Drinking Deeply

Wednesday, October 17, 2007 at 8:23 PM

atheistic morality

So according to the BBC News, the Science Museum has canceled a talk by Dr. Watson (discoverer of the structure of DNA) because he has made statements that basically said black people were less intelligent than white people.

So here's a question to all atheists and evolutionists out there, to the people who believe we are merely bouncing chemical bags.

You condemn his statements as wrong, outrageous, and absurd, and I agree with you. But I come at it from a Christian perspective, where there is right and wrong, there is not only the "is" but there is also the "ought." Why do you condemn his statements? Wouldn't a more consistent perspective be, "maybe he's right, blacks just are lower down evolutionarily than white people, and eventually they'll die off. Or maybe eventually they'll out produce the whites, and we'll die off. Let's hear what he has to say."

What's so wrong with what he said?


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Blogger jefe said...

I don't know if any atheists read your blog, so I guess I'll have to stick up for them myself. The short answer is, different atheists will have a lot of different answers. There are a lot of atheists doing ethics, generally coherently, and sometimes persuasively. Almost all of them will agree that "there is not only the 'is' but there is also the 'ought'."

Here's just two of the most popular ethical theories, both of which are consistent with atheism.

(1) Utilitarianism. People have certain mental experiences which everyone has to admit are good, and others which everyone has to admit are bad. Excruciating suffering obviously isn't a good or neutral thing (even if it can sometimes be justified), and feeling deeply loved and content is obviously a good thing (even if it's inappropriate in some circumstances). You can tell whether an experience is good or bad (in itself, all other things being equal) just by experiencing it. And it also seems clear that the goodness or badness doesn't depend on whose experience it is, just on the kind of experience. The utilitarian says that what makes an action morally good is its tendency to promote the right kinds of mental experiences and reduce the wrong kinds.

(Sometimes utilitarians call the first kind "pleasure" and the second kind "pain", but I think that's misleading, since those words don't obviously cover experiences like feeling respected, or alienated, or secure, which often matter a lot more to us than the more physiological things we normally call "pleasure" and "pain".)

The utilitarian would say Dr. Watson did wrong because what he said hurt lots of people—it caused lots of people to have the obviously bad experience of being insulted, and suffer in lots of less direct but concrete ways because remarks like these bolster habits of discrimination.

John Stuart Mill was one of the most famous utilitarians, an atheist, and by all accounts generally a very nice guy.

(2) Kantianism. You can't act without respect for your own will. If you don't treat your own decisions as binding on yourself, then the best you can do is flail around randomly. But this means to act with complete rational consistency, you should respect agency everywhere. You have to respect not only your own will—your personhood—but also that of everyone else.

The Kantian would say Dr. Watson's remarks are wrong because they fail to respect the humanity of others: they treat people as less than people.

The most famous Kantian is of course Immanuel Kant, who wasn't an atheist but would be hard to call an orthodox Christian.

There's of course a lot more to be said for and against each of these views, and there are lots of other options too. But they're certainly not dumb views, and they sure look to me like they're compatible with atheism. What do you think?  


Blogger Eric said...

I think Mickey's issue with both Utilitarianism and Kantianism (is that the actual technical term? I remember it being called something else...) is with the premises.

(1) Utilitarianism.

"The utilitarian says that what makes an action morally good is its tendency to promote the right kinds of mental experiences and reduce the wrong kinds." You've labeled a particular mental experience as "right"--what _makes_ that mental experience right? Is it majority vote--e.g., when 100 people have that experience, 99 of them will say, "That felt good."? Or is there another authority?

(2) Kantianism.

"You can't act without respect for your own will." Why? Why are you bound to your will? Is it my will that makes me bound to my will?

Just throwing stuff out there. Maybe there will be a response from jeff. :-D  


Blogger mxu said...

Jeff -

Thanks for your post.

For the most part, after taking an introduction to moral philosophy, I find both views ultimately untenable, for reasons Eric has mentioned.

Now, I would agree that they are means by which the atheist judges his own actions, but I guess my question is, how does the atheist use these means to judge another's actions? It seems like the atheist's argument is gets pushed into a corner where essentially it says "don't do this, or you'll get punished."

But yet the atheist doesn't want to stop there, for they want to say "no, this is wrong." Not just a "there are consequences in store," but an outright wrong, which is binding upon all persons, past present and future.  


Blogger Evan said...

"they treat people as less than people."

I just wanted to add something as well. If blacks are really less intelligent than whites, then what's wrong with saying it like it is? He has not treated them as less than they are.

