from biblical history, rather than the reverse, when the former lacks traces of monotheism, while the latter contains such obvious hints of polytheism and henotheism?  If we allow for Mosaic authorship of the first books of the Bible, despite the contrary evidence, can the divine offspring and supernatural motifs still not be accounted for by earlier Sumerian and Babylonian myths?  Even assuming some historicity of such stories, is a supernatural explanation in terms of an anthropomorphic god and his procreating sons more plausible than the comparably fantastic, but at least naturalistic, theory of tribal people’s encounters with a lost or alien race (earthly or otherwise) so technologically superior as to seem god-like, as has happened in colonial explorations and modern cargo cults?

– 2 –

Of all the textual indications that biblical theology is largely derived from pagan mythology (see DR-1), perhaps the most telling is the fact that the first and most frequent Hebrew name for God in the Bible is the polytheistic “elohim.”  Not only does this word literally mean “gods,” or possibly even “goddesses,” and is translated as such in other biblical contexts, but it is also the term used by the Canaanites for their pantheon of gods and goddesses under the high god El.  There are no Hebrew capitals or other linguistic features to warrant a selective translation of this word as the proper name of one male “God,” nor is it unlikely that other singular terms accompanying biblical references to the elohim are due to later editing to preserve a well-known divine name without its polytheistic meaning.  Hence, certain passages about God in the Bible’s opening chapters can be translated more literally to yield the following parallels to pagan myths:

Genesis 1

“In the beginning the gods created the heavens and the earth…  The gods created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves…  Then the gods said, ‘Let us make humans in our image, to be like ourselves’…  So the gods created humans in their own image; the gods [and goddesses] patterned them after themselves; male and female they created them.”

Genesis 5, 6

“Enoch walked with the gods [and then] the gods took him…  Now it came about, when men began to multiply on the face of the land, and daughters were born to them, that the sons of gods saw that the daughters of men were beautiful; and they took wives for themselves, whomever they chose…  The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of the gods came into the daughters of men, and they bore children to them.  Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown…  Noah walked with the gods…  Now the earth was corrupt in the sight of the gods…  Then the gods said to Noah…  ‘We are going to bring floodwaters on the earth to destroy all life under the heavens’…  Noah did everything just as the gods commanded him.”

Genesis 19

“Now Abraham arose early in the morning… and he looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah, and toward all the land of the valley, and he saw, and behold, the smoke of the land ascended like the smoke of a furnace.  Thus it came about, when the gods destroyed the cities of the valley, that the gods remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow, when they overthrew the cities in which Lot lived.”

Questions to consider:

Is the willingness to destroy the innocent with the wicked, as depicted above, not what would be expected from the capricious gods of polytheistic mythology?  Does not “elohim,” as a plural term used for the one God, capture in a word the demonstrated historical tendency for multiple gods to merge gradually into one?  Are contrary explanations for this plural word, based on concepts such as God’s majestic fullness or the Christian Trinity, consistent with either tribal people’s less abstract mode of thought or a monotheistic God’s presumed desire not to mislead people with a polytheistic name?  Could this scandalous hint at the possibility of the biblical God’s polytheistic origins be the reason that different versions of the Bible, even when otherwise scrupulously footnoting alternative translations of Hebrew terms, typically omit noting the most literal and plain translation of the Bible’s most frequent Hebrew word for God?

– 3 –

Among the textual indications that biblical theology is largely derived from pagan mythology (see DR-1), along with the fact that the commonest Hebrew name for God in the Bible is the plural “elohim,” a term shared by the Canaanites for their multiple gods (see DR-2), there is the further fact that “el,” another common Hebrew name for the biblical God, was also the word used by the Canaanites both for a god in general and for their high god in particular.  This supports the view, accepted by experts in history and archaeology, that the Hebrews once worshipped the Canaanite El as one god above others.  Consistent with such a view are apparent vestiges of henotheistic El worship detectable in biblical references to the early Hebrews, such as the following:

Genesis 14

“Melchizedek [possibly meaning ‘my king is Sedek,’ a Canaanite god], king of Salem [believed to be the Canaanite, pre-Israelite Jerusalem, possibly named for the god Shalim], brought out bread and wine; now he was a priest of El most high.  He blessed Abram and said, ‘Blessed be Abram of El most high, possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed be El most high, who has delivered your enemies into your hand.’  Abram gave him a tenth of all.”

Genesis 17, 21

“[The Lord] appeared to Abram and said to him, ‘I am El almighty; walk before me and be blameless.  …your name shall be Abraham…  I will give to you and to your descendants after you all the land of Canaan, where you are now a stranger, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their god [literally ‘gods’]’…  In the very same day Abraham was circumcised, and Ishmael [meaning ‘El will hear’] his son…  Abraham planted a tamarisk tree at Beersheba, and there he called on the name of [the Lord], the everlasting El.”

Genesis 32, 33

“[The man] said, ‘Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel [meaning ‘he who strives with El’ or ‘El strives’]’…  So Jacob named the place Peniel [meaning ‘face of El’]…  Now Jacob came safely to the city of Shechem, in the land of Canaan…  Then he erected there an altar and called it El-Elohe-Israel [meaning ‘El, the el of Israel’].”

Genesis 35

“God [or ‘the gods’] said to Jacob, ‘Arise, go up to Bethel [‘house of El’] and live there, and make an altar there to El’…  So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, ‘Put away the foreign gods which are among you, and purify yourselves and change your garments; and let us arise and go up to Bethel, and I will make an altar there to El’…  So Jacob came to Luz (that is, Bethel), in the land of Canaan, he and all the people who were with him.  He built an altar there, and called the place El-Bethel [‘El of Bethel’].”

Questions to consider:

Can it be just coincidence that the biblical Hebrews were called to worship the same god that was worshipped by the Canaanites at the very same time that they were settling among the Canaanites?  Does not the depiction of the Hebrews receiving a new land and adopting its high god as their own, being blessed by a Canaanite king-priest in this god’s name, making offerings and altars to that god while putting away foreign deities, all suggest that the Hebrews were making a henotheistic transition from the gods of their former homeland to the local supreme deity?

– 4 –

Whereas two common Hebrew names for the biblical God of Abraham are the singular “el” and the plural “elohim,” suggesting that the early Hebrews recognized the Canaanite high god El and his pantheon of lesser deities (see DR-1 to DR-3), it would seem to follow that Yahweh/Jehovah, the biblical God of Moses who later was hostile to the Canaanite deities, must have been a new or rival god, assimilating El and competing for Hebrews’ exclusive loyalty.  Accordingly, historical and archaeological experts have concluded that biblical monotheism was preceded by a transitional stage of Yahweh monolatry, or the exclusive worship of Yahweh combined with a belief in the existence of other gods.  Following are what appear to be vestiges of this assimilative and competitive mythology, found in books of the Bible attributed to Moses:

Exodus 6

“God spoke further to Moses and said to him, ‘I am Yahweh; and I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai [a name for the Canaanite high god], but by my name Yahweh I did not make myself known to them.’”

