I am continuing to respond to questions from the studio audience. Of these, one set of questions comes from a reader responding to a much earlier post, The Hateful Craig Problem. That post, in turn, was concerned with an audience question from Craig who asked, “If we assume that I hate everybody, what reason is there for me to fulfill the desires of others?”
This question comes from somebody asking me to clarify my answer. The reader provides some interpretations of what I had written, then asks me to comment on whether that interpretation is correct or incorrect.
1) An atheist has no metaphysical reason to respect anyone else's desires.
Actually, my post does not make any claims about atheism. Atheists cannot even agree on the definition of the term ‘atheist’, so I would not pretend to make any claim that is true of all atheists in general. As I use the term, an atheist is any person who believes that the proposition, “At least one god exists” is almost certainly false. However, this is compatible with a lot of other beliefs, including (but not limited to) those that I defend in my post.
I have placed my views under the name ‘desire utilitarianism’. Insofar as you are asking about that particular moral theory then you are asking me about desire utilitarianism, not atheism.
Desire utilitarianism is, of course, compatible with atheism. However, it is possible for somebody to believe that a god exists and that this god created the universe and still be a desire utilitarianism. This would simply be a person that believes that god created a universe in which the propositions that make up desire utilitarianism are true.
I hold that the propositions that make up desire utilitarianism are true. I am also an atheist. However, there is no necessary connection between these two. Their relationship is the same as the relationship between the fact that I am male, and the fact that I am over 6 feet tall. A person can be more than 6 feet tall and not be male. A person can be male without being over 6 feet tall. A person can e a desire utilitarian and not be an atheist. A person can be an atheist and not be a desire utilitarian. I happen to be both.
Next, I’m afraid that I do not fully know what you want to say when you use the term ‘metaphysical’ here.
Some people use the term to mean ‘supernatural’. On this, it is true that I do not believe that there are any supernatural reasons to do anything. I believe in only natural reasons for action. However, natural reasons for action (desires) do exist. It is a mistake to say that, because a person does not believe in supernatural reasons for action that he must believe there are no reasons for action. It is as much of a mistake as claiming that because somebody believes there is no supernatural original to human beings that he denies the existence of human beings.
Some people use the term ‘metaphysics’ to refer to the study of existence, also known as ‘ontology’. On this measure, many of the reasons for action that theists point to in advising others how to live their lives lack a metaphysical basis. This is simply another way of saying that many of the reasons for action that these theists assert in recommending certain actions are reasons for action that do not exist.
God’s creators were human, as corruptible, arrogant, and prone to error as any other human. They claimed to have perfect knowledge of the difference between right and wrong. In fact, they merely had their own opinions. Unfortunately, they were able to convince far too many people to accept their ignorant, biased, and corrupt opinions under a set of conditions that prohibited people from questioning those opinions.
As such, the opinions of a group of substantially ignorant and illiterate tribesmen become carved in stone to plague humanity for millennia.
It is also worth noting that few (if any) religions actually preach a respect for the desires of others. Instead, they teach a respect for the desires of only one entity, that entity being god. Of course, this god is an invention – a human creation, endowed with the desires of those who created it. So, while the religion says, “Thou shalt consider no desires but the desires of God,” in practice this is really nothing more than, “Thou shalt consider no desires but the desires of those who created God.”
2) For atheists, then, the coercive power of the state and social approbation determine what is "right" and "wrong".
The above statement about ‘atheists’ applies here as well.
Atheism has the same relationship to morality as heliocentrism (the view that the sun is at the center of the solar system) does. Heliocentrism does not imply anything about how we should live our lives – other than to say that a sound moral argument places the sun at the center of the solar system. Atheism does not say anything about how we should live our lives. It only says that sound moral arguments do not accept the proposition that a god exists is true.
Within desire utilitarianism, coercive power of the state and social approbation do not determine right and wrong. The relationship between malleable desires and other desires determines right and wrong. The coercive power of the state and social approbation are tools that can then be used to promote that which is right and inhibit that which is wrong. However, like all tools, they can also be misused.
