christianity ethics philosophy

criticising hitler

I wanted to hopefully bring a touch of clarity (call me the arrogant, self-appointed clarifier guy) which was discussed at Ken’s blog here – which was responding (among other things) to a post by Thinking Matters here.

The T.M. post title is “Atheists should not criticise Hitler” (emphasis mine), and Ken’s is “Atheists not allowed to criticise Hitler” (emphasis, again, mine).  Ken also complains that the T.M. post argues that “atheists have no basis for their morality and therefore cannot criticise Hitler” (emphasis, yep, mine again).

These wordings (‘should not’, ‘cannot’ and ‘not allowed to’) matter immensely.

The phrases ‘should not’ and ‘not allowed to’ imply an ethical contradiction, whereas ‘cannot’ could mean inability or imply inconsistency with a principle or ethic.

Clearly, atheists are able to make criticisms of Hitler (I know some that do just that).  And conversely, as Ken points out, some groups which claim a Christian identity (he cites two: Christian Identity and Kingdom Identity) clearly do fail to make criticisms – or even support! – Hitler.  So clearly any statement made that atheists are not able to make criticisms of Hitler are false, and would rightly invite the retort about those ‘Christian’ groups which support him.

But clearly, the point was not about ability to make these claims, but rather their consistency with an ethical/moral framework.

Ethics/morals (and the principles/rules/guidelines/aphorisms/laws/etc. which express them) are inseparably tied to goals and values.  So – the real question implied is most accurately/technically worded as: “Is criticism of Hitler consistent with the ethical/moral framework of atheism?”

Having identified the real question at issue, I think a proper response to the question would be, “Yes, precisely as consistent as support of Hitler would be with the ethical/moral framework of atheism.”

Christianity (and any other group which endorses prescriptive moral principles based on goals/values) has an ethical/moral framework which requires criticism of Hitler (and directly challenges those groups cited above).

Atheism, on the other hand (to my knowledge), has an ethical/moral framework which is (if I can say it like this) “prescriptively indifferent”, and therefore does not prescribe their criticism of Hitler any more (or less) than it prescribes their support of Hitler.

So then, whilst the atheist ‘can‘ (or ‘is allowed to’, etc.) react to Hitler with rage, delight or a shoulder shrug, the Christian who seeks to be subject to the prescriptive authority of Jesus’ teaching, absolutely must criticise Hitler.

24 replies on “criticising hitler”

What a load of demeaning crap, Dale.

You really should get out more and just see what people are like, irrespective of their religious beliefs.

Wow, I expected better from you, Ken. Your decent into ad hominem is out of style for you.
Ironically, it is from my multiple –and also enjoyable and respectful!– conversations with atheists (on blogs and over coffee) which informs my thoughts here. So thanks, but I’m anything but locked inside my own ideological world.

Okay, to be honest, I didn’t go read Ken’s post. (Mostly because I thought his comment was “a load of demeaning crap” and so figured that his post would be more of the same.)

I have several regular readers that are atheists and some friends that are atheists as well. It is too easy to be critical and leave them to their hell bound ways and much more difficult to engage them and find out why they believe what they believe and how they are able to come up with values of right and wrong, good and evil…and they do have social values and believe in civil order and civil laws to protect the definitions of good and evil.

I agree that they may be either supportive or critical Hitler (or of you and me).

Hi Dale, I think you do need to do more to understand how those without faith in God construct their ethical and moral frameworks and how they justify them. You certainly can’t (or shouldn’t) talk about “atheists” as some sort of closed set with defined parameters. You would be better off engaging with a specific thinker, e.g. Dawkins, Hitchens, etc and actually dealing with what they actually say. These sort of generalisations only get people’s backs up (see above). You should also appreciate that for most (if not all) people ethics are more socially constructed than built from the ground up on some philsophically coherent framework. Anyone on the street “knows” paedophilia is wrong, without the benefit of serious ethical reflection, simply because they live in a society in which it is universally and publically condemned.

