The moral argument: What humanist Paul Kurtz leaves out

It’s no surprise that I don’t care for Bernie Sanders nor his idea of socialism (or socialism in general). One reason is that I don’t trust humans with more power over us in the form of government, and that applies to both Democrats and Republicans (or any political party) in power. I think both are capable of spouting nonsense to further their own desires, and I believe that with more centralized power comes more bureaucracy and less freedom (see the European Union for example).

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Bernie Sanders from Wikipedia commons courtesy of AFGE

Recently Fox News hosted Sanders as part of his 2020 campaign. At one point one woman in the audience said that socialism has been defined as a society agreeing to work together to manage its resources so that everyone is protected and cared for. She then asked him how anyone could challenge the idea that socialism is bad (meaning that, based on this definition, that socialism must be good and that anyone would be a fool for attempting to assert it’s bad)[i] Well, nobody could object to socialism when it’s characterized this way. Isn’t everybody for sharing?  Understandably enough, liberal comedian talk show host Stephen Colbert referred to it in just the same way – musing that exposing a child to the dangers of socialism is like exposing the child to the dangers of sharing.[ii]

What is left out, and what seems to be unquestioned in this exchange, is whether the sharing is forced or voluntary. This is important since most people think of sharing as voluntary. I share my drink with my son; I share my home with his fiancé; I share my French fries with my friend. In all instances I just noted, I share voluntarily and no financial penalty accrues to me for not doing so. However, when the government is involved the sharing would never be voluntary. I’m never asked if I want to share my money by paying taxes. Would we honestly think Bernie Sanders would think of it any different?

I begin my discussion of humanist Paul Kurtz because, in many instances, if you follow liberal, secular humanist, socialist, or atheist arguments you will find that important information is left unsaid: information that could hurt their arguments. It’s important for them to leave that information out because they are usually biased toward their beliefs, and they want their arguments to be successful.

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picture of Kurtz from Wikipedia commons courtesy of M. Cravatta

Kurtz and William Lane Craig debated the moral argument for God’s existence: the argument that one evidence for God’s existence is the moral knowledge humans possess.[iii] Lane Craig, of course, argued there is such evidence while Kurtz argued negatively. First, here is Lane Craig’s basic argument composed of these two points he defended:

  • If theism is true, we have a sound foundation for morality.

  • If theism is false, we do not have a sound foundation for morality.

This is not the only formulation of such an argument. Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli describe it this way:

  1. Real moral obligation is a fact. We are really, truly, objectively, obligated to do good and avoid evil.

  2. Either the atheistic view of reality is correct or the “religious” one.

  3. But the atheistic one is incompatible with there being moral obligation.

  4. Therefore the “religious” view of reality is correct.[iv]

Kurtz says that this is nonsense because people can act morally toward others because life is meaningful on its own terms, and any divine being is not required to give life meaning.

The meaning of life is to be found in the things we pursue, our plans and projects, ideals and aspirations. We are to some extent in control of our destinies. Each person has the ability to determine his or her own meaning fully. Fulfilling a person’s life goals is very important for humanist ethics. There is thus a kind of autonomy of moral choice. It is “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” that we seek – not only for every person taken singly, but also for the social good. Humanists believe that social responsibility is vitally important. Our obligation to others is genuine. Secular humanists are keenly aware of their responsibilities to their children and relatives, friends and colleagues [and so forth].[v]

Kurtz apparently assumes that people, once they notice that humans have intrinsic value, will choose good behavior over evil. But what happens when they don’t?

The Death Culture

Kurtz features scientists, philosophers, and otherwise who adopted moral behavior and benefited society through their cultural contributions (scientific or otherwise), and this list, not surprisingly, includes Margaret Sanger. I say “not surprisingly” because among unbelievers I have found she is always mentioned in a positive light as key to a liberal secular revolt against religion. For instance, the Freedom From Religion Foundation featured, under a news item, a description of Sanger with the slogan “No Gods – No Masters” listed at the bottom as the motto of her newspaper.[vi] Her ideas birthed the modern abortionist movement that became entrenched within the Democrat party that allows no compromise with abortionist beliefs.

Human_Fetus2The various arguments for abortion continue to be debated, but one thing that is not debatable is that abortion is overwhelmingly elective.  According to an article found on http://www.guttmacher.org, both in 1987 and 2004, over 70 percent of women chose abortion because of the impact the pregnancy would have on their life. In both years near 50 percent of women said they wanted an abortion because they didn’t want to be a single mother. In 1987, 30 percent of women chose an abortion because they and their partner could not or would not get married (and this dropped down to 12 percent in 2004). In both years, only 1 percent chose abortion because of rape and less than that for incest.[vii] While the pro-choice make much of hard cases like rape and incest, abortion is overwhelmingly largely not chosen for those reasons.

