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Another Response from Martignoni on Objective Morality

Here is round three of my exchanges with Catholic apologist, John Martignoni, who touched off this chain of blog entries with his article titled: Was Hitler Right? (Or: Why Atheists Have No Rights). Martignoni’s two main points are: 1 – that only God provides objective morality and therefore atheists have no objective basis for their morality; and 2 – that the American legal system is based upon Christian objective morality and therefore atheists, who reject God, should have no legal rights within this system. I replied with this analysis of his claims. Martignoni responded, leading to my second entry on this topic. Martignoni has decided to dig himself in deeper, and so has written this response.

Rather than going paragraph by paragraph, I am going to pull out the main points and respond to them, in an attempt to keep the flow of the argument more organized.

Martignoni’s Style

Before I address the meat of his arguments, I wanted to comment on Martignoni’s argument style. It is an excellent example of how not to have a meaningful discussion. Martignoni is doing what most people do in an argument – defend his position at every turn regardless of how he has to distort what is said, or what logical fallacies he must commit. As I have written before, a more useful strategy is to try to find common ground and then proceed carefully from there. Martignoni begins with a few ad hominem attacks:

You know, I could be wrong, but it seems to me that he used the wrong word here. It doesn’t sound like he was “intrigued” that I had taken the time to respond to his criticisms, it sounds more like he was surprised that I would have the audacity to respond to his criticisms. I’ll bet he would have been even more “intrigued” if he had known I was from Alabama. Well, the problem is that many of us poor folk here in Alabama are just too dumb to know our place. We just don’t fit into those better tribes of folk up at Yale and such places.

‘Aw shucks, I’m just a poor Alabama boy and that mean arrogant int-eye-lectual from Yale is being all arrogant and mean and stuff.’ This is rather despicable – right off the bat he is playing at class warfare and anti-intellectual accusations of elitism. I am simply analyzing the logic of Martignoni’s articles (something we do frequently at the SGU) and this type of response is just a diversion from the actual issues. If Martignoni can’t stand the heat of a little analysis of his nonsense, then maybe he should rethink posting his articles on that inter-webby-thingy.

What this type of response indicates is that Martignoni is interested, not in meaningful discussion, but in fostering class warfare, and that fits with his original article, which was framed as an exercise in bashing non-believers (even if that was not the ostensible point of the article). In the link to his responses I am listed as “Atheist Dr. Steven Novella,” lest there be any mistake who the “enemy” is. Martignoni has not displayed any attempt at actually understanding my position – his only interest seems to be fighting the bogey man of atheism.

What is Martignoni’s point?

I am having trouble nailing down exactly what Martignoni’s points are. I am honestly trying to address his actual points, despite his multiple accusations that I am attacking straw men, but the problem is that he is being extremely squirrely. Part of the problem is that I am analyzing the logic behind Martignoni’s positions – his implied premises, for example – and each time I do this he retreats behind the fact that he did not state these premises outright. This is not a defense, however, if his positions are dependent upon those premises.

Martignoni writes:

All I’m saying is that if I’m wrong, and God does not exist, then human life basically has no objective value. Period. I’m not being coy…anyone who has read my newsletters on a regular basis would know better than to describe me in such a way. I say pretty much exactly what I mean – I don’t try to hide anything between the lines.

But later, in response to my criticism that he stated directly that atheists should have no rights, he writes:

Even folks who are in Dr. Novella’s corner have commented on his blog that they can tell I was writing those words “tongue-in-cheek.” The fact that Dr. Novella cannot see that leads me to question his ability to reason, yet reason is what he claims to be all about.

So which is it? Apparently he says “pretty much exactly” what he means, except when he is being “tongue-in-cheek”. Forgive my confusion. Martignoni wrote at length that atheists who reject the God on which laws are based should have no rights. He now claims this was “hyperbole” – but if so then to make what point? Why the long bashing of non-believers? – we must be meant to infer something from this.

Now on to the actual points.

Objective Morality

Martignoni states:

My argument is that if there is no God, then we cannot come up with a truly objective valuation of human life. Dr. Novella may consider that a positive argument for God, but I do not. My intent was not to offer “proof” for the existence of God.

I agree with the first statement – if we live in a purely materialistic uncaring universe then there is no basis for “truly objective” morality – or any value, for that matter. In such a universe all value is ultimately subjective. Therefore what? Martignoni says he is not being coy or evasive, but what would he have us conclude from this premise? He says it is not an argument for the existence of God, therefore it is not an argument for the existence of objective morality – which is dependent upon the existence of God or something godlike outside of humanity that can impose objective morality on us.

