July 27, 2007

Moral Atheists - Good by what measure?

In all my interactions with atheists I have noticed a curious thing: they are very keen to be thought of as "good" people and insist that it does not require a deity in order to seek to act morally. Indeed, they claim that it is nobler to be good for its own sake than to be good for the sake of rewards gained or punishments avoided, which they believe theism entails. There are several problems inherent in this idea, but what I want to explore here is the problem of defining the "good" and considering whether we find atheists, in fact, acting according to such a definition.

(Note: for the purposes of this essay when I use the term "atheist" I mean anyone who builds his or her ethics apart from the idea that moral imperatives find their source outside of nature. I might alternately have chosen a term like "secular humanist," but that is at least a form of functional atheism.)

In my last post there was general agreement by my atheist respondents that morality must reduce to subjective human constructions in a world without anything beyond matter and human minds. Even if our moral urges come to us as a result of evolution or social conditioning it is still up to the individual to determine which, if any, of these urges is to be preferred. If it were to end here an atheist could have little further to say against those, like me, who disagree with them. It would simply be one preference holder against another, and all differences would be settled by sophistry and coercion (the emerging methodologies in our culture, by the way).

As it turns out, most atheists who like to think of themselves as moral do so with a sense that they are saying something particularly meaningful. The implication is that they have access to moral knowledge that they are committed to put into practice. It is something like saying that you are a good baseball player, which refers to a particular game with known rules and objectives that you skillfully follow. If this is not true, then a moral atheist is just asserting that they follow their own desires; they are saying little more than, "I do what I feel like doing, and whatever I do I call 'good.'"

For the atheist who insists on being seen as moral, he is faced with a humanistic version of Euthyphro's Dilemma. Either morality is something imposed upon him by forces outside of his control, or "good" is just whatever he happens to favor and "bad" is just whatever he happens to reject. The buck must stop somewhere, and for the atheist it must be somewhere within nature.

The solution to this dilemma as it applies to deity is not available, since human will and character is not, by nature, a uniform and unchanging thing that morality can be said to describe. The only universally descriptive axiom regarding human behavior is, "Nobody's perfect." Such a statement only begins to make sense if there is some "perfection" to which humans fail to conform. But if humans define the standard, and all humans fail it, from whence comes the impossible scale?

If morality is purely subjective, then it is meaningless to claim to be moral, since everyone is a subject and can be moral by definition. But if morality is not pure subjectivity, then to what external (though non-transcendent) standard could an atheist appeal in order to measure himself as "good?" In my experience, the three most common things offered are "reason," "moral intuition," and "natural constraints." Let's look at each and see where they fail the atheist, or vice versa.

Reason

As the late philosopher James Rachels said, "Morality is, at the very least, the effort to guide one's conduct by reason."

It's fine to be reasonable, and I'm not sure if anyone has ever claimed that their moral system was "unreasonable." Unfortunately, "reason" is not enough; it is no better than a car without fuel and a destination. If I told you to go to Xanadu, and you asked me how to get there, it would not be a helpful answer to say, "By car." Additionally, if you asked why you should care about going to Xanadu, I would have to appeal to something other than the car to make an answer.

As a car is only a tool for comfortable ground travel, reason is only a tool for careful, logical thinking. Tools in themselves do nothing; they must be employed for specific purposes. Someone wishing to use his reason must first be given ideas and objectives to process, like a math problem or a puzzle. And like a math problem, reason needs rules of engagement. For math, these are the laws of mathematics and logic, which may themselves be discovered by reason but are not produced by it. And like a puzzle, reason needs a known goal toward which to work.

Reason itself is not a moral system. It can only help you navigate through the world by way of the constraints and objectives contained within a given moral system. Reason may help to refine an existing system, but it is not the author of the foundations upon which any system rests. That foundation is something prior to the exercise of reason — things like preferences, intuitions, divine revelation, or natural constraints. If I see a woman drowning, I may use reason to assist me in determining the best way to provide aid, but it is something else that tells me that I ought to risk my safety to help her if I am able.

So, reason is not enough. It is only the vehicle between our true moral driver and our behavior destination. It still remains to identify what it is that employs our reason toward its ends.

Moral intuitions

One atheist recently said to me, "I do have objective moral standards. They just happen to be inspired by reason and compassion, not religion." Adding compassion we have gone a step further, but is it enough?

"Compassion" hints at something deep and emotional, which is not simply the product of reason. It is like our love of music, the scent of a rose, and the look of a sunset. These touch our hearts not because we have reasoned that they should, but because of the very mystery of human nature.

This same atheist (and others), when cornered on his grounding for certain moral positions, claimed that he just knew that some things were wrong. If a statement like this is not simply referring to deeply seated preferences, then it must be the case that there are shared human intuitions. A moral atheist might then claim to be a disciple of these intuitions.

