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Morality Without God? (Philosophy in Action)
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Walter Sinnot-Armstrong argues in this book that the basis of morality can be found without god, as the subtitle states. In addition to this he argues for why morality based on god, in particular the Christian god, can not form a basis for morality. His basis for morality without god involves the concept of harm. Those who harm another, or fails to prevent a harm when possible, commits a moral wrong.

After he sets the stage, he presents that there is no factual evidence that atheists or secular societies are any less moral than Christians or Christian societies. From there he goes on to give a version of objective morality based on the concept of harm as stated above. After making his case for a workable morality without god, he confronts god based morality, and shows the problems with it and how it is not a workable solution. He ends up discussing what more needs to be investigated in coming to a better secular morality.

Here are some comments I made at particular points in reading the book. Numbers in brackets [] are pagination in the Kindle edition.

[21] After Sinnot-Armstrong mentions the story of the fall in the Garden of Eden, I thought there is a form of human evolution here. Human beings evolved the capability to obtain moral knowledge. When humans evolved from some form of ape to humans moral knowledge became possible in the reality of real life, not the made up biblical kind.

[52] “Theists use this popular slogan [‘If God is dead, everything is permitted’] to assert that nothing can be objectively morally wrong if God does not exist. The question, in short, is whether atheism entails nihilism, which is the denial of all real moral values, duties, and obligations.” Even supposing moral subjectivity, atheism does not necessarily entail nihilism.

[56-7] “Everyone I know—whether theist or atheist or agnostic—agrees that rape is morally wrong.” The theist is questionable on this if he or she really accepts the Bible as the word of god. The Old Testament does not condemn rape, at least not in all cases, and the New Testament is silent on it. So, the Christian can believe that rape is not morally wrong, at least in some cases. And, marital rape occurs in some Christian marriages. The fact that most theists believe rape is morally wrong is because they feel it is, not that they are command not to.

[59-60] “Almost everyone agrees that death, pain, and disability are bad.” But, the reason for this does not have to be an objective standard. People when they think that these things are bad, usually have feelings associated with this thinking. Matter of fact this kind of thinking without feeling may not lead to moral behavior, and it maybe that the feelings actually lead to the thought. A reason for people to believe these things are bad is that they, in most cases, would not want them occurring to themselves or are in psychological pain when they observe these situations. So, it is possible that morality does not depend, or at least initially, on an objective standard. I think that it is moral feelings that lead to objectivity in morality.

[62] “Certainly each item [in a list of harms] needs to be specified more precisely.” This and other statements he makes leads me to an admire his sense of grayness.

[85] “Call that harm-based core of morality ‘shared morality,’ because it is shared with theists, who agree that rape, murder, theft, child abuse and neglect, and so on are morally wrong.” However, some Christian parents abuse their children when administering punishment because they believe the Bible sanctions severe punishment. So, if moral feelings are the basis of morality, how is it that some people do not see some acts that most people consider to be harmful to be immoral? It is because feelings can be overridden by thoughts, especially thoughts that are repeatedly reinforced by others and supposedly sacred texts.

[131] Speaking of group discussion as an aid to making moral decisions, he writes: “An example should help to bring these abstractions down to earth. This case illustrates a real problem that hospital ethic committees have faced many times and that has been controversial in the past.” Never mind the specifics of his example, the point I wish to make is that few of us have the benefit of a committee discussion when faced with a moral decision, and certainly not when the decision is urgent. So, while hospital ethics committees are useful in their domain, as a general approach to finding out the differing amount of harm among moral choices is not much use.

[150] Coming to a firm conclusion to his exploration of morality he states: “But at least they [those who are willing to give up divine command morality and fear of atheism] would base their positions on the real foundation of morality, which <i>is avoiding harm and preventing harm</i>.” (My italics) I would agree that this is a better standard than a god based morality.

Sinnot-Armstrong’s whole concept of moral harm seems like a negative form of classic utilitarianism—the greatest happiness principle. And, while his concept of moral harm as an objective form of morality is on sound footing, it does not negate that it is moral feelings that lead one to see that harming or not preventing harm to others is not the way of moral action.

