Monday, October 08, 2007

The Virtue of Modest Conclusions

Bruce Taylor wrote an article titled, “Anti-Theists Avoid Morality Question” that contains the old argument that an atheist (like me) cannot find a reasonable way of grounding moral claims (like I attempt to do in this blog). [I was made aware of this through An Atheist's Answer to the Morality Question at Letters from Le Vrai.]

In this posting I do not want to waste time repeating the standard responses to this tired claim. Instead, I find something interesting in the form of argument that Taylor uses to defend his claim. It bears a strong relation to the style of argument that these “anti-Theists” that Taylor mentions are accused to have been making. So, ultimately, I want to say something about that form of argument.

The way that Taylor attempts to establish his objection to the anti-Theists is to argue that they have failed to come up with a decent foundation for morality. From this he seeks to draw the conclusion that God exists. As it turns out, I agree that the claims about morality that these anti-theists make have significant problems. Yet, I do not come to the conclusion that God exists. There is a significant weakness in Taylor’s argument that allows his premises to be true, but his conclusion to be false. If Taylor’s argument is, in fact, the same type of argument as that which the anti-theists used, then those anti-theists have the same problem as Taylor.

For example, Taylor substantially repeats the arguments that I have made against a genetic source of ethics – even using the same counter-example that I have used.

The claim being refuted here is that morality is somehow determined by our genetic makeup – our history. It has somehow tuned the brain to certain moral attitudes. The claim is that we have an evolved disposition to behave altruistically; therefore, we have an evolved disposition to behave morally.

There are two ways to interpret this inference. One way is to interpret it as claiming that altruism is moral because we have evolved a disposition to view altruism as moral. If we accept this interpretation, then it follows that if we had evolved a disposition to be cruel, then being cruel will be moral.

Taylor uses the example of rape, which is an example that I have used in the past. If morality depends on our evolved dispositions then, if we have acquired an evolved disposition to commit rape, then rape would be moral. If we have an evolved disposition to favor those who look like us and to distrust or even harm those who look different, than racism would be moral. These absurdities tell us that we should reject the idea that morality depends on what we are genetically disposed to perceive as moral.

Taylor does not mention that divine command theory suffers from the same problem – a problem that Plato identified 2500 years ago. The position invites us to ask, “Is X moral because it is loved by God (our genes), or is it loved by God (our genes) because it is moral?” If we go with the former, then anything – even the greatest cruelties – can become ‘moral’ by being loved by God (our genes). If we go with the latter, then morality must be something distinct and separate from that which is loved by God (our genes).

However, Dawkins ultimately seems to hold the position that altruism is moral whether we are disposed to approve of altruism or not. To the degree that humans evolved a disposition to behave altruistically, to that degree we have evolved a disposition to behave morally. And to the degree that we have evolved dispositions to act cruelly, to that degree we have evolved dispositions to behave immorally.

However, against this option, Taylor asks for somebody to answer the question of why altruism, or community service, or helping others is moral and cruelty is immoral. What is there, in the atheist-materialist universe, to prevent cruelty from being moral and altruism from being immoral. Or, actually, what is there that can assign moral value to either altruism or cruelty?

He claims that Hitchens’ bases his morality on the claim that we are all in this together, and that we are all better off if we cooperate than if we fight each other. Taylor points out that this is insufficient. The fact that it may be useful to be moral still leaves it upen for us to behave immorally the instant we perceive it is useful to do that. On what basis can we condemn a person who can perform an immoral act without getting caught or suffering any negative consequences? Why is it the case that he ought not to take advantage of such a situation, if one should arise?

I have not read Hitchens’ book, so I cannot judge whether Taylor presented Hitchens’ view correctly. Yet, for the sake of this posting, it does not matter. Taylor is effectively claiming that because Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris have all failed to prvide a foundation for mority, that this leaves the way clear for theism to provide the missing foundation. Yet, even if Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris all fail, this does not give the decision to theism. Not unless one can make the further claim that Dawkins, Hutchins, and Harris exhaust all possibilities for religious ethics.