If these are indeed human intuitions, then this implies that we are not required to merely introspect upon our own personal feelings on any given matter. Indeed, anyone else's feelings ought to be as good as our own. However, since we observe that there are differences of opinion on certain moral issues it must be the case that some people can be mistaken. They can either mismanage their intuitions, like applying the moral "good" of tolerance to criminal behavior, or they can warp them by way of personal bias, like saying that charity is not "good" because of the love of their own wealth.

Even if moral intuitions are real and universal things, the danger in leaning upon them is that one may easily mistake personal inclinations for actual intuitions. For this reason, a true student of moral intuitions will look to the corporate conscience of humanity to temper his subjectivity. He will also understand that no matter how much he might personally desire to engage in a behavior, or tolerate it in others, that behavior may in fact be contrary to our core intuitions.

In my observation of atheism it appears to be the case that they are primarily social liberals. There are many controversial behaviors that they are perfectly willing to tolerate or even celebrate, and the line is often drawn only where issues of harm and consent are at stake. But surely there is more to our moral intuitions than, "I won't rob and kill you if you don't rob and kill me."

In the process of being inclusive, atheists implicitly affirm as "good," or at least morally neutral, certain behaviors that may well be candidate items for our moral intuitions. I'll use homosexuality and abortion as examples. If our intuitions do not cover matters of sexuality, reproduction, and how we ought to treat our offspring, then I can't imagine that they are very comprehensive and helpful guides to begin with.

In spite of the increasing secularism of society and the continual advocacy for same-sex relationships homosexuals still find themselves victim of a large-scale cultural "homophobia." Even the most liberal states cannot seem to muster the votes to resist same-sex marriage bans. It takes judicial activism to circumvent the popular stance on this issue. And the average person (religious or otherwise) still has a reaction to flamingly effeminate males and struggles to push past the "yuck factor" when confronted with the reality of what homosexual relations actually entail (all jokes about attractive co-ed lesbians aside).

Are the limited gains toward the full acceptance of homosexuality just because society has not yet been fully "enlightened" to the virtues of sexual diversity, or is it that homosexuality actually rides against the current of our moral intuitions? What is it that should fire our intuitions that homosexuality is a morally good lifestyle: That families should consist of non-reproducing units? That penises and colons seem designed for each other? Homosexuality is an anomaly that defies sexual teleology from the most superficial to the deepest social level.

I suggest that it is merely the fact that some people happen to have desires for same-sex relations that causes us to wrestle with our intuitions about what is sexually natural and good. And this subjective bias seems to carry over to supporters of the behavior in that, according to The Journal of NIH Research, the strongest predictor of positive attitudes toward homosexuals is that an individual knows a homosexual. Having a personal investment in a behavior — either first-hand or via friends and family — fosters less objectivity regarding that behavior. And no matter how "nice" homosexuals might be, how much we may love a particular one, or how much pleasure they derive from their behavior, it says nothing about its moral status.

On the matter of abortion, a significant percentage of the population is flatly opposed to the practice. Of those who are "pro-choice," many are personally opposed to abortion. Of those not opposed to it, many say they don't like it and would like to make it rare. And of those who have actually had one, it is common to see them writing goodbye notes to their fetuses or suffering guilt and depression for years afterwards.

There is nothing on the face of it that would make parents killing their own offspring seem morally benign, and there is a reason why abortion centers prefer not to show ultrasounds to their customers, that abortion photos send pro-choice advocates into orbit, and that showing an abortion on TV is a taboo, or at least rare, act. It is an ugly thing that nobody likes and that we'd rather keep shrouded in privacy and ignorance, but that we feel "necessary" because some parents find their offspring's existence to conflict with their own personal desires.

Again, the reason we would override our moral intuitions regarding this nasty issue is merely to accommodate those who happen to want to do it. Indeed, it is murder if someone else kills an unborn baby, but it is just elective surgery if the mother gives consent to the act (remember, they call it "pro-choice," not "pro-abortion"). If no woman chose to terminate her pregnancy we would not intuit that we were missing a valuable maternal rite, just as if no one were compelled toward same-sex relations we would not feel that we were missing an important sexual demographic. Life would go on its merry way.

If one wishes to be considered "good" by measure of human intuitions, then it is not particularly noble to adhere only to those moral principles that one is not tempted to violate. The minimalistic ethic turns a deaf ear to a whole raft of moral intuitions and focuses, instead, primarily on those behaviors that have obvious impact to life and property and are already broadly condemned by all but sociopaths. It is pragmatic and little more. The typical atheist's libertarianism is not the pinnacle of virtue; it is simply an institutionalized apathy toward confronting common vice.

Natural constraint

Another atheist (near and dear to this blog), who is intent on finding an objective basis for his morality, has suggested what I will call "natural constraints." As I understand it, this is the idea that natural law and consequence provides the license and limits for our behavior. Just as gravity and topography guide the flow of water, physics guides the flow of morality. So, drug use and violence are "bad" because they damage body and mind, whereas love and charity are "good" because they contribute to physical and mental health. While this may be helpful input for certain moral equations, it is not adequate to define morality itself.