Exodus 15, 18

“Moses and the sons of Israel sang this song to Yahweh: ‘I will sing to Yahweh, for he is highly exalted…  Who is like you among the gods, O Yahweh?’…  Jethro said, ‘Blessed be Yahweh…  Now I know that Yahweh is greater than all the gods.’”

Exodus 20, 22, 23

“God spoke all these words, saying, ‘I am Yahweh your god…  You shall have no other gods besides me… for I, Yahweh your god, am a jealous god…  You shall not revile the gods… …do not mention the names of other gods, nor let them be heard from your mouth.’”

Deuteronomy 4, 6, 10

“Has any other god tried to take for himself one nation out of another nation… as Yahweh your god did for you in Egypt before your eyes?  To you it was shown that you might know that Yahweh is God; there is no other besides him…  Hear, O Israel!  Yahweh is our god – Yahweh alone…  Yahweh your god is the god of gods and the lord of lords.”

Deuteronomy 32

“When Elyon [another name for the Canaanite high god] gave the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of man, he set the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the sons of gods.  For Yahweh’s portion is his people; Jacob is the allotment of his inheritance.  …let all the angels [or ‘sons of the gods’] worship him.”

Questions to consider:

Do the above biblical passages, especially the last one, not say or imply that Yahweh was the deity of Jacob/Israel as one patron god among many, and that the Israelites were thus to honor Yahweh above all these other gods?  Is it also not said or implied in the last passage that Yahweh was distinct from El/Elyon, as one of the gods inheriting from him, and that the early Hebrews thus knew only El, not Yahweh, as their high god?  Hence, could the first passage above be a hint that Yahweh was later identified with El, so as to become their new high god, in the same way that a high god of the pagans was often absorbed by a previously lower deity?

– 5 –

Given the evidence that biblical theology originated in polytheistic mythology (see DR-1, DR-2), then developed from henotheistic or monolatrous worship of one god above others (see DR-3, DR-4), it would not be surprising to find that the first clear monotheistic statements in the Bible come, not from Abraham or Moses, but centuries later from Deutero-Isaiah of the first millennium BCE.  The following passages illustrate this evolution towards monotheism:

Joshua 24

“If it is disagreeable in your sight to serve Yahweh [Jehovah], choose for yourselves today whom you will serve: whether the gods which your fathers served… or the gods of the Amorites…”

Judges 13

“The woman gave birth to a son and named him Samson [or Shamash, name of the sun god who, like Samson, takes zodiacal vows, has strength to move pillars, kills a lion whose body serves as a beehive, burns fields, is weakened by loss of his ray-like hair, and is blinded by dark forces].”

1 Samuel 28

“The woman said, ‘I see gods coming up out of the earth.’”

2 Chronicles 2

“Solomon sent this message to Hiram king of Tyre: ‘…our god is greater than all other gods.’”

Job 1, 38

“One day the sons of God [literally ‘sons of gods’] came to present themselves before Yahweh…  Yahweh answered Job out of the whirlwind and said, ‘…who laid [the earth’s] cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God [or ‘sons of gods’] shouted for joy?’”

Psalms 8, 29, 82

“You have made [man] a little lower than the angels [literally ‘the gods’]…  Give honor to Yahweh, O sons of the gods… God [literally ‘the gods’] presides in the assembly of El [the Canaanite high god]; he gives judgment among the gods…  ‘You are gods, and all of you are sons of Elyon [another name for El].’”

Psalms 86, 89, 95, 96, 97, 136, 138

“There is no one like you among the gods, O Lord…  Who among the sons of gods is like Yahweh, a god greatly feared in the council of the holy ones?…  For Yahweh is a great god, and a great king above all gods…  He is to be feared above all gods.  The gods of other nations are worthless things…  Yahweh reigns…  All the gods have worshipped him…  For you are Yahweh most high over all the earth; you are exalted far above all gods…  Give thanks to the god of gods…  I will give you thanks [and] sing praises to you before the gods.”

Questions to consider:

Would we not readily understand all the verses above as having been written from a polytheistic perspective were we not conditioned by our Judeo-Christian heritage to read the Bible as a purely monotheistic book?  Should we not understand the Jewish merging of El/elohim and Yahweh/Jehovah into one God, and the later Christian merging of that God and his Son, as part of the historical global evolution from polytheism to monotheism?

– 6 –

If biblical apologists have difficulty accepting the evidence that their religion has evolved from polytheistic mythology (see DR-1 to DR-5), they cannot ignore the corroborative evidence in the biblical narrative for the very slow evolution of so-called ethical monotheism.  This is illustrated by the Bible’s clear accounts of murderous heroes.  Leaving aside the mass deaths from natural disasters attributed to the main biblical hero, God, as well as numerous other condoned atrocities in the Bible, the following scriptural references focus on just three biblical heroes whose cruel and homicidal behavior would surely be condemned by more modern, and presumably more divine, standards of ethics:


Exodus 2 – He committed premeditated murder of an Egyptian.

Exodus 21 – He allowed slavery, and punishment of slaves if they did not die quickly.

Exodus 32 – He had 3,000 men killed for idol worship.

Leviticus 27 – He even seemed to condone human sacrifice.

Numbers 15 – He ordered a man stoned to death for gathering wood on the Sabbath.

Numbers 25 – He had leaders hanged before God for worshipping other deities.

Numbers 31 – He decreed the death of all the Midianite children except female virgins.

Deuteronomy 2, 3 – He had his army kill the adults and children of conquered cities.

Deuteronomy 20 – He allowed men to be killed, women and children to be taken as booty.

Moses’ successor, Joshua, followed the precedent of utterly destroying whole cities, including women and children (Joshua 6, 8, 10, 11).  Later prophets continued this practice (1 Samuel 15; Ezekiel 9).  A similar disregard for the children of enemies is shown in Psalm 137:9: “How blessed will be he who seizes your little ones and dashes them against the rocks.”


1 Samuel 18 – He killed 200 men, to be allowed to marry King Saul’s daughter.

2 Samuel 11 – He had a man killed to cover up adultery with the man’s wife.

1 Chronicles 22 – He was not allowed by God to build a temple due to his violence.


1 Kings 18 – He killed hundreds of Baal prophets after they lost a contest between gods.

2 Kings 1 – He had heavenly fire kill about 100 soldiers to show he was a man of God.

Questions to consider:

Even if the Bible were factually true, do the above texts not give us ample reason to doubt that the Bible is true morally or spiritually?  Yet, if we have reason to doubt that the Bible is morally or spiritually true, do we not have all the more reason to doubt that it is true factually, in particular with regard to its incredible supernatural claims?  To what extent can we say that the homicidal, warmongering deity and heroes of the Hebrew Bible are morally superior to, or less mythical than, the pagan gods and heroes with their similar bloody conflicts?  Likewise, to what extent can we consider the Christian Bible to be more advanced, when it not only presupposes the Hebrew Bible as its Old Testament, but also presents Jesus as a Davidic messiah or savior transfigured with Moses and Elijah?  What about the implicit approval of Joshua via his namesake in Jesus?

