Step One of Using Pop Culture as a Community Apologist: The “Aha!” Moment

I am convinced that one of the easiest things to do as a Community Apologist is to use pop culture to demonstrate that everyone, everywhere (with the exception of the odd sociopath) has a moral intuition. And once people agree that this intuition exists, the conversation can then turn to why it exists and where it comes from.

One of the commenters on my last post asked if I could provide some specific techniques for using pop culture to demonstrate moral intuition. I have not yet gotten to the point where I can tick off a numbered list of steps, but because of his promptings I am developing a kind of mini-curriculum that will premiere here at some point.

In the meantime, the best way to show community apologists how to use pop culture to demonstrate universal moral intuition is to model how I do it. In other words, here is me trying to convince my readers that most television shows assume the existence of a shared moral standard even when the producers, directors, actors, and the fictional characters they play aren’t aware of it.

The only television genres I watch on a regular basis are murder mysteries and science fiction. Among the murder mysteries (or “procedural dramas,” as they’re more properly called) that I watch is “Bones.” At the end of Season Six, the writer’s decided to kill off my favorite squintern, Nigel.  I knew it was coming (because I’m addicted to spoilers), but it was sad nonetheless. In her grief, Dr. Temperance Brennan, an atheist forensic anthropologist, articulates the feeling that many people have after a senseless death. “If there was a God,” she cries, “then he would have let Nigel stay here with us.”

What I found fascinating about this particular statement was that although Brennan is an atheist, she still could not escape her own instinctive belief that God—if He existed—would be good. And good, as defined by Dr. Brennan, is allowing people to live rather than die, preventing the injustice of a good person being murdered by a bad one, and protecting people from the experience of pain.

Brennan has said repeatedly that she believes only in what science can prove and that morality is only a means of preserving the social order, However, in a moment of grief she reveals a presupposition so basic that she does not even recognize it. What she shares with the rest of the world is an almost universal instinct regarding not only what is right and wrong, but what is good, what is fair, and what qualities a society should value and promote.

She is saying that there is something called good which can be contrasted with what is called bad. She is saying that if a supreme being existed he would, by default, by definition, and by necessity, be good

Aha!

Note that what I have done here is take something that a character on the show has said or done and analyzed the underlying, intuitive assumptions about morality contained within it. Even Dr. Brennan knows in her heart that evil should not triumph over good. Even she has moral intuition.

Once it’s been established that the fictional characters in a movie, book, or TV show have an intuitive morality, it’s not hard to move into the real world and find examples of this shared morality in recent history.

One frequently cited example of this shared morality is the world’s condemnation of the Nazi atrocities and the subsequent war crimes trial in Nuremberg, Germany. In his article “Intuition and Moral Theology,” Bernard Hoose argues that Western civilization’s universal condemnation of these acts demonstrate not only that there is a moral intuition in mankind, but that this intuition is assumed to be authoritative.

Regardless of their status as soldiers and their defense that they were “just obeying orders,” says Hoose, the judge at Nuremberg believed that the Nazi soldiers had no excuse. They should have known that what they were doing was wrong.

In Mere Christianity, C.S Lewis suggests that there is universal understanding not only of right and wrong, but also of those qualities that humanity finds collectively admirable. Throughout history, Lewis argues, mankind has admired qualities such as bravery, unselfishness, kindness, justice, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice. Lewis calls this intuitive sense of how people should behave “moral law” and differentiates it from any evolutionary instinct of self-preservation by arguing that “feeling a desire to help is quite different from feeling like you ought to help whether you want to or not.”

In The Reason for God, Tim Keller has offered a modern version of this argument:

People who laugh at the claim that there is a transcendent moral order do not think that racial genocide is just impractical or self-defeating, but that it is wrong. The Nazis who exterminated Jews may have claimed that they didn’t feel it was immoral at all. We don’t care. We don’t care if they sincerely felt they were doing a service to humanity. They ought not to have done it. We do not only have moral feelings, but we also have an ineradicable belief that moral standards exist, outside of us, by which our internal moral feelings are evaluated.

Let’s look at another example of how an apologist can recognize this universal morality when they find it. (And yes, I know I’ve used this example before…but it’s just that good!) In a 2005 episode of the BBC’s Doctor Who, The Doctor is on a space station that broadcasts nothing but game shows in which the penalty for losing is death. In this world, the “weakest link” gets incinerated in front of millions of people.

In a key scene, The Doctor turns to the manager of the station and says “Your staff executes hundreds of contestants every day.”

“That’s not fair,” the manager replies. “We’re just doing our job.”

“With that response,” growls The Doctor, “you just lost the right to even talk to me.”

Remember, this scene takes place in a universe in which God does not exist. Yet in this simple exchange, The Doctor reveals that not only does he believe that there are moral absolutes, but that everyone should intuitively know them and be held responsible for violating them.