Having expressed my comment on the level of understanding and respect (done thoughtfully, not with any anger, and I hope you can understand my message) in your post Dale – perhaps I can add some details.

1: You, Dale, are in no better position to determine what my ethical/moral framework is than I, yours. Therefore it is arrogant for you to make rulings about the consistency of my moral assertions with my moral framework. Rather you might get an idea of my moral framework by actually listening to (rather than judging) my assertions. That is the evidence-based approach. Its also the respectful approach. It is certainly the approach I would take with you.

2: My criticism of Hitler, of slavery, of gender rights discrimination, of superstition, etc., etc., is in accord with my values, obviously.

3: My moral/ethical framework inevitable leads me to make those sort of judgments – – it does not lead me to make the opposite judgments at all. A simple observation on your part would lead you to that inevitable conclusion.

4: Many Christians, other religionists and secularists have arrived at judgments which are obviously consistent with their moral framework but not mine. They have supported Hitler, slavery, discrimination against women, terrorism, etc., etc.

5: It is silly, therefore to dogmatically declare that a Christian must criticise Hitler, (slavery, etc., ) because obviously many haven’t. It would be just as silly for me to say that an atheist must criticise Hitler, Stalin, etc (though obviously the vast majority do).

6: Our moral/e6thical framework is quite independent of the names of communities we belong to or what labels we give ourselves.

7: The are objective determinnants of our moral/ethical framework. Tese have nothing directly to do with ideological labels. And that is why, despite the labels, we usually find most people will agree on moral/ethical frameworks.

8: Ideological labels can be used to promote particular moral/ethical frameworks. In my observation, usually those frameworks I consider anti-human. We certainly see this today with Christianity, and Islam. We saw it under Stalin, Mao Tse Tung and Pol Pot.

9: Because of the clear danger of ideology producing inhuman morality (and I include religious ideology in this) I personally have a strong objection to any ideology, or adoption of ideology, which leads to dogmatism. I suspect many atheists do (and maybe that is why organising atheists is like organising cats).

10: I consider your particular claims here an example of such inhuman moral/ethics as is demonises a huge portion of the human race. My moral/ethical framework does not allow such prejudice.

Dale, the fact that you have had coffee with atheists (some of my best friends are atheists) doesn’t seem to have done you much good. What is required is respect. You are welcome to criticise and attack the ideas and proposals of those you have coffee with. But what does it say about your moral/ethical framework if you can form such judgments about the person. To say that their values are “prescriptively indifferent” to bad features of reality. To say that our values don’t lead us to automatically criticise Hitler.

I actually have quite a bit more to contribute on this question – it6 is obviously one I have written on quite a bit in the past. In particular I would like to deal with this question of “prescriptive moral principles.” But for now – I hope I have conveyed to you the need to treat others with the respect they deserve on such subjects. Otherwise we get nowhere and don’t understand anything.

Fair comments. I was looking more at the conversation relevent to the two posts linked to in the post, but yes, reference to ‘atheists’ will inevitably overly lump different approaches/constructions into one box.

Whilst I sincerely didn’t mean to presume that all atheists have some agreed-upon moral/ethical framework, I was genuinely trying to seek a ‘lowest common denominator’ by which to offer the perspective I wanted to. Also, I maintain that my post is respectful. And I see nothing inherently disrespectful (let alone morally/ethically problematic) about making ‘judgments’ – provided those judgments are made honestly and respectfully. You ‘judged’ that my post was a demeaning load of crap – was that respectful? I simply am trying to show how I see the logic playing out from where I stand – based on what I’ve heard from atheists themselves about their ethical/moral approaches (and more foundationally, their perspectives on things such as ‘values’ and ‘goals’). I think I’ve certainly treated people with respect in doing so.

