Duck Commander’s Candor and the Moral Argument

Duck Commander Phil Robertson is in the public eye again. God truly knows I love him. I really do. I love Duck Dynasty. It’s hilarious. I admire the candor of Phil Robertson and his willingness to call things as he honestly sees them. Honestly, most of the time he’s right when it comes to the essence of his message. In this case, since he’s utilizing an apologetic argument in a public forum, I’d like to examine the argument and his delivery and see if he was doing the argument justice. Below is a transcript of what he said.

“I’ll make a bet with you. Two guys break into an atheist’s home. He has a little atheist wife and two little atheist daughters. Two guys break into his home and tie him up in a chair and gag him. And then they take his two daughters in front of him and rape both of them and then shoot them and they take his wife and then decapitate her head off in front of him. And they can look at him and say, ‘Isn’t it great that I don’t have to worry about being judged? Isn’t it great that there’s nothing wrong with this? There’s no right or wrong, now is it dude?’

Then you take a sharp knife and take his manhood and hold it in front of him and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be something if this [sic] was something wrong with this? But you’re the one who says there is no God, there’s no right, there’s no wrong, so we’re just having fun. We’re sick in the head, have a nice day.’

If it happened to them, they probably would say, ‘Something about this just ain’t right.’”

Well, that’s quite an example. An atheist family being brutally raped and murdered is very politically incorrect to imagine in a public setting. However, Phil has never been one for abiding by the rules of the tyrannical PC police. If Phil wants to say it, you better believe he’s going to say it! Some of the article titles published by public media outlets that have reported on Phil’s comments have been titled, “Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson Attacks Atheists at a Florida Event Using Rape”, “Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson condemns atheists at prayer event”, “Phil Robertson’s Appalling Atheist Fantasy”, “Duck Dynasty’s’ Phil Robertson Imagines Brutal Attack on Atheists in Graphic Speech.” Oh boy. I’m afraid many of the ‘journalists’ may be contextually challenged when evaluating Phil’s remarks in their entirety. Or they may be entirely focused on misleading their audience. That’s a possibility too.

It seems that many in the media don’t like Phil. His appearance seemingly reeks of ignorance. That dirty disheveled hair, camouflage clothing, and a Bible in his back pocket, are immediate red flags for the modern day secularist. These red flags translate into a target on the back of Phil Robertson’s head. Everyone seems to be looking for Phil to slip up and say something controversial so they can nail him for it publically. For example, Phil commented on his opposition to sexual sin to GQ which caused quite the controversy with A & E and the public at large. In the end, A & E realized that Phil was worth the cultural liability and kept him on Duck Dynasty. Smart move A & E.

However, regardless of Phil’s redneck appearance and his often unorthodox way of turning a phrase, was Phil’s message valid or was it fallacious? That’s what I’ll be examining.

The Moral Argument

Phil’s fictional scenario of two guys breaking into an atheists’ home and proceeding to do awful things to the atheist family was meant to illustrate that the atheist would consider what the criminals did was objectively wrong. As Phil said, the atheist would say, ‘Something about this just ain’t right.’ All people, atheists and theists alike, wouldn’t go through a tragedy that Phil described and feel like what happened was morally permissible. We would all acknowledge how morally bankrupt such actions would be, which was Phil’s point. He’s not saying that atheists can’t acknowledge objective morality despite what the secular media has been irresponsibly repeating. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. One of the primary points of the illustration is to acknowledge that atheists are capable of acknowledging objective morality. However, the main premise of his fictional tragedy is that the atheist doesn’t have the philosophical framework to make sense of how objective moral values and duties existence at all.

The moral argument goes like this,

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

Many prominent atheists have conceded as much. Below are a couple examples of such admissions,

Richard Dawkins describes in River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life,

“In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. . . . DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music” (p. 133)

Atheist William Provine, a scholar of the history of evolutionary biology at Cornell University, said in a debate with Philip Johnson,

“Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear — and these are basically Darwin’s views. There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end of me. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will for humans, either”

Atheist philosopher Michael Ruse wrote in Evolutionary Theory and Christian Ethics,

“The position of the modern evolutionist is that humans have an awareness of morality because such an awareness of biological worth. Morality is a biological adaptation no less than are hands and feet and teeth. Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory. I appreciate when someone says, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself,’ they think they are referring above and beyond themselves. Nevertheless, such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction, . . . and any deeper meaning is illusory” (pp. 262-269)

