Ethics: A Study on Bad Argumentation

Underlying philosophy is key to Reactionary thinking, so much so that many famous thinkers of this school have cut their teeth in the gritty world of esoteric philosophy, where as one person once excitedly told me, “anything can happen!”
A field of philosophy that often goes untouched by Reactionaries is the field of ‘ethics’, and yet this subject seems pretty crucial to the larger cause. Most people on our side of the political spectrum denounce and seek the overthrow of the Modern elite (Cathedral, NWO, whatever you want to call it), not primarily because Modernity is impractical or even illogical, despite both assertions being true. The common condemnation of Modernity is that it is in fact immoral. When we say that the order should be overthrown, we are in general making a moral statement, an assertion of a moral duty on our part.

So, if we do see Modernity as morally reprehensible and out of step with an objective standard on which societies should operate, we need to talk about ethical theory and how we justify our political views through the paradigm of morality.

Many Traditional Christians hold to ‘Natural Law Theory’ and still others hold instead to ‘Divine Command Theory’ which claims that our moral obligations and duties are given to us in commands from the Prime Mover, God.
While I haven’t yet fully rejected Natural Law Theory, I am moving closer to holding Divine Command Theory to be true, with moral guide markers present in nature as an obvious accessory. Regardless of your position, I hope you enjoy reading this and find it informative when it comes to a subject that many of us only mention in passing.

James Rachels (1941 – 2003)
a philosopher… and not a very good one at that

Specializing in the fields of ethics, in particular animal rights, philosopher James Rachels was a stern critic of Divine Command Theory. He is not the most well-known in his field, but his works are often the base material for college-level philosophy classes as he made a point of making his material very broad and accessible.

In his 1986 work, ‘The Elements of Moral Philosophy‘, Rachels covers what many consider to be the main ethical theories still popular today and gives his critique of each one, finishing the book by advocating for Utilitarianism, which can be defined as “the right course of action is the one that maximizes utility, usually defined as maximizing total benefit and reducing suffering or the negatives”.
One of the theories critiqued by Rachels is of course Divine Command Theory, and so in defense of this theory, and perhaps if I may be so bold, in defense of Reaction which I believe must necessarily reject most of the other theories that are very often used as justifications for all kinds of Modern programs and agendas, I intend to refute Rachels point by point.

I am not going to be attempting to refute other theories of ethics at this stage, but simply nullifying the objections to Divine Command Theory that Rachels raises. Believe me, this isn’t difficult. As you will soon see, Rachels skills at argumentation are not refined at all, and red herrings are his specialty.

for the purposes of this rebuttal
we will use the sixth edition of ‘The Elements of Moral Philosophy’

Rachels opens honestly enough with Chapter 4, ‘Does Morality Depend on Religion?’. He relays to the reader a fact that was very true at the time, people connect religion and morality in American society, with clergy from various denominations being considered authorities on matters of moral truth, even at an institutional level. He even grants that from a naturalistic worldview, the world seems to be a moral void lacking any intrinsic meaning, giving a quote from the vaunted atheistic philosopher Bertrand Russel.

Then comes his first mistake.

“Judaism and Christianity teach that the world was created by a loving, all-powerful God to provide a home for us. We, in turn, were created in his image, to be his children. Thus, the world is not devoid of meaning and purpose. It is, instead, the arena in which God’s plans and purposes are realized. What could be more natural, then, than to think of “morality” as part of religion, while the atheist’s world has no place for values?”

This is a mis-characterization that appears over and over again in many forms whenever theists talk about morality’s grounding in God. Nobody asserts that an atheistic world would be devoid of value, only that such value would be ultimately subject to the human mind rather than any concrete reality. North Korea is a great case study here, for it is a strict, cloistered, atheistic world of its own, and nobody could honestly say that it was a world devoid of any values. It’s values however are by and large the product of a subjective human consciousness, that of the ‘Dear Leader’. Any world that features sentient, thinking beings is likely to have values, but the dispute comes over whether these values are objective or subjective. In other words, are they true contingent on people holding them, or are they true regardless of whether or not anyone holds them.