Chief among the euphemisms is the tendency to portray pregnancy not as a healthy condition but as an illness and the fetus as an invader.

Given the fact, that abortion is largely chosen because of personal inconvenience, and the fact biological facts identify the fetus as an unborn human, and the fact the pro-choice refuse to change their attitude toward these facts, the logical step for the pro-choice is to use faulty metaphysical arguments to buttress their “right” to abortion. One of these is the dehumanizing of the fetus. We don’t justify getting rid of a boil or pimple using such arguments, but we do with the fetus, and so there must be something about the fetus that demands the pro-choice go to such metaphysical lengths. I think immediately of an article that appeared in an issue of my local paper where a woman sought to literally “drink” her fetus to death by consuming large amounts of alcohol. She said she only wanted to kill “this thing,” as if the fetus were some lawn furniture or a pet rock. Yet, this is the tip of the iceberg.

Chief among the euphemisms is the tendency to portray pregnancy not as a healthy condition but as an illness and the fetus as an invader. This plays out largely in population control programs also. William Brennan cites a paper presented before a meeting of Planned Parenthood Physicians entitled “Abortion as a Treatment for Unwanted Pregnancy: The Number Two Sexually Transmitted Disease.”[viii] Similarly, reproductive rights researcher Betsy Hartmann cites feminist researcher Judith Richter as preferring the term “immunological contraceptives” to refer to drugs that would prevent pregnancy.[ix] An article in the Church Life Journal quotes an influential population-control activist and late-term abortionist, as asking if pregnancy is normal and if the growth of human population is carcinogenic.[x] An article in Harvard Magazine begins with the words “Rape. Alien intrusion. Deadly force. Self-defense” and cites Eileen McDonagh’s book Breaking the Abortion Deadlock as suggesting that doctors should be paid by taxpayers to stop fetuses from “kidnapping” women’s bodies.[xi]

sophie lewis from youtubeFeminist Sophie Lewis who favors the right to abort calls being pregnant “gestational work” and says we need to be able to justify a “form” of killing when aborting.[xii]

Some authors say they are not aborting the child; they are, instead, “terminating a pregnancy.” Little wonder why the editors of National Review said the abortion movement “cannot speak the truth.” They cite other euphemisms such as “products of conception” and “potential human being.”[xiii]

Another common argument is that the fetus is not a “person” which usually means the fetus does not have any concept of self or any wants or needs as people normally do. The pro-life usually respond back by noting that people who are unconscious or temporarily comatose do not lose their personhood because of this and hence personhood means more than having a concept of self.  Francis Beckwith points out that one can be harmed even though one is not cognizant of being harmed. (For instance, one could be wronged if something is stolen from them even though they didn’t know it was stolen.) Furthermore, abortion may be wrong even if it is not a person because non-person animals have some rights as well.[xiv]The concept of “personhood,” of course, is a nebulous concept that certainly doesn’t trump the obvious biological truth that we are dealing with an unborn human.

Some writers such as Laurie Penny claim that preventing abortion is nothing but part of a male patriarchy meant to oppress women even though usually the pregnancy results from a consensual sexual act. Penny, writing in the New Republic, also says that the claim that abortion kills babies is merely an article of faith and “that terminating a pregnancy in its early stages is no more murderous than a biopsy.”[xv]

Since biological facts point to an unborn human and most, if not all, metaphysical arguments can be shot down, if secular humanists did indeed feel an obligation to others, they would not-dehumanize the fetus but instead work against such arguments to do everything and anything to bring that life into being so that it too can experience everything that life has to offer. This they do not do.

Second, generally speaking secular humanists have been supportive of sex outside marriage with the hope people will practice sound birth control. Humanist Sally Feldman even says “the abstinence movement represents a return to those bleak days, a return to repression, joylessness, terror, shame, and subordination.”[xvi] Secular Humanist Manifesto II announces that, while not approving of exploitive forms of sexual expression, they do not “wish to prohibit, by law, or social sanction, sexual behavior between consenting adults.” Furthermore, it says individuals should be free to sexually express themselves in varied ways short of harming each other. Yet, if you wanted to give anyone the best chance of success, what you would want to do is promote less sexual activity and hopefully chastity. Both the liberal Huffington Post[xvii] and The Atlantic[xviii] report that fewer sex partners makes for a happier marriage. Psychology Today reports that there are lingering psychological effects of multiple sex partners.[xix]

This is common sense because the self-restraint one practices while single carries over to the self-restraint one practices while married. This requires a respect for marriage to the extent that one acknowledges sexual activity only belongs in marriage. Why wouldn’t humanists advocate the sexual activity that promotes the greatest happiness?