When looking at what Phil said in its proper philosophical context, he’s absolutely right. Under an atheistic worldview, a heinous criminal could say without being objectively morally wrong, ‘Isn’t it great that I don’t have to worry about being judged? Isn’t it great that there’s nothing wrong with this? There’s no right or wrong, now is it dude?’ The existence of objective morality is a tremendously convincing argument for God. One of the biggest advocates for this argument was C.S. Lewis, and the argument personally had a transformative affect on his conversion to Christianity from atheism. In the classic Mere Christianity, Lewis wrote,

“My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?”

So many unbelievers fall into this pit of confusion about morality. They think the existence of injustice is positive proof of the nonexistence of God, but where do they get the notion of objective justice? Oddly enough, they couldn’t have an objective standard of morality without God, which defeats the purpose of their complaint that God is unjust. As Christian apologist Frank Turek rightfully says, “atheists have to steal from God to fight against Him.”

Phil’s Candor

Many people are turned off by it. Some are turned on by it. Personally, I recognize Phil’s rough personality and don’t look too deep into his seemingly abrasive message to draw hasty conclusions that may not be right. Many perceive his delivery as a little too abrasive and harsh, and I would sympathize with some of those people on some of the comments (including this one) that Phil has made in the past. However, Phil has made it excessively clear in all forums that he loves God and he loves his neighbor. While some people may take Phil’s words out of context to support a political agenda against him, I would challenge anyone to advance an honest case against Phil Robertson that accurately illustrates that Phil is a hateful, narrow-minded, intolerant, bigot.

Does that mean that I would have approached the very same situation with the same gruffness as Phil? I personally take a softer approach. While I feel that Phil is generally knowledgeable about the topics he speaks on, I feel that his messages sometimes gets lost in transit because of the gruff delivery. His candor sometimes becomes a liability rather than an asset to his ministry. While I can see how it can serve as both, it would be wise for Phil to proceed forward with caution and clarity when using controversial illustrations that are highly susceptible to being twisted and warped to suit a negative PR campaign against him and his enterprise.

Conclusion

Phil is a good man, but he is undoubtedly gruff. He doesn’t pretend to be a soft touchy-feely preacher. If you want to hear the raw unfiltered truth, Phil is your guy. However, does his candor mute his message? Sometimes yes. Unbelievers are going to be upset at the way he delivered this example. Why? Because it specifically focused on an atheist family! The atheists were victims of the crime in his scenario which made atheists feel somewhat victimized. That’s what motivated the aggressive and misleading article titles about this situation that I referenced earlier. Obviously, as I explained earlier, an honest examination of Phil’s remarks would invalidate the legitimacy of the misleading articles attempting to disparage Phil for using this illustration.

In the end, we must be careful about what we say and how we say it. Maybe instead of using an “atheist family”, Phil could have just referenced a “family” and examined how impotent the atheistic worldview is in condemning the objective evil in this fictional tragedy. The family doesn’t necessarily have to be an “atheist family” in order to effectively make the point. In fact, there are many other ways to illustrate the very same point, likely to a greater and more fulfilled ends. We should strive to deliver truth without compromising compassion, and sometimes Phil can deliver a message that is lopsided towards truth without the components of compassion that are necessary when evangelizing to the lost. Regardless of his candid delivery, Phil is a brother in Christ and we should pray for the success of his ministry.

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8 responses to “Duck Commander’s Candor and the Moral Argument

  1. While I agree with your concerns about a tactical approach, Robertson’s illustration is reminiscent of Brian Godawa’s short film, “Cruel Logic” where a serial killer kidnaps an atheist professor and engages in a debate over why he shouldn’t kill him.

  2. I agree with everything in the post, but I don’t think there would be a discussion unless Phil had been so gruff. As much as it makes me wince, Phil’s gruffness does attract attention to his views. I’m not sure if this is good or bad, but I tend to lean toward good since Phil is preaching the gospel. Possibly something like what Paul was referring to in Philippians 1:18, “in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is preached; and in this I rejoice, yes, and will rejoice.”

