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Saturday, November 12, 2016

Inbox: Richard Carrier’s Moral Philosophy

A reader writes, with respect to one of our older posts:

“Richard Carrier has a lot of very detailed writings which establish his moral philosophy as both true and superseding all others. A quick google search will bring up quite a lot of it.”
— metautopiandreamer

First, my apologies to any readers who find the ensuing response too technical and wordy. The above comment more or less makes it unavoidable.


I have checked and you are correct: Richard Carrier loves detail; lots of detail. And sidetracks; lots of sidetracks. And obfuscation.

Lots and lots of that.

In fact, his only real hope is that his readers might get lost in all that detail, and so not be able to challenge him at the end. Unfortunately for Mr. Carrier, some of us have lots of patience, interest and experience in moral philosophy. I can track his line of argument just fine. But I confess I’m unimpressed thereby.

He does indeed try to supplant Christian morality — with Christian morality minus Christ, essentially. He asserts that “compassion” is a universal moral imperative. I would agree, but because I believe in God who is compassionate. Why he asserts compassion is imperative ... well, he’s not really able to say, except to hope it “works out better” if we do.

In contrast, Carrier’s atheist progenitor, Nietzsche, would have accused him of advocating the “slave morality” of the Christians, and would call him cowardly for being unwilling to see his atheism through to its logical moral implications. His other progenitor, David Hume, would have chastised him for glossing over the famous Is/Ought Problem by gratuitously claiming we owe something to our “desires”.

His present-day contemporaries, the thorough-going atheists, don’t like him much either, for they see his theories are too morally timid, and he seems to be opening the door back up to Christian values ... and thus potentially to Christianity. You can see that in the comments directed to many of his blog posts.

The upshot is this: as a moral philosopher, Richard Carrier has little of interest to offer, either for the Christian or for the atheist. Both sides seem to conclude that he’s gone canoeing without a paddle, and I’d agree.

In fact, he’s quite typical of many atheists today who are unwilling to live with the clear rational consequences of a Godless universe. I don’t blame them, but I do recognize their hypocrisy. They see the disaster that atheism would produce in the moral realm, and they desperately try to evade it. That’s why they become inconsistent: there’s no God, they tell us, but morals are a “must”. But why “must” anyone do anything, in a Godless universe? Even if something is cruel, destructive to others or self-destructive, in a Godless universe it cannot be said to be “bad” or “evil”, only perhaps “impractical”, and impractical only for things the sinner himself clearly cares nothing about, or which he thinks less important than his present desires.

I have some sympathy for Carrier’s fears; it is quite justified to worry that atheism leave morality without a leg to stand on. But if you want atheism, then rationally speaking, that is precisely what you get. Moralizing atheists are like men who jump over a cliff in the hope of stopping halfway down.

As for his having found a morality that is actually verifiably “true and superseding all others”, well ... if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. I’m afraid there’s just no evidence to bolster any such claim.


  1. "That’s why they become inconsistent: there’s no God, they tell us, but morals are a “must”. But why “must” anyone do anything, in a Godless universe? Even if something is cruel, destructive to others or self-destructive, in a Godless universe it cannot be said to be “bad” or “evil”, only perhaps “impractical”, and impractical only for things the sinner himself clearly cares nothing about, or which he thinks less important than his present desires."

    You'll come across this argument anytime you get into a discussion with atheists anywhere. It is a testament to their complete dishonesty. They complain about lack of rationality on part of the theist but will ignore their own without batting an eye. In the past, I have put it to them in a slightly different form. Without consequences, without God, a person can indeed do anything they want. So, the atheist insists on morals only if they fear consequences from another source that affect their personal convenience, and that is human law. There are plenty of atheists who do not even fear that (like Mexican drug kingpins) and they'll act accordingly. So, the lesson is, that as an atheist you can do ANYTHING you want, as long as you don't get caught or feel inconvenienced by it. When you are a dead atheist do you really care about anyone's opinion about you?

  2. Q, you never fail to amuse. Absolutely agreed. And whether the "moral" atheist is apt to notice it or not, there is another conundrum that confronts him when he claims that he can have morality without Christ, and that is that HE may feel that way, but how can he be sure that his fellow atheists all feel that way, and that there is no chance that their logical -- and amoral -- philosophy may end up impacting him or his loved ones?

  3. Reading your back and forth on this topic touches on what to me has always been one of the great mysteries concerning human nature, namely, how can the human mind, endowed with logic, arrive at such terribly disparate conclusions. By definition, this is not supposed to be the case since logic is assumed to contain the correct path towards truth, and truth, given enough information, should therefore be attainable by anyone.

    So, besides insufficient information, what else comes into play here in preventing logic from properly functioning? It has to be one of the other qualities that the human being is endowed with. For example, IQ, illness, education (ignorance), more (or less) common sense (which is a built in, gifted form of logic in itself), interest, attention span, character, bias, ill will, carelessness, pride, stubbornness, etc..

    Note some of these drift towards what one can describe, in its mild form, as ill intent and, in its more potent form, as evil. For example, suppose you have decided to rob a bank, then it is clear that your ability to use logic in planning your heist has not left you, just that your criminal character overpowers your ability to discern, or your willingness to acknowledge, the logical long term consequences of your actions.

    As always therefore, it comes back to the theme of free will and that, in this world, we are compelled and obligated to choose how we want to apply and use our logic. In a sense therefore logic is neutral and can be directed towards positive ends or negative ones depending on our inclination and character. This overpowering of logic is then denoted as being illogical. And clearly, Christianity teaches that shaping and building of character through logic that is good is what existence is all about and that there are dire personal and public consequences when our logic tool is misused and is applied in a self-serving manner.

    1. For some people, life is not a logical exercise. The vast majority of people respond to rhetoric rather than dialectic. Information doesn't move them but feelings do.

      This does not make it impossible for them to be saved, of course, but it means that merely communicating truth verbally will often be insufficient to move them.

    2. It's not really so hard to understand, Q.

      Some people don't know how "logic" really works. If you understand it, you know it's a content-neutral procedure for turning premises (or suppositions) into reliable conclusions.

      So logic isn't at fault if people go wrong, anymore than mathematics went wrong if somebody writes 2+3=7. The procedure works just fine: but you have to know how to use it, and use it to process premises that are known to be true.

      Carrier isn't logical. He's a 2+3=7 type guy.

      But the willingness of a person to respect the "maths" of logic vary from person to person, as does the knowledge of logic. An honest spirit and a willingness to look at the evidence is the first step: then you have to use the maths specified by logic in a correct (philosophers say "valid") way. Then and only then do you get truthful (we say "sound") judgments out of them.

    3. Thanks for the comeback. However, I am not as charitable and was less concerned with the ability of an individual to implement logic correctly but more with the tendency to deliberately superimpose bad intentions, inclinations and impulses to distort the logic they are capable of and then present the distorted result as the correct logical conclusion. This in lieu of what, in my opinion, they really know to be the correct conclusion. Yes, I assume deliberate and sinister motives rather than benignly assuming that they are only capable of arriving at 3+3=7 type of conclusions.

    4. I don't say you're not right, Q. I think you are, in the sense that without a sincere intention to find the truth, logic will go sideways. People who don't want to know the truth can always find ways to do that.

      I think the big take-away for us all is this: logic and reason are on the side of truth, which is God's side. Evasion of the truth and subversion of logic are on the other side. Logic is good, and it's a gift of God.

      As I'm sure you'd agree.