Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Dan Barker on Goodness

I cringe whenever I read about a debate between an atheist and a theist on questions of value, where the atheist really does not understand the subject he is talking about.

A recent post at ad absurdum carried a summary of a debate between Dan Barker and Dinesh D’Souza on the issue Can We Be Good Without God?

In it, the reviewer states,

How does Mr. Barker define goodness? "When a person acts with the intentions of minimizing harm in the world."

Unfortunately, that is wrong.

Let me start by asking a question to Mr. Barker. Can you explain why it is the case that acting with intentions of minimizing harm in the world is good, and something else – say – acting with intention to maximize the number of steel marbles in the world is not good?

The theist certainly has an answer.

“God did it.”

Or, in D’Sousa’s terms, “We can be good without God, but we won't know why.”

God is the one who created the universe and, in doing so, placed goodness in acting with the intentions of minimizing harm in the world, but not in maximizing the number of steel marbles in the world. You, Mr. Barker, have abandoned God, and that has left you with no answer to that question.

Related to this, I have another question. What is 'harm'? If 'harm' turns out to be that which a good person would aim to minimize, then this is not much of an account of goodness.

Then, of course, Barker’s account of goodness still has problems stemming from the fact that it is wrong.

Many good acts are committed by people who have no intention of minimizing harm in the world.

A parent’s child has an accident. He rushes to take care of the child. I will guarantee you that, in the vast majority of the cases, “minimizing harm in the world” is the furthest thing from his mind. It’s minimizing the amount of harm to his child that he is thinking about, and the world can be damned for all the parent cares at that particular moment.

In fact, let’s imagine the parent who thinks and acts in a way consistent with Barker’s definition of “good”. He is completely indifferent to his child’s welfare compared to the welfare of any other child. It is not a specific concern for his child that motivates his actions, but this generic concern for minimizing harm in the world that moves him. If he can reduce more harm in the world by abandoning his child to suffer, he would do so, without any more regret than he has for the suffering of any child in the world he does not know.

This, to Barker, would be a virtuous man?

One mistake that Barker made is that he failed to see the distinction between intentions of minimizing the amount of harm in the world, and intentions that minimize the amount of harm in the world. A given intention can do a great deal of work minimizing harm, without being an intention to minimize harm.

Let us take, for example, the intention to be honest in all of one’s dealings.

A person with the intention of minimizing suffering will instantly become dishonest – instantly lie – the instant he perceives that a lie will minimize suffering in the world. He will torture, he will engage in illegal wiretaps, he will direct his armies to invade other nations, he will take and hold slaves, he will do whatever he perceives will minimize suffering in the world.

He will round up and attempt to exterminate all the Jews if he perceives it to be the case that rounding up and exterminating Jews – though harmful – will ultimately minimize the amount of harm in the world.

Compare this to the person who intends not to minimize harm in the world, but who intends to be honest in all of his dealings, intends never to torture, intends never to participate in genocide or allow others to engage in such acts. Such a person will probably have a greater effect on minimizing the amount of harm in the world, even though that is not even listed as one of his intentions.

According to Barker’s definition, however, because he is not acting to minimize the amount of harm in the world, he lacks virtue.

Besides, isn’t it the case that the theist who performs a thousand live sacrifices to bring the sun back from an eclipse, or is willing to demand the arrest and imprisonment of all practicing homosexuals to prevent the country from being victimized by hurricanes and terrorists, who burns a suspected witch alive in order to purify her soul and grant her access into heaven, also acting on the intention to minimize harm in the world?

I think, ultimately, if one is going to claim to have the authority to debate a theist on questions of value, one should at least have a working theory of value.


mikespeir said...

I don't know. Dan Barker's a bright boy. I wonder what his response would be to this post and what the likelihood is that he wouldn't be able to hold his own in a debate over it. Still, I don't know.

Luke said...



Anonymous said...

why did hitler round up thousands upon thousands of jews for extermination? to, as you say, ultimately cause less harm in the world. but the definition of what is moral is what is in question. the views of a man on what is moral is the question. so hey, we can say Hitler was a very, VERY moral guy... but wait, you must explain the definition of morality that you are using. it is HITLER'S view of morality. because according to him it was for the good of the world to eradicate the jews and "lesser beings so that the "greater" could take control and have a perfect world. so then im saying that no one truly knows excactly what is the correct definition of what is moral, but everyone can suppose what might be moral.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


This whole blog is filled with arguments answering the claim that there are no moral facts.

Hitler was mistaken. Furthermore, Hitler's attitudes are those that people generally have many and strong reason to condemn, given the fact that desires are the only reasons for action that exist and that condemnation is an action.

Hitler might have believed he was doing good. But there is a world of difference between believing something and that thing being true - just as there is a world of difference between believing that an invisible pink unicorn lives in the basement and a situation in which an invisible pink unicorn is actually living in the basement.