  3. Hi Alan. As an Atheist, I agree that the gleeful jumping on Phil has been overexhuberant to say the least. He never said that this was an appealing fantasy to him. He was just making a point about objective morality, which I think many of us understood, even in the argument’s rather disheveled form.There are bad thinkers in every realm, Atheist and Theist alike.

    Here’s the problem though. We can all agree that certain things are wrong and other things are right (as Phil pointed out), or at least permissible in the context of society. You and I would not debate for even a second that stealing, murder, or rape is just flat-out wrong and reprehensible behavior. We could probably go through a list of 1,000 activities and we’d most likely agree on 950+ of them, the final 50 or so being relatively minor things like “is it okay to tell a little white lie to make someone feel better?”

    I was on a safari not too long ago, and there was a herd of Elephants. Sadly, one of the young ones had lost the majority of his trunk somehow. The safari guides believed it was the result of an alligator attack when he was really young. Elephants rely on their trunks to eat and drink, which they need to do for 18+ hours a day just to get sufficient calories to survive. As we watched, other elephants in the herd would rip up grass and feed the injured one as he couldn’t feed himself. Keep in mind that these elephants needed to spend almost all their own time feeding themselves just to keep alive, yet they sacrificed some of that to help this one survive. Why would they do this? Do they believe in God and an afterlife, which one can attain through acts of moral kindness? Why not just let him die?

    Perhaps there is a God and he does guide the actions of some (or all) animals, but I don’t think that’s the case. This elephant is closely related to the others in the herd and his survival will help propagate the genes that they all share. Of course they don’t know this, but behavioral instincts evolved to favor the passing along of beneficial traits. In this case, the altruistic trait of wanting to help an injured friend/relative would pass along if any of these elephants reproduce, including the injured one. If they let him die, that’s one less opportunity for those altruistic traits to pass along. There is a clear survival advantage gained from altruism at the genetic level.

    This elephant example is but one of many similar observations in the animal kingdom. I use it only to demonstrate, not prove a point.

    Altruism and morality need no deity to explain their existence. They make perfect sense even in the absence of God. As humans, we live in a far more complex society than elephants, so far more complex rules of conduct necessarily have evolved, though not perfectly.

    I certainly cannot prove that God does not exist. One cannot prove the non-existence of anything. Nor am I interested in trying to convert people to my way of thinking. I would only hope that you would practice the same things that you ask of us. We shouldn’t assume the worst about Phil Robertson despite his less than tactful approach. Nor should you assume the worst of us simply because we disagree on the source of moral values whose existence we do agree upon.

    Thanks for your time. I do appreciate your insights here.

    • Christopher,

      I truly appreciate your approach. You’ve interacted with my article with tact and generosity, and for that I thank you.

      Next, you’ve pointed to an example within nature where an elephant was exhibiting altruistic behavior, and from this observation you inferred that “altruism and morality need no deity to explain their existence”. This inference is false. Let me explain; simply observing altruistic behavior within nature doesn’t explain how an objective moral standard exists without God. Without an objective moral standard, how could anyone identify any actions as morally good or bad? It’s true that certain behaviors, like the behaviors you described with the elephants, would be more conducive to survival than others, but there would be no transcendent standard that could identify those actions as objectively good. So, objective morality would necessarily hinge upon the existence of a transcendent standard by which to measure all actions. Without a universal moral code, all actions would be measured in a subjective manner.

      I certainly hope that I haven’t given you, or any unbeliever/skeptic, the impression that I somehow think the worst of them in any way. In fact, I think very highly of honest unbelievers/skeptics. It’s when unbelievers (of the New Atheist brand) become hostile and dishonest that my respect for their material begins to wither. If my article or blog has made you feel like I think less of you or the unbelieving community, I extend my sincerest apologies.

      Thank you for taking your time to share your thoughts on my blog. They have added tremendously to this discussion.

      Alan

  4. Hi Alan;

    Thanks for the kind reply. It sounds like the root of our disagreement lies in the existence (or non-existence) of objective morality. I haven’t yet been convinced that it actually does exist. Arguments along the lines of “If X is true, then there can be no objective morality, therefore X must not be true,” seem to be predicated on the existence of an objective morality.

