Tribe A, Tribe B, and Morality: An Illustration and A Conversation

There has been a lot of discussion among non-theists regarding how to understand morality.  The subject has long been a vexing one, considering non-theism does not officially have a set of moral codes.  This has troubled them all the more considering that theists often invoke the “moral argument”; namely, that apart from a belief in God, anything goes – or, at a minimum, nothing is inherently right or wrong.  But modern atheists  have been striking back.  Sam Harris has even written a recent book on the subject, defending a god-less morality.  Generally, non-theists appeal to reason, and to cross-cultural norms that match up with one another.  But these arguments only go so far, as we’re about to see.

 An Illustration:

 Tribe A – This tribe is composed of farmers and herders.  They work hard, love their families, and keep to themselves.  Though they might have communication and trade among other tribes, they have no desire to engage them in conflict of any kind.

 Tribe B – This tribe is one of warriors.  They also work hard and love their families.  They trade and communicate with other tribes, but underlying it all is a desire to conquer them.

In the course of time, Tribe B decides to invade Tribe A, even though Tribe A has done nothing to provoke such an attack.  Tribe B levels the village, burning homes, killing the men, raping and forcing into slavery the women and children.  Tribe A is no more.

(There are many questions raised by such an event, but we will deal only with the moral aspects.)

Is what Tribe A did to Tribe B an immoral act?  If so, why?  What is the basis for condemning it?   If Tribe B’s cultural morality allows violent acts against another culture when tribal improvement is to be gained, how can one go against them without invoking a higher standard of morality?  There are only two options here for the one who condemns this act.  Either one must appeal to a transcendent code (i.e., God), or one must consider one’s own morality, or that of one’s culture, as the standard by which others are to be judged.  The former is automatically ruled out for the non-theist.  That leaves the second option.  But taking this approach is also quite problematic.  For it makes one’s own moral code the ultimate standard, making oneself or one’s culture a kind of God on earth.  The non-theist must then answer how he knows that his understanding of moral norms is the correct one.  I’m not aware of any who can do this.

The dynamics of the Tribe B situation effectively nullifies the modern atheistic approach to accounting for morality.  Neither reason, nor universal cultural norms answers the dilemmas raised.  Tribe B can merely answer: “Why should we listen to you?”  There’s not much the non-theist can say it return, but it might go something like what follows.

A Conversation:

Non-theist: What your tribe did to Tribe A was terrible.  I condemn it in the strongest terms.

Tribe B: We don’t agree. Who says it’s wrong anyway?  You?

Non-theist: It’s wrong to kill people and steal things.  Everybody knows that!

Tribe B: We don’t agree.  We have rules for our own tribe that keeps us functioning, but these others tribes . . . we don’t know them, and we care nothing for them.  So if they have things we need, we take them and dispose of the people.  Simple.

Non-theist: How callous!  How can you not see the immorality of killing innocent people!

Tribe B: We’ll ask again: Who says?  We have our cultural norms and you have yours.  Ours allows us to attack other tribes; yours obviously doesn’t.  Our tribe doesn’t give a hoot what other tribes think about morality.  Your culture seems to like imposing your tribal norms on other tribes.  What a strange culture you must live in.

Non-theist: One reason I say it’s wrong is because I don’t want my society to be attacked by barbaric tribes like yours!

Tribe B: So you really don’t care about Tribe A either, do you?  You’re just afraid for your own safety, right?

Non-theist: No, that’s not what I’m saying.  Yes, I don’t want us to be attacked.  But I also believe that attacking any tribe is wrong.

Tribe B: Then give us a reason why it’s wrong.  Your opinion, or your society’s opinion doesn’t matter to us.  Give us a good, solid, reason (opinions and feelings not allowed) why we shouldn’t attack other tribes.

Non-theist: Okay, for one thing, most other tribes agree with us that it is wrong to kill.  Tribes across cultures, across centuries, have concurred.

Tribe B: You are incorrect.  There are – and have been – many, many tribes just like us that condemn killing in their own society, but have no qualms with killing other societies.  Your view only makes sense within a tribe, not tribe to tribe.  Also, even if what you say were true, it doesn’t make our acts good or bad.  It’s still just an opinion, albeit one held by a lot of people – but still just a one viewpoint against another.

Non-theist: Well . . . this kind of behavior is bad for society.

Tribe B: Not for ours.  Tribe A, yeah, but like we said, we didn’t know them and cared nothing for them.

Non-theist: But this kind of violence will lead to a more violent society in yours also.  Violent acts, even against people you don’t know, creates a violent mindset that will likely lead to chaos is your society also.

Tribe B: Who says?  We have rules against violent behavior in our society, and if they are broken, people are punished quite severely.  To be frank, we don’t have a lot of crime, and we get along rather nicely.  Is this the best you can do?  Give another reason.

Non-theist: But I just don’t really feel that killing .  .  .

Tribe B: Then feel away, but we’re done with this conversation.  You’ve convinced us of nothing!

This conversation illustrates the problems non-theists run into when speaking about ethics and morality.  Some are more honest with the implications.  Atheist professor William Provine has stated that if there is no God: “There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning to life, and no free will for humans.”  Few non-theists dare to be so blunt, but this is ultimately what their worldview holds.