– 7 –

Reinforcing the other textual evidence that biblical theology evolved only slowly from polytheistic mythology to ethical monotheism (see DR-1 to DR-6), the following biblical references hint at a history of approved child sacrifice:

Genesis 22 – God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac and, though later revoking the command, rewards Abraham for his willingness to kill his son as an offering to God.

Exodus 22 – Through Moses, God commands the Israelites to give him the firstborn of their sons (redeemed or not), just as they are to offer up the first of their crops and flocks.

Joshua 6 – Joshua decrees for God that Jericho cannot be rebuilt without the builder’s sacrifice of two children, including a foundation sacrifice of his firstborn at the city’s base (as at 1 Kings 16).

Judges 11 – Under divine influence, Jephthah wins a battle after vowing to sacrifice whatever meets him at the entry of his home, and thus has to sacrifice his daughter.

2 Samuel 21 – King David is told by God that a famine has been caused by a former king’s guilt, which David then expiates by having sons and grandsons of the former king hanged before God.

2 Kings 3 – When the Moabites are losing a battle against the Israelites, the Moabite king sacrifices his oldest son, causing a great wrath to come upon the Israelites to defeat them.

Isaiah 30 – Israel’s enemies, the Assyrians, are consigned by God to the fire-pit of the Topheth, a site of child sacrifice.

Jeremiah 19 – As if protesting too much, Jeremiah declares that God never commanded, decreed, or even thought about child sacrifice, suggesting that this was debatable at the time.

Ezekiel 20 – God explains that he gave the Israelites bad statutes and ordinances, and made them offer their firstborn by fire, so that they might be horrified and know that he is God.

Micah 6 – Morality is said to be more desirable than offerings of young calves, thousands of rams, or even one’s firstborn (all by implication increasingly pleasing to God).

Questions to consider:

If biblical religion evolved from polytheistic mythology, and if, as the evidence also suggests, human sacrifice was a worldwide practice up until the Common Era, how probable is it that the early biblical tradition involved no child sacrifice?  Since there are hints of approval for this practice in even our present edited Bible, dated back to only the first millennium BCE, what does this tell us about the possibility of overt approval for child sacrifice at an earlier stage of the same tradition?  Does not the mythology of child or human sacrifice continue to the present in the Passover celebration of God’s ritualized killing of firstborn Egyptians, and in the Easter celebration of God’s offering up of his crucified son as an atoning sacrifice?  Could it be significant that these solar-lunar festivals appear to have connections to the pagan celebration of the spring equinox, with its new life following a time of death, and that Christ is honored on Sunday, the day of the sun god, the first known god depicted on a cross?

– 8 –

Corroborating the evidence that ethical monotheism in the Bible evolved from polytheistic mythology in the first several centuries BCE (see DR-1 to DR-7) is the evidence that Moses did not write the Torah, or the first five books of the Bible, in the second millennium BCE, as traditionally held, and that our Hebrew Bible was largely composed or edited centuries later.  Among the indicators of this late biblical authorship are the following:

1.  The references in Genesis to Philistines and Chaldeans appear to be anachronisms, since research confirms that these peoples arrived much later, suggesting that Genesis or the Torah was written, or at least edited in its present form, no earlier than the time of the Chaldeans and their Neo-Babylonian empire in the 600’s to 500’s BCE.

2.  Duplicate stories (often with Yahweh as deity in one version and Elohim as deity in the other), internal inconsistencies (such as Joseph being sold to Ishmaelites and Midianites at the same time) and linguistic variations (based on analysis of grammar, vocabulary, and writing style) have led to a general scholarly consensus that the Torah has more than one author or literary source.

3.  Similarly, two incongruent traditions have been found in the Torah, such that according to one tradition, deity is called Yahweh, the mountain of the covenant is called Sinai, the original inhabitants of the promised land are called Canaanites, and Moses’ father-in-law is called Reuel, but according to the other tradition, deity is called Elohim, the mountain is called Horeb, the land’s inhabitants are called Amorites, and Moses’ father-in-law is called Jethro.

4.  Virtually nothing has been located by archaeologists (such as an Egyptian record, or a bone or campsite artifact in the Sinai desert) to support the account of a mass exodus from Egypt and a forty-year trip in the desert by over half a million Hebrew slaves.

5.  Mosaic authorship is not claimed in the Torah for its whole five-book text, but only for specific parts, such as a song or a law, implying that someone other than Moses wrote the Torah as such.

6.  In the Torah’s narrative, Moses is referred to in the third person, is described as the humblest man on earth, and is depicted as dying (in the writing style of the preceding narrative, contrary to the postscript theory), making it very improbable that Moses wrote the Torah about himself.

7.  Phrases in the Torah such as “at that time” and “to this day,” its references to a conquest of Canaan and a pre-monarchy period as completed phases of Israelite history, and the Torah’s geographical orientation to the east side of the Jordan River as “beyond the Jordan,” even though the Torah says that Moses never went to the west side of the river, all reflect a much later time.

Questions to consider:

Since even biblical apologists have acknowledged changes and anachronisms in the Bible, as a result of either human fallibility or an intention to clarify for later readers, what implications does this have for the notion of inerrant or unvarying scriptures?  If late composition or editing of the Torah has to be conceded, is it not likely that theologically undesirable language has been altered over the centuries?  Hence, does our present edited Bible, dated back to only the first millennium BCE, not allow for its possible evolution from the prevalent polytheistic mythology of the second millennium BCE, as otherwise suggested by the evidence?

– 9 –

Building on the evidence that biblical religion emerged from a subsequently edited history of polytheistic mythology and ritualized violence (see DR-1 to DR-8), we may note that the shift to a more ethically oriented monotheism occurred largely during the Persian Empire, with its official Zoroastrian faith.  Persian motifs in our Judeo-Christian tradition include the following:

1.  God as the one, universal, transcendent, wise and good creator

2.  Angels and demons in place of a pantheon of gods

3.  Invisible spirit world existing beyond and before material creation

4.  Holy Spirit as God’s emanation or agent

5.  Devil as the author of evil, temptation, and affliction

6.  War between God and the devil prior to the creation of humanity

7.  Fall or expulsion of the devil from heaven

8.  Earth as a battlefield for continuation of the same war

9.  Temporary reign of evil, causing corruption of the material realm

10. Human beings with free will influenced by good and evil spirits

11. Characterization of this struggle in terms of light versus darkness

12. Light representing truth, darkness representing falsehood

13. Pastor or shepherd as a model of moral behavior or leadership

14. Magi watching the stars for a sign of a savior or messianic figure

15. Virgin birth or miraculous conception of the savior

16. Wisdom, healing, and other benefits upon the savior’s arrival

17. Food/drink symbolizing a slain Son of God

18. Son of God sacrificed to bring eternal life

19. Resurrection of the dead

20. Heaven, hell, and purgatory as earned abodes for the soul after death

21. Final judgment of the dead at the end of the known world

22. Time divided into world-ages, such as four periods symbolized by metals

23. End-time preceded by great apostasy, conflict, earthquakes, and natural signs

24. Messianic figure to come or return, and make all things right

25. Triumph of good over evil in one last great battle

26. Glorious or fiery transformation of the earth

27. Kingdom of God on earth or millennial reign

Questions to consider:

Could Deutero-Isaiah be exhibiting sympathy for Zoroastrian ideas in praising the Persian king Cyrus, presenting the Bible’s first clear statements of monotheism, expressing some of the earliest messianic themes in the Bible, and using light-dark imagery?  Should we suppose that the Persians borrowed more from the Jews than the reverse, when the former were culturally dominant, when Zoroastrianism is thought to predate messianic Judaism, and when the apocalyptic aspect of the latter has more in common with Zoroastrianism than with earlier biblical religion?  What of the possibility that the Jewish Pharisees were named after Parsees or Persian Zoroastrians?  Is this, plus the Zoroastrian concepts in the Dead Sea Scrolls and apocryphal texts, not evidence of Persian and Jewish ideas being synthesized around the beginning of Christianity?  Hence, is it not quite possible that Christianity also came under Persian influence, particularly via Gnosticism and Hellenistic mystery cults, given that the above list reflects what Zoroastrians and Christians had in common more than what either group shared with biblical Jews?

– 10 –

Only when the biblical tradition made its transition from polytheistic mythology and ritualized violence to a more ethically oriented monotheism under the influence of Persian dualism (see DR-1 to DR-9), did it apparently resort to inventing the devil to account for the existence of evil.  Hence, in the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, there is a virtual absence of the devil, under that or any other name, and it would seem instead that he was retrospectively constructed from other figures, during the Persian and Greco-Roman periods.  The following evidence supports this:


Nowhere does the word “devil” appear in the Hebrew Bible.  As far as can be determined, the early Hebrews had no term for a chief demon.


In 2 Samuel 24:1, believed to have been written before the Babylonian exile, God tempts King David to commit the sin of conducting a census, whereas in the later version at 1 Chronicles 21:1, believed to have been written during the Persian era, Satan replaces God as the tempter.  This is the only biblical verse where the word for “Satan” is correctly translated as a proper noun, apparently a cognate of the name for the Egyptian devil Set/Sata.


Elsewhere in the Bible, a “satan,” according to the Hebrew, is basically any “adversary.”  The word may refer to a human being (1 Samuel 29:4), an angel of God (Numbers 22:22, 32), or a prosecutor in God’s court (Job 1:6; Zechariah 3:1-2).   It does not refer to God’s evil counterpart.


A reference to Satan as a fallen angel is supposedly found in Isaiah 14:12-14, although these verses actually concern the fall of a Babylonian king.  Metaphorically, the king is called Lucifer or “morning star, son of the dawn,” who sought to exalt his throne “above the stars of God” and become “like the Most High” – or in an alternative translation, “son of Shahar” who sought to exalt his throne “above the stars of El” and become “like Elyon.”  Shahar was the name of the Canaanite god of dawn, while El and Elyon, Hebrew names for God in the Bible, were also common names of the high god of the Canaanite pantheon.  This mention of a morning star and stars of El would therefore appear to be a reference, not to the origin of the devil, but to a Canaanite astral myth.


Like Lucifer, Beelzebul appears to be another Canaanite god only later transformed into the devil, according to the historical practice of demonizing others’ gods.  The name is derived from Baal Zebul, referring to the warrior storm-god Baal who was the greatest competitor of the biblical God.


The Hebrew Bible does not identify the serpent or dragon as the devil.  Such an association was simply assumed later.  Moreover, the serpent in the Garden of Eden, and the dragons fought by God, including their names or descriptions, have direct parallels in ancient Near Eastern myths.

Questions to consider:

Regardless of the sense in which there might be good and evil forces, must we still be tormented by the unsupported and much abused idea of the devil or Satan?  Can he not just “go to hell”?

– 11 –

Upon making its transition from polytheistic mythology and ritualized violence to a more ethically oriented monotheism (see DR-1 to DR-9), not only did the biblical tradition apparently invent the devil (see DR-10), but it also appears to have invented Jesus Christ as a cosmic figure to vanquish the devil.  So just as the devil is virtually absent from the Hebrew Bible, Jesus is also absent as the promised messiah or savior.  For the following reasons, the Old Testament’s supposed prophecies about Christ, as subsequently claimed by New Testament authors, cannot be accepted as genuine:

1.  In the Hebrew Bible, a messiah or anointed one is never a Christ-like figure, but only a king, a prophet, or a priest.  As well, a king might be God’s metaphorical son or earthly representative.  Several supposed prophecies of Jesus simply refer to concepts such as these, rather than to a divine Christ. – 2 Samuel 7:14 (referring to a king who might “commit iniquity,” obviously not sinless Jesus); Psalms 2:1-7; 16:8-11; Isaiah 9:1-7; 61:1-2; Daniel 9:24-27 (two instances apparently referring to King Cyrus and a high priest, possibly Onias III).

2.  Other passages are similarly taken out of context, but have the further problem of being too easily subject to intentional or unverifiable fulfillment.  The supposedly prophesied event could have been either consciously planned in advance (such as is recorded for Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a donkey) or fabricated after the fact with details that cannot be substantiated (such as minor alleged incidents related to the alleged betrayal of Jesus and his crucifixion by the Romans). – Psalms 22:18; 34:20; 69:21; Zechariah 9:9; 11:12-13; 12:10.

3.  Some verses, apart from being taken out of context, are too general or vague in any case to be convincing as prophecies about Christ. – Deuteronomy 18:15; Psalms 41:9; 78:2; 118:22; Isaiah 40:3; 42:1-3; Daniel 7:13-14; Micah 5:2; Zechariah 13:6-7; Malachi 3:1.

4.  Certain passages concern the writers’ past or present rather than a messianic future. – Jeremiah 31:15 (“Rachel is weeping for her children,” referring to captives in Jeremiah’s time, not to victims of King Herod’s alleged massacre during Jesus’ time); Hosea 11:1 (“When Israel was a youth I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son,” referring to the Exodus, not to Jesus’ return from Egypt after his parents’ flight from Herod).

5.  For some purported prophecies, the above problems are compounded by inaccurate translations. – Psalm 22:16 (‘like a lion” mistranslated as “they pierced”); Isaiah 7:14 (“the young woman is with child” mistranslated as “a virgin will be with child.”  A sign was given to address a king’s fear of an imminent invasion, not to predict a virgin birth far in the future); Isaiah 53:5, 8 (a servant is wounded “because of,” mistranslated as “for,” people’s transgressions; “a plague befell them” mistranslated as “was he stricken.”  Hebrew plural terms, and references to the nation of Israel as the suffering servant, indicate that Isaiah was depicting an afflicted Israel, not a crucified Christ).

