Articles by Norman L. Geisler

President & CEO of Southern Evangelical Seminary

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Norman L. Geisler
President & CEO of Southern Evangelical Seminary
     Professor of Theology and Apologetics
     B.A., Wheaton College
     Th.B., William Tyndale College
     M.A. Wheaton Graduate School
     Ph.D., Loyola University, Chicago, IL
     Copyright 1993 by the Christian Research Institute
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"Forbidden Fruit: The Ethics of Humanism" by Paul Kurtz
(Prometheus Books, 1988) (a book review from the Christian
Research Journal, Fall, 1988, page 27, by Norman L. Geisler)
The Editor-in-Chief of the Christian Research Journal is
Elliot Miller.
*A Summary Critique*
    In this major work defending the ethics of secular
humanism, Dr. Paul Kurtz, author of _Humanist Manifesto II_
(1973), sets forth his goal "to show that _there can be an
objective and positive humanist basis for ethical conduct_"
(p. 17). He believes that a positive, objective ethic is
possible without God, for "we, not God, are responsible for
our destiny" (18).
    In the _Manifesto_ Kurtz had written: "No deity will
save us; we must save ourselves" (16). _Forbidden Fruit_ is
Kurtz's attempt to show how this is possible. Taking his
title consciously from Genesis 3, he affirms an ethic which
is "based on a scientific and naturalistic theory of nature
and human nature and is grounded in the rational knowledge
of good and evil" (16). He says boldly, "Eating of the fruit
of the tree of life gives us the bountiful enthusiasm for
living. The 'ultimate' value for the humanist is the
conviction that life can be found good in and of itself,"
that is, apart from God (240).
*No Need for God*
    According to Kurtz, "To ground ethics in God only pushes
skepticism one step backward and does not advance the
argument" (149). Furthermore, "many people who profess
belief in God neglect their moral duties and actually break
moral principles. Thus belief in God has proved time and
again to be an insufficient ground for guaranteeing moral
behavior" (149). (Kurtz fails to note that humanistic ethics
is notoriously ineffective in ensuring moral behavior.) He
adds that it is futile to base ethics in God, "for the God
of orthodox theism is no longer believable to the scientific
humanist" (238). For Kurtz, "it is an anthropomorphic
expression of conceit to believe that God created man in His
own image." On the contrary, "we created God in our image to
fulfill our dreams and hopes of eternity" (238). So "the
theist's world is only a dream world; it is a feeble escape
into a future that will never come" (243).
*No Need for God's Commands*
    Of course, if God does not exist, then it follows that
His command is not the basis for moral duty. According to
Kurtz, "to passively obey the Ten Commandments or the
injunctions of Jesus without being able to define or
evaluate such prescriptions is hardly to have attained
ethical awareness" (43). Furthermore, "fear of punishment or
hope of reward is hardly an _ethical_ reason to follow God's
commandments" (149). Indeed, Kurtz believes that "the
theist's argument is _immoral,_ for it abandons the moral
conscience for an authoritarian ground, and thus sidesteps
the content of the moral imperative itself" (150). "Ethical
principles cannot be deduced from the concept of God," for
"theists have 'deduced' any number of moral codes at
variance with those held by other believers" (72). (He does
not mention, of course, that humanists have the same
*Morality is Prescriptive and Objective*
    A Moral lawgiver is not the source of moral law. Rather,
says Kurtz, "we must create our own ethical universes" (18).
Ethics is, nonetheless, "normative" and "prescriptive" (55),
and "imperative" (150).* Kurtz rejects a purely subjective
approach to ethics and argues instead for an "objective"
ethic (65), which he calls "objective relativism." Some
moral principles are objective in that they are "expressions
of the collective ethical wisdom of the race" (73). Thus
there "are objective standards for judging the ethical
principles that govern our lives." He calls them
"objectively true" with "cross cultural dimensions." They
comprise "common moral decencies" and express "the deepest
wisdom of the human race" (80-81).