The funny thing about moral laws is that, unlike physical laws, we can choose to break them. Water has no choice but to flow downhill, just as we have no choice but to fall when tripped. However, no matter what the moral precept and where it originates, humans can manage to violate it. Even if it is true that natural health constraints play against such behaviors as smoking and overeating, it still remains to be argued why one should care about such consequences and curb ones behavior as a result. Nature and its workings are just neutral data and causal systems; one must impose a prior moral theory upon it to say how we ought to respond as a result of its operation. Some other premise must be supplied to make the connection between bad for you and morally bad to do.

While it may seem self-evident to assert that whatever is unhealthy for you and others is to be considered wrong, there are several problems inherent in this foundational idea of natural constraint theory.

First, many people don't concern themselves about consequences and some flat out rebuke them. How many millions of people regularly eat junk food, smoke cigarettes, drink too much, and/or are couch potatoes? The vast majority of these know there are health consequences, but either have made a conscious choice to gamble against them or are committed to take them when they come. A perfect example is one of my friend's responses when I commented on his affinity for meat and carbohydrates to the exclusion of vegetables. "Everybody dies sometime," he said. His own dining pleasure trumps all other considerations.

According to natural constraint theory, then, everyone who knowingly and intentionally embraces unhealthy pursuits is engaging in immoral behavior. From cigarettes to junk food to sunbathing: it's all vice. And since promiscuous sex and homosexuality are bedfellows with many undesirable consequences, then these become morally suspect as well. Merely having the desire — casually or compulsively — toward an unhealthy lifestyle would not change the morality of it, since exceptions to the rule of natural risk and consequence would negate the very system and return the atheist back to the dominance of subjective preference over any other criteria.

Second, in many cases it is not so apparent what is a "good" consequence or result. It is easy enough to say that we should not stab someone for health reasons, but it slightly complicates things to ask if a surgeon is wrong to cut. No problem there, I'm sure we can all agree that the end healing justifies the means in this case, but what about how we should treat the poor? What about our children? Should we just hand them whatever they need and desire? The answer to these questions will ultimately lead to further questions of purpose and ideals: what kinds of people do we want to make of our children and the underprivileged? What end do we have in mind and is it worth the necessary means to achieve it?

There can be diverse answers to such a question that all fit within a natural constraint ethic and which will influence how we arrive at our goals. For instance, if our goal is weighted more toward hard work and virtue than wealth and pleasure we may use distinctly different means in the process of getting there that would not otherwise seem reasonable to us. For this reason many important issues will be driven by philosophies that precede the natural constraint ethic. Where do those come from and how do they not reduce to preferences on par with a bias toward chocolate over vanilla ice cream?

Third, some things we will always insist to be wrong even though they harm nothing at all. For instance, if a doctor fondles a patient under anesthesia, who is "hurt," especially if the patient has no way of finding out? Is it only wrong if the person finds out, thus suffering emotional distress? Is it only wrong because the patient might find out? Nature and her effects cannot give us guidance here; we must appeal to some other more abstract principles of "rights," "privacy," and "consent," which are difficult enough on their own to defend as something other than subjective standards. We would need not only a transcendent standard of human dignity but a god's-eye witness of such "harmless," anonymous thrills to claim any wrong had actually been done.

Even if our responses to natural constraints were uniform and it could be said to be a self-evident basis for morality, I do not find that in practice the limits of nature are given principled deference. By "principled" I mean that the cues of nature are read and taken as the primary drivers of absolute morality. Nature would be said to whisper the ways of virtue and we would be her devoted students. As it turns out, nature is treated more like an overbearing father who is obeyed wherever necessary and evaded wherever possible.

Let's visit our twin issues of homosexuality and abortion again. An unbiased reading of nature suggests that sex is best reserved for long-term relationships between members of the opposite sex. Unwanted pregnancies, communicable diseases, and other related health issues (not to mention psychological issues) are clear consequences of a libertarian sexual ethic.

Someone committed to natural constraint theory would need to consider the idea that homosexuality should be classed as immoral due to the inherent risks involved, and that abortions are simply an ugly remediation for the consequences of bad sexual behavior. Instead, we find the moral status of the causal behaviors left unaddressed — nay, even celebrated — and all attention placed upon artificial preventative and corrective measures. In fact, if one is not on the bandwagon for HIV research, condoms for teens, and unrestricted abortions he is far more likely to be thought of as the immoral one.

Far from being students of natural law, atheists tend to make a practice of bending nature to serve their own wills. Someone declaring himself morally good by natural constraint theory may in fact be saying nothing more than, "I only do what science and nature allow me to get by with." By this measure, every advance of science puts more options on the moral buffet. This is hardly an impressively noble ethic, and I would wager that there are few atheists who would consent to anything close to this characterization of their claim to virtue.

Conclusion

As I've argued, for an atheist to make a claim to virtue he is either just saying that he successfully marches to his own drum or he is saying that he has a fixed standard, common to humanity (at minimum), by which he has held himself to account. Unfortunately, the various systems employed to objectify morality turn out to be inadequate and impotent. There is always something else not contained within the system that drives the application of it, even if it is only to answer the question of why one ought to care about that particular moral system. Additionally, the chosen system is not given preeminence in the atheist's moral thinking. It is trumped wherever it is found personally inconvenient or where it conflicts with ideology not derived from the system itself. I do not mean that atheists simply fail to live up to their own standards at all times, for that would be understandable; I mean that they consciously repudiate things that ought to be a part of those standards.