In discussion with Ian (going on now at his blog), he says we can’t ‘know’ the truthfulness of value-judgments such as that humans are worth more than rocks. Also, Damian and I both agree that morals/ethics only makes sense in reference to an identified goal (murder is ‘wrong’ for the goal of continuation/preservation of life [which of course rests on a certain kind of valuing of life] ). As far as I can tell, it’s the identification of these goals that is the real question (do we construct them based on our own opinions? how do we know which constructions are more ‘moral’ than another? i.e. how do we know hitler’s moral construction is immoral?). To my knowledge, neither Ian nor Damian (nor any other atheist I’ve ever talked with) has ever claimed that there is any objective reference or basis for morality/ethics, value-judgments, goal-identification, etc. You, however, are the only one who has suggested something along the lines of there being a (as you say) “moral logic” – which I’ve never understood (and yes, I’ve read your posts). I’ve never seen you establish how this “moral logic” establishes the veracity/truthfulness/reliablility of “values” – how it helps to identify good/moral “goals” – or works. All I hear from time to time is some talk about “our objective existence as sentient, etc. beings” (which I have no idea what that has to do with establishing an objective morality).

Dale, I have argued for an objective basis for many of our ethical/moral decisions. That’s not the same as saying objective morals – which I can never understand – and none of the proponents has been able to enlighten me on the meaning. My ideas on morality/ethics are not too unusual (and it wouldn’t matter if they were). I think they are pretty consistent with the modern science of morality, actually.

What you got to realise, though, Dale is that you can’t arbitrarily and sterotypically designate for others what their moral/ethical framework is. You can’t change reality to fit your own prejudices. You have to look at the evidence. And the evidence just doesn’t support what you have written.

Everybody has a prescriptive moral/ethical framework – and it usually has nothing to do with their labels. I have seen nothing to show that anything said by Christ prevents support for Hitler. And many German Christians had no trouble supporting him. It fitted into their ethnical/moral framework. Others had an ethical/moral framework which prescribe their opposition, just as mine would.

We all have a framework which is prescriptive. That prescription may arise naturally, rationally or might be imposed. After all – look at religious cults where a big problem is that individuals never learn or develop their own moral prescriptions as they grow up. it is imposed. They look to leaders (the word of god) for guidance (which may even excuse child abuse), rather than to their own internalised moral sense and logic with internalised prescriptions.

A bit of advice on atheists, though. They are no more homogeneous as a group than theists. You have to look further for any indication of ethical/moral frameworks or their own moral rules. That’s why we have other ideological labels like humanist smuslim, chrsitian, buddhist, etc. Even those don’t really tell you much. People everywhere are amazingly apathetic about the teachings and guidance of their religion or philosophy, unless it suits them.

I maintain we should avoid such stereotyping and give people the respect of treating them as individuals. Especially when it comes to the temptation of saying something as derogatory as has been said her about Hitler and atheists.

No, it wasn’t respectful of me to say your post was demeaning and a load of crap. I was trying to convey a message to you. The point I was trying to make (as I said it wasn’t in anger, it was thoughtful) is that my comment was on the same level as your post when it comes to respect for others and for meaningful content. I stick by that.

Mind you – I wasn’t describing you (as, from my perspective, you were me) I was describing your post.

((Re describing you: No, instead of describing Ken Perrot, I was describing my understanding of the ‘lowest common denominator’ of moral approaches common to atheists I’ve talked with.))

Indeed, Ken, everyone has moral frameworks, and as Jonathan said above, much moral action is not accompanied by deep, philosophical, systematic moral/ethical calculation.

But surely the whole point is whether or not any actions (and thus the moral approaches/frameworks) can be said to be have a truly-and-objectively (in the sense of ‘not merely my own opinion’) immoral or moral.