    Kurtz's catalogue of these objective moral principles
includes integrity, truthfulness, promise-keeping,
sincerity, honesty, trustworthiness, fidelity,
dependability, benevolence, good-will, nonmalfeasance,
beneficence, fairness, gratitude, accountability, justice,
tolerance, and cooperation (80-96). Where did all these
moral principles come from? Kurtz speculates that
     one can imagine a possible scenario in the dim past of
     our forbearers, when the glimmering of what I shall
     call the common moral decencies emerged: be kind and
     considerate to the members of your tribe; be honest and
     truthful; do not maim, injure, or harm them needlessly;
     be sincere and keep your promises, etc. (67-68)
*How Moral Principles Are Justified*
    Just how were all these moral principles derived and how
are they justified? They arose by trial and error over long
periods of time. They were justified by their results. "The
test of truth of these principles was their consequences,"
for "the tribes that developed such rules had less discord
and could better survive than those that did not." As anyone
can see, "it is far more beneficial for everyone to
cooperate; it works pragmatically in the long run" (68).
    In spite of the fact that Kurtz believes that results
determine rules, he does not wish to be called a utilitarian
(64). He says, "by referring to the test of consequences, I
do not mean simply the utilitarian greatest-happiness
principle." This is because, "if taken literally, this can
lead to unfortunate results. Can a majority, for example,
deny the rights to recalcitrant minorities, if this would
lead to the greatest good for the greatest number?" Kurtz
answers abruptly, "Surely not, for there are certain
principles and rights that should not be eliminated, no
matter how beneficial the results would be to the majority"
    Rather than one single utilitarian principle, Kurtz
argues that "the test of consequences is plural and not
singular, for we cherish many values and principles that we
wish to preserve....To seek to derive a single principle may
endanger the entire body of our value principles" (77).
Hence, he does not want individual rights to be swallowed up
in utilitarian ends. He would seem to be arguing more for
the greatest good for everyone than just the greatest good
for the majority.
*Moral Principles are General, not Universal*
    In spite of his belief in objective moral standards and
a desire to apply them trans-culturally, Kurtz emphatically
rejects any absolute or universal moral laws. "I am
unwilling to say that it is absolute or universal, for any
one principle may clash with others, and there may sometimes
be exceptions" (58). Thus moral duties are "_prima facie
general principles_ to which we are obligated in the sense
that we ought to follow them"(58).
    For Kurtz, however, there are no unconditional duties.
"One has a conditional, rather than a categorical duty; it
is more like a hypothesis than a dictate, amenable to
critical interpretation and appraisal before it is applied
in a concrete situation" (64). In this sense Kurtz's view is
not unlike another signatory of _Humanist Manifesto II,_
Joseph Fletcher, who contended that general moral principles
were only formal and contentless until they were filled in
with the "existential particularity of the situation."
Kurtz, however, stresses that "a general principle ought to
be followed unless good reasons are given to demonstrate why
it need not be" (64).
    Needless to say, there are many positive features to
this humanistic ethic. Let us consider a few of the most
obvious ones.
*Ethics is Objective*
    Confessionally, and to a large degree practically,
Professor Kurtz avoids the radical subjectivism of an A. J.
Ayer or a Jean Paul Sartre. Contrary to both emotivism and
existentialism, Kurtz does believe in objective, knowable,
and stateable moral principles. Indeed, many of these moral
principles are commendable. In fact, while pondering his
stated list of virtues, I could not help but note the
similarity with those common to great cultures that were
collated by C. S. Lewis in his famous appendix to _The
Abolition of Man._ It should not be surprising that an
avowed unbeliever can come up with such a noble list of
virtues. After all, God's moral law is "written on their
hearts" (Rom. 2:15).
*Ethics is Prescriptive*
    Also commendable is the confession that ethics is not
descriptive but prescriptive. He rightly rejects the
"is-ought fallacy" (74). Moral duty comes from an ought, not
an is. In other words, one cannot argue that what people
_are_ doing is what they _should_ be doing. Morality is
imperative, not just declarative; ought transcends is. In
this Kurtz is to be commended.