Even if atheists identify a moral system that they believe to be objective, and which they do in fact use to inform their moral choices, it is still personal desire that has the final say. Their will is king and their moral system is a hand-chosen adviser, to be heard or ignored according to their sovereign pleasure. In the end, they have not escaped a subjective moral relativism, which voids the idea that they can be "good" in a way that is universally meaningful. To repurpose a very old observation, if there is no king in Israel, then everyone will do what is right in his own eyes. Fortunately for the rest of us, the majority of atheists prefer to be liked and to avoid social chaos and poverty, and so they often make reasonably good citizens. But of course I am just assuming those to be good things based upon my own moral framework. I could be mistaken, but only if there is no God to invest us with real moral capital.

Labels: ,

22 Comments:

At 7/28/2007 12:30 AM, Blogger SLW said...

Paul,
Welcome back! What a pleasure it is to have a new essay to read. I was in a discussion along the lines of this and your last post at another site. I found myself wishing I could communicate with your clarity.

I could not get my mind, nor my words, wrapped around the logic of an atheistic moralist expressing indignation against the behavior of any other human being (in this case belief in God). If there is no God, all behavior has to be the mere expression chemistry and physics. Where along the advance of a biochemical cascade does innate value enter in?

So I find it difficult to understand the need of the atheistic moralist to play one-upmanship with the theistic moralist. The inanity of that old KennelRation commercial comes to mind. Could anything be more inconsequential? If there is no God, who cares! Human behavior is what it is.

 
At 7/28/2007 2:37 AM, Anonymous Richard R said...

Just came across this post randomly, and I think you make some excellent points. I agree that morality is a very tricky thing to explain, and a lot of those explanations have problems.

That said, I think those problems are not just inherent in Atheist morality.

Assuming, for a moment, that you don't have moral objections to eating crayfish, and that you don't feel that killing people for working on the sabbath is morally justified, then there must also be some basis (other than religion) for your morality.

Christians "pick and choose" the parts of Christian morality which they "know" are right, dismissing other parts as "metaphor", or outdated without any theological reason. I fail to see how this is any different than Atheist morality.

 
At 7/28/2007 10:54 AM, Blogger Paul said...

SLW,

You are correct that atheism is ultimately nihilistic. In a purely natural world, whatever humans do is . . . natural. However, for at least self-serving reasons, most people would like a world that is comfortable to live in and thus atheists have a vested interest in moralizing. But if you look at the behavior of the total world population, it is not clear that the goal of living in peace and minding one's own business is the majority opinion.

You and I know that atheism = nihilism, and that any value and purpose that atheism produces is just game playing. That is one reason why we are Christians: because we get that. It seems that atheists want very badly to have meaning too — they know deep in their heard that such a thing exists — it is just that they want to be the author of it. But what kind of values do they want to have? "Good" values? Good by what measure? This presupposes a standard by which they might measure them.

 
At 7/28/2007 10:56 AM, Blogger Paul said...

Richard,

Welcome to Pensees.

Before I address your pushback, can you first see that in an atheistic universe there is no value, purpose, and morality beyond whatever humans make for themselves? Beyond that, since what humans make up (assuming they could all agree) is not objectively true, then it ultimately falls to individual preference. Are you admitting as much and just saying that theists have problems too?

Regarding your complaint against Christian selectivism, I would start by asking you if you know why we don't sacrifice animals anymore.

 
At 7/28/2007 10:57 AM, Blogger Paul said...

BTW, I'll be out of town for 4 days. Not sure if I'll be able to get on the computer in that time.

I probably shouldn't have posted something that begs for pushback right before leaving ;-)

 
At 7/28/2007 8:44 PM, Blogger ephphatha said...

Good post, Paul. Full of good information. Of course I agree with you entirely, so I have nothing to say in response.

 
At 7/28/2007 11:08 PM, Anonymous Richard R said...

Firstly, regarding "Christian selectivism" - it wasn't a complaint, but more an observation and suggestion that Christians also have no objective morality. Sure, I think you COULD say that every part of the bible is true, and then you'd be forced to accept that working on the Sabbath demands a nice good stoning, but since you don't (I imagine?) then you clearly have some other source of morality.

As for the animal sacrifice - isn't it something to do with Jesus? Not that I claim to be a Christian theologian, but I imagine you don't need to appease God through animal sacrifice any more because of something to do with his suicide. I suppose you could then claim that since you can rely on forgiveness, that sins like working on the Sabbath don't matter any more because you can be forgiven for them, but that doesn't change the fact that the bible clearly states that it is immoral.

While I haven't fully thought about where morality actually comes from (as I said previously - I agree it's a difficult question), I think I'd probably tend to say that morality IS relative - or, in your words "whatever humans make for themselves". That said, I think evolution may have had some part to play - clearly some "morals" could have developed through natural selection.