Aha!

In just a few lines of dialogue, the writers of this episode evoke those powerful images of a Nazi standing in a courtroom in Nuremberg in 1945 claiming that he killed hundreds of men, women, and children in the German death camps because he was just following orders. The response of most people, both then and now, is that anyone committing such atrocities should have known better. There is no excuse for ignoring one’s moral intuition.

Pop culture is stuffed to the gills with these kinds of examples. In fact, procedural dramas could not exist without the shared understanding that murder, torture, sexual abuse, and lying are wrong. And who are the heroes of these stories? People who do the right thing regardless of the cost.

What the Community Apologist needs to learn is to say “aha” when they hear dialogue that reveals this moral intuition.

In Step 2, we’ll explore ways of getting from universal moral intuition to the existence of God.

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DISCLAIMER: Blog entries made by individual authors reflect the views of the author and not necessarily the view of other CAA authors, or the official position of the group at large.
About Leslie Keeney

Leslie Keeney is getting her Masters of Philosophical Studies at Liberty University. She is interested in moral apologetics, and how myth, narrative, and pop culture can reveal the best of man’s universal moral intuition. Leslie lives in Lynchburg with her husband, two kids, and two cats. You can connect with her on Google+, Twitter, and Facebook. Leslie blogs at The Ruthless Monk

  • Lion_IRC

    I think most non-religious people’s deeply intuitive recognition of immorality and injustice comes from their identification with the victim and the corresponding gratitude we all naturally feel to those who seek to alleviate REAL injustice and immorality.

    Objective evil must exist because the victims of evil really exist – they aren’t fictional victims of an imaginary TV show concept called evil. The victims are us and our real-life neighbours.

    In those TV dramas we need no convincing that assault, murder, rape and theft are actual immoral deeds taken from the pages of daily newspapers full of real life violence and hate. Hence, we can readily identify with the existence of good and evil through the eyes of the suffering victims.

    And from there, we can intuit the very real need for “someone to do something about it’’. This is the atheist version of the problem of evil. If objective evil doesn’t truly exist as the opposite of transcendent good, what do you say to those who claim they are the victims of evil when the perpetrator says that their action wasn’t objectively evil?

    The moral power of the story of the Good Samaritan arises from the certain knowledge that the beaten and robbed man was suffering, about to die, (probably in the desert heat,) and silently begging for someone to stop and help. Yet two people pass by, probably fearful of also becoming victims themselves on this dangerous stretch of road.

    If you ended the story here it would be a miserable and pointless tale of nihilistic selfishness, robbery, greed, suffering, fear, kill or be killed, survival of the strongest…the two passers-by following the survival instincts of their selfish DNA while the victim is laying there in the dust silently wondering why nobody stops to help.

    What a relief for the audience then when something ‘unbelievable’ happens in the form of unexpected help for the stripped and beaten man lying by the side of the road. It’s practically a miracle. He was praying for someone even just to stop and ask “hey are you ok?” in a world where crime was so prevalent that doing stoping for a second was dangerous. I think atheist and theist alike can identify with the victim and we all intuitively know that we need someone to do something about evil.

    • Leslie Keeney

      Lion, great point about how we respond to victims of evil acts. As far as I can see, we are forced to respond by saying “What the person did was wrong “to you” and to preserve the social order we will punish him.”

      To be unable to say to a victim that they were the victim of something objectively evil is to belittle suffering.

      • Lion_IRC

        Many people of little or no faith (especially ”Atheism Plus” folk) respond positively to the parable of the Good Samaritan with its perspectives on the meaning of good/evil/victim/neighbour.

        The early Church Fathers saw that the story of the Good Samaritan, like many parables, was a form of cultural apologetics.

        The road to Jericho : The world. An immoral landscape where greed and crime is everywhere and only the selfish survive – harsh, scary, nihilistic. A place where children find heroin syringes left strewn around their local playground. A place where we throw food in the trash can while people named Sisyphus lay starving all along “the road to Jericho.’’ It’s not the way the world ‘ought’ to be.

        The man who was robbed and beaten : That’s us, the naked, vulnerable people. The defenceless victims we read about in the papers, the people who get ignored while passers-by hurry on their way mumbling something about cause and effect and empirical evidence and the high crime stats.

        The Good Samaritan : That’s the One person who knows about the cause of objective evil and what will set you free. He also sees Himself in the eyes of the victim. His help is like a miracle. Unbelievable to the cynic and the
        skeptics of this world. The Good Samaritan says yes, you HAVE TO do something about it! It’s a commandment not an optional lifestyle choice. 50 shades of tolerance doesn’t make objective evil go away no matter how long you put your head in the sand of post-modern, moral relativism.

