Thursday, December 11, 2008

What Makes Altruism Good?

I was recently interviewed for a new podcast (I will release the details when they become available), in which it came out that I cringe every time well-recognized atheists get into a discussion of morality. Those atheists tend to adopt one of two views on the nature of morality – each if which has significant flaws that their theist opponents clearly see and eagerly point out.

The more sophisticated atheists dance back and forth between these two views to dodge objections, the way theists will dance back and forth between incompatible and contradictory claims about God.

One option is that the atheist will assert that intrinsic values exist. Against this, the theist will respond that the existence of intrinsic values is no less mysterious or problematic than the existence of God. In fact, the arguments for the existence of intrinsic values are substantially identical to arguments for the existence of God.

One option is that the atheist will defend some sort of strict subjectivism – the type that says, "I don't like rape; therefore, rape is wrong." At which point the theist will simply respond that, "This means you can make rape perfectly legitimate simply by acquiring a fondness for raping others. Slavery, genocide, the torturing of a young child are all legitimate if the agent doesn’t feel bad about enslaving others, slaughtering people, or torturing young children."

In recent days, evolutionary ethicists have pretended that they have solved this problem because we have evolved certain altruistic tendencies and moral sentiments. Evolution, they say, favors altruism and other moral sentiments, and that is where morality comes from.

Yet, just ask an evolutionary ethicist:

What makes altruism good?

You will almost always get one of two answers.

Either altruism is good because it has an inherent, intrinsic quality of goodness built into it (or it produces something that has intrinsic goodness like evolutionary fitness), or it is good because we have evolved a disposition to be altruistic.

If he gives the first answer, he still falls into the trap of asserting the existence of intrinsic values that are just as mysterious as God. If he gives the second answer, then he falls victim to the objection, "If we had evolved a disposition to enslave others, wipe out whole populations, or to torture children, then these acts would have been good. And, in fact, if we can show that genocide or rape are also evolved traits, by your argument, you would have to defend them as being morally legitimate – even obligatory."

Technically, the theist who objects to intrinsic value theories on the grounds that "they are no better grounded than God theories" has not defended God theories. At best, he puts the two on equal footing.

And the atheist can simply bite the bullet and agree that slavery, genocide, rape, and the torture of young children are not really wrong – we have merely evolved a disposition to dislike these things. This is one weakness with a reduction ad absurdum argument – the agent has the liberty to embrace absurdity.

In matters of morality, atheist speakers are still caught on the horns of a dilemma. They either speak about intrinsic values as mysterious as God, or about strict subjectivist values that lead to conclusions as absurd as those of any religion. For this reason, theists still have a substantial advantage in debates on the relationship between theism, atheism, and morality.

6 comments:

Friar Zero said...

Alonzo said,
Either altruism is good because it has an inherent, intrinsic quality of goodness built into it (or it produces something that has intrinsic goodness like evolutionary fitness), or it is good because we have evolved a disposition to be altruistic.

In other words, is it good because we have evolved it or did we evolve it because it is good. A sort of evolutionary euthyphro?

I hope you don't mind a recommendation but if you linked to older posts, such as where you discuss DU and value or relational value, I think you could better integrate this post with your larger point. Plus it would be handy for new readers.

Eneasz said...

For this reason, theists still have a substantial advantage in debates on the relationship between theism, atheism, and morality.

This certainly seems to be the accepted truth from what I've seen, but it's odd because this isn't factually true at all. Their claims are just as arbitrary and/or absurd, on the exact same grounds. I can't see how this is anything other than equal footing. And yet everyone seems to perceive adding in "cuz god said so" as giving the theist the high-ground, even when the core claims are identical. Not sure what the cause is... thousands of years of tradition I guess?

I find debating morality with theists who've never given much thought to the subject to be a poor use of time for both of us. I've found the best course of action is to point out that their morality does not come from the bible at all, and then make an appeal to basic empathy. This is generally acceptable and we can move on to other topics.

