The Argument from Morality: Nazi Morality

So how did the Nazis justify the murder of innocent Jews?

They didn’t.

Watching or reading Nazi propaganda, it is impossible not to be struck by how close their overtly expressed moral values are to ours. They condemn cruelty to the poor and oppressed. In the 1941 film, Heimkehr (Homecoming), Poles in eastern Poland are depicted as heartless brutes, vilely oppressing the German minority inside their borders. Fleuchtlinge (Refugees) made in 1933 is about Germans living on the Sino-Russian border in Manchuria in 1928. Again, Germans are the victims of cruel persecution, this time from the bolsheviks.

The Nazis did not openly celebrate cruelty and oppression. They purported to condemn it. Even in the notorious “Jud Seuss”, Seuss is a cruel, manipulative rapist, that’s why he’s bad. Of course, the film peddles the lie that he is a cruel manipulative rapist because he’s a Jew. But it could never have scaled the moral high ground it aspires to if it had just said that he deserved to die simply because he was a Jew.

In order for there to be any possible claim of a moral basis for their actions, the Nazis could not simply cut themselves adrift from everything which had been thought about morality before them. In order to present their wickedness as admirable, they had to use those same concepts about what is good and bad as we all use. If they had not done so, they could not have been understood to be talking about morality at all.

The following quote from Richard Swinburne puts it better than I could hope to.

Suppose that a person were introduced to the concept of ‘moral obligation’ only by being told that it is ‘morally obligatory’ in all circumstances to walk on alternate paving stones,to touch your head three times before getting out of bed in the morning….Surely we would regard this person as not having been introduced to the concept of moral obligation. The difference between this person and the rest of us would be not that we and he or she have different views about what actions are morally obligatory, but that he or she would not have the concept moral obligation. There has to be a measure of agreement about what are paradigm cases of actions that are morally obligatory, good and so on, for disputants to have a common concept about the further application of which they are in disagreement

What applies to actions that are entirely outside the realm of moral behaviour will also apply to actions which have a moral aspect but where the morality is simply inverted. You might have a morality where you call all the things”good” that we call “bad”, in the same way that you might call everything “black” that we call “white”. But that would not show that you had a radically different concept of good and bad (or black and white). EIt would just show that you had exactly the same concept as the rest of us and were using it to play some kind of word game.

Heinrich Himmler wrote to his daughter Gudrun on her birthday: “You must be decent, brave and kind.”  Does anyone disagree with that as a moral standard to aspire to?  Himmler also described the Final Solution as “This page of glory in our history has never been written and will never be written…”. The Holocaust could never be written about by the Germans because they knew that it defied any normal concept of morality.  Himmler knew very well that what they were doing in the concentration camps would be universally condemned. Secrecy was necessary because what was happening was morally indefensible.  

Obviously, to some extent they managed to “sell” the Final Solution to those who carried out. How did they do that?

People are good at making excuses for themselves. They can generally find some argument, however thin, to justify the unjustifiable and dress their faults up as virtues. So the slave-holder told himself that black people were better off held as chattels and that slaves had better care under their masters than the free workers who had nobody to look after them and might starve if they lost their job.

The Nazis argued that Jewish culture was debauched and cruel. And if the Jewish children were allowed to live, that would spell the undoing of Germany. So in killing Jewish children he was wiping out a blot which had troubled Europe for centuries and ensuring that no new menace would arise.

If that sounds implausible as a defence for the murder of children, consider this:

By the time of their destruction, Canaanite culture was, in fact, debauched and cruel, embracing such practices as ritual prostitution and even child sacrifice.

God knew that if these Canaanite children were allowed to live, they would spell the undoing of Israel

Yes, it’s our old friend WLC again, “explaining” how the OT genocides were justifiable. He closes with this:

Ironically, I think the most difficult part of this whole debate is the apparent wrong done to the Israeli [sic] soldiers themselves. Can you imagine what it would be like to have to break into some house and kill a terrified woman and her children?

Ah, the terrible suffering of the genocidal killer. Too bad God didn’t send down some gas chambers. That was how the Nazis insulated themselves from the “trauma”.

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The Argument from Morality III

Christmas comes with its inevitable toll on my time, so I shall not deal fully with the question of “Nazi morality” in this post.  I shall just raise a question and I’ll come back to it in January.

Whenever the AfM comes up you are likely to hear the apologist say something like “If the Nazis had won the war, we’d all be taught that killing Jewish children was good.  If God didn’t exist, we would have no way to counter that, because morality would just be whatever society said was good.  Belief in God-based morality means that we have a basis for saying the holocaust would still be wrong even if we’d all been taught to believe it wasn’t.”

The argument goes wrong with the very first sentence.  What did Nazis actually teach about the holocaust? Very little. This what Himmler is recorded as saying:

“This is a page of glory in our history which has never been written and is never to  be written.”