Surely the whole question is: is humanity merely having a voting-contest with morality – the most popular version (at the moment) gets awarded with the (temporary) standing of being ‘correct’? Is it the case that, as much as we’d like to have morality be nice and clear, it’s a confusing, contradictory, grey and cloudy world in which nothing is certain at all? Most atheists I’ve ever talked to say something along the lines of, “Yes, this may not be appealing, but it’s the truth, and truth matters more than what we want…” etc.

Dale, you can divert onto “whether or not any actions can be said to be have a truly-and-objectively immoral or moral.” But you are stuck with your demeaning charge that my criticism of Hitler is inconsistent with my moral/ethical framework, because I am an atheist. While you at the same time insist your criticism of Hitler is consistent with your moral/ethical framework, because you are a Christian. (Do you say the same for someone who is identified solely as a theist – the equivalent situation). And that is the issue which should be resolved.

I object to this for several reasons:

1: It is not based on facts. You are making an unwarranted assumption about my moral/ethical framework which is not supported by evidence. You make no attempt to justify your statement and it must be seen purely as a prejudice of yours. It’s an attempt to force reality into your preconceived prejudices.

2: It is personally demeaning – and demonising. I certainly take it as a personal slight and I personally am pissed off with god botherers knocking on my door a treating me this way when they hear that I am not a theist.

3: It is arrogant. If you don’t understand another’s moral/ethical framework you talk to them, learn about it. It is arrogant to tell them what their framework is and what the basis of their moral decisions is.

4: It doesn’t help understanding or discussion. I personally believe you and I have the same basis for our moral/ethical frameworks and consequently our moral prescriptions are the same or similar on most issues. There are good objective reasons for this. However, if you think differently to me, the thing to do is discuss it and learn – not make unwarranted and demeaning assertions.

5: The scientific investigation of moral/ethics is something that interests me. I think humanity is making interesting progress in this area. Discussion of these issues certainly helps me clarify my own thinking on this. Such discussion is jeopardized by false, prejudiced and demeaning assertions such as my moral/ethical framework being “prescriptively indifferent.”

6: You should appreciate these points even if only from your own perspective. This sort of arrogant judgmentalism is one reason religious apologists are in such disrepute now. People are just pissed off with statements like this and will no longer put up with them. It’s one of the reasons for people turning away from religion today. We are no longer prepared to put up with the privileged position that religion has had where it is was protected from criticism but can make such horrible statements about others. A less judgmental and arrogant attitude on the part of religious leaders would help slow that trend.

But maybe it’s already too late.

Do you say the same for someone who is identified solely as a theist

Yes, in the original post I wrote “Christianity (and any other group which endorses prescriptive moral principles based on goals/values) has an ethical/moral framework which requires criticism of Hitler…” So I’m certainly not claiming that Hitler-criticising is consistent with the moral understanding of only me and my fellow Christians, but am also saying it (as I said) is consistent with the framework of “any other group which endorses prescriptive moral principles based on goals/values…”

It is personally demeaning – and demonising. I certainly take it as a personal slight…

I maintain that I was (to use the basketball metaphor) “playing the ball, not the man”. No personally demaning (let alone demonising!) comments have been made. I presented my understanding of the issue based on what interaction with atheists I’ve had. We simply have a disagreement. I am capable of making insulting comments, but I’ve not done so here.

It is arrogant. If you don’t understand another’s moral/ethical framework you talk to them, learn about it. It is arrogant to tell them what their framework is and what the basis of their moral decisions is.

Again, I’ve simply presented my current understanding based on what I’ve read and heard from people themselves. If I’ve misrepresented your position or someone else’s then please show me where – that is how discussion goes.

The scientific investigation of moral/ethics is something that interests me. (and) …discussion is jeopardized by false, prejudiced and demeaning assertions such as my moral/ethical framework being “prescriptively indifferent.”

