Kai Nielsen And The Nature Of Theistic Ethics -- By: David Basinger

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 24:3 (Sep 1981)
Article: Kai Nielsen And The Nature Of Theistic Ethics
Author: David Basinger

Kai Nielsen And The Nature Of Theistic Ethics

David Basinger*

Theists frequently argue that nontheists must affirm the following: (1) If there is no God, each person must define “good” and “evil” for himself. (2) If each person must define “good” and “evil” for himself, there can be no objective moral standard. (3) God does not exist. (4) Therefore there can be no objective moral standard (i.e., all moral principles are relative).1

Some nontheists agree (e.g. Sartre) and attempt to live with the implications of (4). Others deny (2), claiming that the existence of an objective moral standard is not dependent on religious commitment. Kai Nielsen is one of the best known and most outspoken members of this group. Nielsen argued that “the nonexistence of God does not preclude the possibility of there being an objective standard on which to base [moral] judgments.”2 He has recently reaffirmed this claim:

There is no need to have the religious commitment of Christianity or its sister religions or any religious commitment at all to make sense of morality, … In terms of its fundamental rationale, morality is utterly independent of belief in God … A moral understanding, as well as a capacity of moral response and action, is available to us even if we are human beings who are utterly without religious faith.3

The basis for this contention is best stated when he argues that the assertions “Happiness is good” and “All persons should be treated fairly” are not only moral absolutes that most persons intuitively know to be true but are principles that, if put into practice, are normally most advantageous for all involved.4

But suppose that it is pragmatically advantageous for an individual to treat others unfairly, and he therefore does so. Or suppose that an individual does claim to have radically different moral intuitions. On what basis can such persons be judged morally wrong? Nielsen is aware of such difficulties. He admits that he cannot prove that happiness is good, arguing that he “can only appeal to your sense of psychological realism to persuade you to admit intellectually what in practice you acknowledge.”5 And he admits that he cannot prove that fairness is always the most advantageous principle to employ, but argues that “to be moral involves respecting [human] rights.”6 Or, as he phrases this point in his most

*David Basinger is associate professor of philosophy at Rober...

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