The point is, whether atheist or theist, we (collectively) both "make our morals for ourselves" - you may claim that yours come from God (through the bible), but unless you can provide an objective way to separate the Sabbath-working crayfish-eating sins from the "real" ones, then you're not really any different.

 
At 8/01/2007 1:32 PM, Blogger Paul said...

I would first point out the philosophical problem of objective morality in an atheistic world. As I argue, the only way that morality has even a hope of being objective is if it can find its source outside of humanity. Theism gives morality a reasonable framework. Whether or not we can infallibly determine all that this morality entails is a separate question. Even if Christians and non-Christians were jointly thrashing in the dark over moral issues, from the two diverse perspective it is a different thing that they are seeking and a different relationship to it that they are maintaining.

If there is no God, then something like evolution must be true. And since we are supposedly the product of evolution, then everything that we are and do would be attributed to it. But evolutionary ethics are meaningless in the end, since there is the problem of why we "ought" to act in the way that evolution proposes that we "should" act. It is not a moral process and its goal is not to make moral creatures, only successfully reproducing creatures. And the fact that this same evolution seems to have created beings who lie, steal, and rape, as well as love, self-sacrifice, and nurture, is something of a riddle. Just what is it that evolution is trying to tell us to do anyway, and where is the higher moral law that tells us it is better to plant our seed one way over another? Evolutionary ethics does not escape relativism. For the atheist, all moralizing is just so much emoting, and when he complains about his pet causes and condemns the supposed evil in the Bible, or religion in general, I hear only the sounds of a gorilla beating his chest.

When I asked you about the sacrificial system I did so for several reasons. One was to see if you actually understood the Christianity that you reject. Another was to point out the most obvious example of a situation where the new has superseded the old. It is not that we don't sacrifice anymore because we don't have to; it is that the actual has come to replace the symbolic. The principle that our sins are worthy of death, and can only be absolved by a substitutionary atonement, is still in play. Indeed, it is the reason that Jesus came into the world: to be, as John the Baptist said, "The spotless white lamb who takes away the sins of the world." In light of this it is an outright denial of the work of Christ to continue with the sacrificial system.

While I agree with you that many Christians are ignorant of systematic theology and do indeed seem to pick and choose their moral landmarks, it is not a systemic problem of Christianity in general; however, I would say that it is something for which orthodox Jews must answer, not having the lens of Christ through which to view anything at all. It is not that Christians are simply ignoring Old Testament moral dictates; it is that they are taken on principle rather than as the law for a particular covenanted theocratic nation. Some things are fulfilled in Christ, some things were for the sake of the preservation and operation of national Israel, and some things were just naked moral principles that still apply today.

It takes a bit to unpack any given O.T. principle, and some Christians haven't the patience for it, so they may indeed be guilty of discarding what they do not like by hiding under the general principle that we are no longer "under the law." For this reason, the new covenant is the benchmark for most and can stand as a sure enough grounding for our "objective morality." The inconsistencies in application of the O.T. are an in-house debate for us, and perhaps to someone like yourself it may be like watching a football game without knowing the rules and wondering why they sometimes run north and at other times south.

 
At 8/03/2007 6:14 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

Paul,
I read your post and the subsequent replies and responses with interest.
I still think that your position is based on the false premise that morality can only have meaning if there is a transcendent guarantor of moral truth.
To continue the measure analogy, it would be a bit like you asserting that there must be a celestial metre or yard otherwise human measuring activity would be impossible.
I think your subjective/objective dichotomy is a false one, your assertion that atheism = nihilism is clearly false, and that Euthyphro has not been solved satisfactorily by Christians. By contrast, the atheist perspective can deal with the interplay between the individual subjective aspects of morality and the objective aspects involved in living in a community of evolved self aware social organisms.
Finally, your position on 'permissiveness' is question-begging and many of the problems that you identify with the foundations of atheist morality apply just as much to Christian morality.
At the heart of the Christian position is that God represents a transcendent source of good which is an objective feature of His Creation. But history and schism tell us that we have such a poor access to the One Truth about morality that we could be forgiven for assuming a total loss of information. The areas of broad agreement that exist must have predated organised religion and can be explained more parsimoniously by looking at the parameters that must govern the behaviour of cooperating groups.
Finally, just because God made things just so, why ought we to follow that? Until Euthyphro is really solved it is difficult to see why, other than the prospect of an uncomfortably warm afterlife. This in itself would not be morally satisfactory as a view of how the universe works.

 
At 8/06/2007 7:52 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Psio,

I still think that your position is based on the false premise that morality can only have meaning if there is a transcendent guarantor of moral truth.

Depends on how you define "meaning." If meaning is just whatever you construct for yourself, then of course you can have "meaningful" morality. But you don't seem to want to hang your morality on human construction; you seem to want it to be more objective than that. My essay pointed out the problems with external measures and argued that there is no principled commitment to them in any case — subjective preference is the ultimate driver.