Questions to consider:

Why does the Hebrew Bible, in all its many books, never give one unambiguous account of Christ’s mission, or even distinguish between his first and second comings?  If the Hebrew Bible is the Christian faith’s Old Testament, why are its supposed prophecies of Jesus so cryptic?  Do these factors, and Jesus’ failure to fulfill the messianic expectation of political liberation, not provide an obvious explanation for why the Jews would have largely rejected him?

– 12 –

Having an Old Testament whose mythological themes (see DR-1 to DR-10) did not include the promise of a royal, virgin-born, literal Son of God (see DR-11), Christianity apparently contributed this mythology through Jesus’ fabricated nativity and genealogy.  Following are indications that Jesus’ biblical birth narratives are at least partially inventive:

1.  Contrary to what would be expected for such a great event, Jesus’ virgin birth is not mentioned in the Bible outside two late gospels.  Most New Testament authors seem unaware of the event, treating Jesus’ mother, not as the Virgin Mary, but as an ordinary or even faithless woman.  This suggests that the birth story, like its eventual appropriation of the pagan Meri/Madonna and Child, and the sun god’s winter solstitial birthday, was a later adaptation to a Hellenized culture.

2.  Matthew and Luke, the only biblical books to make the claim of a virgin birth, contradict this claim by presenting Jesus as a descendant of King David through his earthly father Joseph.  Apologists cannot solve this problem by arguing that royal descent came through adoption, since elsewhere in the New Testament, Jesus is said to be of David’s “seed” (John 7:42; 2 Timothy 2:8) “according to the flesh” (Romans 1:3), denoting normal biological descent.

3.  A royal genealogy for Jesus (a common feature of birth myths) is presented in two inconsistent versions in Matthew and Luke.  The inconsistency cannot be avoided by attributing the versions to different sides of the family, since both lines are expressly Joseph’s.  Such an explanation also fails to account for the fact that these two genealogies have so many ancestors in common, and yet are hugely discrepant in the number of ancestors listed for the same time period.  Plus, neither version fully conforms to the genealogy in 1 Chronicles 3 of the Old Testament.

4.  Both New Testament genealogies include Jeconiah or his descendants, about whom it was prophesied in Jeremiah 22:30, “no man of his seed shall prosper, sitting on the throne of David, and ruling again in Judah.”  Since Jesus was held to be of David’s seed, he was also held to be a Davidic ruler via Jeconiah’s seed.  According to the Bible, this was not to happen.

5.  Incompatible explanations are given for how Jesus, thought to have lived in Nazareth of Galilee, was born in Bethlehem of Judea, King David’s birthplace.  Matthew has Jesus’ family settle in Nazareth after fleeing Bethlehem to escape King Herod’s attempt to kill his infant rival (another common feature of birth myths), whereas Luke has Mary give birth in Bethlehem as a result of Joseph travelling from his Galilean residence to his ancestral home for a Roman census carried out by Cyrenius/Quirinius.  Given that Herod died about 4 BCE, and the census was conducted about 6 CE, there is a gap of a decade or so between the two accounts.

6.  Historically, there is no evidence of Herod’s alleged slaughter of children, even in Flavius Josephus’ careful record of the king’s abuses.  Similarly, as to the historicity of the alternative story, Galileans would not have been subject to a census in the administratively separate land of Judea, nor would an expecting couple have been required to make a long difficult trip to an ancestral home, when the aim of the census was only to obtain current information for taxing purposes.

Questions to consider:

Might the above suggest the wisdom of the biblical counsel against myths and genealogies (1 Timothy 1:3-4)?  Does not the incoherence of the Christian Nativity speak for itself?

– 13 –

Jesus Christ, if he has any basis in history, can be understood as a Jew, or very possibly a composite Jewish figure, who inherited a tradition of evolving religious mythology that, by his time, included messianic, apocalyptic and related themes, but without the non-Jewish concept of a promised savior as a virgin-born Son of God (see DR-1 to DR-12).  According to most critical scholars in the field, this historical/composite Jew did not present himself as God’s literal son or an otherworldly Christ, but was a Jewish prophet/sage who, like other figures of that period, was persecuted for challenging Roman rule by preaching the kingdom of God on earth.  Certain New Testament passages lend support to this position in suggesting that Jesus helped to initiate a resistance movement similar to ones led by the following contemporaneous Jews:


In Acts 5:36, a Jewish judge urges toleration for Jesus’ followers by comparing them to the followers of Theudas, a reputed prophet-magician.  Such a comparison reflects the biblical Jesus’ reputation as a miracle-working prophet who, like Theudas, seems to have placed more emphasis on miraculous divine intervention than on armed revolution as the means of bringing about or manifesting the kingdom of God on earth.

Judas the Galilean

Yet, in the next verse, the judge compares Jesus’ followers to those of Judas the Galilean, a failed messianic leader and founder of the revolutionary Zealots – not to be confused with Jesus’ apostle Judas Iscariot, though Iscariot might be a Zealot term for political assassin.  Whether or not Jesus was violent, the New Testament records that he had one or more Zealots among his chosen apostles (Luke 6:13-16), that Jesus required disciples to carry swords (Luke 22:36-38), and that one of them used a sword quite violently (John 18:10). Paralleling proto-Zealot and Zealot revolts, Jesus reportedly organized a triumphal entry into Jerusalem, took charge of the temple as a known economic centre of Roman-Jewish collaboration, was considered an atoning martyr vindicated by resurrection, had martyred followers, and in dynastic fashion, having succeeded “cousin” John the Baptist, was succeeded in turn by “brothers,” James and then Simon – not by Peter and the corrupt Romanized papacy with its own proven violence.  Later orthodox Jews known as the Ebionites, invoking James against Paul, accepted Jesus as a non-divine messiah.

The Egyptian

A Roman commander, in Acts 21:38, asks the Christian Paul whether he is the man called the Egyptian – another comparison with political implications since the Egyptian sought kingship by leading an anti-Roman revolt.  While Paul may not have sought kingship, Jesus reportedly was crucified between two rebels for claiming to be king of the Jews.  The Bible’s description of Jesus’ revolutionary message inciting less animosity from the brutal and anti-Jewish Roman governor Pontius Pilate than from the nationalistic and humane Pharisaic Jews (not the stereotyped Pharisees of the gospels) is a historically false role reversal.

Questions to consider:

Leaving aside claims of divinity, is there anything about Jesus’ adult life, more or less as depicted in the synoptic gospels, which makes it very unique in the context of the Judaism of his time?  Is our New Testament not anti-Semitic, inherently and by its effects, in denigrating this Judaism, and suggesting that “the Jews” as a supposedly evil people, rather than their Roman oppressors, killed Christ?  As a Christian in the past, do I not owe Jews an apology for alleging this?