I think Sinnot-Armstrong firmly and effectively argues against the divine command theory of morality, despite not focusing on this in my comments. I really like the way he approaches the subject. He is respectful of others and refrains from obnoxious attacks like some atheists and theists are prone to do. And, while his conclusions are firm he does not present his exploration as leading to an absolute claim of correctness of his moral theory. I also felt he wrote very well and avoided technical jargon, so that it would be attractive to non-specialists.

I rated this book highly and would recommend it to anyone who is serious about how we can come to moral conclusions that would be acceptable to most people willing to reflect honestly. If you are a Christian he does not attack your beliefs per se, but divine command morality that is often associated with Christianity. Plus he spells out, at least as a beginning, an acceptable moral theory without god.
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on July 9, 2009
First, let me say that I am a practicing Catholic, very committed to my faith. However, this book is very well written, fair, balanced, and honest. Never does Professor Sinnott-Armstrong use ad hominum attacks, make wild assertions, or neglect to show care and concern for theists. I felt nothing but love for his fellow theists while reading this book. This does not, however, mean that Professor Sinnott-Armstrong compromises his position.Of course, there are still arguments that the author makes which I disagree with, but I think Professor Sinnott-Armstrong is a much needed addition (or voice, I suppose) to the growing body of intelligent, kind, and rational atheists (including John Lofton and David Ramsey Steele among others) not driven by malice, unlike the new atheists (yes, I have an axe to grind with the new atheism).

The goal of this book is basically to show that atheists can be and are moral. In fact, the last sentence of the preface states "[My main goal] is only to show that atheists need not be arbitrary, unreasonable, ignorant, inconsistent, irresponsible, disreputable, uncaring, or, especially, immoral." I completely agree with Professor Sinnott-Armstrong's thesis as he states it here. In fact, at the end of the first chapter, Professor Sinnott-Armstrong lists 5 main claims that he discusses in detail throughout the book. I agree with his beliefs about the truths of all 5 claims except the third one. I think the most accurate way to state my main disagreement with Professor Sinnott-Armstrong is to say that I believe that objective morality has no firm foundation without God. He does tries to show that the atheist does indeed have a firm foundation for morality apart from God in one of the chapters, which I will discuss a little bit below.

I appreciate much of what Professor Sinnott-Armstrong has to say in Chapter 2. This Chapter deals with the question of whether or not atheists are bad people. Unfortunately, many Christians do paint the picture that Professor Sinnott-Armstrong discusses in this chapter of atheists; that is, that they are immoral, indecent, and most oddly claimed to be that they suppress what they really know to be true. So the fact that Professor Sinnott-Armstrong addresses this topic is not unreasonable. I would say that a more historical and correct understanding of the question is that we are all sinners in need of God's grace and that any good that a theist or atheist does is a grace from God. I am not able to do good anymore than Professor Sinnott-Armstrong is able to do good; it all comes from the source of goodness, which is God. But that is really something more to argue with my fellow Christian brethren.

Professor Sinnott-Armstrong is also reasonable enough to point out the venomous attacks of the "new atheists" (of which Professor Sinnott-Armstrong is NOT a member of) and how they do more harm than good. I very much appreciated that, and it showed me that he has nothing to hide and believes his position to be correct based on reason rather than intimidation.

I also can not convey how much I appreciate the fact that Professor Sinnott-Armstrong is fair and balanced when it comes to the horrible sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. He mentions that the problem is not as widespread as many new atheists make it out to be and even mentions that it is not limited just to the Catholic Church. While smaller numbers and other people doing it certainly does not excuse it, it is a breath of fresh air to read someone who does not use it to clobber us over the head and make the lovely non sequiter that therefore religion is pure evil. He is also very careful not to confuse correlation with causation (this mathematician thanks you!).

On the same page, Professor Sinnott-Armstrong discusses the possible biblical support that is given for wives being submissive to their husbands (Ephesians 5:25 ish). He then asks to what extent this means that they be submissive and asks whether things like abuse and marital rape qualify. However, I would consult Pope Pius XI's 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii for a more proper understanding of what is actually a very beautiful teaching in the entire context of Ephesians 5. Again though, this is not something that even my non-Catholic Christian brethren are aware of and hence, I think that this "to what extent" question does need to be addressed because so many non-Catholic Christians don't understand it properly.