The reason, I assume, is because most people honestly do not care where one's morality comes from, what it's philosophical foundations and practical repurcussions are. They simply want to know that you share their conviction that some things are good and others are bad, and becoming an atheist doesn't promote Joker-esque amorality. They've been told by their religion over and over that atheists believe in nothing, have no values, have no rules. That's a big hurdle to overcome.

Anonymous said...

And the atheist can simply bite the bullet and agree that slavery, genocide, rape, and the torture of young children are not really wrong – we have merely evolved a disposition to dislike these things.

Well, I would suggest that all morals are merely evolved dispositions - and that we can, therefore, justifiably call an act "really wrong" if there is a widespread moral consensus about it being wrong. And we don't have to allow theists any advantage whatsoever in moral debates, because by this proposition, theistic morals, too, are merely dispositions that developed in some culture and were projected onto their god(s). They are not in any way more objective than other morals.

martino said...

Anonymous

I think you missed a background point of Alonzo's post. He was, I believe, trying to point out that the atheist is stuck on the horns of a false dilemma, the result of accepting too much still of the framework of theistic claims and, basically, just replacing god with genes. That is insufficient.

"Well, I would suggest that all morals are merely evolved dispositions - and that we can, therefore, justifiably call an act "really wrong" if there is a widespread moral consensus about it being wrong."
No, I would suggest instead that we have evolved the capacity to have such dispositions, but these dispositions themselves are not just merely evolved to take any value of a parameter, independent of reality. When you think about it, that is a rather odd capacity to have evolved However, once you drop the the theistic framework and do not just remove god from it, one can see that there must be real external - environmental - constraints that shows that some values are empirically better grounded than others. The challenge is to find this realistic analysis in this domain.


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Cory said...

First - I'm not trying to come off as dismissive, authoritative, or combative. I really am looking for counters to what follows.

"Either altruism is good because it has an inherent, intrinsic quality of goodness built into it (or it produces something that has intrinsic goodness like evolutionary fitness), or it is good because we have evolved a disposition to be altruistic...
If he gives the first answer, he still falls into the trap of asserting the existence of intrinsic values that are just as mysterious as God."

I disagree with your follow-up for the first answer. Maybe I just don't understand how evolutionary fitness can be dismissed as simply having an intrinsic goodness. If the hypothesis states that altruistic tendencies arose because it better enabled the species to survive and spread I'm missing the mystery. There is no intrinsic goodness - simply numbers (see below for my explanation on the use of the terms good and bad in evolution). Those taking this stance can then easily discard this hypothesis if it's proven that more selfish tendencies would have outpaced the altruistic ones in survival and reproduction. Not only that I would argue that one does not need to adopt complete altruism to take this stance. Certain altruistic tendencies, such as sharing food, could have caught on in simple societies without the need for other altruistic concepts such as self-sacrifice in the face of danger - explaining why we're not completely altruistic. This would have also fed into our current thought process that altruism as a whole is good - we've got examples of how it helps the group. I would then say that the better the group is - the better each individual is - so I don't see any conflict in this process. I understand at each point now one has to define good, better, and any other subjective terms - but I believe it can be done.

The purpose of any life is to live. The longer that life, survival, and the greater the reproduction then the more likely that life will survive through future generations. Usually the first helps lead to the latter. If you take this back to the first replicating molecule there is no need for anything intrinsic. Things just are. Up until this point you don't need any use of the terms good or bad. Taking over from there though evolution is applied. Evolution doesn't have a prestated goal but its outcome is usually stated as its goal - the most fit life survives to continue on. Now is when one can start applying the terms good and bad - and good ends up being greater fitness. In the light of evolution now longer survival and greater reproduction lead to a more adapted life form. The arbitrary decision to prefer the continuation of life over the extinction of it can be left alone for now right?

Anonymous said...

Hello!

I would be curious to know if you have ever read any of Ayn Rand's nonfiction, such as "The Virtue of Selfishness." Based on your post here, I would not be surprised if you were fond of her.

If you haven't, or if you only know of her through hearsay, I suggest you give her a read. She discusses all of the things that you have brought up in this blog post. If you don't mind me posting links here, here are some links where you can find information about her ideas.

www.aynrand.com
www.aynrandlexicon.com

Enjoy!