Are There Absolutes?
and Who Determines
Good And Evil?

Mark Woodward

Please note: This was one of my very first letter discussions for PAM. Since then, I have learned much of importance. Among that is to document one’s sources. For neglecting to do this for the Washington section, I hereby retract the entire Mark Woodward collection — not for disagreeing with it (I don’t) but simply for lack of source documentation. — Cliff Walker, 2006

From: Mark Woodward
To: Positive Atheism
Subject: Positive Atheism, Cliff’s Writings
Date: Tuesday, September 28, 1999

Hi Cliff,

Do you believe in absolutes? Thanks for your time and consideration.

Mark Woodward

  

From: Positive Atheism
To: Mark Woodward
Subject: Re: Positive Atheism, Cliff’s Writings
Date: Tuesday, September 28, 1999

I don’t understand your question. It is too vague.

Also, I don’t “believe” anything.

Cliff Walker
“Positive Atheism” Magazine

  

From: Mark Woodward
To: Positive Atheism
Subject: Re: Positive Atheism, Cliff’s Writings
Date: Wednesday, September 29, 1999

Hi Cliff,

Please forgive my lack of specificity. My question is; As you understand things, are there any absolutes? For instance, are some actions inherently good or evil? Also, your response begs the question. Since you do not believe anything are you actually reading this letter at this moment in time, or do you not believe that? And do you believe that you sent your previous response? And if not, then why are we conversing? Your response has obviously got me troubled. I don’t know what to believe, though I suspect after some consideration I will believe something. Which in my feeble mind is better than not believing anything. I look forward to your response. Thanks for your time and consideration.

Mark Woodward

  

From: Positive Atheism
To: Mark Woodward
Subject: Re: Positive Atheism, Cliff’s Writings
Date: Wednesday, September 29, 1999

Also, your response begs the question. Since you do not believe anything are you actually reading this letter at this moment in time, or do you not believe that?

I did read the letter and am responding to it. There is no “faith” involved here. I have good reason to assume that your name is Mark Woodward (though you could be using someone else’s account because you don’t have your own computer). But your name is irrelevant to this dialogue.

  

And do you believe that you sent your previous response? And if not, then why are we conversing?

I know that I sent a response (you even included a copy of it in your reply to my response). If anyone has any doubts, I keep a copy of everything in my “Sent Items” folder, and nobody will find evidence of my having tampered with that folder because that has not happened.

Sometimes, I fall back and use the phrase “I believe” where I should have framed my statement in terms of whether something is likely, unlikely, or unknown. In my mind, it is better to think in terms of the likelihood of a claim being true. This is particularly pertinent when examining arguments and seeing if they make a strong case, a weak case, or an indeterminate case.

Sometimes an argument uses falsehood and must be rejected, though this does not necessarily mean that the point that person was arguing is not true, only that that person did not make his or her case. For example: A woman was arguing to me that Jesus was a historical figure and not pure myth. One of her points involved the Testimonium Flavianum of Josephus (Antiquities 18:63-64). I made a very strong case that the Testimonium was not written until about the time of Eusebius, who died in about 342, almost three hundred years after Josephus, the alleged author, was born.

My point here is this: Even though the argument for Jesus’s historicity cannot be made from the Testimonium, this does not prove that Jesus never existed. It only weakens the argument that he did exist. Historians and historical scholars such as Arthur Drews and G A Wells do not argue that Jesus never existed; what they argue is that the arguments used to show that he did exist are weak or invalid, making it likely that he did not exist. They state that the existence of the Christian religion can be explained without there having been a historical Jesus. They are not saying “There was no historical Jesus” but are disputing the claims that there was a historical Jesus.

I try to avoid using the word believe because of the common confusion between the meaning “think to be true” and the meaning that Christian theologians give it, the sense of a “saving faith” in Christ. Several Christians have declared that because I “believe” evolution to be true, I therefore have a form of faith and am not different from Christians, who have a “saving faith” in Christ. This rhetorical fallacy is called equivocation , which we describe in our FAQ, and I try to avoid the whole discussion by finding other words to express the fact that I think a proposition is either likely or true. I induce, I deduce, I accept, I think it likely, and I hold ethical values (and can argue their merits) — but I do not “believe.” Even though I occasionally fall back on that language and use the word believe in my speaking and writing. Howoever, this language (belief; believe; believing) does not precisely describe how my mind works and thinks.

