A Friendly Discussion (Morals, Ethics, and Theism)

(Note:  For the past 6 months, I have engaged in a written “friendly philosophical discussion” with an old friend of mine by the name of Ron Thomas relative to the topics so noted above.  As Ron and I have each conceded the right to each other to reprint the content of our correspondence, and as his most recent letter presented an accurate condensation of our entire discussion, I am reposting his letter with my response for your reading and consideration.  Hope you enjoy.  Dave)


Dave, you deny man has an origin from a being greater than himself


I deny the existence of any credible evidence to warrant the conclusion that a personal deity exists.

I furthermore acknowledge evidence otherwise in the light of an impersonal universe which is indifferent to the well being of anyone or anything.

In addition, I acknowledge the evidence which indicates the eternal nature of all which composes everything, reasoned thusly:

-So far as we know, nothing can be created from nothing.

-So far as we know, nothing can be destroyed into nothingness.

-Therefore, that which composes everything is eternal.  (Based upon our limited knowledge)


Consequently, and because of this acceptance, man has to conjure up a right/wrong approach to life (this you have just done). This, you say, is not in accordance with an outside source (such as God), but in accordance with “matters of effect,” or, in essence, to what an individual person likes (pleasure) or dislikes (discomfort, suffering). Your moral code is the result of “natural principles” (this is the foundation of its existence).


Affirmed.  Moral standards and ethical codes are derived from within humanity based upon experiences and consequences relative to our natural aversion to suffering.


You cannot, however, explain the reason for the existence of the natural (physical) realm


Affirmed.  Furthermore irrelevant.


With this in mind, let me ask a true or false question. True or False: “Moral judgment is the function of the mind.”


Affirmed.  See comments above.


According to your second paragraph, you have argued TRUE, that is, morals are the function of man’s mind because it is related to suffering, and you can’t explain how the physical even began to think!




Since moral judgments are the function of a man’s mind, if one thinks X is wrong, and another thinks X is right, then both are correct since the mind is involved in making this judgment. Moreover, since morals and ethics are developed, they are fluid. Consequently, there can be no absolutes, whether it pertains to that which is right or that which is wrong. If there are no absolutes, then there is nothing that is wrong (or right) for all people anywhere (contrary to what you asserted/affirmed previously).

You have, therefore, argued, in effect, that morals are equivalent to a ball being both “black all over” and “red all over.” This is contrary to the law of contradiction; it is irrational, and chaotic


As morals and ethics are derived from rationalizing experiences and consequences, such a process can hardly be classified as “irrational”.  The contrary is actually the case.  The development of morals and ethics is an act of rationalizing in and of itself, such as is every other act of thinking, processing, rationalizing, deciding, and acting.

As to your conjecture that rationalizing morals and ethics is chaotic, history and civilized society would indicate otherwise.  Most civilized societies share common core principles as to activities which are regarded as acceptable, as opposed to those which are deemed unacceptable.  Cultures may differ, but the core principles of humanistic morals and ethics are amazingly consistent.  And those core principles upon which most civilized societies consistently agree, relate to the topic of unnecessary and undue suffering.  Such is the very reason there is global public outcry whenever human suffering is executed in flagrant fashion.  The consensus of folks of different cultures and backgrounds with regards to matters of the infliction of unnecessary and undue suffering upon others is so consistent as to be classified as anything but chaotic.


Let us consider the “universally natural aversion to suffering.” “Suffering” is defined as “to submit or be forced to endure” some sort of experience. This applies to the realms of the physical and the non-physical. Using your standard of morality, then, when one suffers, something immoral is occurring.


It is not the case that in all situations where suffering occurs something immoral is occurring.  It is most certainly not immoral for a surgeon to slice a person open in order to perform surgery necessary for one’s good health or sustained existence.  Yet, by that very act suffering does indeed occur.  No person ever woke up in the recovery room comfortable.  Especially after the drugs wore off!  Yet, in spite of the fact that suffering occurs under such circumstances, it is not the case that “something immoral is occurring”.

At the same time, is it not only natural for any person who concedes to surgery to do so with a sense of internal duress?  Is it not the case that every rational person is somewhat apprehensive at the thought of having to endure surgery?  And why is such the case?  May I suggest that our predictable apprehension in such circumstances is due to our natural aversion to suffering.  Given a choice, no rational person opts to concede to any act which involves suffering.  (A clear understanding of this principle, synthesized with our natural capacity to empathize is the sound basis for reliable moral principles upon which an advisable ethical code may be developed.  Or so it seems to me)


In the physical realm, when one’s conduct is contrary to the norms of a particular community, and that one suffers because of the community’s implementation of punishment, then the community has conducted itself in an immoral way because they made the other suffer, right? In the non-physical realm, a child suffers when a parent incorporates corrective verbal discipline to the child; thus, the parent was immoral in administrating disciple, right?