To continue the measure analogy, it would be a bit like you asserting that there must be a celestial metre or yard otherwise human measuring activity would be impossible.

Not impossible, just ephemeral and intangible. Humanly constructed morality is an invented yard stick that can change at a whim and which there is no incumbency to make use of in any case. Your morality is nothing more profound than saying that a "yard" is the length of King Henry's arm and that cloth should be cut and priced by that measure. Useful perhaps, but the concept of "evil," then, is just a conventional word for those in the past and present who do not conform to the standard de jour.

I think your subjective/objective dichotomy is a false one, your assertion that atheism = nihilism is clearly false, and that Euthyphro has not been solved satisfactorily by Christians

Well, that's a lot of assertions without anything specific to respond to, so I'll just have to beg to differ.

By contrast, the atheist perspective can deal with the interplay between the individual subjective aspects of morality and the objective aspects involved in living in a community of evolved self aware social organisms.

Yeah, we piles of chemicals have managed to survive for a few score millennia anyway. I wonder what magic happened to grant chemistry a moral quality, much less self-awareness. I assume you don't believe that a star, amoeba, or a shark can be "good" or "bad." I hope you understand how ironic it is to us theists to see materialists using their transcendental minds to try to prove that we are nothing more than complex biochemical systems. It would take a bit of edge off the irony if you didn't also strain to hang on to the attendant transcendental concepts in the process, like consciousness, free will, and morality. Many atheist philosophers and neurophyicists have made an art of the denial of such things because they see the problems I speak of. In your view they must be heretics.

Finally, your position on 'permissiveness' is question-begging and many of the problems that you identify with the foundations of atheist morality apply just as much to Christian morality.

Aha! You've put your finger on the one place where I felt I had left myself open to a good pushback. You are right that Christians often do not live up to their stated morality, but the difference as I see it is one of principle. A good Christian will know and admit that they are in violation of moral principles and will strive to resist the subjective compulsions to do sinful acts. (That such compulsions exist is part of our core theology.) This is distinct from looking to deny that the particular acts that they are attracted to (and that society will allow them to get by with) are actually to be considered sin, or perhaps even celebrated.

Conversely, the atheist is not wedded to his moral system, unless you can say that the principle of, "do I like it and does it 'hurt' anybody," is an objective system. The atheist is free to take what he wants from a system and move on to an entirely different system if it suits his fancy. He is not bound to any morality that he cannot affirm a priori. This is precisely why one of my other sometime commenter and agnostic (JElyon) feels himself free to shop for a palatable moral system. Objective morality suggests that there was a correct one in place before you or any other sentient human was born onto this earth. Subjective morality means that no matter what the nature of the creature you happen to be or the environment you find yourself in, that you make the final call.

At the heart of the Christian position is that God represents a transcendent source of good which is an objective feature of His Creation. But history and schism tell us that we have such a poor access to the One Truth about morality that we could be forgiven for assuming a total loss of information.

You overplay the historical disagreement over moral issues. Even between the religious and non-religious there is a great deal we share in common, else we could not coexist and communicate as we regularly do (more on that below).

Regarding the "history and schism" comment, I'm sure you mean to say that religions, and Christians themselves, differ in their take on morality, so that somehow negates the transcendent as a source of authority. To this I would say several things:
1) Even if we had no clue what God wanted from us, or had made a mess of it, it still does not negate the idea that a truly objective morality must precede human will and perception.
2) There is a great deal that is actually shared between religions.
3) I am not here to defend any other religion than the one I believe to be true, and I believe that false religions are immoral in God's economy and, so, would expect other sins to follow on the heals of that initial grave offense.
4) The greatest disagreements among "Christians" stem from the differences between those who hold to historic, biblical Christianity and those who do not, i.e., cults and liberals. With classical Christians, I almost never come to loggerheads regarding moral questions; more often my debates with them are over theological issues that are not clearly outlined in Scripture. The fact that the average Episcopalian and I disagree over something like homosexuality is no surprise given that we disagree over the more fundamental issues of the authority of Scripture and the nature of Jesus.
5) Most differences among classical Christians are not on the underlying principles, but on the specific outworking of those principles. Indeed, this is often the case even between people of the most divergent worldviews. One atheist acquaintance of mine, skeptical about the objectivity of morality, finally had the epiphany that our disagreement over the issue of abortion did not stem from a difference in morality. It occurred to him that we had a shared view of human value and "rights," but we differed regarding the application of those principles, e.g., was a fetus actually human and whether the mother's rights trumped other considerations.

The areas of broad agreement that exist must have predated organised religion and can be explained more parsimoniously by looking at the parameters that must govern the behaviour of cooperating groups.

I know that you take our intuitive knowledge of morality to be an article in support of your own view, and it is a thing that complicates this discussion because you cannot help but think in moral categories in spite of its illusory nature in a materialistic world. However, the idea that we all have moral intuitions and live in a certain kind of universe that punishes violators of those morals is certainly not a strike against the theistic perspective that both are the product of the designer of this universe. Kant thought that the greatest proof of God was the "starry heavens above and the moral law within."