Rachels then begins engaging with Divine Command Theory and right off the bat makes an incorrect assumption

“Essentially, it says that “morally right” is a matter of being commanded by God and “morally wrong” is a matter of being forbidden by God.”

Such assertions are not necessarily correct as it pertains to versions of the theory which do not necessitate that moral value and duty be dealt with via the same mechanism. All actions of moral consequence may have a moral value, and yet we are not necessarily given a duty to perform them. For instance, it might be a morally valuable decision to become a doctor, but also to become a priest. Neither are commanded by God, we cannot realistically do both, and yet both are morally right careers rather than morally wrong careers such as a loan shark or a hitman. Despite the theory’s name, most of its adherents do not find it to strictly require the relaying of any commands in terms of what moral value actions have. Rachels will use this as a straw man to make his argument work when he discusses the Euthyphro Dilemma.

The Euthyphro Dilemma comes from Plato’s dialogues, and asks the question, “is something right because God commands it, or does God command it because it is right?” It is most certainly a tricky question and one that theologians have tried to answer for a long time, however it does seem me at least to have been solved.

The argument can be short-circuited by recognizing that God isn’t just good. God is the good. This is a hard concept to get your head around, mainly because we are not really familiar with entities being embodiments of a standard, in and of themselves. Let us take a concrete example of a standard to work with, let us say the number 2.

If I have two pebbles, the numeric value of these pebbles is 2.

Now, is the numeric value of the pebbles 2 because the abstract object known as 2  has dictated it to be the case, or has the abstract object known as 2 dictated it to be the case because there are in fact 2 pebbles.

The question seems rather strange, doesn’t it, but as a logical query it is interesting. The abstract object known as 2 cannot be said to be dictating anything as a causal action of course, but accepting the second option would be silly. The abstract object, the number, is a stopping point after which there is no definition of 2. The correct answer to the question is, ‘the numeric value of the pebbles is 2 because the numeric value of the pebbles corresponds with the abstract object 2

The same can be said of God as he relates to moral goodness. God is the standard by which all things are measured in the moral realm, and since these are properties inherent in His nature, they don’t rest in His subjective will. An action may have positive moral value if it corresponds with the nature of God. Goodness is not an arbitrary scale any more than numeric value is. To put this in the form of a refutation to Rachels’ assertion above, there is no requirement for God to command something to have moral value in order for it to have such value. Its moral value is owed to God’s nature, not His commands. Now, this nature is delivered to human beings as it pertains to our duties (obligations), in the form of commands, but these commands are not arbitrary. They flow necessarily from the moral nature of God.

Rachels walks right into it in his own analogy.

“I know that the Burj Dubai building in the United Arab Emirates is the tallest building in the world; I recognize that fact. However, I did not make it true. Rather, it was made true by the designers and builders in the city of Dubai. Is God’s relation to ethics like my relation to the Burj Dubai building or like the relation of the builders.”

The answer is neither! The relation between ethics and God is like the building’s relation to the abstract dimensional value of 2,722 feet, and the nature of this relationship seems clear regardless of your opinion on abstract objects. In the realm of morality, God is a standard, a measure.

“How do you know this tower is 2,722 feet tall?”
“My measuring tape tells me so!”
“How do you know your measuring tape is 2,722 feet tall?”

“Consider some wretched case of child abuse. On the theory we’re now considering, God could make that instance of child abuse right – not by turning a slap into a friendly pinch on the cheek, but by commanding that the slap is right.”

No. If the abuse of a child is wrong according to God’s nature, then He cannot command otherwise. To do such would violate His own nature as a morally perfect being, and so become fundamentally illogical, like creating a square circle. Rachels really buys into the idea that if God commands something it must be entirely arbitrary.

“We assume that God has good reasons for what he does. But suppose God commands truthfulness to be right. On this theory, he could have given different commands just as easily. He could have commanded us to be liars, and then lying, and not truthfulness, would be right. After all, before God issues his commands, no reasons for or against lying exist. God is the one who created the reasons.”

