Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
The Question of God

Moral Law

Armand Nicholi: Where do we get our concept of right and wrong? Our moral code? Freud's worldview says that they just come through human experience. What works, what doesn't work has been developed over time. Whereas Lewis gives a long argument to show that this is indeed like laws of mathematics that we discover rather than make up, and that it transcends time and culture. What are your reactions to those statements?

Margaret Klenck: To me it's both and. There's religious instinct, there's spiritual experiences, we have history behind us, we have civil codes, moral codes, we have all kinds of stuff that come at us from all different levels of consciousness, for me, you put — you turn this around and these two things go directly together like the two sides of a magnet.

Armand Nicholi: So, you're saying that this could indeed come from God. But it would be reinforced through human experience?

Margaret Klenck: You could put it that way. Or there could be more of a dialogue, kind of what to do. And, clearly, we don't know what to do yet, because this world's a mess.

Michael Shermer: One question. What is the origin of the moral sentiments? So, they evolved through natural forces and culture and history, or God implemented — put them in... ?

Margaret Klenck: Why can't it be both?

Michael Shermer: How can it be both?

Margaret Klenck: How can it not be both?

Michael Shermer: Unless you wanted to just say that forces of history and nature is God's way of doing it. But it doesn't add anything.

Margaret Klenck: No, I don't agree. I think it adds an element of our humility, I think it adds an element of the unknown. That we, no matter what, we don't know. We don't know.

Jeremy Fraiberg: Well, another thing that I think it's important to be clear on is that the moral principles of a particular religion may be true from the standpoint of someone who's secular — but for different reasons than merely the fact that they were promulgated by God. You can reject the Christian, or Jewish, or Muslim, or Buddhist arguments about creation and about the existence of God, but yet buy in almost entirely to their moral conception. Not necessarily because you think it's divinely inspired, but just because there's a lot of wisdom inherent in these belief systems. 'Cause lots of smart people spent lots of time thinking these things through, uh, articulating the principles, and look they've been successful, right?

Armand Nicholi: You're saying they come from human experience over time. Is that right?

Jeremy Fraiberg: Well, I'm saying it's a possible argument. And I might say, well, just naturalistically this has come to be. And it is good for the species, and these principles are good principles by which to govern our lives.

Louis Massiah: My sense of morality comes from a community dealing with certain historical issues. And in particular the situation of African-Americans in this, in this land. And that helps determine what the work is. And from those past experiences we, we learn what, what is right and what is wrong.

Frederick Lee: What if I came to you and I said that I believe social justice is really an unworthy cause. I feel that the earth has only limited resources, and therefore we should maximize the use of those resources in certain ways that will allow the ultimate achievement by the human race. I mean, that's an old philosophy that, unfortunately, was adopted by the Nazis —

Louis Massiah: A type of manifest.

Frederick Lee: Yeah, a horror, right? And yet, without a conception of God, how do I explain to someone like Adolph Hitler, that this is immoral?

Jeremy Fraiberg: I don't think God would've been much help convincing Hitler of anything.

Doug Holladay: We don't want to convince them, we just want to shut them down.

Frederick Lee: Wait a minute, I'm just staying, let's stay with this question. A very simple question, and it says, without an absolute standard on which to stand, how is it that one human can say to another, "What you are doing is immoral." Do you say, "Okay, what you did was wrong, only for practical reasons," as Freud would say.

Michael Shermer: No, not just for practical reasons. Because you wouldn't want to have it done to you.

Frederick Lee: But, regardless of whether it is done to me or done to anybody else —

Michael Shermer: And isn't it a better principal that — of how you'd like to be treated, versus "Cause God said I shouldn't do it."

Doug Holladay: The Golden Rule.

Michael Shermer: Yeah, I think the Golden Rule is far superior to any theological "God told me this was bad" argument.

Frederick Lee: Well, wait a minute, the Golden Rule is religious — it's from God.

Michael Shermer: I don't care what religion said about it, I think religion got it from our evolutionary history. I think in a social species, this is the first rule, the first moral rule. Since the Enlightenment, we have values that we put on human life and freedoms and civil liberties that have nothing to do with religion and they don't come from religion and we enforce those, we run around the world overthrowing dictators because we want to help people. And because they're people. Just because of that, and that's good enough.

Doug Holladay: But that's being challenged in fundamental ways. As a former diplomat, these ideas have huge consequences and that came out of a worldview that said, there is evil and part of our mission is to confront that.