I am unable to justify based upon natural principles the act of inflicting unnecessary and undue suffering upon another in either the physical or the non-physical realm.  Clearly, the matter of “unnecessary and undue” is a matter of judgment relative to the specific situation and/or circumstance under consideration.

The only natural reason that would seem to justify causing another to suffer in either realm would be for the perceived purpose of sparing an individual of more aggravated suffering.  Such is the reason that justifies a surgeon’s duties and practices, and of course such is the basis for parental correction in training a child.

I cannot ascertain a natural principle for “punishment” as such.  Training; yes.  Correction; yes.  Even then, it seems to me that one can easily go overboard even in the quest of the latter two concepts.  Albeit, punishment as such is a concept that I personally deem debatable.  The semantical and philosophical line between the concept of punishment and training/correction is difficult to distinguish precisely.  Thus I readily admit the subject/topic open to reasonable debate.


In the same breath you have affirmed a universal (“universally natural aversion”) with a particular (“generally deemed right or wrong”). The schematic looks like this:

1) there is a universal aversion,

2) it is generally (or particularly) valued,

3) thus, particular is universal

Dave, I know for what you are arguing, but I am not going to grant what you argue until you make the case – and you have not!


What case would you have me make Ron?  This discussion is founded upon your assertions that:

1.  There is a personal God; more specifically the Biblical God commonly known as Jehovah.

2.  Your furthermore assertion that Jehovah is the source of morals and ethics.

The case that you make necessitates credible evidence to support your claims.

My case as to my existence is that I am the natural product of a natural product.  As is everything!  I offer as my evidence the natural world and the natural process thereof which you, me, and everyone and everything else shares a place and a part.

My case furthermore is that moral standards and ethical codes are derived from within humanity based upon experiences and consequences relative to the general concept of our natural aversion to suffering.  I offer as my evidence the history of humanity and the general consensus of most civilized folks as to the core principles which distinguish behavior which is acceptable from behavior which is deemed unacceptable based upon the experiences and consequences relative to the general concept of suffering.

Ron, your case is a challenging one to establish:

1.  There is no natural evidence to sustain your assertion that there is a personal God.

2.  The book which you advocate as the source of moral goodness endorses such atrocities as:

  • The drowning of innocent babies.

  • The mutilation of innocent babies.

  • The mutilation of pregnant women.

  • The imposed starvation of people.

  • Kidnapping and sex slavery.

  • Blackmail.

  • Terrorism.

Frankly Ron, you are hard pressed to sustain your beliefs or to entrust your moral standards to a book which endorses such barbaric atrocities and shameless practices.

My case thusly stated, I look forward to your thoughts on such matters.


You have argued this, however: Morality is not an action, but a decision. Since “decisions” are modes of thought, and morality is directly connected to suffering, then suffering in any area of life is reason to ascribe the word “immoral” to that occasion.


I do not assert nor does my philosophy imply that all suffering is a case of immoral activity.  Reference my commentary above.


Dave, hope your week is great; I anticipate a quicker reply to you next time – I hope! J


Right back at ya my man!  As it took me over a month to finally reply to this letter, I can hardly impose upon you for a speedy response.  Although I do sincerely look forward to hearing back from you whenever you have the time for your response.

Take care ole friend!!



1 thought on “A Friendly Discussion (Morals, Ethics, and Theism)

  1. I’m a former Church of Christ member myself. Thank you for this open conversation. Your friend Ron seems to be implying that suffering is equivalent to immorality.

    I would suggest to him that morality is entailed in the effort of humans to reduce suffering. Suffering is often outside our control (e.g. the result of natural disasters, or the natural dying process), and is only immoral when it is produced intentionally by humans for reasons other than the lessening of suffering for others. Humans can be selfish in this endeavor, and focus only on the lessening of their own suffering, but many societies throughout history have independently discovered the principle of reciprocity (the golden rule – which predates Christianity). Experience has taught us that a universal focus on lessening the suffering of all is necessary to lessen the suffering of the individual. This is a rational philosophy, that is constantly being refined as societies improve over time (see Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Natures).

    I would also suggest that pleasure and the experience of joy can reduce our suffering. We have evolved in a way that most humans experience joy or pleasure through certain altruistic activities. I take joy in providing for the needs of my children. The prospect of suffering the death of a child is so abhorrent, I would happily die to prevent the death of my children. I could extend this to situations in which I would be willing to die for the sake of other children or even other people. This willingness varies depending on factors such as my relation to the people involved, whatever suffering my death would cause to my loved ones, and the question of whether my death would actually bring about a positive change, but it is clear to me, that nonbelievers could choose to die altruistically for others without violating our own rational premise for morality based on the lessening of suffering.

    In other words, it may appear to religious observers that a rational morality based on increasing pleasure and decreasing suffering, would have a tendency toward selfishness. But this tendency is completely offset by the facts that most of our human pleasure results directly from relationship with other humans, and our suffering can likewise be lessened by relationships with other humans. Our rational morality is inseparable from our human need for relationships with other humans.

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