A right act is, on this theory, the act that a person with good desires would perform. A wrong act is an act that a person with good desires would not perform. Good desires are desires that tend to fulfill other desires. Thus, good desires are malleable desires that others have reason to promote, and the tools that they would use to promote them are praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment. We discover these relationships between desires (as well as the degree to which they are malleable) the same way we discover other natural facts – by observation, by forming theories, and by testing those theories.
3) Things like wanting "people to have...a love for the truth and a dislike for deception and for careless reasoning" are not hard-wired into us and the world, but are social goods determined by society's thought leaders.
Actually, desire utilitarianism is not only compatible with the view that some desires are hard-wired into us through evolution, I hold that some desires are, in fact, hard wired into us through evolution. Other desires can be molded through social forces, but only within a prescribed range, and only in certain ways.
The fact that these desires are hard-wired does not make them good desires. That still depends on the relationship between those desires and other desires. Instead, this distinction defines the difference between whether a person is ‘sick’ on the one hand (has bad desires outside the influence of social forces) or ‘evil’ on the other (has desires that are within the realm that can be controlled through social forces).
In other words, hard-wired desires lie outside of the realm of morality. Morality is only concerned with soft-wired desires; desires that we can mold through social forces.
Though leaders do not have the power to determine what these relationships are. They have the power to influence what people believe to be the case about these relationships. They also have the power to influence whether people believe that other types of reasons for action exist and what they are. However, in both of these cases, there is a fact of the matter that might be quite different from what the thought leader claims those facts to be.
4) In a theoretical situation where a person lives beyond the influence of the state and social pressures, like Josef Stalin, there is no reason for that person to love truth or respect the desires of others.
Here, we need to distinguish between reasons that exist, and reasons that a particular person has.
The distinction here is the same distinction between the furniture that exists, and the furniture that a particular person has. A particular person has only a small subset of all of the furniture (reasons for action) that exists. However, the fact that a person does not have a particular piece of furniture (reason for action) does not imply that it does not exist.
Stalin, in this case, may not have a reason to love truth and respect the desires of others. However, there is a whole population full of reasons that exist for him to love truth and respect the desires of others.
In fact, this gap between what Stalin had reason to do, and what there existed reason for Stalin to do, is the gap that defines Stalin as evil. A good person has desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others. In other words, a good person has reasons to do those things that there exists reason for that person to do. An evil person has reasons to do things that thwart the desires of others. In other words, he has reason to do things that people generally have reason to make it the case he not have reason to do.
That is the nature of Stalin’s evil. To call Stalin evil is to say that he had characteristics that people generally have reason to condemn. They have reason to organize their society to make it far less likely that somebody such as Stalin would even come into existence and, where such people do come into existence, that they remain impotent (preferably behind bars) rather than to have them given the reins of power. These reasons that exist do not need a god. They reside in all of the suffering and death that the victims of such a person have reason to avoid.
5) Further, should the State be run by genocidal maniacs, like Stalin's cadre, and the people thus be frightened and coerced by that State such that they are unlikely to enforce social pressures consistently, then there's little reason for any particular individual to act in a way respecting the rights of others, love truth, or be proactively compassionate.
If the state should be run by genocidal maniacs, then the fact that the people do not have the power to resist does not change the fact that they have reason to condemn such people and to organize society in such a way that they never gain power. Indeed, when such people gain power, it represents a moral failing on the part of the whole population – on the part of the leaders who get the power, and on the part of the people who did not arrange their society to prevent it from happening.
Desire utilitarianism is quite comfortable with the idea that, where a society descends into immorality, that the people suffer. I do deny that homosexual acts or allowing early-term abortion represents immorality. Instead, the type of immorality that a society is best warned not to descend into is a society that condones torture, unwarranted searches and seizures, arrest without charges, imprisonment without a trial, wars of aggression waged under false pretenses, and a unification of power in a single branch of government where a single body obtains the power to be judge, jury, and executioner of all who act contrary to his wishes.
As it turns out, the biggest supporters of this descent into immorality over the past six years – the biggest supporters of these very policies and powers that a man like Stalin would love to get his hands on, have been the religious right.