The chapter that I was most interested in reading (because I came into this book disagreeing with the premise) was how an atheist can ground objective moral values. The argument was built around a theory of harm; that is, what does harm to someone can be considered immoral. The author is careful to define harm and give many examples and predict possible objections. It was one of the longer chapters in the book, but the author made it clear that it was intended to be a brief overview of a possible theory of morality that an atheist could hold to and ground objectively. I don't think I quite buy the argument, but I will have to look at it more carefully and think about it a bit more. It was definitely an interesting theory, but it seems to me to be too reminiscent in some cases of situation ethics, where depending on the wants of a person, certain acts that may otherwise be immoral become not immoral. Sometimes it fell on the utilitarian side of things. Again, I need to think about it a lot more, but it's a good, well-thought out theory.

There was one thing in the chapter outlining the harm theory of ethics that shocked me. Now, Professor Sinnott-Armstrong said this somewhat in passing, so to be fair, I may have misunderstood. But what shocked me was not that Professor Sinnott-Armstrong admitted to supporting experimentation on human embryos, but that he claimed that there was NO non-religious argument for doing so! That claim blew me away. I don't know if Professor Sinnott-Armstrong is farmiliar with Embryo: A Defense of Human Life by Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen ( http://www.amazon.com/Embryo-Defense-Robert-P-George/dp/0385522827/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1246974956&sr=1-1 ), but this book goes out if its way in the preface to let the reader know that no religious arguments will be given to defend their premise that the embryo is a human person with dignity and moral worth (and thus can not be used in scientific experimentation). While Professor Sinnott-Armstrong may disagree with the arguments of the book, he would actually have to argue that the book DOES rely solely on religious arguments. There are many others who argue against h-ESCR without punting to religion including Wesley J. Smith, Leon Kauss, and William May. Again, perhaps I misunderstood, but this seemed to be a very unusual thing to say.

Professor Sinnott-Armstrong gives critiques of the so-called divine command theory espoused by many Evangelicals. One thing I noticed when he was critiquing the position is that he interchange of the phrases "moral duties" and "moral values." Several times these phrases were substituted for each other. The author discusses how what makes something morally good in the Christian worldview (according to divine command theory) is that God commands it i.e. it is a moral duty, and because of the non-differentiation I mentioned above, it is also a moral value. Now, I am not well read on many evangelical divine command theories so I am sure that Professor Sinnott-Armstrong is representing well those Evangelicals whom he has read, but the version of divine command I have in mind very much distinguishes between moral values and duties in the following sense; we define, or we say what is objectively good by that which is in accordance with God's unchanging nature. Goodness springs from God's nature. At this point, that says nothing about what our duties are, only the ontological question of where objective moral values are grounded. Then God's commands to us reflect that moral nature which he has. Since God can not act (and hence command) things contrary to his nature, what he commands is good. So I think this is a different take on the divine command theory (and I think a better one) than the one the author discusses. He does give a view similar to this about a paragraph in the chapter when discussing Euthyphro's dilemma, but I think there is more to it than that. However, there are many thought provoking and insightful comments the author makes in this chapter. This Chapter, too, has definitely got me thinking harder and deeper about why I believe what I believe and how I might answer some of the objections.

The chapter on why anyone be good gave good and convincing reasons to be moral. This was in contrast to some of the Fundamentalist doctrines about you should be good because you go to heaven, and badness is punished by hell. Ultimately, the author shows that this view of being good is really lacking in any sort of substance. I would argue that there are deeper theological understandings to answer that question from a Christian perspective, but this sort of pop shallow theology that we sometimes hear does need to be addressed. One thing I would have liked to have seen the author address in this chapter is whether or not he believes we actually have a moral duty or obligation to be good and if so, where that comes from. He gave reasons that one would WANT to be good, but is there a moral duty? I would especially be interested in hearing what he would have to say in response to Sartre's "existence precedes essence" argument which implies that we have no human nature and hence, no moral duties. Again, I think it's important to differentiate between moral duties and moral values.

All in all, this book is very easy to read and argued well. The train of thought is clear and easy to follow. The book is an attempt to dialogue with Christians, which is something I've never seen so well done and in such a gracious manner by an atheist. The author goes out of his way to point out the good in religions, how atheists and agnostics should embrace many aspects of religion that are good, and even get some good out of the bible. This is definitely a man who is serious about dialogue and serious about painting the other side with the correct brush.