One point made by these articles is that we can’t assume multiple sex partners cause personal problems later because people might engage in such behaviors because they have problems forming long-lasting relationships. Fine and good. I don’t know of any study confirming that one causes the other. However, the article in The Atlantic notes that “People who avoid sex before marriage might simply value marriage more highly, so they feel more satisfied by it.” This goes to the heart of your attitude toward sex. Is it a buffet you have a right to partake in or part of a sacred bond between two people?

Wouldn’t humanists, if they feel obligations toward others, want to set people up, sexually speaking, to be the best people they can be later in life?

The article in Psychology Today reports that “Although women and men are developing similar patterns of sexual behavior and substance use . . . the links were stronger for women, as I noted earlier. For women, having multiple sex partners still may go against what they regard as socially acceptable. They might cope with their feelings of shame, embarrassment, and perhaps dissatisfaction by turning to alcohol and drugs, setting them up for the future development of a substance use disorder.” Thus, frequent sexual activity might bring out guilt feelings that need to be assuaged. So, there are some good reasons to be chaste outside marriage if not for the effect the attitude toward extramarital sex has on the surrounding culture and because extramarital sex may be the cause of ongoing personal problems. Wouldn’t humanists, if they feel obligations toward others, want to set people up, sexually speaking, to be the best people they can be later in life?thomas dilorenzo problem with socialism

Lastly, there’s the humanist support for socialism which is classically defined as the government ownership of the means of production. However, according to Thomas DiLorenzo socialism has morphed into income redistribution for the name of equality.[xx]  The web site of the Socialist Party USA supports such a concept to get money away from the “few who own the workplaces” (as the site says).[xxi] Generally speaking, people on the left (whether they be liberals, secular humanists, or atheists) have supported socialism while those on the right have tended to support more freedom and less government intrusion. More Democrats now support socialism than capitalism.[xxii] Secular Humanist Manifesto I proudly announced its support for socialism, and today many professors and pseudo-intellectual college students support it. The first manifesto declares that

The humanists are firmly convinced that existing acquisitive and profit-motivated society has shown itself to be inadequate and that a radical change in methods, controls, and motives must be instituted. A socialized and cooperative economic order must be established to the end that the equitable distribution of the means of life be possible.[xxiii]

For this to happen, socialism would, of course, require more government interference in people’s lives. This is a place where conservatives separate themselves from liberals. It is well known that the non-religious do not believe in any kind of innate sinfulness to humans. Christians, especially, believe that more government influence in people’s lives allows more of the bad people to have more control over people’s lives. History can attest to the effects of big governments whether religious or secular, and often rulers become less worried about individual liberties than about expanding their secular chunk of the government pie.

Not surprisingly, there will be no space for Christian belief in a more aggressively secular society. Christian persecution in other nations is well known, and I recently read an article by the BBC on Christian persecution in China which has led to Christians there going underground[xxiv] Similarly, let’s not forget the Tiananmen Square protests that were bloodily repressed. It doesn’t take much to come up with the blood shed by large governments. Why would secular humanists, if they wanted to promote a form of government that creates the most freedom, push for socialism?

I could, if I wanted, create just an essay on secular humanist policy that is harmful to people (I may indeed create one someday). The point I want to make is that atheistic or secular humanist individuals do, of course, often do kind things to others. Our moral nature is not so easily usurped. However, where their social policies are implemented on a large scale, as in the examples above, they obviously don’t feel obligation toward others so much as an obligation to push their anti-god agenda.

Nonbelievers who read this article will, of course, point out that Christians can be mean or unkind as well. This is all true. My point is that Christians recognize humans as sinful beings who need to point to God while humanists don’t recognize such a need but believe they can figure out what to morally do (which they obviously can’t). This is the thing that Kurtz isn’t telling you.

Whose God?

Continuing with the debate, Kurtz asks Lane Craig “which of the many different gods . . . should command our ultimate allegiance.”[xxv] In essence, he’s saying, if one is arguing that moral obligations come from God, then one must specify what God you are talking about. Lane Craig responds to this by arguing that this is a question of moral epistemology, not moral ontology.[xxvi] I don’t fully understand his point, but I won’t ruminate on it any further because another of Kurtz’s points demands my attention.  Assuming secular humanism is true, are moral standards fixed or malleable? Kurtz explains that

It is not a question of mere taste and subjectivity. There are objective standards that we can use. But these standards are, of course, relative to human interests and needs, and they change over time. There is an evolution within human history and civilization and a corresponding development of basic moral principles, and these are often won only after arduous struggles, as in the battles against slavery and racism and for the rights of women.[xxvii]

If what he says is correct, then slavery or racism could, at one point, be objectively moral because that is what humans did at one point. Kurtz would have to say that later such actions became immoral because we changed our minds. This doesn’t make sense, however, because one thing people do is change behavior based on the perceived morality or immorality of the action. If slavery was moral, then nobody at that time would have been able to make a claim we should eliminate it because it is immoral. In fact, one cannot make an argument that anything is immoral, and that includes the supposed immorality of 2 percent of the population having the most wealth – something Bernie Sanders worries about. This is the part of the whole moral/immoral debate that Kurtz isn’t telling us. Francis Beckwith and Greg Koukl say it similarly:

Relativism makes it impossible to criticize the behavior of others, because relativism ultimately denies such a thing as wrongdoing. If you believe morality is a matter of personal definition, then you surrender the possibility of making moral judgments about others’ actions, no matter how offensive they are to your intuitive sense of right or wrong. You may express your emotions, tastes, and personal preferences, but you can’t say they are wrong.[xxviii]

A Christian theist would say that slavery and racism were still immoral even though a culture accepted them perhaps of shoddy philosophy or refusal to change one’s opinion. This is apparently the reason abortion is still legal.

In closing, I suggest readers take a look at this book and read, if they can, all of it. In full disclosure, I should mention I could only muster up the brainpower to read several essays as the logical shtick is very thick. One thing is certain, though: I am not convinced of Kurtz’s arguments because of the many things he leaves out that I realize and understand.

Jeffrey Stueber

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[i] “Bernie Explains Socialism to Fox News Viewers,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p4ozAACcc8I

[ii] “Stephen Explains Socialism to Donald Jr. With Halloween Candy,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N5WvC79ayv0

[iii] Robert Garcia and Nathan King, ed., Is Goodness Without God Good Enough: A Debate on Faith, Secularism, and Ethics (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009).

[iv] Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1994), 72.

[v] Garcia and King, 28. Bracketed comments are mine.

[vi] https://ffrf.org/news/day/dayitems/item/14546-margaret-sanger

[vii] Lawrence Finer et. al., “Reasons U.S. Women Have Abortions: Quantitative and Qualitative Perspectives,” Perspectives and Sexual and Reproductive Health, 205 37(3), 110-118. https://www.guttmacher.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/pubs/psrh/full/3711005.pdf.

[viii] William Brennan, “Abortion in Murder,” Tamara Roleff, ed., Abortion: Opposing Viewpoints (San Diego: Greenhaven, 1997), 35.

[ix] Betsy Hartmann, Reproductive Rights and Wrongs: The Global Politics of Population Control, 3rd ed. (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016), 263-264. For Richter, see also her paper on immunological contraceptives at http://www.finrrage.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/ImmunologicalContraceptives.pdf. It’s interesting the paper is from a workshop on “antifertility vaccines.”

[x] Angela Franks, “Humanae Vitae in Light of the War Against Female Fertility,” Church Life Journal, July 24, 2018, https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/humanae-vitae-in-light-of-the-war-against-female-fertility/#_ednref29.

[xi] https://harvardmagazine.com/1997/03/right.fetus.html.

[xii] Sophie Lewis, “A Radical Defense of Abortion,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jMGptJXz618

[xiii] Editors of National Review, “Dead Reckoning,” https://www.nationalreview.com/2003/01/dead-reckoning-williumrex/

[xiv] Francis Beckwith, Politically Correct Death: Answering Arguments for Abortion Rights (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 103,107.

[xv] Laurie Penny, “The Criminalization of Women’s Bodies Is All About Conservative Male Power,” The New Republic, https://newrepublic.com/article/153942/criminalization-womens-bodies-conservative-male-power

[xvi] Sally Feldman, “Why I’m Glad My Daughter Had Underage Sex,” The Humanist, Nov/Dec 2004.

[xvii] Taryn Hillin, “New Study Claims People Who’ve Had More Sexual Partners Report Unhappier Marriages,” https://www.huffpost.com/entry/more-sexual-partners-unhappy-marriage_n_5698440

[xviii] Olga Khazan, “Fewer Sex Partners Means a Happier Marriage,” https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2018/10/sexual-partners-and-marital-happiness/573493/

[xix] Susan Krauss Whitbourne,” The Lingering Psychological Effects of Multiple Sex Partners,”

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201304/the-lingering-psychological-effects-multiple-sex-partners.

[xx] Thomas DiLorenzo, The Problem with Socialism (New Jersey: Regnery, 2016), 4-5.

[xxi] https://www.socialistpartyusa.net/principles-points-of-agreement

[xxii] Investor’s Business Daily, “Socialists Have Officially Taken Over The Democratic Party,” https://www.investors.com/politics/editorials/socialists-have-officially-taken-over-the-democratic-party/

[xxiii] Paul Kurtz, ed., Humanist Manifestos I and II (New York: Prometheus, 1973). The previous manifesto citation is from the same source.

[xxiv] John Sudworth, “Why many Christians in China have turned to underground churches,” BBC News, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-35900242.

[xxv] Garcia and King, 34.

[xxvi] Ibid, 37.

[xxvii] Ibid, 35.

[xxviii] Francis Beckwith and Greg Koukl, Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 61-62.