To me, belief, a very precise synonym for faith, involves holding a proposition to be true despite the fact that no strong arguments can be made in favor of the proposition and that strong arguments can be made against it. An example of this is when someone says, “The idea that a god exists defies reason, so I believe on faith.”

  

Please forgive my lack of specificity. My question is; As you understand things, are there any absolutes? For instance, are some actions inherently good or evil?

I don’t think a case can be made that Plato’s famous question, “What is the good?” is a valid question. Richard Robinson discussed this question in detail in the opening pages of his 1964 book An Atheist’s Values. This book is so important to undestanding the the trap you're trying to lay here, a trap that a great many Evangelical Christians have themselves fallen into, that I took the time to convert this book to eText and post it in our website's We cannot, he argues, isolate something from its environment and determine if it is intrinsically good or intrinsically evil; good and evil only make sense when seen in relationship to something. It needs a context, in other words.

Instead, he argues, it is better to speak of good and evil choices. Since any good choice will result in some evil for someone, somewhere, the best approach is for me to make choices that result in the lowest overall evil — even if choosing the best overall good results in evil for myself. Seeking minimum evil is better than seeking maximum good, because it eliminates the problem of hedonism.

Since this is the only example you give regarding your question on absolutes, it is the only one to which I will speak. If you have any other examples, I will try to speak to those as well.

Cliff Walker
“Positive Atheism” Magazine

  

From: Mark Woodward
To: Positive Atheism
Subject: Re: Positive Atheism, Cliff’s Writings
Date: Thursday, September 30, 1999

Hey Clifford,

I’m glad to see we agree that some actions are evil and others good. My question to you is: What determines an action to be evil or good? What or who sets the standard? I look forward to your response.

Mark Woodward

  

From: Positive Atheism
To: Mark Woodward
Subject: Re: Positive Atheism, Cliff’s Writings
Date: Friday, October 01, 1999

Hey Clifford,

My name is not Clifford.

  

I’m glad to see we agree that some actions are evil and others good.

I said that some choices bring about more evil and less good than alternative choices. I never said anything about actions. I do not say that actions are evil or good, but that actions result in a combination of evil and good. The philosopher in me thinks it is more important to discuss actions as they bring about pain and premature death (indisputably tangible evils) than it is to discuss actions that bring about anything that could be called “good” (which almost always depends on the tastes of the individual or society involved).

It is the choosing of one alternative over another that determines whether that choice will bring about more evil than good or more good than evil. This decision is made based upon the situation, or the context. Usually, drawing a bead on a man’s forehead and pulling the trigger results in a tragic loss of life — a great evil. However, if the man in question is taking pot shots at innocent people, and one can stop this massacre by taking out the culprit, I don’t think either of us would hesitate to draw a bead and pull the trigger. The loss of the culprit’s life, an evil, is outweighed by the fact that he stops taking the lives of innocent people — which would be an even greater evil if it were to continue unchecked.

Sometimes the choice is tough because much evil will result regardless of which choice one makes; this is aggravated when we are forced to make the choice. Other times our choices are a “no-brainer” as they say; they are either obvious or are inconsequential.

I also said that to determine a choice to be intrinsically evil or intrinsically good, we would need to isolate it from its context, and we cannot do this.

  

What determines an action to be evil or good? What or who sets the standard?

[Please be aware that I discuss the following two issues, theft and abortion, only to provide examples of an easy decision and a difficult decision. I am not here opening the discussion to a debate on the merits or evils of abortion. I am merely reflecting on the issues involved for the purpose of showing abortion to be an example of an extremely difficult issue, as opposed to theft which is an extremely simple issue.]

  

To answer your question, we set the standards for community behavior because this is our society. Our Constitution was established upon the authority of “We, the people”; I fully agree with this decision of the Constitution’s framers. As a society, we can and do agree that certain actions are not to be tolerated: the citizens are forbidden to do certain things; the government is forbidden to do certain things.

