Morality, the Bible, and the Nazis

I was re-watching the PBS show “The Question of God” the other day and during the debate segment on the moral law one of the commentators brought up the example of the Nazis. He asked how a person who did not have an absolute divinely-inspired concept of morals could explain to Hitler or the Nazis that what they were doing was wrong. So I thought I’d chip in with my two cents on my blog.

Now, I was not surprised by the question, since this seems to be a common strategy of Christians. The Nazis are often painted as godless and immoral, who were only able to do what they did because they did not ascribe to God’s laws. However, believers might want to be a little careful around this topic. Afterall, one of the central themes of the Old Testament is the idea of a chosen people. The Israelites were the chosen people of God, empowered by God to invade neighboring nations and kill/enslave their people. The fact is, the Nazis could very easily have justified their actions using the Bible. Just like the Israelites were the superior race back in the iron age, the Germans are the superior race in the industrial age and must fulfill their biblically-inspired destiny. The fact that their extreme anti-Semitism can also be traced back to a long history of Christian persecution of the Jews (as well as the writings of Martin Luther in their own country) also doesn’t bode well for Christianity’s “civilizing influence” on the Nazis.

In short, the idea that the Bible could have deterred the Nazis from the Holocaust is ludicrous. If anything, it would have empowered them further since they would have seen a divinely-inspired precedent in the “good book”. Another commentator in the show brought up the example of Wilberforce and the abolishment of the slave trade in Britain, yet we know during the American Civil War that both sides used God to justify their positions. Although Wilberforce credited God for his anti-slavery actions it’s clear that he could have taken the opposite stance just as easily (all we can say for sure is that he was against slavery and happened to be religious). The fact is, morality has never moved forward because of religion and we need to stop looking at it to guide our lives in the modern world. Living with empathy and compassion for your fellow human beings should always be the guiding principle of moral actions, not a 2000-year old book of magic.

9 thoughts on “Morality, the Bible, and the Nazis

  1. “If anything, it would have empowered them further since they would have seen a divinely-inspired precedent in the “good book”.”

    Seeing things that are not there is very common. Context can be tricky. For example, I see a well thought out blog post here.

    “The fact is, morality has never moved forward because of religion and we need to stop looking at it to guide our lives in the modern world. Living with empathy and compassion for your fellow human beings should always be the guiding principle of moral actions”

    The fact is, some people have empathized with old people and children and have compassionately ended their lives. Is that an example of moving forward? Where do we find the guiding principle that explains what it means to have empathy and compassion – or do you just make it up as you go along?

  2. “The fact is, some people have empathized with old people and children and have compassionately ended their lives. Is that an example of moving forward? Where do we find the guiding principle that explains what it means to have empathy and compassion – or do you just make it up as you go along?”

    I consider euthanasia, in the case of terminal illnesses where the patient is in immense pain and wishes to die, to be compassionate. Frankly, to force someone to live the short time they have left on earth in agonyzing misery is one of the worst things I can imagine (it is something I would not wish on my worse enemies). It is the kind of thing I would do if I wanted to be the cruelest person on earth.

    As for guiding principles, I am with Michael Shermer on the origins of morality. That is, it is something that evolution has built into us. We do not have to seek out some external source, we have it in ourselves to be compassion and moral. Frankly, the prospect of a mature human being who is moral because of some higher authority is a very scary prospect (since it indicates that are only pretending to be moral).

  3. “That is, it is something that evolution has built into us. We do not have to seek out some external source, we have it in ourselves to be compassion and moral.”

    This still doesn’t explain what the guiding principle is that explains what it means to have empathy and compassion.

    The same evolution that builds into us the compassion to feed a hungry child is the same evolution that builds into us the compassion to kill the child so it won’t have to be hungry again. Also, ending a person’s life in order to prevent them from suffering a life of 9-5 drudgery is another way evolution has built compassion into us.

    I’m reminded of the saying: the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Evolution may have built the road, but it can’t tell you which road you’re on.

  4. “This still doesn’t explain what the guiding principle is that explains what it means to have empathy and compassion.”

    As Shermer said, we as social creatures need to live by certain rules in order for us to thrive as a society. Also, while we may be good liars we are also good lie-detectors and those who lie consistently are quickly marginalized. Therefore, it isn’t enough to fake being a moral person, we actually have to be a moral person, and over time evolution eventually built a moral code that genuinely makes us want to be moral. Of course occasionally there are people who are actually immoral (Hitler, mass murderers, etc.) but on the whole we are a moral species.

    Note that it isn’t just humans who have this moral code. Chimps and other primates have also demonstrated empathy and compassion, which is understandable since they too are social creatures.

    “Also, ending a person’s life in order to prevent them from suffering a life of 9-5 drudgery is another way evolution has built compassion into us.”

    Nowhere in my previous post did I ever mention ending a person’s life to free them from “suffering a life of 9-5 drudgery”. I specifically mentioned it being compassionate only if the person had a terminal disease and was suffering intense agony (in other words, if they were suffering unnecessary physical pain). I certainly hope you’re not comparing “a life of 9-5 drudgery” to someone suffering from a critical illness (I think that would be a grave insult to those very unfortunate people).

  5. “As Shermer said, we as social creatures need to live by certain rules in order for us to thrive as a society.”

    So far you have not stated those rules. Specifically, you have not stated the rules that govern what it means for someone to have compassion and empathy toward another. I given examples and more are below. Even if you did give me the rules I would question why they are rules, per se – why anyone should follow them? I think what you mean is that it’s what you would prefer people do. Don’t confuse rules with preference.