        The Inn : Where does the Good Samaritan want to take the broken and beaten victims? (Victims of this life we call “the road to Jericho”) To an Inn called God’s House where there is water and wine and bread and ointment. Healing.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined/ Bob Seidensticker

    “The Doctor reveals that not only does he believe that there are moral absolutes, but that everyone should intuitively know them and be held responsible for violating them.”
    Moral absolutes? I see no evidence of that. Shared moral instincts–now that I think is easily supported. And (bonus!) we don’t need to imagine a supernatural origin for them.

    • Lion_IRC

      You claim that shared moral instincts are easily supported but ”instinct” is an abstract concept like premonition or intuition or ”gut feel” or hunch, etc etc.

      Your arguments for ”shared moral instincts” are just as likely to be a proof for our having a moral compass put there by God.

      I am very dubious of your claim to know the true origin of them apart from God.

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined/ Bob Seidensticker

        Lion: We see moral instincts in other animals (I wrote more about
        instincts here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined/2012/10/c-s-lewis-on-morality/.
        Look for the bit about moral instincts in monkeys.)

        Given the choice of our moral feelings coming from (natural) instincts or
        (supernatural) gods, the former is far more plausible. We have countless
        examples of natural causes for things and zero examples of widely accepted
        supernatural activity.

        I don’t claim to know God or not God; rather, I try to follow the evidence.

        • Lion_IRC

          I was expecting something other than just…

          we see moral instincts,
          we have countless examples of instincts,
          instincts are naturally natural which means they must be natural,
          everybody uses the word instinct to refer to instinct, it’s a real word

          You didnt demonstrate them having a causally materialist origin.

          You didnt show them as biologically deterministic.

          And you didnt differentiate them from abstract terms. Terms like;
          ”intuition” ”gut feel” ”hunch” ”premonition” ”sensus divinatus”

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined/ Bob Seidensticker

            Lion: And I was expecting something more than just “You haven’t proven my supernatural presupposition false, so therefore I’m entitled to hold it.”

            If I’d written a book-length discussion, perhaps then your questions would
            be answered. This isn’t the forum, and I’m no expert in biology. Nevertheless, I think the natural explanation (even if incomplete, as in this case) is preferable to the supernatural one.

            • Lion_IRC

              I dont have any supernatural presuppositions.
              (Better find a new strawman.)

              All I was wondering was, how does one differentiate between…

              Atheist – ‘our moral intuition is purely naturalistic/deterministic’
              and..
              Theist – ”we are made in the (moral compass) likeness of God”

              The manifestation – the effect – of our moral compass is observable in nature in both cases. That goes without saying. But we are talking about its origin. Its original cause.

              I referred to sensus divinatus and I’m sure you know what that means. Is that not also a type of intuition about something just as true as our moral intuition regarding the real existence of good and evil?

              • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined/ Bob Seidensticker

                Lion: Hardly a strawman. Many people do have supernatural presuppositions. But you don’t; OK, I stand corrected.

                When given those two hypotheses, we look to see how plausible they are, and the supernatural explanation is always less plausible than the natural one, especially one (as in this case) where there is decent evidence on the natural side.

                “God did it” can explain everything. Said another way, if I assign God as the cause for anything, you can never prove me wrong. But as a result, “God did it” explains nothing. It’s unfalsifiable. It becomes simply a repackaging of “I don’t know.”

                • Lion_IRC

                  There’s heaps of things we know are NOT done by God and for which there is no need to appeal to the ”God did it” place holder.

                  Eg. You and I can both demonstrate that someone other than God typed our posts – we did. We typed them ourselves.

                  So you cant just go around assigning God as the cause for anything you wish and neither is it unfalsifiable even if you do.

                  I unashamedly think that God lovingly created us as living souls, in His likeness, with an innate sense of what the words good and evil mean and the free will to choose between ”oughts” and ”wants”.

                  But what I’m wondering is, why I am still here waiting for you to show that God didnt ”do it” insofar as the origin of our moral instincts.

                  You havent explained or demonstrated our moral compass as having a causally materialist origin.

                  You didnt show how the human mind’s resolution of ”ought questions” is biologically deterministic/mechanical. (soul-free)

                  And you haven’t shown how moral ”instinct” is any different to similar abstract terms which might otherwise be called ”WOO”

                  …terms like; intuition, ”gut feel”, hunch, premonition, ”sensus divinatus”

                  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined/ Bob Seidensticker

                    Lion: Oh ye of little faith! God directed my fingers and left me with the residual memory that I wanted to type that.

                    “why I am still here waiting for you to show that God didnt ”do it” insofar
                    as the origin of our moral instincts.” I can’t imagine why you’re waiting for this, because you won’t get it from me. I simply show you the evidence for the natural explanation. It’s more plausible than the supernatural explanation.

                    Is your point that I can’t prove that God didn’t do it? That would be correct. But that’s certainly where the evidence points.