*Ethics is Realistic*
    Kurtz does not have his head in the sand. He realizes
that there are real moral conflicts. Even the best moral
principles sometimes clash with one another (58). Since he
does not accept the biblical doctrine of the depravity of
man (248), Professor Kurtz is overly optimistic about human
goodness. Yet in view of his tour of duty in World War II he
confesses: "My own personal experience of the crimes of
Hitler and his followers sears my memory." Admittedly, "the
most profound depths of human depravity have been revealed
in modern times: The Nazi era is one such testimony to human
evil" (249).
*Ethics is Pro Human*
    One unmistakable virtue of a humanistic ethic is its
stress on the dignity and value of human beings, and in
Kurtz's case _individual_ human beings. He is not defending
a radical socialism that swallows up individual rights. In
fact, he speaks loudly for "the right to life" (185), "the
right to learn" (190, 203), the right to freedom from
slavery (32, 69), women's rights (33), the right to humane
treatment for criminals (192), and the right to "informed
consent" in medical matters (217). Although he avoids the
unqualified use of "unalienable rights," he stresses that
"all human beings are equal in dignity and rights" (191).
Kurtz even goes so far as to say, "I must confess that I
would prefer to call them universal..." (185), but he
resists the temptation, at least in principle.
    In spite of the many fine features of this attempt by a
noted humanist to have a consistent humanistic ethic apart
from God, there are some serious, even fatal, problems with
Kurtz's approach.
*The Unavoidability of Moral Absolutes*
    Kurtz's careful language and many protests
notwithstanding, he never does quite succeed at avoiding the
universality and absoluteness of basic moral duties.  The
following examples will suffice to show this.
    1) _A Moral Imperative._ Although Kurtz denies any
"categorical duty" (64) his irresistible inclination to
affirm the value of "critical intelligence" leads him to
call it "the single most important ethical _imperative_" in
his ethics (173, emphasis added). In point of fact, as the
following quotations reveal, his language is often
categorical, not hypothetical.
    2) _Principles that Apply to All Humans._ In one case
the inconsistency between confessing all duties are only
general and the unavoidability of universal moral
imperatives comes out in one sentence: he gives a positive
answer to the question: "Are there any _general_ ethical
principles that apply to human beings, _no matter what the
society?_" (63, emphasis added). But how can they be merely
general if their application is _universal?_
    3) _Morality Rooted in Human Nature._ On another
occasion Kurtz admits that "moral imperatives" are "rooted
in the nature of the human animal...." He even calls them
"instinctive tendencies" (66, 67). This is strong language
for someone who repeatedly denies the universal nature of
moral duties.
    4) _Need for Universality._ Not only does Professor
Kurtz express a wish that some moral duties could be called
universal (185), he even admits that "ethical cognition
[i.e., the problem of how we _know_ what is ethically right
and wrong] points to the need for a universality in conduct,
and it speaks to all men and women no matter what their
social or cultural background" (69). But if there is a real
need for universal moral duties, then why the real denial of
their universality?
    5) _Moral Duties Extend to All Humans._ In one place
Paul Kurtz acknowledges that the "moral decencies" he
enumerated "extend to all humans, and that a doctrine of
human rights is developed for humankind in general" (70).
Here again, if some moral duties extend to "all" of
"humankind" and not just some, then why deny they are
universal in their application?
    6) _Every Person is Entitled to Equality._ While
stressing a favorite humanistic doctrine of equality, Kurtz
again yields to the irresistible temptation to universals.
He declares that "_each_ person is entitled to equality of
consideration as a person, and as such has equal dignity and
value" (71, emphasis changed). But if each and every
individual has this right, then the right is universal. At
other times he speaks of "humanity at large" (179) or an
"ethical commitment to the world community" (198). But these
are scarcely veiled euphemisms for his deep-seated, though
unconfessed, belief in their universality.
    Realizing this unavoidable urge to posit unconditional
moral duties, Kurtz frankly confesses the "tendency to call
these rights 'universal' or even 'absolute' -- because they
are so fundamental..." (184). Yet in spite of this he goes
on to affirm that they "are no more than _general_..."