And what pushes someone over this arbitrary bar of humanness anyways? Atheistic evolution can't justify unique human value because all flesh is the same flesh. It's some other arbitrary quality that matters. Like how many brain cells you have or something. But it seems foolish to base our morality in a physical character trait. Anywho... my 2 cents.  


Blogger jefe said...

You may think these views are wrong, but if that's what you think then it's a little disingenuous to say, "Why do you condemn his statements?" People have reasons, lots of them, some more sophisticated and some less so. You may disagree with those reasons, but if that's the case then you should say that, instead of acting like you don't think they have any reasons at all.

Let me clarify a couple things about the two theories. They aren't intended to be just "means by which the atheist judges his own actions". They're supposed to be universal moral theories. A utilitarian (atheist or not) thinks that causing harm to people without any outweighing benefit is "an outright wrong, which is binding upon all persons, past present and future." So that's not a difference between these people and you. You may think they're less justified in their claims than the Christian, but again, if that's what you think, you should say that, and not act like they just can't say it at all.

And if that is what you think, then you better be ready to defend it. And it won't be an easy argument. Let's consider Eric's questions: what makes certain experiences good? What makes your will binding on you? Those are good questions, and I tried to outline how they could be answered in my previous comment. I can go into more detail if you want. But remember, the exact same questions can be turned on the divine command theorist. Say you think that something is good exactly when God says it is. A natural response to that is, what makes it good to do what God says? Why is God's authority binding? Again, those questions don't end the discussion; you should try to answer them. But it's not obvious that you're in a better place to come up with answers than the utilitarian or the Kantian. (And if your answer is "just because," why can't the utilitarian or Kantian say that just as well?) In fact, intuitively they're in a somewhat better position to answer this question. One reason for this is that mental experiences and the will are both things that are closely tied to motivation, while God's commands aren't hooked up so closely. But that's not an argument, just a vague gesture.

I'm not saying the utilitarian or the Kantian are right. I sort of doubt it, but I honestly don't know. (And while both of them are consistent with atheism, they're also perfectly consistent with theism.) What I am saying is that those positions are defensible. They're both smart things to say, and shouldn't be just dismissed as if they weren't real options. That's just insulting.  


Blogger mxu said...

Hmm, I'm not sure I expressed myself properly. Let me try again.

I don't think an atheist or other naturalistic views of the universe that deny higher powers as authoritative can consistently condemn evil from an objective standpoint.

Or at least, if they can, I haven't heard support yet. At best, their arguments (since they deny themselves an appeal to externals) amount to the "I don't like chocolate" type.

Regarding answering the questions, there is no other recourse other than to point out that God is the standard of good and evil, that He defines such things, so it is absurd to look elsewhere for such definition. Some might call that being circular, but I like to say that it's just being consistent.

Now, if the atheist says "just because" I would point out how that view is inconsistent with their own views of the world, of how they believe make their own future and decide what's good for them, that we are just bouncing chemical bags.

And finally, let me say this as a brother in Christ. I think you misspeak when you say that you don't know if utilitarianism or kantianism are right. You do know, at least, you do if you believe the Bible. The Lord has said -

He has told you, O man, what is good;and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.(Ecclesiastes 12:13)

On the last day, there will be no man (including you and me) who will have as an excuse before God, "oh, I wasn't sure what was good to do." All will fall condemned, and that's why we need Jesus.  


Blogger jefe said...

Thanks for replying, mxu. First off, I want to apologize for the tone of my last post. It came off testier than I intended. I do feel strongly about some of the issues on the table—particularly, when it comes to the principle of intellectual charity—but I don’t ever want that to turn into antagonism.

I’ll respond to your last point first. You and I both agree that what God commands is good. But this leaves open a serious question (and a very ancient one): is it good because God commands it, or does He command it because it is good? This is a hard question, and I believe the Bible does not answer it directly. Consequently, there have been very many thoughtful Christians on both sides of this debate.

I don’t know which option is right, but suppose it’s the second one: God commands certain things because those things are good. In that case, the question is still open as to what makes things good. And the utilitarian (U) or Kantian (K) might offer that explanation. That’s what I meant when I said that I don’t know whether they’re true. Even though I know that what God commands is good, I don’t know what makes it good.

Now for your second point. Clearly you fall on the other side of the question I just raised, since you say

…that God is the standard of good and evil, that He defines such things, so it is absurd to look elsewhere for such a definition.