But I’m not one to defend mere theism.  Just believing God exists doesn’t get one anywhere.  Who is God?  What is he like?  What does he want from me?  Mere theism cannot answer these questions, and so falls into many of the same moral holes as non-theism and agnosticism.  In fact, it is a form of agnosticism.  But God has not left us wondering.  He has revealed himself to us through his word, and his Son, Jesus Christ.  To say the least, what God says is of utmost importance.  He instructs us about what is right and wrong, yes, but also tells us that every person falls far short of these standards.  By the way, this would be my word to Tribe B:

“What you did was wicked in God’s sight.  He is the one who sets standards, not your tribe or any other tribe.  God has said he will judge eternally all those who kill and steal as you have done.  But he is also a God of love, and has given you a way out of this condemnation.  He has sent his one and only Son to take your punishment.  He died in your place, and yet rose again on the third day.  What you must do is trust him, turn from these immoral ways, and follow him.  Walk as he walked.”

This is why true Christianity makes so much sense.  Not only can we unequivocally state that certain behaviors are inherently wrong, we can also go further and speak of redemption and a future restoration.  It is this message that we must proclaim until Jesus returns.



Filed under Apologetics, Philosophy, Religion, Theology

7 responses to “Tribe A, Tribe B, and Morality: An Illustration and A Conversation

  1. I like your illustration. The same conversation could be imagined between a Crusader and Saracen, with the proper substitutions, i.e. moral realism, however it’s derived is the root problem. Though I differ with his cosmology, I am in complete agreement with Jesus’ moral philosophy, as he was basically an anti-realist who stood in opposition to the deontology of Jewish tradition.

  2. Thanks for commenting. A lot in that paragraph. One question though: What led you to the conclusion that Jesus was an anti-realist? How are you understanding the term?

    • Thanks for asking, since the question acknowledges that it’s a matter that needs clarifying. My understanding of moral anti-realism is that it is a position which stands in opposition to the idea that moral terms represent real entities to which we may have obligations. So, good, in the realist conception, is not a category or a descriptor which references some type of relation, but a real property which is exemplified in specific objects or events.
      If there is one thing that Jesus took pains to be clear about and repeat in certain terms, it was: “All the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” That statement can be read in two ways, the first being: empathy fulfills an obligation. The second interpretation would be that empathy is the relation which the good acts of the law reference. It seems to me that the second sense was Jesus’ intent. In that case, for example, tithing is not good, nor does it make one good, rather it is the sort of thing which people do when they understand their identity as composed of their relations – to others as bits of the primary identity and to the primary identity (God) itself.

  3. I believe we have a different way of viewing of moral anti-realism. It is the view that moral facts do not exist. Or, some might contend, if they do exist, it’s only within the subjective head of an individual. It either sense, Jesus was not an anti-realist. He was about as objective as one can get. As soon as he made statements such as “thou shalt”, or an affirmation of such a command, he was affirming that it was a good thing to follow the command. What he did do was simplify things, by taking what had become a complex system of rote spirituality, and bringing relation back into the mix. In essence, Christianity is not about keeping laws, but about a relationship with the Creator. Once the relation is restored, the law-keeping comes more naturally as what one wants to do.
    So keeping any command is good, insofar as the relationship is intact. Where it’s not intact, rule-keeping is empty, something that “fulfills an obligation.” So did Jesus believe we’re obligated to be moral? In a sense yes, since he held that moral facts exist and should be followed. In another sense, no, since moral acts should be practiced within a relationship with the divine, and so would flow out of love, not obligation.

    As a side note, when Jesus (and the Bible) uses the term “love” it’s not generally in the sense of feeling, or empathy. A person can feel tremendous sorrow and empathy, and yet not act upon those feelings. But love is used verbally, and so entails action. “Love your neighbor as yourself” – how does one love oneself? With clothes, food, sleep, showers, exercise, medicine, etc. If we treated others this way, even strangers (as Jesus affirmed), what a different world this would be! It bears repeating that this type of love flows out of a changed individual who has a relationship with the living God.

    • It seems we agree about the state of affairs here, but disagree on the appropriate terminology. When I say empathy, I intend just what you describe. Not a Hello Kitty sentiment, but a determining motive. I think there is also some truth vs. fact and subjectivism vs. relativism confusion, but we can be forgiven those, since professional philosophers have trouble with them on occasion. I think Jesus did contend that there were moral truths rather than moral facts, and that those truths were derivative of a more basic relation rather than things in themselves (an error theory) – does that description vary from your understanding?

  4. I was using moral fact and moral truth interchangeably, not in any technical philosophical sense. If you’re understanding a moral fact as something existing in and of itself, independent of God’s will (or anyone, or anything else), then it is something I don’t find to be true. This is at the heart of the Euthyphro Dilemma (I find it to be a false dilemma, at least the theological version). My affirmation is this: moral truths exist because God has given them, not because they exist independent of him, thereby constraining him. Some Christian thinkers disagree, but that gets into another ball of wax.

  5. I guess that second sentence of mine could have been worded better. But yes, we are mostly in agreement on that point. Thank you for the dialogue!

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