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All morality is subjective and situational.

Your challenge, if you choose to accept it, is to prove me wrong or to accept defeat. If you can produce one moral law which is absolutely true and show why it is, then I will accept defeat.

Let me dispense with one argument that I foresee. If you’re tempted to appeal to God’s authority to base your morality, please consider the following interpretation of the dialog between Socrates and Euthyphro:


I wish there was some moral absolute to cling to, but if there is one, I haven’t found it. Every moral framework is rooted in axioms which we choose just because they seem right to us. It’s a lot of work to make decisions for myself about what is and isn’t good. It also gets annoying when people assume that they are better than I am based on their arbitrary criteria. If you can show me the light, I’ll thank you for it.

Until I hear otherwise, I’ll assume that I’m right. :)

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  1. Jonathan Blake said,

    August 17, 2007 @ 12:03 pm

    By the way, the question posed by the comic is called the Euthyphro dilemma. Wikipedia has some responses to the dilemma, all of which I find unsatisfying.

  2. Lincoln Cannon said,

    August 17, 2007 @ 12:49 pm

    Given that you have a Mormon background, it may ring a bell that Joseph Smith almost agreed with the perspective you shared here.

    While proposing plural marriage to Nancy Rigdon, Joseph wrote her a letter, the text of which is well known among Mormons because it includes his statement that “happiness is the object and design of our existence” — although most Mormons have no idea of the reason for the letter. In this letter, Joseph explains (to paraphrase) that what is right under one set of circumstances is very often wrong under another set of circumstances. Thus, it appears that Joseph would have agreed that morality is situational.

    The only part of your perspective with which Joseph may have disagreed was the part about morality being subjective, but that depends on what you mean by “subjective”. If you mean it depends on any one individual then he probably would have disagreed. If you mean it depends on God, he would have agreed. But keep in mind Joseph’s understanding of God. For Joseph, God is not one person, but rather a community of gods. Moreover, the gods did not create their environment from nothing and don’t have absolute power over it, but rather they eternally seek to organize and reorganize their environment toward that which they perceive as better. Morality, here, appears to be communal and at least somewhat limited.

    As I have taken these ideas from Joseph and added to them other influences, I have come to call myself a moral contextualist rather than a moral relativist or subjectivist. For me, the laws of our environment, the desires of our anatomies, our individual wills and our communal laws should all be considered in the aggregate, to the extent practical, when considering moral questions. Since our environment, anatomies, communities and we as individuals are not static, we should not be surprised to find that our moral deliberation never ends.

  3. C. L. Hanson said,

    August 17, 2007 @ 1:22 pm

    Regarding universal morality, I had a bit of a debate on this with Gluby a while back. (I was arguing against the existence of universal morality, and he claimed he could prove that universal morality exists.) The debate started in the comments of this post (you have to scroll way down for it). Then he followed up with these two posts, but the debate kind of fizzled out before really being resolved….

  4. markii said,

    August 17, 2007 @ 3:05 pm

    Dawkin’s take on the subject of where we get our morality is the best I’ve seen yet. And I too doubt that you’ll find any kind of eternal truth one day. If you do let me know as I’d consider your opinion higher than that of most prophets…

  5. Jonathan Blake said,

    August 18, 2007 @ 10:23 am


    Your comments keep getting in my spam filter, so if there’s a delay between when you post and when your comments appear, you’ll understand why.

    If morality is subjective to a community of gods as you describe them, then the only reason I should adopt those morals is because I respect their greater knowledge. This doesn’t make that morality absolute. The gods could be wrong.

    What is moral depends a lot on what we choose to optimize. There are lots of competing criteria, some more suited to human nature than others. Should we optimize for happiness, truth, pleasure, genetic fitness, or the color yellow? Joseph Smith seems to think that happiness is central to the meaning of life, but he can’t offer anything other than his opinion that this is the case. What we choose to optimize is completely subjective based on what we personally value. I expect that sea turtles would have different morals based on their own values.

    C. L. Hanson,

    Thanks for the links. I hope Gluby can produce a good demonstration of universal morality. :)


    I agree with most of what Dawkins says in that interview regarding morality. Our morality is more of a zeitgeist than an absolute. I’m not even sure that morality is progressing through history rather than just cycling around.

    For example, I find the harsh punishments of the Old Testament repugnant. My revulsion stems from trying to apply them as a universal morality. If I instead keep those laws within context, they make more sense. In a harsh world where community solidarity meant the difference between life and death for its members, an adulterous couple or a backtalking youth might be deserving of death because they threaten the lives of the others in the community. I’m hard pressed to explain the usefulness of the Old Testament’s misogyny, but to say that the Old Testament morality is flawed morally is akin, I think, to the fundamental attribution error.

    If civilization ever collapses, we might want to take a second look at the Law of Moses.