Margaret Klenck: But the other side to it is that, I mean I absolutely agree that there is evil. It's a real thing. But to say there's evil out there, you know, to project all the evil out there and to say, I am the good and therefore I'm going to — but that's the underbelly of this, this worldview. And I think the, the idea of tolerance, when it's a profound idea, has to do with wait a minute, before I accuse you, you know, I have to look at mine. And then if I see what that instinct is, then I can talk to you about it. But I can't just squash you.

Frederick Lee: I think that's the fear with absolutism that, Margaret, you're referring to — the idea that what I believe is right and because it is absolutely right, I have the right to impose it on you, to force it on you. And if it means that I can go around as certain elements in the world do and claim that as part of their religious mission they need to kill certain people, then it's justified, right? So clearly that's a very dangerous ground to stand on. On the other hand, this notion of tolerance I find equally intolerable; the notion that sort of all versions of truth are equally valid.

Michael Shermer: Okay, let's think of it between the relativism of all views are equal and the absolutism that there is one right way. There is what I call provisional morality. That is, there are principles that are true most of the time for most people in most circumstances. Tolerance is one of those. Most of the time in most circumstances, tolerance is good — not a hundred percent of the time. Sometimes you just have to be intolerant. You take the knife away from the baby, you don't allow 'em to jail people, whatever. So what's the principle there? What's the guiding principle?

Frederick Lee: Right, right.

Michael Shermer: We can start with the golden rule. We can start with freedom, greater freedoms for more people as a guideline.

Frederick Lee: Why is freedom a good thing?

Michael Shermer: Well, because we've decided that since we each individually would prefer freedom versus less freedom, that as collectively as a group, this is a good value to have.

Jeremy Fraiberg: I don't know why you necessarily need God in order to have morality, which is, I think, what's at stake in this discussion if I understand it. Is that right?

Jeremy Fraiberg: Well, you seemed to be saying earlier that you needed God to have a sense of right and wrong. I don't think you do.

Doug Holladay: Well, let me tell you practically how I think that this works. In 1833, the British Empire abolished the slave trade. Forty-seven years earlier, a young member of Parliament underwent what he referred to as the great change. He went from unbelief to belief. In his diary, you can see — William Wilberforce — in 1791 he wrote in his diary, October 28th, God Almighty has set before me two things to do. The suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners. But the thing that I found really interesting, he was able to transcend a, a cultural captivity, if you will, of young Parliamentarians of his age. And I would say, Jeremy, that my view has been if you look over the past 2,000 years, repeatedly people of faith have been able to transcend their times, look at a reality and address it.

Jeremy Fraiberg: Right.

Doug Holladay: And I, find that a very powerful argument for being able to somehow see the world differently. And that's what I believe this transcendent set of values can do.

Louis Massiah: All of those things have provided that same sort of transcendent force. I mean, so it's not just religion.

Doug Holladay: But I'm saying real change, real cultures, the abolish...

Michael Shermer: Yeah, but the slave trade was justified biblically.

Doug Holladay: Of course it was.

Michael Shermer: And when you look back and say, oh, well, they were wrong — how do you know they were wrong?

Doug Holladay: Do you think they were right?

Michael Shermer: Because, because our society has decided that slavery is bad and they didn't decide that because of God or any biblical thing. We decided it because as humans, it leads to lesser freedom and the Enlightenment values that more freedom is better prevailed. Because people said we're not going to put up with this anymore. It has nothing to do with God or the Bible.

Armand Nicholi: Well, wait a minute — let me ask a question. Do you think the people that were enslaving others, or the, the Nazis that were murdering millions of people — do you think that they at some level knew that what they were doing was wrong?

Jeremy Fraiberg: They may not have and the reason they may not have is if they based their positions on flawed premises. But if you correct, if you correct that error, then presumably their beliefs change. And similarly with slavery — there's a belief in, you know, some people tried to justify slavery unsuccessfully on the grounds that there was a difference between the races. But that's false.

Doug Holladay: Well, they did it for a long time. They were able to justify —

Jeremy Fraiberg: Right, right, but that's false. So it, so there is no justification.

Armand Nicholi: Say with the Nazis, though, that developed this theory of — do you think that they really believed that underneath? That these human beings were

Louis Massiah: You look at today in terms of the incarceration of African-Americans and Latinos. I mean, there are people that believe that young African-American men are dangerous and criminal. I mean, look at the prisons now. I mean, that's just false. And people believe it. So, but obviously, if you see what's, you know, who's in the prison, obviously there's something horribly wrong with the society and many of these people that are putting people in prison and writing the laws are quite religious. So —

Armand Nicholi: But, I'm not saying whether they're religious or not. I'm asking whether or not at some level they know that what there, what they're doing is unjust and wrong.

photos of conversation participants