My primary criticism of Martignoni’s position is that even if there is a God who has an objective morality, it doesn’t matter, because no one knows objectively if God exists or, if he does, what his will is. Therefore, even in a world with objective morality we would still only have subjective morality because us mere humans do not have access to objective knowledge of such morality. In fact, all claims to objective morality are actually based upon faith and authority. So the real choice faced by humanity is a system of morality based upon one faith and the authority of those who lead that faith, or a system of morality based upon mutually agreed upon principles, carefully thought through and fairly applied.

I made the point that within such a materialistic model there can be a perfectly workable and reasonable system of ethics, morality, and law. Such a system can be based upon some self-evident and nearly universal first principles, for example that people generally do not want other people to do bad stuff to them. This is “objective” with a small “o”, meaning that it is not arbitrary or based upon someone’s personal choice. Rather it is held to standards of logic, fairness, and universality. But it is not “truly objective” in the way that Martignoni means – descended from God.

Martignoni did not address these points. Rather, he acknowledged that he is proceeding from his personal faith, but did not see the implications of that. Faith is not objective, it is a personal choice. Martignoni, rather, responded with this:

Again, he brings up irrelevant arguments. Yes, faith is a personal choice. He has faith that there is no God, I have faith that there is a God. Those are our respective personal choices.

He uses this strategy frequently in his response – whenever I make a point he cannot address, he simply dismisses it out of hand as deriving from my “faith” that there is no god. This is both a false premise and a logical fallacy. First, my position is not premised on the non-existence of God. Nowhere do I state that “God does not exist, therefore…” or “assuming there is no God…,” etc. My premise is that no one knows if God exists, or what God’s will is. That’s it.

Further, I am not an atheist (at least not in the “hard” fashion that Martignoni specifically defines). Despite all of his whining that I am not being fair to him, Martignoni assumed I was an atheist, then falsely assumed that my position was based upon that atheism. Rather, I am an agnostic, defined as T.H. Huxley (who coined the term) meant it – the notion of the existence of God is outside the realm of human knowledge. It is not possible for humans, trapped in our materialistic existence, to either prove or disprove the existence of a being outside the laws of the universe.

Martignoni desperately wanted to make this a matter of one faith vs another. But that is simply not the case. It is, rather, a matter of basing a system of morality and law on faith vs basing it on mutually agreed upon principles. Martignoni’s premise for the entire discussion is false.

Martignoni further argues:

Dr. Novella, again, is missing the point that my argument here is based on the fact that valuing human life based on one’s self-interest can lead to situations where one’s self-interest puts zero value on human life.

This is the core of Martignoni’s point – that without objective morality, someone, somewhere, at some point in time may decide not to value human life (and he uses Hitler as his example). I agree, and never said otherwise. My point is that this is a non sequitur – more specifically it is the argument from final consequences. He is saying that we have objective morality because subjective morality is bad. My position is, regardless of the implications, it is simply a matter of fact that we do not have access to objective morality. Martignoni wishes to impose his faith and his authority as objective morality, and he has said nothing (except his false premise/ non sequitur about my alleged “faith”) to counter this statement.

I further made the point that we can have a workable system of ethics and a system of law that enforces them. This works well in most modern nations. It is always a work in progress, but in most developed and civilized parts of the world life is pretty good. It is the absence of law and justice that is the problem, not the absence of objective morality.

Further, Martignoni has failed to make the case that faith-based morality would prevent the alleged evils of subjective morality, nor has he addressed the obvious problems that would arise. Upon which faith would our “objective” morality be based? Who would be the interpreters of divine will? What would keep those who interpret divine will from deciding that God wants one group of people to kill another group of people. If the old testament is to be believed, this has happened in the past. Certainly there is no historical lack of people killing each other in the name of their God. In fact, I would argue that, historically speaking, subjective yet just and universal subjective morality has worked out considerably better than faith-based morality.

One point on objective vs subjective (actually a better term would be “universal”) morality. Martignoni writes:

One more statement of Dr. Novella’s that caused me to chuckle: “No faith can achieve this [getting all men to agree not to kill each other] without first wiping out or subjugating all other faiths.” But, Dr. Novella, no line of reasoning can achieve that either without first wiping out or subjugating all other lines of reasoning, can it? You see the language he tries to paint religion with? The language of violence. No, there’s no bias there. But, Dr. Novella, what if that faith that wipes out and subjugates all others is spread using reasoned argumentation and the witness of history? Again, I think Dr. Novella is showing a bias and a prejudice against faith that causes him to say some not-so-well-reasoned things.