  6. Paul Sunstone said,

    August 20, 2007 @ 5:51 pm

    I’m not sure I can buy into the notion that the harsh Old Testament morals are for the most part justified by circumstances. So far as I know, The Buddha, Lao Tzu, and Confucius had all advocated moralities more humane than the biblical one by circa 500 B.C. when conditions were still pretty rough for most people.

  7. Jonathan Blake said,

    August 20, 2007 @ 7:05 pm

    I’m not advocating wholesale adoption of Old Testament morals under any circumstances. They could have been more humane even given the supposed context of the Israelites in the desert. I’m just saying that they might have served a more practical purpose under different circumstances. Morality is more a practical matter. They smooth interpersonal relationships given the context. If a person were completely alone in the universe, they would have no need for morality.

  8. Paul Sunstone said,

    August 21, 2007 @ 6:20 pm

    Thanks for the clarification!

  9. Lincoln Cannon said,

    August 21, 2007 @ 7:22 pm

    Jonathan, I fully agree with your response to my comments. I’ll add just a couple thoughts: (1) if and when we become as intelligent as the gods, we would have an opportunity to decide whether we agree with them (or some portion of them); (2) “happiness”, so far as I am concerned, is definitionally the empowerment of our will, whatever it might be.

  10. C. L. Hanson said,

    August 27, 2007 @ 12:28 am

    Here’s one: it looks like C. S. Lewis may be arguing for universal morality in Mere Christianity (quoted here).

    I don’t have the whole book, but from this beginning segment it looks like he’s going to argue that the fact that people seem to innately agree on many ethical questions proves the existence of universal morality.

    (Personally I don’t think such an argument proves the existence of anything other than thought/behavior patterns that are common to our species…)

  11. Jonathan Blake said,

    August 27, 2007 @ 9:35 am

    It’s been a while since I read Mere Christianity (back when it seemed like every General Authority was quoting him in their Conference talks). From what I remember, his arguments for universal morality are only a stepping stone to prove theism. I don’t remember his arguments for universal morality being very rigorous.

    Someone might point to the almost universal prohibition against killing another human being as one example of morality. Yet every society has provisos which allow killing under different circumstances: war, self defense, abortion, infanticide, ritual cannibalism, honor killings, etc. We share a universal distaste for killing on some level, but the devil is in the details.

    It seems apparent (to me anyway) that, as you said, we share a human trait influenced by our cultural context. Lewis’ leap to assume that this commonality comes from God is a non sequitur. It doesn’t demonstrate God, nor does it demonstrate the universality of human morality. Would aliens on another planet share our distaste for killing? If so, would this simply be a trait common to all sufficiently evolved life because of the evolutionary dictum “Thou shalt resist killing beings like yourself to enhance the prospects of similar genes”?

  12. Jonathan Blake said,

    August 27, 2007 @ 1:52 pm

    The Jewish Atheist blog has two posts that restate the Euthyphro dilemma (and Dostoevsky) in a compelling way: if God exists, everything is permitted. That is if you believe that God exists and that anything God commands is moral, then you’re ready to do any hurtful, despicable thing your God commands. And God has commanded some pretty despicable things.

    If God Exists, Everything is Permitted

    If God Exists, Everything is Permitted Part II

  13. Lincoln Cannon said,

    August 27, 2007 @ 2:44 pm

    . . . and if God does not exist, everything is NOT permitted?!? ;-)

    The hand raised to finish the dying God is the sign of the oath to the resurrecting God.

  14. Jonathan Blake said,

    August 28, 2007 @ 8:36 am


    This all leads me to believe that all things are permitted (within the constraints of the physical laws). “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law … Love is the law, love under will.” (The Book of the Law) Or if you prefer “An it harm none, do what ye will.” (Wiccan Rede)

  15. Jonathan Blake said,

    August 28, 2007 @ 8:37 am

    Let me add that by saying that we should do as we will, I am not proposing a change. I am only proposing that we acknowledge the truth behind all our moral laws. We already do exactly what we want to do.

  16. Lincoln Cannon said,

    August 28, 2007 @ 8:42 am

    I agree, so long as communal, anatomical and environmental constraints are all taken into account, in addition to the individual. Good is to a community as joy is to an individual. Law is to a community as will is to an individual. Truth is to a community as knowledge is to an individual. That’s morality.

  17. Lincoln Cannon said,

    August 30, 2007 @ 11:16 am

    Joseph Smith, in a letter related to his proposal of plural marriage to Nancy Rigdon, states the following:

    “That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be and often is, right under another. God said thou shalt not kill, at another time he said thou shalt utterly destroy. This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed.”

    You can see the full letter here:

    This makes explicit that which is implicit throughout Mormon canon and tradition: the Mormon foundation of morality is not absolute. The most well known example, as depicted at the beginning of the Book of Mormon, is Nephi, a Jew who knows the Ten Commandments, who claims inspiration from God to kill.