Again, no. The reasons exist as justification for the command, and the reasons are not created by God nor are they apart from him, they are inherent in His nature. Since His nature is eternal, so are these reasons.

“This conception of morality provides the wrong reasons for moral principles. There are many things wrong with child abuse: it is malicious; it involves the unnecessary infliction of pain; it can have unwanted long-term psychological effects; and so on.”

Things were not going so bad until this point. This goes completely off the rails into amateur logic hour. Where is Rachels getting this from? He cannot assume any other ethical theory to be true when analyzing Divine Command Theory or his conclusions would be meaningless, he’s already invalidated by inference what he is studying. If he isn’t doing that, where does he get this idea that being malicious, inflicting unnecessary pain, or unwanted long-term psychological effects, are morally wrong? I cannot find any source for this in the entire chapter, and yet low and behold there it is. Ironically, it is the Christian-influenced moral climate that Rachels has grown up in that have made these things seem wrong to him. Don’t expect him to give religion any credit however.

“There are two ways of confirming that something is wrong here. First, notice something the theory implies: if God didn’t exist, child abuse wouldn’t be wrong […] However, child abuse would still be malicious, so it would still be wrong.”

What?! This isn’t just smuggling in some unjustified value, Rachels is actually trying to pass off this equation as logic. The statement “child abuse would still be malicious” has absolutely zero explicit logical connection with “it would still be wrong”. He’s trying to make these two concepts as inseparable as [hot] and [not cold], but there is no justification for it.

Subsequently, Rachels goes on to discuss Natural Law Theory, and I don’t want to address that in detail only to say I think he has some good criticisms of it, and with the Euthyphro Dilemma solved, there isn’t good reason to default to Natural Law Theory, although I do think parts of it have merit. He does end his analysis of Natural Law Theory with these pieces of snark.

“This means that the religious believer has no special access to moral truth.”

Well, no. You can crack open a Bible whether you believe or not. It’s not reserved for Christian only.

“God has given both the same powers of reasoning; and so believer and nonbeliever alike may listen to reason and follow its directives.”

This is prefaced by an appeal to Aquinas, but it’s very vague. How does one ‘reason’ what is morally good? You can reason the best path to achieve an aim, but can you use ‘reason’ to actually discover which aim is preferable… without considering that there is some greater aim to which that first aim is ancillary, in which case the question repeats infinitely?

“Religious belief does not affect the calculation of what is best.”

Please, oh, wise one, what is this magic calculation upon which religion has no bearing? I have a sneaking suspicion you’ve assumed Utilitarianism to be true. Bad logic.

From here, Rachels reveals he has no other arguments. The only argument of substance he can raise against the Divine Command Theory is the Euthyphro Dilemma. Instead of coming up with another solid reason to reject the theory, he goes into full attack mode, targeting Christianity in particular, implying in his opening paragraph that meta-ethical principles are too ‘abstract’ for most people and that it is his job to relate to the juvenile reader by launching what I guess are supposed to be solid takedowns of Christian positions on moral questions pertinent to this day and age.

“The Bible contains a number of general moral principles, for example, to love one’s neighbor and to treat others as one would wish to be treated. Those principles are commendable, but they do not yield definite answers about what to do regarding the rights of workers, the extinction of species, the funding of medical research and so on.”

Rats! What will we do without a specific guiding moral law on these things written in plain English! Oh, wait, these things are not mentioned either because they aren’t moral issues at all or because they are addressed implicitly in other commands.

Rights of workers? There is no concept of rights, biblically. There are only obligations, in this case to honor contracts. The employee is obligated to do the work he agrees to do, and the employer is obligated to pay the employee what he has agreed to pay. What is being searched for by Rachels here? Some biblical commandment on overtime pay?

Extinction of species? Not a moral issue. Animals do not have souls and so going off of biblical morality, preventing an extinction would be justified by either practical or aesthetic concerns, not moral ones. Animals are morally neutral, like insects, bacteria, and lawn chairs.

Funding of medical research? Again, how is this a moral issue? Is he asking if we should be forced to fund it by the government, whether it should be an obligated charity donation? What is he asking here?