In fact, when you speculate on these things you are doing what we call Natural Theology. It is part of the reason that every man stands condemned before a Holy God, whether they have had the benefit of Special Revelation or not. The problem is that we do not live up to even that part of the standard we intuitively know to exist. As I argued in the "natural constraint" section, atheists even go so far as to reshape nature to fit their own proclivities. To say that you have identified for yourself an objective morality you have to, at minimum, find something for yourself that you are principally committed to follow which your subjective desires cannot trump at any turn. I see neither that nor a reason why atheists should think they must bind themselves to any system at all (i.e., "that must govern the behavior").

Finally, just because God made things just so, why ought we to follow that? Until Euthyphro is really solved it is difficult to see why, other than the prospect of an uncomfortably warm afterlife. This in itself would not be morally satisfactory as a view of how the universe works.

Let me put your sentiment into the mouth of a teenager with a new car and driver's license: "Just because my Dad's car is designed to run on petrol, need a regular oil change, and have certain operating parameters on its brake, engine, and suspension systems, and just because he demands I take care of it if I'm going to use it, why ought I to follow that? Until he can answer me why all those conditions are just like they are I don't feel morally justified to adhere to them."

 
At 8/07/2007 7:54 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

Depends on how you define "meaning."
Here I think you hit the nail on the head.

If meaning is just whatever you construct for yourself, then of course you can have "meaningful" morality.
I don't think it is what you construct for yourself but nor do I think it has a transcendent origin.

But you don't seem to want to hang your morality on human construction;
Do you see what you did there? You conflated the idea of 'construct for yourself' and 'human construction'. These are different concepts.

Not impossible, just ephemeral and intangible. Humanly constructed morality is an invented yard stick that can change at a whim and which there is no incumbency to make use of in any case.
And yet, in the case of measurement, we get along just fine because the important thing is not an objective basis for the metre or the yard.

Your morality is nothing more profound than saying that a "yard" is the length of King Henry's arm and that cloth should be cut and priced by that measure. Useful perhaps, but the concept of "evil," then, is just a conventional word for those in the past and present who do not conform to the standard de jour.
What is profound though, is that once the length of his arm has been decided upon, we can all choose to cooperate and use this as a unit of measurement.
We could debate the concept of 'evil' but our paradigms are incommensurate so I doubt we would get far.

Well, that's a lot of assertions without anything specific to respond to, so I'll just have to beg to differ.
We can't tackle everything in each round I agree but I felt I should register my disagreement.

Yeah, we piles of chemicals have managed to survive for a few score millennia anyway. I wonder what magic happened to grant chemistry a moral quality, much less self-awareness.
See, there you go again with the question-begging. You assume 'magic' is required.

I hope you understand how ironic it is to us theists to see materialists using their transcendental minds to try to prove that we are nothing more than complex biochemical systems.
I can understand, from your perspective, it would seem so yes. Needless to say, I think the irony is in the other direction, that a physical system cannot cope with the realisation that it is just that.

Conversely, the atheist is not wedded to his moral system,
Well, some of the Christians I know have remarked that I seem very wedded to mine. How could it work otherwise? Again you seem to conflate seperate issues, namely the theoretical underpinnings of ethical systems and the proximal motivating factors for adherence.

You overplay the historical disagreement over moral issues.
Another 'beg to differ' moment I suspect.
On your 1-5 list, I cannot find anything with which I disagree but none of it precludes my view being true.

in spite of its illusory nature in a materialistic world.
It isn't illusory. This is more question-begging.

In fact, when you speculate on these things you are doing what we call Natural Theology.
You are, I'm not.

I see neither that nor a reason why atheists should think they must bind themselves to any system at all (i.e., "that must govern the behavior").
Nor do I see such a reason for Christians. That is because you set the bar impossibly high that something must get over in order to qualify as a reason. It is not a reason you are after, but a Reason with a capital 'R'. Christians fail this as well, they just either don't realise or they weave it into a story about original sin or somesuch. The thing is, morality in your worldview is bound up with free will. So by definition, there cannot be a reason that means that somebody must behave a certain way.

Let me put your sentiment into the mouth of a teenager
But he seems to argue my case as effectively as yours.

 
At 8/07/2007 9:47 PM, Blogger SLW said...

Psio said
"And yet, in the case of measurement, we get along just fine because the important thing is not an objective basis for the metre or the yard."

I would not come to that conclusion examining human history. Our story is one replete with the clashes of different moral suppositions. When there is not an agreeable objective measure between societies, conflict is inevitable. Lately, we only escaped a clash of gigantic proportions between the moralities of the atheistic east and the Judeo-Christian west through the application of the bellicose mutually assured destruction doctrine. If that application had failed, as it easily could have, the difference between the metre and the yard would have been a lot more signicant than just about 3 inches.

 
At 8/08/2007 6:37 AM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

slw,
You could also no doubt point to instances where the clash between metric and imperial measurement systems has resulted in engineering disaster. You might then lament the lack of a universal standard unit of length imposed by god. It would not follow from this that measurement is impossible or without meaning or purpose though. That is the point you have not countered.