Some issues can be argued with great clarity: A person who thinks it is okay to steal must, to be consistent, advocate that it is okay for others to steal from him or her. If we agree, as a society, that it is okay to steal, then the advantages gained from theft are easily and legitimately nullified when others steal from us. Thus, it is easy to make the case that we should never tolerate theft; laws against theft are never controversial.

Other issues aren’t as easy to clarify. Does abortion result in great evil? Yes. Would making it a crime result in less evil? This is hard to say: some abortions would be prevented but some would procure clandestine abortions. Also, many women and health providers would be subject to prosecution, and other women would die from inferior abortion procedures and from pregnancy. America’s botched War on Drugs (and her equally botched Prohibition experiment) have shown us that making a controversial activity illegal does not necessarily reduce the activity.

Meanwhile, it is not clear whether a fetus is the same as a human being, and it is not clear where the woman’s rights end and the fetus’s rights begin. We also must take into consideration the grave risks to the planet due to overpopulation.

First, it can be shown that prohibiting abortion would not necessarily reduce the incidence of abortion (especially since no anti-choice activists have publicly advocated prosecuting the mother for murder — though some may have ulterior motives in keeping this desire secret). Secondly, we cannot agree, as a society, whether a fetus has the same rights as a viable human (the Bible even differentiates between the negligent causing of a miscarriage [Exodus 21: 22-24] and the negligent causing of the death of a viable human [Deuteronomy 19:1-7]). Thirdly, the evils caused by the decision to prosecute abortion as murder could conceivably outweigh the evils caused by the decision to allow abortion.

Because of these things, and because of the extremely controversial nature of this issue (in that this not a cut-and-dried question), we need to take extreme care in deciding how to address this problem. Do we prosecute abortion, knowing that this would not prevent it from happening, that this would cause a different kind of suffering, and that failure to address overpopulation could eventually impair everyone’s prospects for survival? Do we allow abortion during a certain phase of pregnancy and under certain circumstances? Do we allow abortion during all phases of pregnancy? Do we allow abortion (under one or the other set of circumstances) and at the same time set up vigorous programs promoting awareness of other birth control options and making adoption a desirable alternative? Does personal Liberty mean the same to us today that it did to Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and the other founders of the United States of America? These are not easy questions to answer.

Because the American anti-choice movement has severely stigmatized the position against abortion, I do not advertise my antipathy toward abortion very often or very loudly; however, as an adopted child, I think abortion causes great evil. This does not mean that I advocate prosecuting abortion as murder. I don’t. I think that when a question cannot be decided, we should always opt for more personal Liberty and less government control over the lives of individuals. Thus, I think prosecuting abortion would cause more harm and bring less good than would allowing it under specific conditions.

If I had the mythical powers of a god in that I could effect a situation without even snapping my fingers or waving a wand, I would effect the following situation: (1) We would not prosecute abortion as murder and would not jeopardize the licenses or careers of abortion providers; (2) We would make it more advantageous for a woman to decide to carry the fetus to term and either to raise the child or place it up for adoption than to procure an abortion, and we would do this at public expense; (3) We would allow private organizations to raise funds to pay for abortions of poor people and would not provide abortions at public expense (simply because so many Americans object to abortion); (4) We would openly and freely disseminate accurate information about birth control to prevent pregnancies in the first place (including truthful, nonmythical information about the IUD, which prevents conception and does not cause abortion), would do this at the public expense, and would do this in all public schools and in all public help agencies.

I think more pro-choicers would agree to these or similar restrictions and conditions were it not for the fact that the anti-choicers have severely stigmatized the anti-abortion position and have driven most pro-choicers to an extreme pro-choice position solely to protect the right to have an abortion at all (which we fear losing even for cases of severe genetic defects, rape, and incest). Were it not for this stigma and this fear, most pro-choicers would be much more moderate in their position and would be more likely to agree to abortion with restrictions.

  

To summarize: We, as a society, make decisions as to how certain things will be done in our society and which acts will be forbidden. Not only are we fully capable of working these problems out on our own, but we must work out these problems if we are to survive and have any quality of life whatsoever.