– 14 –

Assuming that the Jesus movement was originally a Jewish “Kingdom of God” movement derived from a long tradition of evolving religious mythology that did not include the pagan idea of a dying and rising divine savior (see DR-1 to DR-13), it seems that such an idea came into the movement through Paul, under the influence of the Gnosticism and mystery cults of his Greco-Roman environment.  While Paul’s letters in the Bible are considered the earliest extant Christian texts, precluding direct comparison with prior Christian writings, the following excerpts from those letters contain hints, minimized in the later book of Acts, of a mystical Hellenized Paul promoting new beliefs that caused division within a Jesus movement based until then on orthodox Judaism:

Romans 6

“…we have been buried with [Christ] through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead… so we too might walk in newness of life.” [as in the mystery cults]

1 Corinthians 1

“One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’… another, ‘I follow Peter’…  Is Christ divided [like his followers]?”

1 Corinthians 2, 15

“…we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery… the wisdom which none of the rulers of the age [Gnostic demons] has understood [or] they would not have crucified the Lord of glory [as was done to the pagan savior] …Christ died for our sins… was buried… was raised on the third day [like the pagan savior] …he was seen [from a word referring to mystical sight] by Peter, then by [others].”

1 Corinthians 10, 11

“Is not the cup… a participation in the blood of Christ?  And is not the bread… a participation in the body of Christ? [mystery cult language] … For I received from the Lord [directly/mystically, not from Jesus’ followers] …that the Lord Jesus [instituted the Lord’s Supper, a mystery cult term].”

2 Corinthians 4

“The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers so that they cannot see the light…  For God [gave us] the light of the knowledge…” [Gnostic themes of two gods, light, and knowledge]

2 Corinthians 11

“For if one comes and preaches another Jesus…  you might well bear with him.  But I do not think I am in the least inferior to those super-apostles…  For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ.” [more division over Jesus; see also below]

Galatians 1, 2

“…if anyone is preaching to you a different gospel… he is to be accursed… For I neither received [my gospel] from man, nor was I taught it [by Jesus’ followers], but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.  …false brothers infiltrated our ranks to spy on our liberty [from Jewish law, as in Gnosticism]…  When Peter came… I opposed him [for heeding] certain men from James [orthodox Jew leading the Jesus movement].  …Christ lives in me.” [mystical language]

Questions to consider:

Between orthodox Jews, such as Peter and James, who knew Jesus historically (according to the biblical account), and Paul who knew him only mystically – who knew him better?  Was the false apostle not Paul?

– 15 –

Granting that Paul was a transitional figure in an evolving mythology (see DR-1 to DR-12), linking the original Jesus movement’s “Kingdom of God” Judaism to later Christianity’s worship of Jesus as a divine savior similar to the dying and rising gods of the surrounding pagan cults (see DR-13, DR-14), we are now able to make sense of the following pattern whereby Paul’s letters and the biblical gospels, considered in the order in which they are thought to have been written, exhibit a developing Christology, with an increasingly deified Jesus and accumulating pagan motifs:


In Paul’s letters, Jesus is depicted as one who had “the form of God” but not “equality with God,” who only by being “obedient to death” was exalted as Lord (Philippians 2:5-11), and who only “by his resurrection” became God’s son, just as others might also receive “a spirit of adoption as sons” to become “fellow heirs with Christ” (Romans 1:4; 8:15-17).  Without ever mentioning the virgin birth or other miracles associated with Jesus, Paul simply says that “God sent forth his son, born of a woman… that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5).


According to the earliest manuscripts of the gospel attributed to Mark (which end at verse 16:8), there is darkness at Jesus’ death, as well as a messenger at an empty tomb, but no appearance by the risen Christ.  Mark has miracles, but no virgin birth, beginning rather with Jesus receiving God’s spirit, and being declared by a heavenly voice to be God’s son, only at his baptism (Mark 1).


The gospel attributed to Matthew introduces the virgin birth amid other miracles such as a guiding star for visiting magi (Matthew 1-2).  Christ’s death and resurrection are portrayed as being accompanied by an earthquake, an angel rolling back a stone from Jesus’ sepulcher, and appearances of both Jesus and other resurrected people (Matt. 27-28).  Nowhere else, in the Bible or historical records, is this account of an earthquake and multiple resurrection to be found.


Presenting a different virgin birth story, the gospel attributed to Luke has a manger, attending shepherds, and a host of praising angels (Luke 2).  Also, in another version of the resurrection narrative, Luke introduces a second angel, and emphasizes the physicality of Christ’s risen body, as well as the glory of his heavenly ascension as a separate event from his resurrection (Luke 24; Acts 1).


Finally, in the gospel attributed to John, Jesus is not just God’s son at his resurrection (Paul), baptism (Mark), or birth (Matthew, Luke).  Moving still farther back in time, he is identified with God as the only One or Son, and as the pre-existent, incarnated Logos, Light, and Lamb (John 1).  His God-like miracles include turning water into wine at a wedding, like the wine god (John 2), and raising buried Lazarus before two sisters at Bethany amid much weeping (John 11), as in the earlier Egyptian myth of El-Asar-us, raised before two sisters at Beth-Anu, a place of weeping.

Questions to consider:

Are these stories not too inconsistent, too Gentile, and too increasingly mythical, to be first- or second-hand historical records?  Is this not confirmed by the fact that the gospels were unknown to church fathers before the second century, then quoted as anonymous works until c. 180 CE?

– 16 –

Various mythical elements of the Judeo-Christian tradition, originating in ancient Mesopotamian and neighboring cultures, and concentrating in the story of Jesus Christ (see DR-1 to DR-15), have the following parallels in relation to Jesus-like figures of other major faiths, such as Zoroaster in Zoroastrianism, Krishna in Hinduism, Buddha in Buddhism, Lao-Tzu in Taoism, Confucius in Confucianism, and of course Jesus as depicted in the Islamic and Baha’i faiths:

Divine incarnation, deification – Zoroaster, Krishna, Buddha, Lao-Tzu, Confucius

Royal genealogy – Zoroaster, Krishna, Buddha, Confucius, Islamic/Baha’i Jesus

Virgin/miraculous birth – Zoroaster, Krishna, Buddha, Lao-Tzu, Confucius, Islamic/Baha’i Jesus

Birth accompanied by a special star – Krishna, Buddha, Lao-Tzu, Islamic/Baha’i Jesus

Shepherds, wise men, or angels visiting – Zoroaster, Krishna, Buddha, Confucius, Baha’i Jesus

Murderous threat from a rival king – Zoroaster, Krishna, Buddha, Baha’i Jesus

Baptism or ritual bathing – Zoroaster, Buddha, Islamic/Baha’i Jesus

Temptation by or as by a devil – Zoroaster, Krishna, Buddha, Confucius, Islamic/Baha’i Jesus

Healing of the sick or possessed – Zoroaster, Krishna, Buddha, Islamic Jesus

Miracles such as passing over water and magically feeding a multitude – Krishna, Buddha

