A believer (in you-know-who-or-whatever) asks:
“Did you step back to ask why do we regard torturing children to be morally bad? Simple, it’s because God created us (through evolution) to think that way.”
Yes – too simple.
Remember here, first, that one culture’s “torture” is another’s “discipline.” * If god designs us all in this fashion, then ethical imperatives should be universally within a range of possible behaviors. But while there seem to be some ethical behaviors that appear in all cultures, not all do, and the continuum of variance is greater than if we assume a unitary source.
But I’ll try to give a more complicated answer to the question:
First, there are simply community standards, and it doesn’t really matter where these standards originate from. This is how ‘we’ live, what we agree to, in order to communicate and live with others like ourselves. We can change that, through political maneuvering, argument, rhetoric; but we can’t simply dismiss it all together, without risks and repercussions. Some of it remains, no matter what we argue. We never really leave home.
I was raised in America where we were taught that torture was barbaric, a practice of the past and of other cultures. (Which is one reason I’ve grown so pessimistic, given political leanings of the past 13 years.) But we still teach our children to value themselves, and to value their own young when they grow up. That may change; it is a value not shared with every culture in history (or at least qualified in some). But for now we Americans prize our young and thus find attempts to diminish their value disturbing and unacceptable.
As a philosopher, I can see the child as needing to be regarded as an end-in-itself, since having the same value as I do, and thus requiring the same respect I would demand. I can also argue that our children are our future, and thus we owe it to ourselves to nurture that future, so as to pass on our values properly following our demise. I can also argue this from a utilitarian perspective, that the security of our future is a good worthy of protecting in our children.
Finally, as a Buddhist, I reason that all sentient beings struggle to survive; that this struggle inevitably brings forth suffering. Suffering being unsatisfactory, the reduction of suffering is thus a good in and of itself. So in opposite to this, whatever we designate ‘bad,’ or ‘evil,’ or otherwise unacceptable is behavior that increases suffering unnecessarily. (I can also admit that working towards the end of suffering for others decreases my own suffering, which is obviously a benefit worth working towards.)
My point is, any ethical judgment is not a simple directive or dependency, but a complex interweaving of determinations within various frameworks – social, personal, rational, emotional. Historically god has been a signifier for the source and, recursively, the closure, of extrapolations of such frameworks within certain theistically-dominated cultures. But it has also been used to close off any discussion of such frameworks, especially when directed toward those lacking in sophisticated education.
(The most basic theist morality – one can demonstrate that most if not all religious morality reduces to it – Divine Command Theory ultimately reduces to ‘shut up, god told you this!’ which is frankly insulting to anyone wishing to think for themselves.)
I’m not sure how much I buy the story that evolution has generated within us any necessary ethical imperatives at all. So I’m not going to buy some divine origin for it.
* Children, alas, do get tortured – all too often. Why would a supposedly ‘loving’ god allow a world where children might be tortured to begin with? A test of will? Isn’t that rather cruel? Or maybe the whim just struck him as amusing.
I think we need arguments against child abuse (of any kind) that are not reliant on the rather uncertain will of the Almighty.