    For the most part, if you look around the world, you’ll find that Atheists behave pretty morally. Countries that are overwhelmingly Atheist often have very low crime rates (some of the Scandinavian countries come to mind). If I’m understanding you correctly, the behavior of those people would be dictated by an understood objective morality that was necessarily codified by a universal lawgiver. They just aren’t acknowledging that as the source of their moral code. Please correct me if I have misrepresented or misunderstood you in any way.

    But what if this objective morality is only an illusion? What if it’s really subjective? In order to live and thrive as social beings, certain behaviors needed to be either encouraged or discouraged for the good of the group. These become rather obvious over time and would appear to us as objectively “right” or “wrong” or maybe “permissible” and “impermissible.” We can agree on the big ones (murder, stealing, etc), but I might disagree with a devout Christian over whether it’s morally better to attend church on Sunday, or to spend the time feeding the homeless instead. That disagreement probably can’t be breached, so who’s right?

    Taking such things to an extreme as Phil has done doesn’t prove the existence of objective morality. It only proves that we all have an innate sense that certain behaviors are reprehensible. But where does that sense come from?

    I suppose that’s the Million dollar question. 🙂

    Since your argument seems to hinge on the existence of an objective morality (again, if I understand correctly), can you share the thought process that you originally used to come to that conclusion? As I haven’t reached that conclusion myself, I’m curious as to how you did.

    Thanks again for the discussion. I wish I saw more of this type of thing. It seems sadly all too rare.

    • Christopher,

      Great insights my friend. You were very charitable to my position and reiterated the contents of my position clearly and concisely. I thank you for being contentious in your response.

      From what I gathered from your response, you seem to take an agnostic position on whether morality is objective or subjective. The moral argument is designed to validate the conclusion that God exists. If all the premises of the moral argument are valid, the conclusion must necessarily follow. It seemed like you were skeptical of premise two (i.e. objective moral values exist) partially due to the seemingly astute ability of the human race to acknowledge what behaviors are beneficial for society and which behaviors are not. You seem to advance the idea that subjective morality would be explanatorily adequate in describing our moral behaviors. I truly admire your honesty and humility when describing your feelings towards subjective/objective morality. Many (not all) atheists desperately cling to the reality of objective morality while ignoring the philosophical inconsistencies of their position. It seems like you truly understand that subjective morality would necessarily follow from atheism and you’re willing to philosophically follow your worldview to its logical conclusions.

      Lastly, the moral argument doesn’t necessarily hinge upon the existence of objective morality. It necessarily hinges upon the existence of God. Without the existence of God, objective morality is a helpful illusion. God is the ontological source of objective morality. You asked a compelling question, “where do these senses come from?” If God does exist, we would fully expect people (believers and unbelievers) to largely acknowledge the absolute moral law written on our hearts. The uniform and unambiguous acknowledgement of certain rights and wrongs is the foundational reason for premise two. We all identify that the fictional tragedy that Phil spoke of was objectively evil. If someone said that this tragedy was only wrong from a subjective perspective, they’d saying that there could be a standard that someone may freely hold that permits for this type of evil behavior. However, people seem to universally acknowledge the objectivity of certain evils (rape, murder, torture, etc…) This experiential uniformity regarding morality demands an explanation that extends beyond our own subjective sensibilities. Subjectivism is not a liveable worldview because nobody loyally lives as though it’s true for good reason. If subjectivism was a reality, there wouldn’t be an absolute standard to judge any moral action at any time. The person who has a moral standard of killing and raping people couldn’t be objectively evil because everyone (i.e. the subjects) have different subjective standards and preferences of what morality should be. There would be no moral actions to measure against an unchanging standard. Personally, I feel strongly that if someone raped and killed my wife and daughters, I’m not going to merely react to their deaths as a product of subjective evil because the term “subjective” implies that it could be morbidly perceived as permissible in some context (and why would they be wrong if subjectivism is true?). The death of my wife and daughters in that way would be unquestionably evil in the most objective absolute sense. As far as I see it, without the existence of God, the argument wouldn’t have been developed to begin with.

      Please correct me if I’ve misrepresented your views in any way. I’m responding with a heart that seeks to advance fruitful dialogue rather than construct harmful ideological barriers. You’re absolutely right, these types of civil discussions among believers and nonbelievers are “sadly all too rare”. I hope that we can set an example, even in just a small way.

      Alan

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