(184), a not-so-carefully-concealed inconsistency.
*A Lack of Proper Justification*
    Kurtz confesses to a pragmatic justification for moral
principles, that is, they are judged by their results in the
long run. But this has serious problems. First, no human
being can know "the long run." Hence, only God has the
knowledge needed to be a pragmatist, and He is not! Second,
something is not good simply because it brings the desired
results. All that is proved by accomplishing the desired
results is that the means chosen to get those results
_worked._ It does not prove that the means or the desired
results were _good._ Even when the desired results occur, we
can still ask whether they were good or evil.
*An Insufficient Source of Morality*
    Throughout his book Kurtz fails to provide an
explanation for the source of his many culturally
transcended and highly commendable moral prescriptions.
Indeed, given his assumption of atheism such a task seems to
be a logical impossibility, since there can be no moral
prescriptions without a Moral Prescriber. As C. S. Lewis so
forcefully reasoned in _Mere Christianity,_ there cannot be
moral legislation without a Moral Legislator. So the central
problem with the humanistic ethic is that while the humanist
can _believe_ in many good moral principles, he has no real
_justification_ for these beliefs. It is logically
impossible to have absolute moral laws but no absolute Moral
Lawgiver. And, despite his protests to the contrary, we have
already seen that Kurtz too has universal, unconditional
moral prescriptions.
*Unfounded Optimism*
    Kurtz's own brand of optimistic humanism makes it
difficult for him to accept that evil is endemic to the
nature of man. Rather, he says: "I do not hold the doctrine
of original sin. I do not believe that human beings are born
depraved" (248). Thus he ignores the evils of man in general
and even sweeps away the sins of tyrants in particular.
Realizing he will be criticized for what he calls "excessive
humanistic idealism," Kurtz says: "I prefer to believe that
such horrors [as Hitler's] are aberrant and contrary to our
deeper moral sensibilities" (251). So, in spite of his
occasional flashes of realism, Kurtz is an incurable
optimist. One cannot help but admire his unfounded optimism,
when we remember that he neither believes in God nor an
afterlife (235). Such faith is somehow admirable, even
though it is groundless.
*Biblical Illiteracy*
    Not atypical of humanists, Kurtz's knowledge of the
Bible leaves something to be desired. He wrongly believes
that the Bible teaches slavery (32, 69), demeans women (33),
approves of child sacrifice (41-42), offers a different
morality in the New Testament than in the Old Testament
(31-32), and encourages the exploitation of the environment
(195). One is inclined to say that it would take volumes to
respond to these false accusations. But on second thought, a
little time with one volume will do it -- the Bible.
*Moral Inadequacies*
    Space permits only mentioning, not critiquing, a whole
host of morally unacceptable activities upon which Kurtz
places his humanistic blessing, including abortion (79,
215), euthanasia (37, 180, 221), suicide (79, 215),
pornography (21,214), prostitution (211), adultery (207),
and homosexuality (188, 208). Scanning this list of sins
leaves no doubt in a Christian's mind that, in accord with
the title of his book, Kurtz has indeed eaten the "forbidden
fruit"! -- _Norman L. Geisler_
*_Normative_ means that the system of ethics includes
"norms," that is, standards of right and wrong.
_Prescriptive_ indicates that the ethical system makes
statements about what _ought_ to be done, as opposed to a
purely "descriptive" approach which merely observes what
people _do._ An _imperative_ ethic is one in which people
are told what they _must_ do. -- _The Editor_
*Dr. Geisler* has been professor of systematic theology at
Dallas Theological Seminary and the author of numerous
theological and philosophic works, including _Options in
Contemporary Christian Ethics_ (Baker, 1981).
End of document, CRJ0025A.TXT (original CRI file name),
"Forbidden Fruit: The Ethics of Humanism"
release A, February 7, 1994
R. Poll, CRI
(A special note of thanks to Bob and Pat Hunter for their
help in the preparation of this ASCII file for BBS
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