Let me clarify my point, which Martignoni completely missed. If one faith confronts another, how can the two faith’s be resolved? Both think they are objectively right, that God is on their side, that their’s is the one true faith. So how do they resolve their differences? Either they learn to live together or they try to wipe out each other. If they learn to live together, what does that mean? Will have they to compromise their objective morality by allowing for exceptions or other interpretations demanded by the other faith? Will they have to convert all members of the other faith (this is one form of “subjugating” to which I was referring)? Will the faiths merge to form a third new faith?

What if two subjective systems of morality conflict? How can they be resolved? Subjugation is not necessary – through reason and discussion the systems can work together, find common ground, resolve differences, or agree to disagree on matters of value and to tolerate the other. They still may decide to wipe each other out, or to hide behind their respective walls. But a humanist system of ethics based upon reason that tries to be universal at least has a basis for resolving differences.

Again – in an open society that is diverse and tolerant, the only system of ethics that can work is one that is humanist and universal. My point is that a faith-based (and therefore authority based) system of ethics does not work well in a diverse and open society.

Mutually Assured Destruction

Martignoni’s straw man of humanist ethics is this:

Again, he puts words in my mouth. I’m not saying it’s not in Dr. Novella’s self-interest for there to be rules that protect his desire not to be killed. I am making the point that all of his vast tradition of humanist philosophy is indeed based upon self-interest. The fact that Dr. Novella says his “right” not to be killed is based on his desire not to be killed is my point. His “rights,” as he sees them, emanate from his desires. They do not come from outside of him, they come from him. Is it objective to endow yourself with rights based on your desires? Most people desire to be wealthy…does that mean they have the “right” to be wealthy? What if someone – a Hitler, a Stalin, a Mao, a Genghis Khan, a bin Laden – desires power, domination, wealth, sexual conquest, etc. more than they desire not to be killed? Does that give them the “right” to such things? What if your desire not to be killed at some point causes you to not value someone else’s life so that you can remove them as a potential threat to your desire not to be killed? Then their life no longer has value. In other words, their value is not inherent to them, it emanates from your desires. And, what if the principle of reciprocity (mutually-assured destruction) doesn’t hold in a situation because you are eminently stronger than someone and are armed and they are not and you perceive no threats to your life. What happens to the value equation then?

Most of Martignoni’s questions would be answered by reading any decent book on ethics. But let me make some general observations. Humanist ethics is not based solely upon “mutually assured destruction.” The principle of reciprocity is that, if you want someone to behave a certain way toward you than it is only fair and reasonable that you behave the same way toward them. This includes both the positive and the negative – doing good as well as not doing bad. The premise of this system of ethics (and any workable system) is that everyone agrees to the rules ahead of time. You cannot unilaterally change the rules at your whim – that defeats the whole purpose, the very concept of ethics, which is a system for how people live together. It does presuppose a system of enforcement – of justice. But that’s just part of the mutual agreement.

Also, Martignoni’s objections to humanist ethics would also apply to his world of “objective” ethics. A Hitler or Stalin or Mao could decide to pursue their own desires for power and domination over any system of ethics. Martignoni fails to state how his faith-based system of morality would prevent such people from exerting their power over the weak.

The Naturalistic Fallacy

Martignoni writes:

Dr. Novella claims above that we should not “derive our values from nature.” But, didn’t he previously say that his vast tradition of humanist philosophy is based on the fundamental principle that our desire to live is inherent in us from nature? So, on the one hand, we are to base our system of ethics on the natural order, but on the other hand we are not to base our system of ethics on the natural order. Now I’m really confused. He also says nature is value neutral, but if all we are as human beings is simply one animal up on the evolutionary chain, then how is it we can do anything that is not derived from nature, if nature is all there is? If there is no God; if there is no soul; if there is no truth beyond what we can observe in nature; then if nature is value neutral, anything that human beings do as a result of our nature (like being tribalistic) is also value neutral. Dr. Novella seems to want the results of having a God, without really having a God.

Martignoni is confusing basing morality on nature, and informing our ethics by an understanding of human nature. Martignoni wants to commit the naturalistic fallacy and then deny that human nature allows for ethics. He writes:

For instance, we can see that nature designed men to have sexual relations with women, and not with other men. So, we can, based upon the natural law, determine that homosexual relations are contrary to the good of man, can we not? Would you dispute that, Dr. Novella? If so, based on what principles?

