“Forbidden Fruit: The Ethics of Humanism” by Kurtz
AUTHOR: Geisler, Norman
PUBLISHED ON: April 24, 2003

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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

*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 problem.)

*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

    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” (77).

    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

*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

*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

*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

    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

*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.

*_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 circulation.)


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