The challenge for you is to spell that out in a little more detail. First off, there’s more than one way to understand the words you’re saying. One thing you could mean is that God’s nature is the standard of goodness: whatever God is, is good—end of story. Another thing you could mean is that God defines “good” and “evil” like a mathematician defines “normal subgroup”: he makes some arbitrary choice of what to mean by certain words. In either case, there are further questions. Why does the way God is, or what he stipulates, have any bearing on what we should do? Is there anything you could say to explain this to someone who doesn’t understand it, or convince someone who doesn’t already believe it?

Of course, explanations have to come to an end sometime. Sometimes the best we can say is “Just because” and “If you don’t see it, there’s nothing I can say to convince you.” A naturalist will agree that sometimes those are appropriate things to say—there’s nothing in their worldview that’s inconsistent with that. (If you think there is, you’re going to have to explain it to me.)

But hopefully explanation will come to an end somewhere that at least has some intuitive pull. And this is what U and K try to do: give a starting point that makes you say, “I can see why that would be where goodness comes from.”

U says: “Certain experiences just come across to us as good or bad. You can’t experience a toothache without experiencing it as bad, something it would be better to avoid (all other things being equal). I can’t say anything more to explain why toothaches are bad and watching a great movie is good. (I also can’t tell you why an electron and a proton’s charges are exactly opposite. You have to stop explaining sometime.) But we all know how to tell good experiences from bad ones; let’s take that as basic, and try to explain why other things are good or bad in terms of that.”

K says: “There are lots of different kinds of authority that may or may not be binding on you. But one kind of authority that you can’t help but obey is your own authority, what you choose to do. If you don’t heed that, you can’t really do anything at all. I don’t know why this is true of people. (Explanations have to end sometime.) But this is a kind of authority that everybody who acts has to recognize; let’s take that as basic and try to explain other kinds of moral authority in terms of that.”

U and K both have starting points for explaining objective morality that seem worth a stab. They seem at least as intuitive—maybe a lot more so—as the starting point that says “Whatever else is good, God is. Let’s take that as basic and try to explain other goodness in terms of that.” That doesn’t mean they’re right, but if they’re not we should hear some argument.

(And of course, U and K aren’t the only contenders for objective naturalistic morality, just two examples.)

I’m still open to hearing an argument for the conclusion that if naturalism is true, nothing can really be objectively good or bad. But an argument like that should be held up against the best naturalistic moral theories, not just the really crude ones (like “goodness is the same thing as evolutionary advantage”).  


Blogger mxu said...

jefe -

Thank you for your comment, and thank you as well for your apology. It is a mark of a true believer to admit when their words written in haste do not match their intentions and I appreciate that. I also appreciate your willingness to challenge me in areas where I'm not being as charitable as I could be. Thank you.

My response -

"Is it good because God commands it, or does he command it because it is good?"

Obviously, I've already responded to this, but I'd like to make one comment regarding the second option.

I find the second option permissible as a Christian provided that we admit that God, in his actions, cannot do wrong. Namely, there is no instance where we have a legitimate claim to say "then God is unjust." If that's the case, then it doesn't seem to matter to me what the answer to that particular question is.

The question as to why we ought to do good is a good one, and one whose answer probably is not compelling for someone who doesn't already accept them. But I have a hard time coming up with any reason at all that might be compelling for someone who doesn't already accept it.

1- We ought to do good because doing good glorifies God. It puts His goodness upon display for others.

2- God has declared himself the judge of all things good, and thus actively rewards good and punishes evil.

As to an argument against naturalistic morality, here's my best shot.

To my best understanding, a naturalistic worldview posits that we exist with no exterior purpose, no higher end. We came about by a specific (lucky?) arrangement of molecules and when we die it's just another arrangement of molecules.

Morality posits something eternal and unchanging, an ought for all people of all walks of life, whatever their background whatever their history (of course, there may be exceptions to this, but I'm generalizing).

I find these two to be inconsistent for the simple reason that naturalism posits that we have changed,we will change, and that we're not really that much better than other organisms (or other molecules for that matter). Yet morality puts a guiding principle upon us, "even if we have changed, and no matter what we change into, we ought to do this"

Morality assumes a constant, naturalism denies that constant.

A utilitarian might say that some experiences just are good. But he can't say that will remain true 10 years from now, or even that those experiences are good for him necessarily mean they're good for others.

As for kantianism, my understanding of kantianism from my moral philosophy course was essentially the golden rule -

We should act in a manner that we would wish all people to act.

I'm not actually sure I understand your description of kantianism, or if my understanding of it is even accurate, so I'll take a pass at criticizing Kantianism.  


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