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Sources vs. Justifications of Ethics

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Hey, it’s Seth Kurtenbach.  We recently had some debate on our SASHA group wall (link to the group above) concerning where morals and ethics come from.  One of our regular commentators, call him ‘J’, asserted that

J:  The values and beliefs you hold in such high regard (equality, justice, peace) are themselves derived from the so-called “mythologies” you are so eager to eradicate from human consciousness.

He uses the scare quotes for “mythologies” to indicate that he does not think it is an appropriate term for the belief system in question, in this case, probably the Judeo-Christian tradition.  He asserts that the moral values endorsed by many secular humanists, and other similar ethical positions, are themselves derived from Judeo-Christian culture, and so eradicating the Judeo-Christian culture from human consciousness is in some way self-defeating, because it undermines the support for these values.  I’m not going to say anything about whether it is good or bad to eradicate elements of the Judeo-Christian belief system from human consciousness, but I will point out that there is an ambiguity in what one means by “the values are derived from X”, where X is any belief system or tradition.  This debate happens all the time between members of our community and religious-minded folks, and I’d like to shed some clarity here.

In response to J, a skeptic might argue that the authors of X did not create or establish the moral values in question, but instead merely recorded the moral values that had already existed in human culture.  Thus, the skeptic is arguing with the claim that the moral values historically originated from X.  She might say,

The values are not derived from mythologies. They are certainly co-opted by the myth writers.


I don’t see why an equally likely scenario isn’t just that these were principles we already valued that these mythologies then incorporated them.

But I want to suggest that resisting the argument on these grounds is a mistake for two reasons.  First, it may not always be true.  There may be some moral values that actually did historically originate from some belief system or tradition, and were novel and not pre-existing norms of the surrounding culture.  This is an empirical question about the history of human culture, and when particular values arose.  A hand-wavey reference to the evolution of human societies will not do, because religious beliefs were evolving in conjunction with human cultural norms.  There may be values that arose after some cultural tradition, and that were initially specific to that cultural tradition.  It may not make sense to say that the moral values arose in the society, and then the religious authors encoded them, because the two events were occurring at the same time, and interacting with each other.

Second, it doesn’t matter what the historical origin is.  This is the heart of the confusion.  There are two senses in which a moral value “comes from” something.  First, it may be that it historically originated from a particular tradition.  Second, and more importantly, it may be justified by a particular reason.  It is only in this second sense that the following claim makes sense:

J:  If you throw away the one, you loose [sic] all basis for the other.

See the transition there?  Above, the claim was about the historical origin of a value, and here, the claim is about the basis of justification for values.  The idea must be that the historical origin of a value helps to determine the basis of justification for a value.  However, this is often not the case.  Often the way in which we develop a value is independent from the way in which we justify our continued adherence to it.  Suppose Hinduism was the historical origin of the value of kindness.  Does this mean that we no longer have a basis for kindness if we are no longer a Hindu culture?  No, obviously not.  There are many reasons justifying the value of kindness independent of Hinduism.  So, when someone says that “values are derived from X”, there are two possible claims they might be making.

First, they might be stating the cultural tradition in which the value originated; call this the empirical claim.  Second, they might be stating the reason that X is justified; call this the normative claim.  It is only the second claim that we care about with respect to a secular society’s values.  It simply does not matter if the Judeo-Christian tradition was the first to encode a particular value.  If it is a value worth having, then there will be independent justifications for it, and if there are not independent justifications for it, then it is not a value worth having in a secular society.  Take a look at the Judeo-Christian value of not wearing mixed fabrics (Deut. 22:11).  I’ll agree with J that this value historically originated with Judaism, i.e., is derived from the bible.  However, there are no independent reasons supporting this value, so it is not one a secular society endorses.  Because there are no independent reasons supporting it, we don’t value it.

Polyester... not just a fashion sin.

Let’s look at slavery.  Suppose, for the sake of argument, that Christians in the mid-1800’s really were the original and sole abolitionists.  Let’s suppose that good old American Christianity is the historical origin of abolition (in America).  Does this mean that a fully secular America cannot justify the continued abolition of slavery?  No, because there are many independent reasons for why slavery is wrong.  For example, slavery is wrong because it violates a person’s autonomy.  Slavery is wrong because it results in tremendous amounts of suffering.  These are only a few of the secular reasons slavery is wrong.  These reasons stand on their own, without reference to the Judeo-Christian tradition.

We can see, then, why many of the debates involving claims like those quoted above are confusing and often frustrating.  The empirical question of a value’s historical origin is simply irrelevant to the question of its justification.  The question of evidence for when and how a particular value arose does not matter.  What matters are normative arguments one can produce in support of the value.  Often a religious advocate will make an ambiguous claim that could be interpreted either as the empirical claim or the normative claim.  A skeptic or secularist often interprets it as the empirical claim, and attacks it.  This is a mistake, because only the normative claim matters.

And the day is mine!

Seth Kurtenbach is a philosophy PhD student at the University of Missouri.  His research focuses on applications of formal logic and game theory to questions about knowledge and rationality.  He is growing a mighty beard, in order to increase his philosophical powers.  Feel free to contact Seth at with inquiries about philosophy, logic, guest blogging, or visiting to give a presentation!

Helpful resources:
Iron Chariots Wiki
Skeptics’ Annotated Bible / Skeptics’ Annotated Qur’an

YouTubers: Evid3nc3Thunderf00tTheAmazingAtheistThe Atheist ExperienceEdward Current, NonStampCollectorMr. DeityRichard DawkinsQualiaSoup

Blogs: Greta ChristinaPZ MyersThe Friendly AtheistWWJTD?Debunking ChristianitySkepChick, Rationally Speaking.



About Seth Kurtenbach

Philosophy grad student who wandered into a computer science PhD program with a backpack full of modal logic and decision theory.

2 comments on “Sources vs. Justifications of Ethics

  1. Karl X. A. Raeder (@kxar)
    November 1, 2011

    You’re a philosophy Phd candidate? Really?

    • Seth Kurtenbach
      November 1, 2011

      Thanks for the link! Yeah, I’m a philosophy PhD candidate. I’m guessing you think I said something false/ridiculous, and your link is supposed to prove me wrong? Could you direct me to the specific part of the link, and tell me the specific part(s) of my post that you disagree with?

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This entry was posted on November 1, 2011 by in Author: Seth Kurtenbach.
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