On ‘scientific investigation of moral[s]/ethics’ and my comment about ‘prescriptive indifference’:

This will likely be at the heart of our disagreement (please indicate if otherwise). On your post on ‘objective morality’, even some of your fellow atheists (Iapetus, Nick) point out the ever-important distinction between science as a descriptive mode of analysis, and ethics as a prescriptive field. The is/ought distinction (see also ‘fact’/’value’ distinction) is key to our conversation. My current understanding is that any notion of (objective/true) ‘prescription’ would be false in your view?

My current understanding (nothing you –or any atheist I’ve ever met or read– have said or written indicates otherwise, but do fill me in if your views are different) is that one (near?) common thread among atheists is that they typically will see ethical values and goals (upon which moral opinions/ideas/principles are based) as 100% socially constructed. You are the only atheist I’ve read who has this view, yet at the same time claims there can be an ‘objective’ basis for morality.

Dale – the heart of our disagreement is that you have claimed that my moral/ethical framework is “prescriptively indifferent.” hence the insulting charge thta my criticism of Hitler is inconsistent with my moral/ethical framework. All else in your comment is a diversion.

You responsibility, surely, is to either withdraw that claim as being mistaken, or not well thought out. or to provide supporting evidence.

I have seen nothing in this line. Just an unsubstantiat6ed, bigoted claim which offends me, and many others.

So my challenge to you is to support your claim. Put up or shut up.

Again, whilst I will (and do) apologise for any offensive attacks/comments about any persons (which I contend I’ve not done), I’ll not apologise for criticising anyones’ views (as best I understand them). And again, as discussion go, if I’ve misrepresented a view, correct me. This is fairly simple.

As for my comment that your moral framework is ‘prescriptively indifferent’, I’ve already offered (just above) further comments as to why this is my (current) understanding of your view (see particularly the discussion about the prescriptive/descriptive distinction). Rather than pretending I’m insulting you as a person, why not point out why the comment is wrong?

In other words, if I’m so grossly wrong, and you are to be included in the set of persons who endorse “prescriptive moral principles based on goals/values”, then please help me to correct my current understanding of your views.

I have yet to see any explanation of you charge that my moral/ethical framework is prescriptively indifferent – only the bald assertion. Now I know this isn’t true, my mates do. I thought you did. But I was wrong about you.

You obviously prefer you own stories to objective evidence about me and others. Chauvinistic theological rubbish, in other words/

So I am pointing out that your comment is wrong because it just doesn’t coincide with reality. That my actions, moral decisions, etc. demonstrate that I do have a prescriptive moral outlook. I can therefore make my own moral judgements accordingly.

Now you may understand prescriptive differently to others. But you have stated it quite clearly my outlook “does not prescribe their criticism of Hitler any more (or less) than it prescribes their support of Hitler.”

And you have a cheek to put this back on me. That I must be guilty until I can prove myself innocent. This is like stating that a person of different race or gender is inferior. And that a racist/sexist has the right to continue to assert that until the individual can prove they aren’t inferior.

You are not criticising my views at all. You have not referred to any of my views on Hitler. You have made a bald assertion about my ability to make moral judgements.

That is arrogant and insulting. So of course I take it personally

How can one discuss the finer points of moral perspective when that derogatory assertion is in the air..

Wow, you seem pretty bent on insisting that I get a kick out of being nasty? Quickly, a patently obvious correction:

You are not criticising my views at all. You have not referred to any of my views on Hitler. You have made a bald assertion about my ability to make moral judgements. (emphasis in original)

Yet I wrote the following in the original post (did you forget?): “Clearly, atheists are able to make criticisms of Hitler… …clearly any statement made that atheists are not able to make criticisms of Hitler are [sic] false” (emphasis here)

I have never denied that atheists ‘can’ and ‘do’ make moral judgments, and I have not demeaned or insulted anyone. Discussion of moral justification, anyone? Or shall we continue this needless finger-pointing?

I think you may be reacting to (and/or misunderstanding) the phrase “moral/ethical framework”.

