The Smuggled Value Judgement

The English village of Hayle is typically picturesque, a small cluster of cottages set around a harbour, looking out to the tranquil waters of St. Ive’s bay. But like so much of England, layers of darker history lie beneath the pretty-as-a-postcard facade. Hidden behind the undergrowth in the garden of what was once the local youth hostel, yawns the mouth of a tunnel. Stoop to step inside its cool darkness and one can walk for hundreds of yards, eventually emerging beneath the cliffs on a nearby cove. Although dank and musty now, local legend identifies this as an ancient “Smuggler’s Tunnel”, once used for bringing illegal contraband ashore under cover of darkness.

The coastal towns and villages of England are full of tales of such tunnels, many dating back centuries to when smuggling was at its height. On moonless nights, sailing ships would pull quietly into bays like that at Hayle, offload their illicit cargo into smaller boats and bring it ashore. There the contraband would be hauled across the sands, carried through tunnels, or even manhandled up sheer cliff faces to a waiting line of locals who would spirit it away. Whole communities benefited from the smuggling trade and the customs men, whose job it was to thwart the black market trade, were often foiled by a stone wall of silence. As Rudyard Kipling, who grew up on the English coast and knew these stories well, wrote in his poem “A Smuggler’s Song”:

If you wake at midnight, and hear a horse’s feet,
Don’t go drawing back the blind, or looking in the street.
Them that ask no questions isn’t told a lie.
Watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by!
Five and twenty ponies,
Trotting through the dark—
Brandy for the Parson,
‘Baccy for the Clerk;
Laces for a lady, letters for a spy,
And watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by![1]

When you heard the sound of horses, or the whispers of voices late at night, you were supposed to look the other way, ask no questions, ‘watch the wall’, as the contraband was smuggled past.

horseToday, the smuggling business is alive and well, only it is not tobacco or brandy that are secreted past, but value judgements. You see, whenever a writer tells you that something is good and laudable, or that something is bad and condemnable, there is an important question you must ask before you consider whether or not to believe them. What worldview do they subscribe to and does that worldview support the value judgement they are making, or are they having to smuggle it in from outside, hoping that everybody will look the other way?

Let me illustrate by means of the humble sport of cricket. Back in 2013, at the height of the Ashes test series against Australia, English cricketer Stuart Broad allegedly engaged in some unsportsmanlike behaviour by not admitting the ball had caught the edge of his bat before it was caught. Whilst a cricket match may move, at least to American eyes, with slow glacial majesty, it is a game high on chivalry and so Broad’s actions caused huge controversy. One cricket fan—the well known English atheist, Richard Dawkins—took to Twitter to protest:

Stuart Broad obviously knew perfectly well he was caught. Refused to walk. What a revolting cheat. I now want Australia to win the Ashes.[2]

Dawkins followed this up with:

I am well aware that it is a fact that professional cricketers care about winning more than about morality. But they bloody well shouldn’t.[3]

When I first read this flurry of tweets,[4] I must confess that I found them exceedingly curious. This is, after all, the same Richard Dawkins who has argued that when it comes to explaining all of life, evolution is the “only game in town”. Indeed, in his book River Out of Eden, Dawkins penned this oft-quoted passage:

The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. As that unhappy poet A. E. Housman put it:
For Nature, heartless, witless Nature
Will neither know nor care.
DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.[5]

But if this is true, it raises a question. If nature really is neither good nor evil, if we are all simply dancing to the music of our DNA, from where is Dawkins deriving the value judgement which he is waving around and bashing hapless cricketers over the head with? The answer is that it is a smuggled value judgement. If Dawkins were consistent the best he could offer would be to grumble that Stuart Broad’s DNA is clearly playing a different tune to his, but hey, some enjoy to waltz whilst others prefer to tango. What his worldview certainly does not allow him to do is pronounce Broad as immoral, instead he must smuggle that value judgement in from somewhere else, hoping we don’t notice. Watch the wall, my darling, while the value judgements go by …

That was fun. Let’s try another.

This next example comes from Alom Shaha, former Muslim and author of The Young Atheist’s Handbook. After an introductory chapter extolling the wonders of bacon, Shaha switches from pork to beef, specifically his beef with organised religion. Among the many aspects of religion that irk Shaha is the belief in the afterlife:

It’s an insidious idea, this notion that there is life after death … It depresses me to think that so many people on the planet live their lives with this notion. Can we truly fulfil our potential as a species as long as we hold on to, and encourage, the perpetuation of the lie of life after death?[6]

Like the writings of many other atheists, Shaha’s book is not so much an argument as a moral tract. Just look at his words above—do you not sense the energy, the passion, his beatific vision of a species fulfilling its potential? But hold on one moment, though. Shaha is, like Dawkins, committed to naturalistic materialism—the belief that all that exists are atoms and particles. Human beings are just the result of time plus chance plus natural selection, there’s no reason we’re here. And that means there is no potential we have to fill. Study science if you wish, feed the poor if you’re so moved, or simply park yourself on the couch, eat pizza, and watch endless re-runs of Game of Thrones. DNA neither knows, nor cares.