One final thing I would like to point out is the common misconception about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. This was mentioned a couple times in the book. St. Augustine understood (I would argue correctly) blasphemy against the Holy Spirit as the sin of final impenitence. In other words, the only unforgivable sin is the one that you refuse to ask forgiveness for. Because Professor Sinnott-Armstrong was once a believing Evangelical, he believes that even if Christianity was true and if he were to repent, he (as well as many others in a similar situation) would be damned. This is based on the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit passage as well as a passage in Hebrews which the author points out. I would just like to say that whatever these passages do mean, they do NOT mean that anyone is guaranteed hell without any chance of repentance on this earth. No matter WHAT you do, if you repent while alive, you can still be saved. This is the constant and historical teaching of the Catholic Church. So if there is anything that I may be so bold as to correct the good Professor about in the book, it is that he is NOT damned to hell no matter what he does for the rest of his life. God ALWAYS forgives. As long as one is still breathing, they are not necessarily damned. There is ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS the possibility of repentance in this life, and ultimately salvation in the next.
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on September 27, 2009
Prof. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong makes many outstanding arguments for a non-religious type of morality. This is one of the basic arguments that theist pose to Atheist, Agnostics, and non-believers;"Without god what will give humanity there moral foundation?" Sinnott-Armstrong addresses this major question in a book that is easy to read and covers a lot of ground about this question. Not has dense has Richard Dawkins, or Christopher Hitchens books;Sinnot-Armstrong takes a less hostile approach towards those with beliefs. He is critical of people on both sides of the god vs. no-god debate, he poses that both sides consider eachother ignorant thus there can never be any true debate. Although, I strongly agree with the position Richard Dawkins take about people being in free and contemporary societies not giving religion a "special" pass from being challenged or analyzed critical. Prof. Sinnot-Armstrong makes it a point to be critical of religion without going to the low blows and sensationalism of Hitchens, or Dawkins when countering religions beliefs. Any person whether they are a devout Christian, passive observer, or stance Atheist will be enlighten by the ideas of a rational based theory of morality. Anybody who has pondered the question of where do our morals come from,or has been challenged by theists about humans their having morals dictated to them from an omnipotent being will benefit from this book.
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on June 28, 2013
Professor Sinnot-Armstrong makes a very compelling case to conclude that we can have moral without God. The arguments are very solid and the theists will have a very hard time refutting them (I doubt it). Overall, the book is a well written (in a lay and accessible way), successful piece of good philosophy. I deeply recommend it.
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on September 25, 2016
Although the content of the book is pretty interesting, written by a great author and philosopher, who argument very soundly, strongly, clearly and concisely, the condition of the book was unexpected. The border are tear down as visible in the pictures. It might have been hit badly while shipping. The lower border was scuffed as well as the page joint. The pages might be fine inside, but the book was overall damaged.
Hopefully i would get one replaced in a better condition.
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on August 25, 2010
Sinnott-Armstrong maintains the appearance of impartiality, while undermining the connection between morality and religion. While the author's lack of antagonism towards religion is refreshing (compared to Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, etc.) his objective seems very much the same. The author plays his hand as an impartial observer, but comes down on the side of atheism with a consistently that becomes predictable within a couple chapters. Even though I would not consider myself religious, I found myself beginning to pull for the counter-arguments, simply to stay engaged in the book and because many of the arguments on the side of religion seemed overly simplified. While his constructions on the side of religion could hardly be called straw men (I will give him this) I expected more from a Dartmouth Professor of Philosophy. The one redeeming quality (why I am giving it two stars, instead of one) is the last chapter, where Sinnott-Armstrong calls for greater understanding and tolerance between religious and atheist fundamentalists. Overall the book has a feeling of genuine honesty about it, despite its rather predictable and impartial conclusions.
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HALL OF FAMEon October 2, 2009
It has been assumed in most societies since the dawn of history that humans cannot be moral without God and religion. Sinnott-Armstrong, who is a Professor of Philosophy and Legal Studies at Dartmouth College, presents in this extended essay the modern view to the contrary.

