George Washington, the “father” of our nation, once warned:
And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.
Alan Keyes, former presidential candidate, and Alan Dershowitz, law professor at Harvard, debated the topic of whether or not morality is dependent upon religion (September 27, 2000). In this debate, Keyes asserted there is a nexus; Dershowitz, a skeptic who has abandoned the religious elements of his Jewish heritage, denied the proposition. The debate was conducted at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and the video was recently presented on television by C-Span.
Dershowitz is one of the top-dog attorneys in the nation. Newsweek magazine once described him as “the nation’s most peripatetic civil liberties lawyer and one of its most distinguished defenders of individual rights.” He would be more appropriately characterized as a leading defender of individual “wrongs.”
Both Keyes and Dershowitz were eloquent in the presentation of their respective positions. Keyes obviously had the stronger case and, for the most part, presented it with skill—though he did not, in my judgment, press the case as relentlessly as he might have.
I personally feel he should have “gone for the throat.” Because the truth of the matter is this: Dershowitz and his ideological cronies are utterly powerless to defend a consistent case for human morality apart from an ultimate standard of ethical conduct, namely divine revelation—which was incrementally given and which reaches its zenith in the New Testament documents. The philosopher John Locke wrote: “To give a man full knowledge of true morality, I would send him to no other book than the New Testament.”
Over and over again, though, with meaningless monotony, Dershowitz intoned his mantra: “Men ought to do right because it is the right thing to do.”
What in the world is that suppose to mean? It means nothing. It is a nonsensical assemblage of words with nothing but the echo of redundancy. The issue still to be defined is this: What is “the right thing to do”? How is that determined? Who determines it? Alan Dershowitz? The Supreme Court? Charlie Manson?
The skeptical French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre was absolutely correct when he wrote: “Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist.”
As I listened to Dershowitz flail away in his futile attempt to create some sort of criterion for morality within a logical vacuum, I was reminded of an account in Katharine Tait’s book, My Father Bertrand Russell. The daughter of the celebrated agnostic reminisced about her early days when her father attempted to teach her certain principles of right and wrong. When he tried to press a moral imperative upon young Kate, she would protest, “I don’t want to! Why should I?”
She remarks that a conventional parent might reply: “But you must. Because I say so. God says so.” But Russell would only say, “Because more people will be happy if you do than if you don’t.”
Defiantly, she would respond, “So what? I don’t care about other people.”
“But you should,” he would insist.
Katharine again would ask, “But why?”
To which the frustrated scholar would snap, “Because more people will be happy if you do than if you don’t.”
Tait then concludes: “We felt the heavy pressure of his rectitude and obeyed, but the reason was not convincing—neither to us nor to him” (1975, 184-185).
So with Dershowitz. He apparently felt that if he yelled “Just because it’s right” enough times, it would make sense eventually. It didn’t. It doesn’t. Quantity is not the equivalent of quality.
Do skeptics practice morality? Yes. But their morality, in and of itself, is not defensible. It has been begged, borrowed, or bootlegged from some source higher than they—though such may be denied.
If man may manufacture his own moral standard, then anything goes—and no one can say otherwise.