Thursday, February 26, 2009

Atheists Speaking about Morality

Allow me to step back a moment and put the posts of the last three weeks in a larger context.

This series of posts started with a complaint about a debate between Dan Barker and Dinesh D’Souza on the possibility of being good without God. Barker gave a definition of 'good' that left him unable to answer basic questions such as, "Why is this thing good and not something else?" and "How do you get people to actually be good?"

I then expanded my criticism to evolutionary ethicists – those who postulate that we have an evolved sense of right and wrong.

Their theory faces the same Euthyphro question that religious ethics faces.

They cannot provide an account of true good or true bad bad against which this alleged sense can be calibrated.

They do not have anything to say about how to prevent the horrendous evils that it is still within our evolved nature to perform – as proven by the fact that we are surrounded by those evils.

They fail to account for the role of praise and condemnation in morality. Does it truly make sense to praise or blame people for having or failing to have a particular gene?

Ultimately, I was understandably asked to provide what I think would be better answers than those that I criticized. I went ahead and did so. However, that defense of desire utilitarianism was substantially a side show. Even if I am totally insane with regard to the merits of desire utilitarianism, the main point of my objection still stands.

We have spokesmen attempting to answer the question of how there can be morality without God who are substantially ignorant of 400 years of moral philosophy in which this topic was discussed.

They have obviously taken upon themselves to get a superficial understanding of the subject matter. They demonstrate this with casual references to “the naturalistic fallacy” and “the impossibility of deriving 'ought' from 'is'". However, they continue to make claims that moral philosophers have discussed for centuries without any clear indication that they understand the problems with those theories.

I had one of my cringe moments a few years ago listening to Michael Newdow defend his lawsuit against 'under God' in the Pledge of Allegiance in a debate on C-span. Naturally, he argued that it violated the First Amendment of the Constitution. Then he was asked to explain what maid the First Amendment such a good idea – whether he could argue for the First Amendment itself. Newdow's gifts as a legal scholar left him unable to answer the moral question, "Should there be a First Amendment to start with?"

Of course, the priest he was debating then argued that the First Amendment itself came from God, it was one of our God given rights, and that it was absurd not to declare that a right that came from God would prohibit us from acknowledging Him as the true source of our rights in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Another cringe moment was listening to (I bought the audio book) Sam Harris give an act-utilitarian defense of torture in The End of Faith without acknowledging that moral philosophers had raised nearly 200 years’ worth of objections to act utilitarian theories.

If somebody is going to be a spokesperson for atheists, then that person should recognize that one of (if not the) core issues is the relationship between morality and religion and the relationship between immorality and atheism. They should recognize that moral philosophy should be something about which they have some significant understanding.

3 comments:

Christian Apologist said...

If somebody is going to be a spokesperson for atheists, then that person should recognize that one of (if not the) core issues is the relationship between morality and religion and the relationship between immorality and atheism. They should recognize that moral philosophy should be something about which they have some significant understanding.

Could you please expand on what you mean by the relationship between immorality and atheism?

Luke said...

"Even if I am totally insane with regard to the merits of desire utilitarianism, the main point of my objection still stands.

We have spokesmen attempting to answer the question of how there can be morality without God who are substantially ignorant of 400 years of moral philosophy in which this topic was discussed."

YES! I could not agree more. Thank you for your valuable contributions to this field. Thank you for your clarity of thought.

Also, you're doing a much better job now of tying your posts together. That's very helpful.

Eneasz said...

Could you please expand on what you mean by the relationship between immorality and atheism?

I'm assuming what Alonzo means is that in America, there is a strong public perception that if you are an atheist you are also immoral. That you support such things like injustice, tyranny, and civil war. Thus one of the core issues in being a spokesperson for atheists is recognizing that this is a common misperception, and knowing how to effectively argue why this is not the case.

I felt the original post made this pretty clear actually. Asking someone to explain the relationship between immorality and atheism smacks of asking someone if they still beat their wife.