This is an example of the naturalistic fallacy – if something happens in nature, it must be moral. I never said anything that can be interpreted as this. My point is that nature is value neutral – nature is what it is, and we should not necessarily model our civilization and our morality over what happens in nature. By the way, I also think his anti-homosexual position is based upon a false premise. Homosexuality occurs throughout the animal kingdom, so it must be “natural” for a certain percentage of a population to either be homosexual or to occasionally engage in homosexuality. So you can make the naturalistic argument work either way. And to be crystal clear – I am not making this argument, I am just pointing out that his premise is weak.

What I am saying is that humans are not blank slates – we are born with certain tendencies and characteristics – human nature. I am also not arguing that we be slaves to this nature. Rather, we need to understand human nature and then work with it to achieve the most desirable ends – a society that is the most moral. It is part of human nature to care about other people, but it is also part of human nature to divide the world into us vs them. This helps us understand our own desires and behavior, and to craft laws that result in the best outcome.


Martignoni writes:

When Dr. Novella states the following: “We can base our ethics on what makes sense, not on what some self-appointed authority says,” do you know what he is really saying? He’s saying that he wants to be able to impose his belief systems on society, but he doesn’t want anyone else to be able to do so. Think about it. Who decides what “makes sense” and what doesn’t make sense in regards to ethics? Why, Dr. Novella does of course. Does adultery make sense? Does abortion? Does cloning? Does homosexual marriage? We know, of course, that Christians are unable to make sense, so they’re left out of the decision-making process, right? In other words, he’s appointed himself an authority on this matter, yet he rails against self-appointed authority.

Even after the abysmally poorly argued nonsense that Martignoni has put forward, this paragraph really made my jaw hit the ground. This is little more than self-serving paranoid raving. How can Martignoni possibly derive from anything I have ever written (or said for that matter) that I want to impose my belief system on others? The entire basis of an open system of morality is that it tries fairly to accommodate everyone. In order for any system of ethics to truly work it must strive to be universal – that means that everyone gets to participate in the conversation.

It is very interesting that while I have been engaging in a free exchange of ideas, Martignoni sees a diabolical attempt to impose my authority onto others. This seems to be projection. I can only infer that this is how he views the world – authorities trying to impose themselves onto others. That kind of makes my point, doesn’t it. I wonder how he thinks, exactly, I have appointed myself as an authority, or how I have attempted to exclude Christians from the conversation. In fact, I am engaging Martignoni in conversation, in a free exchange of ideas. He is free to make his case, and I welcome it. All I ask is that I am free to make mine.

But Martignoni’s arguments say much more about him than about the positions against which he is ostensibly arguing. As we saw in the opening, he is framing this discussion as the battle between two faiths, two authorities. That is the arena in which he wants to fight, because then he can make it into a battle between those who defend righteousness and those who defend evil. Whereas I see it as the conflict between ideology-based authority and reason-based democracy.

One final word on the whole “evil” thing. Martignoni maintains that he never said atheists are evil. OK – fair enough. I retract any statement that accuses Martignoni of accusing atheists of being evil. But here is what he is saying:

I will state very clearly, so that Dr. Novella will (hopefully) have no doubts as to what I mean, what I think about atheism and atheists. The belief that there is no God is what is referred to in 1st Timothy 4 as a doctrine of demons. It is evil. However, people who hold to this faith in no God – and it is a faith, because no one has any proof that God does not exist, so they believe on faith – are not necessarily evil. Believing in erroneous doctrine does not, in and of itself, make someone evil.

So atheism is evil, even though atheists are not necessarily evil. Got it. He also clarifies that he did not say atheism “allows” for evil it just “opens the door” for evil. OK – I think that last point is making a distinction without a difference. So I don’t further misinterpret Martignoni’s position, I wonder if he would clarify what he thinks about agnosticism – not having faith one way or the other? He does not address this position – almost as if he is unaware it exists (and perhaps that is why he had no choice but to assume I was an atheist by his definition).

At the risk of again accusing Martignoni of being coy, he seems to want to retain his framing of the debate – that between righteous faith and evil atheism, without being accused of actually calling atheists evil.

There are many more points in Martignoni’s response than I have time to address. These types of exchanges have a tendency to expand geometrically. So I have chosen to focus on what I consider to be the main points. This should not be construed as “failing” to address any of the points I left out or acquiescing on them. If Martignoni wants to focus on certain points I will be happy to address them in a future entry. I hope he at least addresses the actual points I raised in this one.

51 comments to Another Response from Martignoni on Objective Morality

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