Humankind is a social animal which evolved from a long line of social animals (all primates are predominantly social with the exception of the orangutan). The human spends a greater fraction of its life as a helpless child, requiring care and nurturing from the parent, than any other known animal. It is this very social structure, with its caring and nurturing, that has given us the evolutionary advantage to survive; humans do not fit the survival-of-the-fittest model that is popularly but falsely associated with the notion of evolution.

Cliff Walker
“Positive Atheism” Magazine

  

From: Mark Woodward
To: Positive Atheism
Subject: Re: Positive Atheism, Cliff’s Writings
Date: Friday, October 01, 1999

Hi “Cliff”,

I just read your response and can’t find the answer to the simple question of “Who or what determines good or evil?”. I see where you stated societies determine under what set of circumstances they will operate, but I don’t see an answer to my question. Using your example: In my mind abortion is evil, In the minds of pro-killers it’s not. By what standard does each of these groups arrive at a decision as to whether it is evil? I think cannibalism is evil, Jeffrey Dahlmer and a few crazy Africans deep in the bush of a far away land don’t. Which is it, and who decides? Not society. If I was on safari and they ate me I and my family would find it evil, they would find it delicious. One of us is wrong, or is there no such thing as an absolute truth? I look forward with great eagerness to your response. Thanks for your time and consideration.

Mark Woodward

  

From: Positive Atheism
To: Mark Woodward
Subject: Re: Positive Atheism, Cliff’s Writings
Date: Friday, October 01, 1999

I just read your response and can’t find the answer to the simple question of “Who or what determines good or evil?”.

I answered the question appropriately, considering that the question itself is invalid: it presupposes that a “who” or a “what” determines good or evil, and then asks me to choose between the two presuppositions.

(Perhaps I should have simply pointed out that your question was invalid and asked you to recast it.)

In a society, it is the society or its leadership that determines which behaviors are compulsory, allowed, or forbidden, but we all know that this is not necessarily a measure of good and evil. The best societies know better to pronounce something as good or evil, but stick to pronouncing what is allowed or forbidden.

I showed that good and evil best describe choices, and that making these choices is not always easy because each choice can result in some good and some evil.

If we cannot determine good from evil, so that we need a god to tell us right from wrong, then how do we know that what the god tells us is right or wrong? How do we even know if we have chosen the true god from among the over 5,000 mutually exclusive gods that humankind has endorsed?

If we can tell good from evil on our own (to the point where we can determine if we have chosen the true god from among the hoaxes), then why do we even need a god to tell us right from wrong?

   

I think cannibalism is evil, Jeffrey Dahlmer and a few crazy Africans deep in the bush of a far away land don’t. Which is it, and who decides? Not society. If I was on safari and they ate me I and my family would find it evil, they would find it delicious.

If you visit a nation where cannibalism is allowed or mandated, those are the risks you take. I will hedge my bet by remaining only in countries where to kill me is at least a crime.

Cannibals don’t eat humans because they find them delicious. They eat humans because the tribal fetish (primitive religion) says that by eating certain body parts of the leader of an enemy, one takes on the heroic characteristics of that enemy, or sometimes prevents that enemy from attaining afterlife. It’s a religious ceremonial thing, not a culinary thing. Most humans (all but the sickest and most desperate) have a natural revulsion to eating human flesh, and it takes a religious leader to whip people up into a superstitious frenzy before they will be convinced to eat human flesh.

Only very occasionally do you find people eating human flesh because that is the only way they can survive. The Donner Party ate their dead in the Sierra Nevada Mountains during the winter of 1846–47. I know this story because I used to live near Donner Pass when I was a kid. In Chile in 1972, sixteen members of a Uruguayan soccer team survived via cannibalism for 70 days after their airliner crashed in the Andes Mountains. The Bible relates instances where people became so hungry that they allegedly ate their own children. The Bible deity even pronounces cannibalism for sustenance as one of the curses in Deuteronomy. According to the myth, the Bible god commanded, as a punishment for sin, that He would put people in a position to eat their own children.