I’m NOT referring to a moral framework as merely a set of opinions or moral judgments. I’m talking about the assumed or reasoned values, goals and moral principles which underlie moral judgments. OF COURSE every person I know has a ‘framework’ in the sense of a set of opinions/judgments… But my post is clearly about what lies beneath.

Discussion? Or more finger pointing!?

Dale: This is what you said:
“Atheism, on the other hand (to my knowledge), has an ethical/moral framework which is (if I can say it like this) “prescriptively indifferent”, and therefore does not prescribe their criticism of Hitler any more (or less) than it prescribes their support of Hitler.”

Now I interpret that as meaning an inability to come to a specific stand on Hitler because the specific moral/ethical framwork does not provide a prescriptive approach to the moral issues involved. My reference to inability is pertaining to making a moral judgement based on moral standards.

This is what I am objecting to. You are trying to divert away from it. I call this jelly wrestling – a common theological tactic.

But in this case your statement is causing personal offense.

It’s an area people should not play theological games in.

Well you’ve interpreted that (despite the qualifier ‘to my knowledge’ and having signalled ‘if I can say it like this’) in the most anti-Ken way possible.

Again, it is patently obvious, Ken, that I clearly cannot be saying that atheists have an inability to come to various or specific stands on HItler. Atheists of all kinds can and do make moral judgments of all kinds based on moral standards of all kinds – Nowhere have I ever suggested otherwise. I’m not diverting or jelly wrestling, and I’m still baffled at your persistence in being offended. Dare we actually talk about how moral goals/values/principles are derived?? Or more insistence that I’m trying to be a jerk?

1: Because I am out of town till next week.

2: because one usually doesn’t discuss insults. South African racist (1970s) to a coloured person: “You are incapable of governing because you ar black”. Coloured person “That’s an insult. I you prepared to show me some respect and withdraw it.” Racist: “Why not discuss it?”

No wonder the ANC opted for armed struggle in South Africa.

1: I can wait :)
2: yep, those scenaros are exactly parallel. (cough)

But, for you to chew on until next week, allow me to hopefully bring further clarity to what I’m saying and what I’m not saying.

First, on “consistency with moral/ethical framework”:
I AM NOT saying that atheists don’t construct moral/ethical frameworks (and make moral/ethical judgments of various kinds), just like anyone else does.
I AM saying, however, that I don’t understand how atheists ‘connect the dots’ between their moral/ethical understanding/views about prescriptive ‘goals’/’values’/’principles’ and their prescriptive moral/ethical judgments.

Second, on “prescriptive indifference”:
I AM NOT saying that atheists are unable (i.e. without ability) to make prescriptive moral statements based upon prescriptive moral judgments.
I AM saying that (as far as I know!) atheistic views about the world/’reality’ in general, and about prescriptive goals/values/principles in particular, are such that these prescriptive moral statements/judgments which they make (i.e. ‘Hiter was wrong!’) cannot be said to be anything more than a constructed moral/ethical opinion – just like anyone else’s constructed moral/ethical opinion (including, i.e., the constructed moral/ethical opinion that ‘Hitler was right’ – or ‘Hitler? who cares?’ for that matter).

After all that, I’ll reiterate that these remain comments which seek to discuss moral/ethical theory and its practical, down-to-earth, everyday application, as opposed to seeking to demean or degrade Ken Perrot.

I am in the position of the coloured South Africa. When faced with bigotry I am not going to “discuss it”. I am going to fight against it.

To do otherwise is to lose my dignity.

The irony here is that you’ve not yet indicated why my comments are actually bigoted or offensive – apart from accusing me of saying the opposite of what I did say (see comments 14 & 15).

Clearly you’ve not understood the very comment you seem to be so insulted by. I would think discussion of that comment would be the most rational next course. In anticipation of that next course, I’ve layed out fairly clearly what I’m saying and NOT saying (comment 21), but you appear more interested in fighting than discussing.

Whenever you’re prepared to discuss the issue, please do so. Otherwise, we’re not getting anywhere.

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