 
At 8/09/2007 12:00 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Sure, if we all agreed on some moral standards of behavior and managed to stick to them, we might then get along in the way we had defined as "good." But that doesn't mean that the agreed upon standard is the right standard, and it doesn't answer the question of why anyone ought to follow it.

SLW's point was to remind that there are some very different standards out there whose supporters are just as passionate as we are about ours. To say that they are mistaken, you need to identify the uber-standard to which all personal and cultural standards must seek to conform and be measured.

The point of my article was to assess the kinds of "objective" things that a non-relativistic atheist might claim to be cozying up to with his own morality.

 
At 8/09/2007 2:11 PM, Blogger SLW said...

Thank you Paul, I was struggling with the words to say that, without inadvertantly bringing the discussion back again to what has already been discussed.

 
At 8/15/2007 9:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Doing "good" things does in fact appear to have a biological basis:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/05/27/AR2007052701056.html

 
At 8/15/2007 9:31 PM, Blogger Paul said...

So what. Why listen to your biology? And we can indeed override our biological drives, interestingly. I demonstrate this every time I restrain myself around a beautiful woman. And why is that drive (wherever it comes from and whatever it tells us to do) "good" and not "bad," like rape? The latter can get my genes into the next generation just as well, even if I do sit in prison as a result (in this modern age).

 
At 8/17/2007 12:25 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

Paul,
There is no one universal agreed set of morals, I agree. There is no universal standard of measure in all circumstances but it does not follow that people have no motive to follow one or another system in a given situation.
The proximal cause of why we feel we ought to follow a moral principle is wanting to avoid shame (and feel good by doing the right thing). That is seperate from how we arrive at what the right things are from an ethical perspective.
If we accept as axiomatic that suffering is bad for example, and we have empathy then why is there a need for a supernatural uber-standard?

 
At 8/17/2007 1:11 PM, Blogger Paul said...

There is no one universal agreed set of morals, I agree.

Ah, so you have finally surrendered to the truth of relativism. Good, we can move on.

but it does not follow that people have no motive to follow one or another system in a given situation.

I perfectly agree that people have their own private moral urges that they seek to justify with systems to suite their own tastes. Doesn't make any of those systems the "right" one in an atheistic universe. But since I believe we were created with the moral law written upon our hearts, those systems will be remarkably similar in "healthy" individuals.

The proximal cause of why we feel we ought to follow a moral principle is wanting to avoid shame (and feel good by doing the right thing)

I think most people have something more noble and selfless in mind when they think of true virtue. But, man, I couldn't agree more: many people are just good because it is to their own selfish advantage. That's a good start to an answer as to why God would condemn "good" people who simply don't believe in Him.

If we accept as axiomatic. . .

There's the problem. Why accept anything as axiomatic unless you are arguing for objective morality? If we accept as axiomatic that the strong, beautiful, and smart should rule the planet, then I'm sure we biological flukes could get on quite well here on Earth (in the evolutionary sense, which is, after all, our taskmaster, isn't it).

 
At 8/17/2007 5:27 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

Ah, so you have finally surrendered to the truth of relativism. Good, we can move on.
No, I'm not a relativist. But it is clear not everybody agrees on a set of moral universals, that's just a fact.

I perfectly agree that people have their own private moral urges that they seek to justify with systems to suite their own tastes.
But that's the point you keep missing, they aren't private and so they are not to do with our own tastes.

Doesn't make any of those systems the "right" one in an atheistic universe. But since I believe we were created with the moral law written upon our hearts, those systems will be remarkably similar in "healthy" individuals.
I agree but I think evolution did the writing, not god.

I think most people have something more noble and selfless in mind when they think of true virtue.
I agree but I wasn't talking about thinking about moral virtue, I was talking about proximal cause. The 'moral compass' if you will. you are in danger of begging the question again in defining 'noble'.

But, man, I couldn't agree more: many people are just good because it is to their own selfish advantage.
No I doubt it. Unless you collapse everything to 'selfish advantage' and then the concept explains nothing. Why follow what god decrees? Selfish advantage of course, so you have got nowhere.

That's a good start to an answer as to why God would condemn "good" people who simply don't believe in Him.
You might think it is a good start to an answer, but the question is, is it a good answer?

There's the problem. Why accept anything as axiomatic unless you are arguing for objective morality?
Because we bump into reality and need a system. You can't do geometry without accepting some axioms. It does not follow that they are objective universal truths though. Different axiom sets work for different geometries which model different situations.
The point is that we don't seem to have a free hand to choose the axiom set for the task at hand if we want it to work.

 
At 11/14/2007 9:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 11/14/2007 9:57 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Sorry anonymous, but that was absolute drivel of the highest order, which pressed into the domain of spam. I had to delete it. If you want to play here you'll have to pare down and focus your thoughts.

 

Post a Comment

<< Home

Westminster Presbyterian Church Columbia, TN