More specifically he argues that a belief in God is not necessary for people to be good or for humans to realize that some acts are morally wrong. We do not need the fear of eternal damnation to behave in morally acceptable ways. This is then a treatise in moral philosophy in which Sinnott-Armstrong takes the side of atheists and agnostics against theists who think that being atheist or agnostic means per force that you are immoral.

He begins with the provocative question in Chapter One "Would You Marry an Atheist?" The answer is most people wouldn't. Furthermore, the prejudice against atheists and other non-believers is so great that an avowed atheist has no chance of being elected to high office in the United States. He notes that people in general fear atheists and discriminate against them simply because they are atheists, and that fear stems from the mistaken idea that atheists can't be moral. In the chapters that follow Sinnott-Armstrong argues with some force that religious people and theists in general may be more morally compromised than atheists. He cites studies that suggest as much.

Personally my experience with fundamentalist Christians and others who take the Bible literally is that their mental states are so compromised by the conflicting morality of the Bible that they practice a similar duplicity in their daily lives. If you've ever argued with a creationist you know what I mean. But Christians are not alone in their prejudices against non-believers. One finds the same antagonism in other religions, especially in Islam and indeed in the conservative expressions of most religions.

What Sinnot-Armstrong does not present here is the argument from psychology in which we see that people have neurological structures called "mirror neurons" that ape not just the behaviors of others but their mental states as well. Thus empathy and an identification with the plight of others is automatic and built into our nature in such a way that we are naturally moral animals who instinctively follow (most of us any way, for the most part) the edict of the Golden Rule which is to do unto others as you would have done unto you. We cannot help but feel that way unless of course we demonize others or make them our enemies or otherwise fear them.

Others have argued that our social nature as formed over the ages has molded us into moral beings who are capable of behaving in ways that reflect our understanding of what is right and wrong and guide us to behave in accordance with what is right. This surprisingly is a modern revelation and contrary to the spirit of the Bible in which humans are seen as fallen creatures who need God and the fear of punishment in order to behave morally. Supporting this belief in the news we constantly hear about people committing horrendous acts of hatred and violence, and of course nation states including our own have brought death and destruction on untold numbers of innocent people.

But these exceptions merely test the rule. Humans for the most part act morally because such behavior not only benefits them but other people as well, and is one of the reasons for the evolutionary success of the human race. For humans cooperation is what tames the jungle and molds the environment to our benefit, not blood thirsty competition.

Sinnott-Armstrong's tone is reasonable and reasoned and his argument thorough to the point of something like near exhaustion. He bends over backwards to be fair to both theists and atheists while insisting that these former antagonists can live in peace and harmony. I would say he is entirely convincing but I am part of the choir here, and so it would be better to hear what those skeptical of his thesis might think.

For those of you who are moderate in your religious views but not sure that you can trust non-believers this book might be an eye-opener.

(Note: Thirteen of my books are now available at Amazon including "The World Is Not as We Think It Is.")

The World Is Not as We Think It Is
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VINE VOICEon March 6, 2012
Reading this is is very similar in tone to "50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God" by Guy P. Harrison in that the author is overly nice to the religious in an effort to demonstrate that atheists/agnostics are just as moral (more moral in some areas, less moral in others) than theists. This book is also similar in tone to "Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe" by Greg Epstein in that both these books suggest that the New Atheists are too harsh. So, consequently, after insulting them, he tries to befriend the Christian and meet in the middle.

One of the main problems I see with this book is I hardly meet any Christians who think that atheists cannot be moral. He seems to be erecting a straw man and then knocking it down. Sure, *some* fundamental Christians may argue this or you may always find this in theology books but in my experience the argument I often hear is not that atheists cannot be moral but if we are to answer the Christians on their ground, the question they ask is "why be moral" since they claim we have no objective basis for our morality.

True, this book finally reaches some answer in chapter 4, which was good, but it takes us down paths that are highly unnecessary and distracting. For example, chapter three goes over some studies that have been conducted between believers and non-believers and after each study the author concludes that this doesn't really prove anything. Then why show us? Why take us down this path? If the whole chapter is inconclusive then don't waste our time with speculation, which in many instances seem to suggest that Christians are in fact more likely to give or be more charitable, while the non-believer is more likely to be less bigoted and judgmental. Now, this may be true, in fact I think it generally is but in my opinion is a waste of time, especially since the author confesses that these stats are essentially meaningless.