Instances of cannibalism for sustenance are extremely rare in history, and most cannibalism is done for religious ceremony or superstition. If your religion mandated that you eat human flesh or drink human blood for ceremonial reasons, would you do it? Would you do it if you thought your god had commanded you to do it?

Also, if you were on a life raft with two others, and one of you died from, say, heat exhaustion, would you allow that the other two of you should starve to death? Or would you consider sustaining yourselves with the flesh of the dead person? Remember, you’re in an emergency situation and the “victim” is already dead. If you and I were the survivors on that raft, and I wanted to sustain myself but you refused to eat human flesh, would you prevent me from doing so and force me to join you in death?

Furthermore, do you not eat the body and drink the blood of Christ, even if symbolically? (Your e-mail address betrays the likelihood that you are Christian, as does some of the language you use.) How is the Christrian Communion ceremony not cannibalistic, even in spirit? The same fetish that prompts a South American cannibal to eat the heart of his enemy, thinking this will cause him to take on his enemy’s characteristics of strength and courage prompts a Christian to eat the body and drink the blood of Christ for the purpose of taking on the characteristics of Christ. It’s the same fetish.

Finally, was Jeffrey Dahmer a sick Christian or what? (Yes, he is one of yours, and you get to celebrate Communion with him in Heaven if Christianity is true!) Jeffrey Dahmer was not wicked, he was sick. A healthy person will not eat the body and drink the blood of another human — not even for ritualistic reasons! Lock him up and throw away the key? By all means! Nevertheless, he was a very sick individual — not an opportunistic exploiter.

Cliff Walker
“Positive Atheism” Magazine

  

From: Mark Woodward
To: Positive Atheism
Subject: Re: Positive Atheism, Cliff’s Writings
Date: Saturday, October 02, 1999

Hi Cliff,

Your double speak and constant dancing around the questions I pose are growing tiresome.

Come on now....How can you answer a question appropriately if it is invalid? Pleeeeease...Because you don’t like a question or are uncomfortable by where it leads you does not make it invalid. Obviously there is a standard by which good and evil is determined. To deny good or evil is to be intellectually dishonest. For someone who prides himself on his own wisdom and intelligence to deny the existence of something that a 5 year old can see is either sad or a sham. Cliff, don’t be so blinded by your own religion/beliefs that you hide from simple truths. Now, I encourage you to go back to your thinking chair and seriously consider good and evil with and open mind and a sincere desire to get to the truth and not to bolster beliefs already held which may be flawed. By what standard do societies determine allowable actions? You can’t escape this question and still be considered an honest thinker. You cannot hide behind wordy arguments that dance around the question. This is an easy question if you’re honest, difficult if you’re not. Choices do not define good or evil, in fact it’s the opposite, choices are defined as good or evil. That argument is ridiculous on its face. “ I choose this action to be good or this one to be evil.” Are you kidding me? How ludicrous does that sound?

Also, nice dissertation on cannibalism. That, of course was not the point. Just another attempt to skirt the real question. What does the history of cannibalism matter except to make you feel intellectually superior somehow while you miss the simplest point. I fear you have been educated way, way beyond your intelligence.

I also don’t appreciate you making judgments regarding my christianity. That is God’s domain, not yours. I have been polite to you. (until now of course) If you had any sense of humor you might see that what you consider rude is an attempt to lighten the mood. It is ok to laugh. In fact, now that I think about it....I do not believe we can continue our discourse until you apologize to me for your holier than thou behavior. When the time comes that your are ready to act like a civilized thinking man and apologize to me then I will be more than happy to listen to you. The next thing I want to hear from you is:

“Mark, I’m sorry, you were right. I was rude. I won’t do it again. Now let me answer your question of good and evil honestly.”

That shouldn’t be to difficult for a smart guy like yourself. I look forward to your timely response.

Mark Woodward

  

From: Positive Atheism
To: Mark Woodward
Subject: Re: Positive Atheism, Cliff’s Writings
Date: Saturday, October 02, 1999

Your double speak and constant dancing around the questions I pose are growing tiresome.