Accounts of a man born blind, a woman by a well, and a prodigal son – Buddha

Wisdom from youth onward – Zoroaster, Krishna, Buddha, Islamic/Baha’i Jesus

Lessons about offensive eyes, rain for the unjust, waterproof houses, eternal treasure – Buddha

Parables about a mustard seed, wheat and tares, seeds in different soils – Buddha

Declaring the Way/Word – Zoroaster, Krishna, Buddha, Lao-Tzu, Confucius, Islamic/Baha’i Jesus

Proclaiming heavenly rule – Zoroaster, Krishna, Buddha, Islamic/Baha’i Jesus

Names such as Firstborn or Only Begotten, Lord/Prince of Peace, etc. – Krishna, Buddha

Triumphal entry in a city or among hailing disciples – Krishna, Buddha, Islamic/Baha’i Jesus

Bodily transfiguration – Krishna, Buddha

Mission as savior or redeemer – Zoroaster, Krishna, Buddha, Islamic/Baha’i Jesus

Betrayal and death on a cross or tree – Krishna, Buddha, Baha’i Jesus

Earthquake or signs at death – Zoroaster, Krishna, Buddha, Lao-Tzu, Baha’i Jesus

Journey into hell, assistance or judgment of the dead – Zoroaster, Krishna, Buddha

Resurrection or ascent – Zoroaster, Krishna, Buddha, Lao-Tzu, Confucius, Islamic/Baha’i Jesus

Promised return one day – Zoroaster, Krishna, Buddha, Islamic/Baha’i Jesus

Questions to consider:

Can the biblical story of Jesus be uniquely true when it shares so many features of narratives from other world religions that, directly or indirectly, could have been expected to influence the development of Christianity through the commerce and syncretism of its Hellenistic environment?  Is not Islam also discredited, along with its Baha’i offshoot, since it incorporates biblical mythology, and since its god Allah, like the linguistically related El/elohim of the Bible, is a former high god of a pantheon, who still speaks as a polytheistic “we” or “us”?  Similarly, is not Judaism discredited, insofar as the apocalyptic and related themes it contributed to Christianity it also shares with other world religions, dating from the period of its contact with the Persians and their Zoroastrian faith?  Likewise, can Zoroastrianism be uniquely true, or Hinduism or Buddhism, given that the Zoroastrian and Hindu faiths share features drawn from a common Indo-Iranian heritage, while Buddhism incorporates Hindu motifs?  Are not the parallels in all these world religions, particularly as they are traceable to the descending-ascending figures and other themes of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, sufficient proof that all the faiths are reworked mythology?

– 17 –

Paralleling the Christian, Islamic, and Baha’i revisions of biblical mythology (see DR-1 to DR-16), the Mormons also revised biblical myths.  Other reasons to reject Mormonism include the following:

1.  Mormon founder Joseph Smith made claims of paranormal experiences common for young people in his time.  Further, his new religion promoted ideas already found in occult traditions: spirit as purer matter, prior spirit creation, Christian prophetic sacrifices originating with Adam, Satanic secrets originating with Cain, Enoch weeping over the resulting flood but rejoicing in Christ, proxy baptisms for the dead, initiatory washing and anointing with a garment and new name, Masonic-like symbols and oaths, key words or signs for a heavenly ascent, mortals seeking godhood, three celestial worlds and two lesser degrees of glory, etc.

2.  While Joseph Smith’s Book of Mormon purported to be a new divine translation from ancient plates, it restated popular claims made by his nineteenth-century American contemporaries:

– that ancient America was inhabited by migrants from Israel and/or the tower of Babel

– that they divided into dark-skinned uncivilized people and fair-skinned civilized people

– that the latter built great cities (such as those whose ruins were found in Mesoamerica)

– that Christ visited these people post-resurrection (possibly becoming Quetzalcoatl)

– that these people were Christ’s other sheep of a different fold, per the New Testament

– that the dark-skinned people destroyed the fair-skinned people in a final great battle

– that descendants of the former later became known as the American Indians

– that a record of these people was written on metal plates, and buried in a stone box

– that these people were destined to help establish the New Jerusalem in America

Virtually all non-Mormon experts in the field, and even some Mormon experts at the risk of excommunication, have concluded that the archaeological, linguistic, and/or genetic evidence does not support the above claims (forcing a partial concession by the main Mormon church in 2006 when it changed its introduction to the Book of Mormon).

3.  The religious and Semitic complexity of the Book of Mormon can be explained by Joseph Smith’s prior involvement with Sidney Rigdon, an educated preacher whose mentor’s unique restorationist theology is discernible throughout the book, except significantly where Rigdon disagreed with that mentor (such as regarding common property, special gifts, and extra-biblical authority, all of which Rigdon and the Book of Mormon endorsed against his mentor).  In Book of Mormon passages that reflect Rigdon’s views, there has been found a disproportionate frequency of terminology characteristic of Rigdon’s teachings, notably the phrase “children of men.”

4.  A similar word pattern has been found in other Mormon scriptures – Doctrine and Covenants, Book of Moses, and a modified Bible – discrediting them also as God’s supposed revelations to Smith.  The Book of Abraham, a further Mormon scripture, purports to be a translation by Smith from Egyptian papyri, but both Mormon and non-Mormon Egyptologists have agreed that this is a false translation, and that the papyri are funerary texts having nothing to do with Abraham.

Questions to consider:

Should I not, as a Mormon apostate, warn that my former faith has doctrines such as dark skin by divine curse, priesthood denial to blacks formerly and women still, and plural wives as an ideal?  Is not another concern the Mormon Church’s heavy taxation of its members without ethical investment accountability?  Does this powerful emerging world religion call for our vigilance?

– 18 –

Evolving biblical religion, having borrowed anthropomorphic concepts of the divine from the ancient Middle East (see DR-1 to DR-17), similarly drew upon Western and Eastern philosophy to develop a doctrine of God and spirits as immaterial entities.  That this immateriality doctrine is a post-biblical pagan myth can be seen from the following considerations:

1.  According to a growing consensus of biblical scholars, the ancient Hebrews did not make a distinction between material and immaterial beings.  The original Hebrew and Greek words for spirit in the Bible mean “breath” or “wind,” suggesting a more refined or subtle form of matter.  Possibly influenced by Stoic pantheism, which used the same Greek word to represent the deity as a material substance pervading the universe, some church fathers held that God was embodied.  So common was this interpretation of the word that John 4:24, which employs that word to describe God, was actually cited by those who argued for divine corporeality.  Hence, the contrary view has been challenged as unbiblical, while religious believers as diverse as Mormons and New Agers have defined spirit in terms of matter or energy.

2.  Only when non-biblical philosophers had conceptualized a purely immaterial reality did such a notion enter biblical theology.  This development began when teachers of the East and West, speculating about the hidden unity or permanence underlying transient matter, without recognizing it as the physical universe’s inherent order, ascribed to it a separate reality.  Consequently, this natural unity became reified and deified as the One or Being or the Absolute, a truer ideal reality transcending the world of the physical senses.  Under the influence of such a philosophy, largely as transmitted through Plato and his successors, biblical theologians made the pagans’ transcendent immaterial reality their own.

