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Ethics without God

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Shoddy Philosophy

Ethics Without God is a book in which author Kai Nielsen claims to be working as a philosopher, using reason and evidence to back up his arguments. Nonetheless his own arguments are both undeveloped and faulty and his evidence is sketchy at best, consisting almost exclusively of superficial descriptions of Western cultures.

Desperately Seeking the Good

Nielsen, in his desperate attempt to salvage the idea of morality, seems to willfully ignore the most significant challenges to its validity. For example, he briefly dismisses without justification the viewpoint that one cannot determine whether or not something is evil, claiming simply that it is more reasonable to believe some "elemental" things to be evil. Neilsen never even considers the possibility that the concept of evil may be a cultural artifact of religious systems that has no more independent reality than the concepts of ugliness or foolishness. He seems to assume that evil exists as an actual thing independent of human construction.

Another major blunder is Nielsen's claim that certain moral judgments are "elemental", "those considered moral convictions that we hold most firmly." He includes in this category the decisions that religious and racial intolerance are unacceptable, that people should not be treated solely as means, and that promises and the truth should be taken seriously. Who exactly does he think the "we" that holds these moral convictions is? One could fairly argue that the majority of people on the face of the Earth believe that behaviors contrary to at least one of these convictions are justifiable. How does he decide that this majority is to be excluded from the moral elite, the "we"? Who exactly shares his elemental convictions and what makes their judgments more valid than those of the rest of us?

Just Trust Me, He Says

Nielsen hammers the followers of religious traditions for not being able to justify the belief that God forms a suitable foundation for morality. He claims to have a more suitable foundation for his values, and tells us,

...no matter what their origin, if I have good grounds for believing what I do, I am ceteris paribus (all things being equal), justified in so believing.

You'd think from this confident statement of the requirement of "good grounds" for moral beliefs that Nielsen would have some himself. Guess again. Earlier on the same page, he explains that the best justification for his belief in the most "bedrock" of his values is the phrase "Well, I just do." Mr. Nielsen, it doesn't matter whether you conspicuously drop Latin phrases into your arguments. A contradiction is still a contradiction.

This book is yet another example of the pitfalls of half-hearted atheism. The author has the courage to question the existence of God, but he doesn't follow through. Desperate for a sense of order, he clings to the conceptions of morality that can only be supported through some sort of faith. When his assumptions are challenged, he retreats to the mantra "I just do", afraid to examine their foundations, perhaps out of an intuition that there is nothing there.

Summin' It Up

In short, the problem with Ethics Without God is that the author insists on making statements when he ought to asking questions. A better book might have been titled Ethics Without God?


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