There might perhaps have been strategic reasons why in 1943 Himmler felt that this “glorious” page could not be written.  But why was he so categorical in saying that it must never be written?  Why, if it was glorious, could there not come a time when the glorious deeds could be celebrated?

The Argument from Morality part II

I have been looking at the Argument from Morality (the AfM) and using as my primary source William Lane Craig, who is one of its foremost advocates. The concept of “objective moral values” plays a big part in Craig’s formulation of the argument, appearing on both premises of his syllogism:

– If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
– Objective moral values and duties do exist.

What are “objective moral values”? Craig’s definition is “values that are valid and binding whether anyone believes in them or not.” I am assuming that when Craig refers to “anyone” he is not including God. I am not going to take any point on that – let us assume that Craig means that these values must exist independently of whether any human believes in them if they are to be objective. This leads him to conclude:

“Without a divine lawgiver, there can be no objective right and wrong, only our culturally and personally relative, subjective judgments. This means that it is impossible to condemn war, oppression, or crime as evil. Nor can one praise brotherhood, equality, and love as good. For in a universe without God, good and evil do not exist—there is only the bare valueless fact of existence, and there is no one to say that you are right and I am wrong.”

There is a bait and switch going on here. “Objective” can mean independent of human opinion, that’s true. But like most words, it has shades of meaning. If something is not “objective” in the sense just described (“High Objectivity”) it need not follow that it is purely a matter of taste – “I like coffee, you like tea, and who’s to say either of us is right or wrong?”

In fact, much of what we do is based on an assumption that there is such a thing as an objectively correct opinion. Most conversations we have rely on a shared understanding of matters which depend on human opinion for their truth. If I say I “won’t be long” when I leave you standing outside Sainsbury’s looking after my dog, then come back two hours later, can anyone doubt that I did not keep my word? But the fact that I was long is not one which can be divorced from human opinions. It does not achieve High Objectivity. But it is true nonetheless.

At schools, public money is spent on educating children in subjects such as creative writing and art. Imagine parents of a bright, talented child who want to find out why she only got an “F” for her essay:
“Her last teacher said her vocabulary was far in advance of her age and she showed great originality of thought. He said she was one of the best in the class!”
“Well, Mr and Mrs X, it’s all just a matter of taste, isn’t it? Her last teacher just happened to like her essays, and I just happen not to. There’s nothing more to be said, is there?”

What makes a good essay is to some extent a matter of fact. So is what makes a good university, or a good cook, or a good driver. Or a good action. It is a different sort of “fact” from facts about rocks etc., facts which obtained before we humans existed and which will still obtain once we have ceased to exist, but it is still a fact.

What Craig wants to do is distract his audience from noticing that his definition of “objective” for the purposes of morality sets the bar unnecessarily high. If they do not notice that, then recoiling from the claim which follows – that murder, rape and genocide must be no more than a matter of taste, they fall into his trap.
Craig frequently invokes the example of the Nazis as an illustration of how morality without God is capable of endorsing anything. Next month I will have a look at this and whether it supports him or not.

The Argument from Morality part 1

This argument is surprisingly popular with theists. I say “surprisingly” because it is (in my view) so obviously flawed that it is incomprehensible to me that so many of them hold it up as their absolute trump card, the undefeatable defeater to atheism. Here is the formulation of the argument used by William Lane Craig:

If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
Objective moral values and duties do exist.
Therefore, God exists.

Where do we even start?

Let’s first of all raise the classic response based on Plato’s dialogue “Euthyphro” (The Euthyphro Dilemma”. This can be summarised as:

Is what we call “good” good because God commands it? Then there is nothing of inherent value in the action and murder rape and cruelty would also be good if commanded by God.

So does God command us to what what is good because it is good? If so, then it is good independent of God. God’s function is to some extent to recognise it and inform u s about it, perhaps to police it (by sending us to Hell if we don’t do it) but he has no impact on its objectivity.

The theist response to this is usually to say that goodness is that which is in accordance with God’s own holy nature. The dilemma, they claim, is a pseudo-dilemma easily resolved by this nostrum: “God orders these things not because they are good, but because he is good” (also WLC’s formulation). So with a single bound the theist is free! Not.

Firstly, the “solution” simply pushes the problem back a stage. Is God’s nature good because that sort of nature is good? Or is it good simply because it is God’s nature, in which case, if God’s nature had been hating, spiteful and unjust, all those qualities would be good.

Secondly, when WLC says of God “he is good”, the statement is, on this theory, just circular. God is what he is: aren’t we all? It’s kind of like saying “Led Zeppelin play the sort of music that people who like Led Zepplin music enjoy.” (Yes, I do realise I’m showing my age now). For the statement “God is good” to convey any information about God, it needs to refer outside itself to some independent standard by which God is judged.

Next month I’ll deal with the false dichotomy which lies at the heart of this argument.