                    If you would like to provide evidence for objective morality, I’d like to hear it. I’ve heard much handwaving by apologists but no good evidence. They did such a bad job that I wouldn’t be surprised if you’d do better.

                    “And you haven’t shown how moral ”instinct” is any different to similar abstract terms which might otherwise be called ”WOO”…terms like; intuition, ”gut feel”, hunch, premonition, ”sensus divinatus”” I wouldn’t call that woo, but I do agree that instinct is the source for things like intuition, hunches, etc.

                    • Lion_IRC

                      I’ll catch you over at The CS Lewis morality thread on Patheos. :-)

                      I would like to know how the process of evolutionary ”happenstance”
                      makes our human moral instinct any more objectively meaningful than the ”trompe l’oeil” of fine tuning.

        • Leslie Keeney

          Bob, If I’m understanding you, you’re not disagreeing that humans have a shared moral intuition/instinct. Your standards for what people should and shouldn’t do would be similar to mine (at least on the basics-things like murder, torture, rape, lying, stealing, etc.). What you’re disagreeing with is that 1) these standards are absolute or exist anywhere except our individual preferences, and 2) they cannot be used to extrapolate the existence of God.

          I’ll respond to #2 first: Since I have not yet proposed how we get from a universal moral intuition/instinct to the existence of God, we’ll wait on that. Next month’s post will have a more robust argument for you to respond to.

          Regarding the idea that moral absolutes exist, I admit that it requires a previous commitment to the existence of God in order for me to say these moral intuitions are absolute, just as it requires a previous commitment to naturalism on your part to say that these intuitions/instincts are not absolute, but are the result of natural forces or survival instincts.

          What I find fascinating is that we agree that regardless of whether you call them intuitions or instincts, we agree both that they exist and on the general substance of them (murder of the innocent is wrong; helping those in need is right).

          Thanks for your comment and for helping me think through the issues.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined/ Bob Seidensticker

            Leslie: We agree on many points.
            “I admit that it requires a previous commitment to the existence of God in order for me to say these moral intuitions are absolute”: That’s curious, because most arguments that I’ve seen are the other way around: given that we all agree that absolute morals exist, what could ground those morals but God? (Which I reject.)
            “just as it requires a previous commitment to naturalism on your part to say that these intuitions/instincts are not absolute.” I have no such commitment. I’m trying to follow the evidence, and there simply is no compelling evidence for absolute/objective morality.
            “we agree that regardless of whether you call them intuitions or instincts, we agree both that they exist and on the general substance of them”: My goal is to find the simplest, most plausible explanation for the facts of morality as humans understand it. Are we seeing universally accepted moral instincts or universal moral truth? I see evidence for the former and none for the latter.

            • Leslie Keeney

              So if I’m understanding you correctly, you acknowledge a universal moral instinct but have not found any evidence that these instincts/intuitions are absolute in the sense that they have any objective existence outside of human behavior.

              I hate to use this example because it’s so overused, but it’s also an easy way to make sure I’m understanding your position: In your view, things like the torture of children or the Holocaust or the Rwandan genocide, while repellent to our moral instincts, are not wrong in any absolute sense? These acts are not ontologically bad, wrong, or evil in themselves, they just go against our shared moral instinct?

              • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined/ Bob Seidensticker

                Leslie: Every statement of the form “X is wrong” (or right) always comes with a platform. My platform is pretty small. If I’m outraged at something, I can write a letter to the editor or email a legislator or vote a certain way. A general would obviously have a lot more clout.

                You’re right in your supposition: genocide isn’t wrong in any absolute sense, though it’s a pretty universally held view in the West.

                • Leslie Keeney

                  Bob, I guess the basic difference between our views (keeping God out of the equation) is that I believe that there are things that are ontologically right or wrong absolutely and by definition.

                  I admire your consistency. Some people who hold your view aren’t wiling to follow through and say that child torture and genocide aren’t, by definition, wrong.

                  There are many directions this conversation could go, but I’ll stop for now. I will, however, invite you to our Google+ Christian Apologetics Alliance Community. There’s a place just for Christian to non-Christian conversations and I’m a moderator so I make sure that everyone stays civil :)

                  Let me know if you’re on Google+ and I’ll invite you.

                  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined/ Bob Seidensticker

                    Leslie:

                    “I believe that there are things that are ontologically right or wrong absolutely and by definition.” And are these truths accessible by ordinary humans? If there is objective morality but humans can’t access it, who cares?

                    “say that child torture and genocide aren’t, by definition, wrong.” I find the idea ridiculous. I invite you to show me that our sense that these are wrong is grounded outside humans. I’ve never seen a scrap of such evidence.

                    “invite you to our Google+ Christian Apologetics Alliance Community” Yes, please do so.