The author makes many concessions for the believer and calls atheism a "worldview" which I thought was rather odd. Atheism is merely the rejection of god(s), or the absence of belief. Atheism tells us what a person is not, not what a person is. So, I am not entirely sure calling it a worldview is entirely accurate. Does the non-belief in fairies constitute a worldview? Perhaps it would in a world that was filled with fairy believers?

Anyway, the last two books I have read on morality from atheists have been somewhat disappointing, and I am an atheist. The other being "Ethics Without God".

My recommendation, for whatever it is worth would be:

1. Normative Ethics (Shelly Kagan)
2. The Limits of Morality (Shelly Kagan)
3. Free Will (Sam Harris)
4. The Moral Landscape (Sam Harris) - Though, I do agree with much in this book, there is also much I don't.
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on April 13, 2010
It's unfortunate in 2010 that this book has to be written, but I'm glad it was. Every religious person who's prejudiced against atheists needs to read this book. Professor Armstrong demonstrates, through rational and calm argument, that atheists and agnostics are just as moral as believers. He uses statistical evidence and arguments as far back as Plato to back up his case. He even takes a swipe at the Golden Rule! I would make one small criticism: I don't think he's fair to the opposition to stem cell research. Nevertheless, this is a terrific book.
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on April 28, 2013
An utmost important book with, within the scope of the areas covered by the author, very well reasoned arguments.
Unfortunately Sinnott-Armstrong left out the one moral principle that constitutes, in itself, the foundation of morality, whether those interested in the theme follow or not the further metaphysical, epistemological, ethical, political and esthetic conclusions reached by the originator of the moral principle I refer to. The author of Morality Without God? left the moral axiom referred to unmentioned, either due to not being aware of it or, else, because he doesn't want his readers to reach the impression that he could, in any way whatsoever, be thought to have any sympathy for the political and social views of the author of the principle mentioned. If he proceeded thus, he could have easily distanced himself from the further views of its originator. However, what he shouldn't have done, was to leave out the principle completely, as his book evidently does. What's more, he could be looked at as unaware of what I here mention, if he had been an author from any other part of the world, where the works of the thinker I am here considering are, for all practical purposes, almost completely unknown.
Not so in the United States, for the author I mention is nobody less than the magnificent - however much hated she might be by many people - philosopher Ayn Rand, the originator of the moral principle I refer herewith, which states:
"Nobody may INITIATE the use of physical force against others. No man - or group or society or government - has the right to assume the role of a criminal and initiate the use of physical compulsion against any man. Man have the right to use physical force ONLY in retaliation and ONLY against those who initiate its use."
This simple and yet precisely to the point signaling moral principle reduces the whole religiously originated turmoil on morality to a very straightforward and, thus, acutely deduced law, i.e. the prohibition to INITIATE (this is where the accent lies) any act of violence against another person or persons. Starting from this principle all further consequences render themselves automatically.
Rand's moral principle makes the biblical "Commands" useless and, thus, unnecessary, and turns itself into the main (for exclusive) moral basis for all atheists and any further thinking persons that could even be religiously minded individuals, though to do so these people would have to turn away from their enmity towards human beings that don't follow their religious beliefs, in view of the up to now apparently endless persecutions, crimes, killings, wars and further acts of bodily damage committed against anyone that doesn't adhere to any particular one of the multitudinous existing religious institutions. Should the present crimes by Islamites against peaceful and productive people not suffice as example, the reader should view the history of mankind and/or the horrors related in the "Bible" or those committed in wholesale holocausts against other races, skin color, etc. that were either killed or subjected to slavedom, practically all of them due to religious beliefs. If Rand's principle were applied universally, all such horrors would immediately be viewed as what they are: wholesale crimes against mankind. There's another "Rand principle" involved, but this one can be left out for the content of this comment. Still, as she herself stated, the one here mentioned takes part of her dictum that as long as it is not accepted, it makes those who reject it unfit for any intellectual discussion.
Unfortunately, Sinnott-Armstrong, for whatever motives of his own, left this out in his book. Still, this exception remembered, the book is well worth reading and its ideas mus be earnestly thought of.
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