“For instance, the New Testament condemns being rich, and there is a long tradition of self-denial and charitable giving that affirms this teaching. But there is also an obscure Old Testament figure named Jabez who asked God to “enlarge my territories” (1 Chronicles 4:10), and God did.”

This is supposed to be some kind of contradiction and I’ll admit its one of the most bizarre I’ve ever seen. First of all, contrary to the ravings of Jim Jones, the Bible is not an affirmation of Marxist theory. Being rich is never condemned. What is condemned is an idolatrous attitude toward material wealth to the point of neglecting the poor and the true form of wealth which is spiritual. The saying about the camel passing through the eye of a needle is an astute observation that wealth has a tendency to corrupt men. This is a warning to the wealthy about the sinful nature of greed, not a demand for the followers of Jesus to live in mud huts and wash windows for free.
As for Jabez, how is it any contradiction for God to answer the prayer of a good man, a well respected elder whom He obviously held in high esteem, to have his borders enlarged? Nowhere does it say this made him rich, and even if it did, how is that in contradiction to a warning to be careful about one’s attitude to money? This is clutching at straws.

“Thus, when people say their moral views are derived from their religious commitments, they are often mistaken. In reality, something very different is going on. They are making up their minds about moral issues and then interpreting the Scriptures, or church tradition, in a way that supports the moral conclusions they have already reached.”

While this may be true of liberal, fraudulent Christians, it is exceedingly hard to prove or disprove the statement. Rachels has absolutely no way of knowing if this is true, so he says it only to attack the sincerity of believers. What this statement implies is that religion has no impact on the moral views of the people in a society. Think about it, if religion is shaped by the morality people already hold, then it is not religion exerting moral influence on society. Religion effectively has no role in informing the ethics of a society. If Rachels can present a single credible anthropologist to support this claim, from beyond the grave, I will eat my hat.

Rachels then takes on abortion. Idiocy ensues.

“The key premise in the conservative argument is that the fetus is a person from the moment of conception: not merely a potential person but an actual person with full-fledged right to life. Liberals, of course, deny this – they say that the embryo is something less than that, at least during the early weeks of pregnancy.”

First of all, the ‘fetus’ does not have ‘rights’ nor does anyone, remember, we just have obligations, one of which is to not commit murder. The wanton killing of a ‘fetus’ for reasons of comfort, financial concern, or whim classifies as murder and so is immoral since doing so violates our obligations. Secondly, this is a great example of Modernists retreating from science when it doesn’t suit their agenda. Were this any other medical issue, we would be speaking of ‘human beings’. Instead of using this scientifically definable term, they instead delve into this ambiguous language of ‘personhood’. Since the word ‘person’ has no real definition, they get to make one up! Coincidentally, the one they make up excludes lives they want to end and includes lives they want protected. Ain’t that just swell? The early weeks of a pregnancy and the late weeks of a pregnancy are identical when it comes to the scientific classification of the baby. From conception, it is a homo sapien sapien, and so we are obligated to refrain from murdering it.

“This often happens when the Scriptures are cited in connection with controversial moral issues. A few words are lifted from a passage that is concerned with something else entirely.”

Just wait till you see Rachels engage in exactly the kind of contextually-void cherry picking he condemns here. You won’t have to wait long. He does it in the next paragraph!

“Other biblical passages point more strongly to the liberal view of abortion. Three times the death penalty is recommended for women who have sex out of wedlock, even though killing the woman would also kill her fetus (Genesis 38:24; Leviticus 21:9; Deuteronomy 22:20-21).”

I think Rachels is arguing here for abortion as an accessory to execution in the event of adultery, using Scripture? Was that his intention? If so, it doesn’t sound very liberal. Anyway, hoping that his readers will just assume the Bible agrees with him, he relies on you to look up these ‘examples’ for yourself. I did.

The first example is just shockingly bad. In Genesis 38, Tamar is condemned to death by Judah when he discovers her sinful act and goes into a rage over it. This condemnation does not come from God, nor does it even come from a priestly authority. What’s more, Judah reverses himself a few sentences later, declaring that Tamar is actually a more worthy individual than even himself! A tantrum by one figure in biblical history apparently is indicative of God’s will according to Rachels.