But you have yet to even attempt to make your case. You merely accuse me of “double speak” and “intellectual dishonesty” without showing examples of what you mean.

  

Pleeeeease...Because you don’t like a question or are uncomfortable by where it leads you does not make it invalid. Obviously there is a standard by which good and evil is determined. To deny good or evil is to be intellectually dishonest. For someone who prides himself on his own wisdom and intelligence to deny the existence of something that a 5 year old can see is either sad or a sham.

You’re sounding desperate, here.

Could it be that you cannot make your case using a reasoned argument?

  

Cliff, don’t be so blinded by your own religion/beliefs that you hide from simple truths.

First, I have no religious beliefs. For you to say that I do makes it appear that you are trying to reduce me to the level of a believer. (You are most certainly trying to reduce me to some level!)

Second, how can you say I am trying to hide from “simple truths” when you have yet to even attempt to make a case for what you call “truth”? All you have done is make statements, ask trick questions, and now engage in emotional name-calling; you have provided absolutely no attempt at reasoned argument to defend your stated postition.

   

now that I think about it....I do not believe we can continue our discourse until you apologize to me for your holier than thou behavior. When the time comes that your are ready to act like a civilized thinking man and apologize to me then I will be more than happy to listen to you. The next thing I want to hear from you is:

“Mark, I’m sorry, you were right. I was rude. I won’t do it again. Now let me answer your question of good and evil honestly.”

It is wrong for me to apologize when I do not know what I have done — much less, done wrong!.

Please provide an example and make your case that (1), I exhibited “holier than thou behavior,” and (2), doing what I did (what you call “holier than thou behavior”) is wrong and it warrants an apology. Please include your definition for “holier than thou behavior” and provide a standard or reference (an absolute?) which agrees with you that what I did was wrong and warrants apology.

Meanwhile, I accuse you of bluffing for the purpose of distracting from the fact that you have provided no arguments in favor of your position whatsoever, but have merely repeated statements.

Cliff Walker
“Positive Atheism” Magazine

  

From: Mark Woodard
To:
Subject: Still waiting...
Date: Friday, October 15, 1999

Hey Cliffy,

I’ve been looking and looking but can’t seem to locate that apology you were going to send. I know as an educated man you wish to continue our dialogue and will do everything a civilized intellect would do. I look forwarding to forgiving you so that we can continue trying to indoctrinate each other.

Mark Woodward

PS Have a nic day....:)

  

From: Positive Atheism
To: Mark Woodard
Subject: Re: Still waiting...
Date: Friday, October 15, 1999

Hey Cliffy,

Again, my name is Cliff.

I’ve been looking and looking but can’t seem to locate that apology you were going to send.

Quit flattering yourself.

I asked you to explain to me what I did wrong that warrants an apology, and you suddenly became silent. I told you that I need to be aware of what I did wrong before I can apologize, and that it is wrong for me to apologize if I am not aware that I did anything wrong. (Frankly, I don’t think you can explain what it is that I did wrong, that is, I don't think you are capable of explaining why it is that what I did was wrong.) Nevertheless, after all this silence from your end, you now claim you have “been looking and looking” — yet you never explained to me what I did wrong.

This stunt has the same structure as did your trick question of a few letters ago, when you asked me, “Who or what determines good or evil?”

  

I know as an educated man you wish to continue our dialogue and will do everything a civilized intellect would do.

What is that supposed to mean?

Are you now trying to flatter me as well?

  

I look forwarding to forgiving you so that we can continue trying to indoctrinate each other.

I do not look forward to further conversations with you at all. At all. You first wrote to me; I did not approach you. I responded because it is our policy that I respond to all e-mail requesting a response (within reason).

First you ask trick questions and then accuse me of dishonesty for refusing to fall into your little traps.

Now, you say I am “trying to indoctrinate” you. I don’t care what anybody believes: speak for yourself when you use this term. Your use of this term speaks volumes about your tactics, your likely motives for resorting to those tactics, and why it is that — from all appearances — you display a pronounced disrespect for truthfulness.

Indoctrinate, indeed!

Cliff Walker
“Positive Atheism” Magazine

  
  

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