Harris, by the way, appears to run a strict act-utilitarian argument. The problem with act-utilitarianism is that it seems capable of justifying a great deal of injustice. For example, if one truly feels that religion is a scourge, and that future generations can benefit from its elimination, then it might just be permissible to simply bring about the execution of those who assert that a God exists.

While most moral philosophers consider these types of conclusions to reduce act utilitarianism to an absurdity, Harris seems to embrace these types of conclusions. In his book The End of Faith Harris gives an act-utilitarian argument in favor of torture – even the torture of an innocent person – when the suffering of the one person being tortured provides a sufficient benefit for everybody else.

I agree with all of these objections. However, I do not accept Taylor’s solution that I am left with no other option but to believe in God. Dawkins, Hutchens, and Harris all do not have any significant training in moral philosophy. To take their view of morality as the best that atheists have to offer is to argue against straw men. In order to truly take on atheist morality, Taylor will need to provide arguments against the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Rousseau, Locke, Hume, Bentham, Mill, Sidgwick, Hare, and a large collection of contemporary moral philosophers who have all made significant contributions to this problem.

At this point, a person who was familiar with the common responses given to Dawkins and Harris will recognize this argument. Many of those people also claim that, by taking on the particular targets that Dawkins and Harris have selected, they are actually tackling straw men. Defeating these weak (but popular) positions is no proof against theism. There are other theists who make many of the same arguments, yet they still come to the conclusion that a God can and probably does exist.

The problem that I am pointing out in my response to Taylor, and others have pointed out with respect to Dawkins and Harris among others, is that the author’s conclusions have overstepped their premises. Taylor has identified problems with the moral views of Dawkins and Hitchens, but this does not give him the authority to claim that he has defeated atheism. Dawkins and Hitchens have defeated many common religious beliefs, but this does not justify the claim that they have defeated theism.

The moral of the story to this point is to keep one’s conclusions modest – within the scope of available evidence. If one has an argument against Dawkins’ view of morality, then one is justified in presenting it as an argument against Dawkins’ view of morality. It does not justify a broad conclusion against atheism. If one has an argument against a 6,000 year old earth, then it can be presented as an argument against a 6,000 year old earth. It is not an argument against the existence of God.

So far, so good. However, there is another step that we need to take here.

One of the claims that we seem to be getting from those who criticize the atheist authors seems to be, “Since these authors suggested conclusions that overstepped their evidence, we can ignore everything that they said against religion. All religious beliefs can be defended merely by showing that there is some obscure and sophisticated set of religious beliefs they have not confronted.

This would be like me arguing that since Taylor failed to refute all possible defenses of an atheist morality, he is not justified in claiming that Dawkins and Hutchins were still wrong.

That rhetorical trick is absurd. Dawkins and Hutchins are still wrong (about morality) – the existence of some obscure ethics that answers Taylor’s objections cannot save them. Similarly, the more popular and widespread (and harmful and deadly) beliefs that Dawkins, Harris, and Hutchins object to are still evil – the existence of some obscure religious beliefs they did not touch cannot save those they did touch.

However, people who want to preserve their self-respect while they devote their lives to actions harmful to others are going to clutch at straws that protect their self-image. If the invalid inference, “They did not defeat some obscure view that has certain elements in common with mine; therefore, I, whose views were soundly trounced by these writers, am still a good person.”

No, not really. This argument will not work to save Dawkins’ and Harris’ views of morality. It will not work to save common Christianity or Islam (or the common version of any religion).

In fact, it does not justify that conclusion at all.


tn said...


Proof your last paragraph. Everything up 'till then is wonderful, though.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Thank you.

That was stray text that I had edited out of the document, pushed to the bottom of the page, and then forgot to delete it.

It has been corrected.