The second and third examples are at least vaguely cogent, but the Scripture never mentions the unborn child. It does not demand the woman and the unborn child be executed for the crime and lays out no timetable upon which the execution of the woman was to be carried out. Rachels is arguing here from silence. At worst, we can say that it is unclear what the practice was in regard to the unborn at this time, however if the culture of the Israelites valued the unborn child as a member of the tribe, then it is perfectly plausible God would not feel it necessary to include the caveat of letting the child be born first, as it would have seemed obvious. There just is no compelling case here.

But wait… it gets worse!

“Also, in Exodus 21, God tells Moses that the penalty for murder is death; however, the penalty for causing a woman to miscarry is only a fine.”

FALSE. Hebrew scholar this man is not, and that would be fine if he wasn’t trying to make a cohesive Scriptural case for abortion. The New International Translation is the correct interpretation of the text here, noting that the Hebrew word ‘yatsa‘ does not mean to have a miscarriage, but rather it means to ‘come forth’ or ‘go forth’, as in to be born prematurely. In fact, this very same word ‘yatsa‘ is used in Genesis to describe the live birth of Jacob! It is used several times over to describe the emergence of living things in Genesis, Kings, and Jeremiah. In the only example of it referring to a dead child, the sentence has extra text describing the deceased status of the child.
The knock-down blow to this argument comes from the fact that there are two words in Hebrew that are specifically designated for use in regard to miscarriages in the Bible, ‘shakol and ‘nepel‘. The only reason these words would not be used is because the birth of a dead child is not what is being described here.
In addition, if we are correct in our understanding of the Scriptural passage in question, the death penalty is not intended for the murderer of the mother specifically, and can easily be interpreted to cover both parties. If so, then this effectively nullifies the Scripture he cited previously as indeed the executioner would have waited for the adulteress to have the baby. This would have seemed obvious in light of previous commandments.

“Saint Thomas Aquinas accepted Aristotle’s view that the soul is the “substantial form” of man […] it implies that one cannot have a human soul until one’s body takes on human shape.”

I like Aquinas, but this view is quite clearly absurd and I’m not sure if Rachels is actually endorsing it or not. How would the shape of the human body have any effect on the soul? What is a ‘human shape’? A mannequin has a ‘human shape’ and I am pretty sure mannequins do not acquire souls when the arms are popped in. Do quadriplegics have souls? An appeal to authority is less powerful when the authority is clearly wrong.

Rachels then goes into the old conception of the ‘homunculus’ (that embryos had the anatomical features of humans) and says that the scientific disproving of this theory means something important about Church doctrine. He doesn’t mention any of the scientific advancements that bolster the pro-life cause however, such as genetics which draws an identical comparison between human beings from conception to death, or studies on fetal pain which might strain his Utilitarian position. Allow me for a moment to make my own appeal to authority, the quintessential text ‘Essentials of Embryology & Birth Defects

“The zygote and early embryo are living human organisms.”

Case closed.

“The arguments in this chapter point to a common conclusion: Right and wrong are not to be understood in terms of God’s will;”

What arguments? You had but one argument, the Euthyphro Dilema. Everything we just went through on wealth and abortion had absolutely no bearing on Divine Command Theory and even if every one of your points were irrefutable arguments they would do no damage to the actual theory itself, they would only imply that people had misinterpreted Scripture. Rachels is pretending he has a cumulative case and just hopes you haven’t been writing notes on what he was arguing against.

“I do not deny that religious beliefs sometimes bear on moral issues.”

Yes, you did! Just three pages before!

“The relationship between morality and religion is complicated, but it is a relationship between two different subjects. This conclusion may strike some readers as anti-religious.”

No, Mr. Rachels, just very disingenuous. 


This was the first Citadel posting of what I would classify as ‘essay length’, so thank you for taking the time to read it! More to come in the future I would hope, but my bread and butter remains quick Reactions for Traditionalists on the go. Any comments from readers are much appreciated.


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