    “Nowhere in my previous post did I ever mention ending a person’s life to free them from “suffering a life of 9-5 drudgery”.”

    I didn’t say that you did say that. I mentioned this because evolution put these views of compassion into some people. There are lots of compassionate views. Another example would be helping my friend rob a bank so he could cover his expenses. Yet another would be a people group helping another people group drive others off their land so they could better thrive. All these things are motivated, at least in part, by compassion and empathy.

  6. “So far you have not stated those rules. Specifically, you have not stated the rules that govern what it means for someone to have compassion and empathy toward another. I given examples and more are below. Even if you did give me the rules I would question why they are rules, per se – why anyone should follow them? I think what you mean is that it’s what you would prefer people do. Don’t confuse rules with preference.”

    I don’t think I ever stated that empathy/compassion is a matter of preference. We don’t need rules imposed on us in order for us to feel compassion for each other, it’s within ourselves to begin with.

    That being said, there are different moral systems that people adhere to. Aside from the obviously absurd (like the Divine Command theory and pure relativisim), I think it’s fair to say that most people use a mixed form of utilitarianism and Kantianism (that is, morality should be based on consequences, but should have a strong focus on human happiness). Shermer himself goes by what he calls “provisional morality”, which treads a middle ground between absolutism and relativism.

    “I didn’t say that you did say that. I mentioned this because evolution put these views of compassion into some people. There are lots of compassionate views. Another example would be helping my friend rob a bank so he could cover his expenses. Yet another would be a people group helping another people group drive others off their land so they could better thrive. All these things are motivated, at least in part, by compassion and empathy.”

    And yet I have never heard of those “compassionate” views that you mentioned. You use absurd examples like euthanasia for people living a bored life, and yet you expect me to respond to it seriously? You do realize that my last comment was a reference to the sheer absurdity of your example, right?

  7. Whether it’s absurd to you, or not, doesn’t matter. These people are compassionately helping others either have a better life or they are saving them from having a difficult life.

    “We don’t need rules imposed on us in order for us to feel compassion for each other, it’s within ourselves to begin with.”

    You say that, but then you use rule-like language like this:

    “I think it’s fair to say that most people use a mixed form of utilitarianism and Kantianism (that is, morality should be based on consequences, but should have a strong focus on human happiness).”

    Should?? That may be what you want, but who cares? I don’t. My response is “no thanks”. I prefer something else. Thanks to evolution, there are others that prefer something very different – something that doesn’t focus on the happiness of other humans. Call it selfish utilitarianism, if you will.

    This is the problem with your theory. Evolution created all of these ‘moralities’ so they are all equally moral.

  8. “Whether it’s absurd to you, or not, doesn’t matter. These people are compassionately helping others either have a better life or they are saving them from having a difficult life.”

    Right, and that entails compassionate killing to free people from the “drudgery of a 9-5 existence”. You bring up a ludicrous proposition and you somehow expect me to take it seriously.

    “This is the problem with your theory. Evolution created all of these ‘moralities’ so they are all equally moral.”

    So me discussing various moral systems suddenly makes all these “moralities” equal? (note that right from the start I dismissed pure relativism as an unworkable idea) And how does this have anything to do with how evolution? You seem hopelessly confused about this issue (tell me, have you ever studied morality in school?)

  9. These are my interpretations of the problems I think that Monroe is trying to get at here. As they noted, this is obviously a well thought-out post. But there are many ways that you could refine these views.

    Problem 1: Your misuse of the term ‘relativism’.

    If you are arguing that morality stems from darwinian evolution, then you are saying that morality is relative to whatever get pumped out. There is no end goal to this sort of process and hence no reason why things could potentially end up with a species who think that nothing is more moral than killing jewish people. If you do think that there is some necessity to darwinian evolution that aims towards the good, you should definitely let scientists know. Regardless, I’m not sure what you mean by ‘pure relativism’. I might as well say ‘my hat is purely relative’ – it’s just as meaningful as saying ‘morality is purely relative’ unless you explain what exactly it’s relative *to*. It’s a relational term. I can’t see that you’ve understood this concept in your above posts.

    Problem 2: ‘is vs ought’.

    The problem with relying on empathy as a grounding for moral rules is: what happens when most people don’t show empathy towards the victims of what we would consider a horrendous crime? There are many instances when the majority instinct is clearly disturbing. To use a case that you’ve mentioned, consider the rampant antisemitism during the second world war that was apparent in pretty much every developed nation. Humans seem to naturally branch off into groups that contain people they consider similar to themselves, whilst demonising those who are different. They are compassionate to what is similar and not so much to what is vastly different.

    It’s just ‘within’ most people to be distrustful of things different than themselves, to use your wording. Is this one of those ‘cooperative’ moral codes built into us by evolution? I’m not sure that you realise that saying “[morality is something that evolution has built into us” and “We do not have to seek out some external source [of morality]” seem to be contradictory – appeal to evolution is justifying our actions by appeal to something that might not always be the case.

    There is a big leap between arguing what *is* the case compared to what *ought* to be the case. Just because a population has ended up at a particular point (for whatever reason in their past) doesn’t mean that they should continue on the same path in the future. You need to more David Hume and less Michael Shermer. Even if evolution has led us here, what’s to say we shouldn’t be going elsewhere? Even Dawkins recognises this distinction.

Comments are closed.