3.  Therefore, although an immaterial reality was introduced on philosophical grounds, it is not philosophically justified other than as a mere abstraction from material existence. Likewise, minds do not justify belief in immaterial souls, for we have no proof of minds other than as abstractions from conscious matter, of which consciousness can no more exist independently than movement or weight can exist apart from things that move or have weight.  Neither can a mind access any reality other than its own unless it finds that reality outside itself.  Yet, it can do this only by contacting something that stimulates its awareness, in which case the thing would be known empirically and so, by necessary implication, constitute a form of matter-energy.  It follows that any knowable reality, however elevated or mystical it might seem, must be scientifically explainable in physicalist terms.

Questions to consider:

Why should Christians (or anyone) retain the doctrine of immaterial entities when such a doctrine is neither biblically nor philosophically justified?  Although it may avoid crude anthropomorphism, could it simply be raising anthropomorphism to a more abstract level, replacing projections of physical human beings’ limited bodily and emotional attributes with projections of thinking human beings’ ideal mental and rational attributes?  Is this not why some theologians go further in claiming that we cannot use any literal or positive terms at all to describe the divine, which is wholly other and incomprehensible, thus conceding to agnostics that we cannot even know that a transcendent God is real?  Does such abstracting/negating with regard to deity not then lead to the abstract nothingness of liberal theology’s God as the Ground of Being, showing that this deity is equivalent to an atheistic metaphor derived from material existence?

– 19 –

Biblical supernaturalism can be understood as an extension of the pagan tendency to deify natural forces, having evolved from Mesopotamian/Canaanite polytheism with its sky and earth deities, incorporated the Persian dualism of light and dark forces, Christianized the Hellenistic motif of a dying and rising savior personifying seasonal cycles, and finally adapted the Platonic concept of a transcendent reality abstracted from the unity of material existence (see DR-1 to DR-18).  Consistent with such an understanding, there has been a shift away from supernaturalism as implausible mythology towards an exclusive reverence for nature, updating ancient wisdom in an empathic, holistic manner that can be considered progressive as long as it does not bring mythical notions back in by deifying nature, other than metaphorically.  In that regard, the following can be said about three expressions of this reverential attitude:

Contemporary Paganism

Reviving polytheistic or animistic beliefs in a modern form, Neopaganism deifies processes of nature, whether intended literally or metaphorically.  If the deification is intended literally, the divine beings would by definition be more than mere symbols for natural processes, and so would have to be separate from those processes in some sense, controlling or manifesting them from beyond, as it were.  Besides reintroducing an implausible supernaturalism, this would be difficult to reconcile with Pagan claims that goddesses and gods are archetypes of an immanent energy, and that beliefs are to be considered metaphorical when needed to avoid conflicts with science.


Identifying God with the all, or a harmonious universe, pantheism is a classic example of deifying the unity of nature, again either literally or metaphorically.  On a literal view, supernaturalism is only nominally avoided, by representing the deified unity as immanent rather than transcendent.  Further, if this immanent oneness is conceived in terms of everything as part of a single consciousness, such can only make sense as a symbolic image of the collective life or organic unity of the material world.  Yet, if the oneness is conceived as entirely impersonal, even more is a metaphorical view suggested, for an impersonal immanent unity is not meaningfully distinguishable from the inner harmony of the physical universe studied by science.

New Age Mysticism

Drawing on quantum physics and other sciences, New Agers have claimed that everything is interconnected as dynamic energy, and that human consciousness can alter this energy or connect to a higher reality.  Critics have complained that such claims are used to distort the science on which they are based, and that ideas such as consciousness and energy are being applied in unscientific ways.  When mystics in fact do this, in a literal rather than metaphorical manner, it can again be argued that avoidance of supernaturalism is only nominal, given that physical processes are then effectively being treated as supernatural forces.  Correcting this error means keeping mystical references to consciousness, energy, and the like, unambiguously within a materialist or physicalist framework.

Questions to consider:

Is it fair perhaps to suggest that those who purport to eschew supernatural forces, while expressly or implicitly deifying processes of nature, are trying to have it both ways?  Are they not trying to say that reality, in one sense, is only physical processes but, in another sense, transcends the purely physical?  Does this not require the two senses to be literal and metaphorical respectively?

– 20 –

Finding reasons to reject biblical supernaturalism as implausible mythology (see DR-1 to DR-18), Neopagans, pantheists, and New Agers have sought instead to modernize the ancient wisdom of pagan cultures (see DR-19).  Unfortunately, some of them have made explicit or implicit claims about the past that are inconsistent with the conclusions of historical and scientific experts, such as the following dubious claims about paganism:

That an advanced pagan civilization, typically called Atlantis, existed in the ancient past before vanishing under the sea – whereas this idea is contradicted by multiple findings related to anthropological and geological history, as well as by evidence that Plato’s account of Atlantis, which gave rise to Atlantean notions in the first place, was intended as philosophical fiction, possibly inspired in part by the recent flooding of an island named Atalanta.

That ancient pagans had advanced skills passed down to us as magic or psi, energy healing or therapy, astrology or other divination, and so on – whereas belief in such phenomena has been shown to be correlated with psychological mechanisms such as confirmation bias (dismissing negative evidence), ignorance of statistical probability (underestimating the frequency of coincidence), perceptual illusion (being fooled by appearance), the placebo effect (reacting based on expectation), and the ideomotor response (unconsciously moving a divinatory object).

That pagan societies in prehistoric times were peaceful and egalitarian, honored women, and worshipped a supreme goddess – whereas their remains contain ample evidence of weaponry, violent deaths, class distinctions, sex role differentiation, and male-oriented religious imagery.

That the early modern witch hunts of the West targeted a pagan religion surviving from antiquity – whereas this claim has been discredited in favor of the view that the witch hunts targeted heretical sorcery, falsely accusing women and other marginalized people who were not pagans.

That ancient pagan worship survived underground until emerging as modern witchcraft or Wicca – whereas there is strong evidence that Wicca founder Gerald Gardner supported this claim with false data and credentials, a false initiation story, and a false tradition combining occult symbols, Eastern concepts, romanticized folklore, and the above discredited witch hunt theory.

That there is a direct connection between ancient and modern Druids – whereas the British Museum has stated that there is no such connection, and that many of the popular ideas about Druids, such as their supposed link to the builders of Stonehenge, are based on scholarly misconceptions from two centuries ago that have since been superseded by better research.

That the end date of an ancient Mayan calendar prophesied a global catastrophe or transformation around late 2012 – whereas there is no evidence that this end date was anything other than the day when the calendar was to turn over, nor has there been any scientific support for such an event occurring on that date.

Questions to consider:

Does it make good sense for Neopagans, pantheists, and New Agers to reject Christians’ unhistorical and unscientific claims only to replace them with similar claims of their own?  Are not their feminist and other progressive values better served by the avoidance of discreditable myths?

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