In his satirical poem, ‘Hymn to Evolution’, Oxford professor C. S. Lewis illustrated the dilemma for the atheist well:

Lead us, evolution, lead us,
Up the future’s endless stair,
Chop us, change us, prod us, weed us,
For stagnation is despair!
Groping, guessing, yet progressing,
Lead us, nobody knows where.[7]

If the evolutionary story is all that there is, then there is nothing that human beings are supposed to be. We are simply one point on the graph of the endless march of evolution and we have no way of knowing where the ever winding road takes us. Behind us, lies a trail of ancestors all the way back to the primordial soup, ahead of us lies—well, we have no way of knowing. So where, pray, is Shaha getting the language of “potential” from? Certainly not from his atheism. Like Dawkins, he is smuggling it in from outside, distracting us with stories of illicit bacon in the hope we won’t notice anything suspicious. Watch the wall, my darling, while the value judgements go by …

One last example, this time from Sam Harris, atheist and neuroscientist. In his book The Moral Landscape, Harris excitedly tells us that religion is no longer needed as the compass of morality, nor to determine the content of ethics, but instead that science can answer moral questions. Here’s how the trick is done:

[Q]uestions about values—about meaning, morality, and life’s larger purpose—are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. Values, therefore, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood: regarding positive and negative social emotions, retributive impulses, the effects of specific laws and social institutions on human relationships, the neurophysiology of happiness and suffering, etc. … If there are objective truths to be known about human well-being—if kindness, for instance, is generally more conducive to happiness than cruelty is—then science should one day be able to make very precise claims about which of our behaviors and uses of attention are morally good, which are neutral, and which are worth abandoning.[8]

In other words, morality is all about well-being, about happiness, and science can tell us how to maximise that. By the careful application of science, we can ensure that the greatest possible number of people can live happy, healthy, productive lives. No God needed.

What’s the problem? Well, to answer that it helps to realise that Harris’s argument is nothing really new, but is basically a modernised version of an old ethical theory called Utilitarianism, one which traces it roots to two English philosophers, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). Their approach said that morality is about maximising “utility”—which is usually defined as happiness. When you’re faced with a moral choice, you must pick that action which will produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. And many atheists today, like Harris, think science can answer those kinds of questions very well.

But here’s the problem. Why maximise happiness? Why is happiness a good thing? Even if we decide that it is, why should I decide that your happiness is worth the same as my happiness? (Perhaps mine is more important than yours.) From where is Harris deriving the value judgement that maximising happiness (and doing so with a careful eye to equality and fair play) is a good thing? Watch the wall, my darling, while the value judgements go by …

With practice, you can learn to spot smuggled value judgements everywhere. Whenever somebody tells you that something is good or bad, noble or evil, ask yourself whether their worldview sustain the value judgement they are making.

A few months ago, I had lunch with a young atheist from the University of Toronto, who wished to ask some questions about the Christian faith. Over the space of a couple of hours, he fired dozens of questions at me and I did my best to respond. As soon as I had answered one question or objection, he’d fire another at me—bang, bang, bang! At the end of our time together, as I walked him to his car, I was wracking my brains, trying to think of something I could leave him with to make him think more deeply. As he opened the door of his car, I said to him: “I’ve enjoyed our lunch and I hope some of my answers helped you. But more than that, I hope you felt that I treated you with respect and dignity, despite our profound disagreements?”

“Yes,” he replied, “you have been very kind”.

“Good,” I said, “and I have to say, you have also been very courteous, despite your clear difficulties with the Christian faith.” He thanked me and I continued: “But I’d like to leave you with a thought. The reason I have treated you with respect is I believe that as a human being, you are made in the image of a God who created you and loves you, and who showed how much he values you by sending his Son, Jesus, to die for you. That’s why I treated you the way I did. Now, I know that you do not believe this. In fact, you have told me three times in the last two hours that you believe humans are nothing more than atoms and particles, that we are just an accident of biology. But you have not treated me as an accident. You have treated me as person of value and significance. In other words, you have treated me on the basis of my worldview, not of yours. For this I am grateful, but it raises some questions, wouldn’t you say?” For the first time in two hours, he had nothing to say in reply.

If the Christian worldview is true, if the arc of biblical story tells the real story of who we are, then it gives the only basis I know for the use of words like ‘good’ and ‘evil’, ‘ought’ and ‘must’, ‘purpose’ and ‘potential’. If you wish to wipe God from the picture, then God, in his mercy, has given you that freedom. But with God goes the source of all value judgements, leaving the atheist alone in a purposeless universe and thus left with just two choices: either to be consistent and admit they can no longer speak of things like morality, or to start smuggling in value judgements from the Christian worldview, under cover of darkness. Altogether now: Watch the wall, my darling, while the value judgements go by …

[1]      Rudyard Kipling, ‘A Smuggler’s Song’ in Collected Poems of Rudyard Kipling (Ware: Wordsworth Editions Ltd, 1994) 696

[2]      Dawkins, Richard (@RichardDawkins), 12 Jul 2013, 5:38pm,

[3]      Dawkins, Richard (@RichardDawkins), 12 July 2013, 6:11pm,

[4]      I’m grateful to Phill Sacre, ‘Richard Dawkins on the Ethics of Stuart Broad’, (accessed 14 April 2014) for putting me onto this.

[5]      Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (New York: Basic Books, 1995) 133.

[6]      Alom Shaha, The Young Atheist’s Handbook (London: Biteback Publishing, 2012) 35.

[7]      Cited in Walter Hooper, C. S. Lewis: The Companion and Guide (London: HarperCollins, 2005)177.

[8]      Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (New York: Free Press, 2011) 1-2, 8.

Dr. Andy Bannister is a popular speaker, author and broadcaster. Andy is the Director of the Solas Centre for Public Christianity and an Adjunct Speaker with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries. Andy speaks and teaches regularly throughout the UK, Canada, the USA, and the wider world on issues relating to faith, culture, politics and society.