Monday, April 24, 2006


A couple of days ago, "Angry Atheist" suggested that atheists should soft-peddle criticism of the view that atheists are morally inferior to theists. The comment came in response to a post of mine that such statements – that there is no morality without God – can be most accurately answered, not by evidence that atheists are good people, but by challenging the legitimacy of making such an assertion.

Specifically, Angry Atheist wrote:

Perhaps a more productive way to construct a phrase with the same meaning would be: You don't know me, and you don't know that that's true. In fact, you have no reason to think it is. By applying these negative and false stereotypes to a whole group of people, you're doing something that's not much different to what was done to Jews prior to the holocaust.

You could even smile and add: If I weren't a gentle person, I might take serious offense to that.

If you can figure a way to modify your tone and structure in order to avoid resistance, anger and meltdowns.

I am not one to write about political strategy. The purpose of the original post was not to say, “Here is the most effective answer possible,” but “Here is an answer that would make more sense.” Sometimes, the most honest answer is not the morally best answer. Sometimes, in fact, it is even morally permissible to lie (e.g., as when the Nazis ask the owner of a house if he knows the whereabouts of the Jewish family that used to live next door).

So, without questioning the practicality of the answer that Angry Atheist proposes, I would like to argue that it is less accurate, and less honest.

The Nature of Moral Claims

In this blog, I have repeatedly suggested that morality is an institution that concerns itself with the use of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to promote good desires (desires that tend to fulfill other desires) and inhibit bad desires (desires that tend to thwart other desires).

Reason is not the tool to use to change another people’s attitude. Reason is, instead, the tool to use to determine how best to use those tools that can affect other people’s attitudes. The tools that we have for changing those attitudes are praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.

This is no different than saying that reason is not the tool that we use to cut a board so that it fits into a particular space. Reason is the tool that we use to determine where and how to use the tools we have to cut the board to length. However, to get the board cut, we actually have to use the tools that we have.

Theories that say that reason alone can change attitudes, and that changing attitudes through reason is what ‘objective morality’ is all about, are as flawed as theories that say that we can cut lumber through reason, and that cutting lumber through reason is what carpentry is all about.

So, we look to reason to determine how society can best use its tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. However, to ‘get the job done’ we actually have to put those tools to use.

This is where I see a problem with the Angry Atheist. If I am right, that claims that atheists are morally inferior to theists are as morally objectionable as claims that Jews are morally inferior to Arians, and blacks are morally inferior to whites, then the statements deserve the same level of condemnation.

Angry Atheist suggests a mild rebuke, perhaps accompanied by a smile. However, a mild rebuke and a smile says that the action is not really seriously wrong. There is a reason why this type of response will “avoid resistance, anger and meltdowns.” It is because this response says to the listener that the speaker does not actually consider the act to be worthy of a harsher response. That is to say, it is not ‘really wrong’. Either that, or the speaker shares the listener’s apathy towards doing the right thing.


There is a theory in ethics, attributed mainly to C.L. Stevenson, that says that moral claims are nothing more than moral utterances. This theory, called ‘emotivism,’ says that moral claims lack a truth value – that they have the verbal content of a grin or a tear.

This type of theory confuses the tools of morality with morality itself. It is like looking at a saw, a hammer, a bag of nails, and a few pieces of board, and calling that ‘carpentry’. Carpentry is what we do with those tools. There are a great many truth-bearing propositions involved in the act of building a house.

Similarly, morality is not the emotive utterances that are used to express moral sentiments. It is the set of truth-bearing propositions that say when, where, why, and how best to employ those utterances. It is the discussion within a society about how best to employ its tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.

The Arbitraryness of Group Assignment

One of the ways to employ these tools is in harsh condemnation of those who assign responsibility based on membership in a group, rather than on the characteristics of the individual. Society has reason to inhibit the tendency to judge people who too quickly judge whole groups of people to be morally inferior.

Everybody is threatened by this way of thinking. Think of the countless groups you belong to – gender, race, hair color, place of birth, astrological sign, age, married/single, smoker/non-smoker, religious affiliation. Every one of us belongs to at least one group that has a statistically high chance of performing some crime. So, if we permit people to make accusations based on group membership rather than individual deeds, none of us are safe. The only thing that has to happen is for others to decide that the group classification they will use is the one in which we are associated with others who are less than admirable and we, regardless of our individual efforts, become contemptible.

So, society has reason to employ its tools of condemnation and punishment against those who engage in this type of group think rather than think in terms of individual responsibility. A wink and a smile is a poor way to tell somebody that what they are doing is worthy of condemnation. The best way to tell somebody that their actions are worthy of condemnation is to condemn them for those actions in clear and unambiguous terms.

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