    Whether one likes this story or not, it, in combination with Joseph’s statement, is sufficient to demonstrate that Mormon morality is not based in absolutes. One must look elsewhere for the foundation of Mormon morality.

  18. Jonathan Blake said,

    August 30, 2007 @ 4:11 pm

    I agree in practice that morality is not based in absolutes, but in theory, aren’t we supposed to believe that—while morality is context sensitive—God knows what is Good therefore the ultimate morality is to do what God says? Kill if God commands it. Otherwise, thou shalt not kill.

    My understanding as a Mormon was that I couldn’t know what was absolutely moral, therefore I relied on God to tell me. I see a distinction between situational ethics (which Mormonism obviously teaches) and moral relativism (which it seems to me that it does not).

  19. Lincoln Cannon said,

    August 30, 2007 @ 9:18 pm

    From a Mormon perspective, God is an infinite regression of gods, each of which has contextual knowledge and power — not absolute. Of course, imagine the contextual knowledge and power of a neohuman being! Perhaps she is speaking to us through the world itself. Maybe it’s worth listening.

    Your experience as a Mormon does not sound unusual, but also, so far as I am concerned, should not be considered the end of the Mormon path. The goal, in my estimation, is personal responsibility and accountability stemming from deep communal compassion, and fantastic creativity to the point of adorning ourselves ethically and epistemically as today we adorn ourselves esthetically.

    I agree that Mormonism does not teach mere moral relativism, and that because of its emphasis on balancing communal interests with individual interests. There are many moral possibilities between absolutism and relativism. I consider Mormonism to be moral contextualism. The truth and the good are communal laws (not absolutes), as knowledge and happiness are individual wills (not absolutes). That, according to my understanding, is Mormonism.

  20. Jonathan Blake said,

    August 31, 2007 @ 10:38 am

    Lincoln, you certainly have an interesting take on Mormonism. :) Unfortunately, your views are an extreme minority. Mormonism would be a lot more interesting to me otherwise.

    If God is speaking to us through the world itself, then we should stop wasting our time praying to her, baptizing each other, etc. and start studying her creation with religious intensity.

  21. Lincoln Cannon said,

    August 31, 2007 @ 11:29 am

    Yes. We should be studying her creation with RELIGIOUS intensity — not merely secular intensity. ;-) I fully agree, and some of us are doing that. Others of us are leveraging the results of those studies, the science, to change the world through the resulting technology. Religion has always depended on epistemic processes, although it is often slow to adapt to new epistemic processes. Modern science has demonstrated that it is very good at providing reproducible knowledge, which is something other epistemic processes used by religion have struggled to do. Modern religion should be using this modern epistemic process for advantage. As Brigham Young put it: true religion is a science.

    Are we wasting time praying? I don’t think so. There are tangible benefits to prayer (as I suggested on another thread), although they might not always be what some of us suspect them to be. In any case, ongoing scientific analysis of prayer will provide increasing insights into consequences of prayer.

    Are we wasting time baptizing each other? Again, I don’t think so. The ceremony, and other sacraments, fill deep spiritual or psychological needs. Of course, as the Book of Mormon puts it, salvation does not come through the law, but the law serves to strengthen our faith in Christ — not merely an extraterrestrial, but that identity that you commit to take on yourself, in relation to your community, “in every way possible”, to quote Elder Holland.

    You’re right that my view of Mormonism is not mainstream. However, I would argue that Joseph’s and Brigham’s and various other LDS authorities views’ are also not mainstream. Mainstream Mormonism has, in some ways, taken on ideas from mainstream Christianity. This is not all bad, in my estimation, but it certainly presents challenges. My perspective on those challenges is that we should seek to work with them in an overall constructive manner, preserving and building up as much as possible, while yet pursuing the goal of exaltation — individually, anatomically, communally and environmentally. Pursuit of this goal will require some uncomfortable changes for all of us, but there seems to be no sense in indiscriminately causing discomfort.

    If, as you say, these views resonate with you, I invite you to join the MTA and help us advocate practical faith. You would not be the only atheist member. The other one just doesn’t think God exists YET. :-) My thoughts are different on that specific matter, but we share real faith: discover and join God to the extent he now exists; create and become God to the extent he does not yet exist.

  22. Jonathan Blake said,

    September 2, 2007 @ 7:11 am

    While prayer and rituals may be beneficial to the mind of the practitioner, that’s not what Mormon prayer and ritual has been advertised to do. They are advertised more like magic spells than contemplative meditation.

    While your views of Mormonism are interesting, I don’t feel the pull of Mormonism any longer. Mormonism may be compatible with transhumanism, but I don’t see that it is especially supportive. For me, I’m more drawn to transhumanism alone.

  23. Lincoln Cannon said,

    September 2, 2007 @ 7:30 am

    . . . come help us out. :-)

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