Sunday, June 08, 2008

The Pledge Project: Moral Chauvinism

The Pledge Project: Promoting Morality

One of the claims that we are certain to hear if the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals declares 'under God' to violate the Constitution is how the country is descending into greater and greater immorality as a result of moving God from the schools and the country.

In other words, if you want to be safe – if you want to live without fear of being robbed, raped, or murdered, you need to support 'under God' in the classroom, 'In God We Trust' on the classroom walls, prayer in schools, abstinence only sex education, and creationism. If you do not support these things, do not be surprised if you wake up slaughtered in your sleep by the evil secularists out there waiting for an opportunity to get you.

The standard response to these types of claims is for secularists to say, "Atheists can be good, too." Indeed, this is true.

I selected the name that I use for this blog precisely to counter this type of prejudice. To a lot of people, putting the terms 'atheist' and 'ethicist' together in the same blog title is an oxymoron – like writing about round squares or unmarried bachelors. This prejudice needs to be put in its place – along with all of the other prejudices that have plagued humanity.

So, I would like to recommend a new type of response to this claim. Rather than the defensive, "I can be moral, too," type of response, I would like to recommend a response more like the following:

Mr. X has just given us an example of one of the things religion has been most successful at since religion was invented – promoting bigotry. It does this because the practitioners of each religion get to declare that they are morally superior to all others, so members become the privileged class with God's own right to look down the inferior members of society – the infidels, the heathens, the unbelievers, the heretics, ir noses on everybody else.

I am not saying that every religion suffers from the same moral chauvinism – though, historically, it has been a very common attitude to take.

In addition, let's not deny that some atheists are moral chauvinists as well, writing or speaking as if lack of belief gives in a God gives a person membership in a morally elite club that gets to look down on all others.

I have argued against these positions repeatedly in this blog, and I will argue against them in the future. The propositions 'At least one god exists' and 'No god(s) exist' carry no moral implications. It's the stuff that we add onto these claims that carry moral weight. Atheists are just as capable of tacking absurdities onto the proposition, "No god(s) exist," as theists are at tacking absurdities onto the proposition, "At least one god exists."

But Mr. X has proven by his statements that he belongs to one of those religions that does preach and does practice moral chauvinism.

Mr. X has just told us that he sees two type of people in the world – those who share his religion, and those who do not. Mr. X has just told us that of the two that he, of course, belongs to the morally superior group, while those who do not share his views are the morally inferior to him and his kind.

Of course, Mr. X is a member of the morally superior group. Can we imagine Mr. X telling us that his group is the morally inferior group? This has always been the case with this type of moral chauvinism. Moral chauvinism simply is the expression of the attitude that "I belong to a group that is morally superior to all others. So, I get to morally judge others by one simple standard. To what degree do you share my morally superior qualities."

Perhaps Mr. X is magnanimous enough that he is willing to widen his circle of morally acceptable people a little – to let in religions that are not too much different from his own. Yet, this is the same chauvinism as the white racist willing to expand his circle of prejudice to include a few brown people, but which cannot fathom the idea of letting in blacks.

Of course, the shade at which Mr. X decides to draw the line between those who are acceptable and those who are unacceptable, since it is not grounded on evidence, is grounded only on Mr. X's personal preferences.

Or, I should say, his personal prejudices, because that is all we are talking about here.

Nobody has the right to assert moral superiority over a whole group – not unless the group itself is defined as people who are guilty of some crime (e.g., murderers, rapists, thieves). The very act of dividing the world into groups, and asserting that one's own group is morally superior to all others, is an act of moral chauvinism. This is bigotry.

Each of us has a right to be judged by our own actions – according to the quality of our own deeds. If it should turn out that every other atheist on the planet is a sadistic serial killer, it would still not be justified in claiming that I am a sadistic serial killer - not without evidence that I am actually sadistically killing people.

This tendency to divide the world into groups (my religion vs. your religion, my country vs. your country, the fans of my soccer team vs. the fans of your soccer team) and assert moral superiority of one group over the other, is a religious trait. It is a human trait. I strongly suspect that if Earth were to become totally populated by atheists, that those atheists would still be dividing themselves up into separate group, declaring the moral superiority of 'my group' over 'your group', with all of the ill effects that we have seen in the conflicts among different religions.

This is a human quality, but it is an evil quality – one that we have every reason to fight against, and to condemn whenever and wherever it emerges.

It emerges any time that somebody argues that we need 'under God' in the Pledge, 'In God We Trust' in the motto, prayer in school, and creationism in science classes, in order to promote morality in the schools. These statements are built on the assumption of moral chauvinism - an unfounded assumption that those who are members of 'my group' who trusts in God are morally superior to all other groups, and people are moral only to the degree that they belong to and follow the dictates of 'my group'.

Strangely, even some atheists are moral chauvinists – not in the sense of holding that atheism is morally superior to others, but in assuming that atheists are morally inferior to others. These are the people who write or speak to tell us that atheists must be more moral in order to set a better example – to prove to others that we are not as bad as others think we are.

This attitude tells us that the speaker has internalized society's moral chauvinism against atheists – turning it even against themselves. These types of claims assume that atheists are not already living moral lives. These types of claims say, in effect, that the public hostility against atheists is deserved, given the moral inferiority of atheists, and that we need to shun that moral inferiority if we are to earn the moral respect of our 'betters'.

None of us are morally perfect. There is certainly room for moral improvement among atheists as there is room for moral improvement among all people. I am not objecting to the claim that atheists can do better – atheists certainly can do better. I am objecting to the assumption that the prejudice against atheists – the judgment that atheists must work harder in order to deserve to be considered the moral equal of others that I am objecting to.

I object to this assumption. I object when it comes from a theist who asserts that 'under God', 'In God We Trust', school prayer, and creationism are essential for morality. I object when it comes from an atheist who says that atheists must engage in more moral behavior before they can be considered the moral equal to theists.

And I think that this type of chauvinism needs to be answered with something other than, "But I am a good person." I think it needs to be answered with, "By merely making that claim – unless you have some evidence to back it up – you have proved yourself to be a moral chauvinist."


Anonymous said...

Alonzo, I've just posted links to your blog and Planet Atheism on several Facebook groups of which I'm a member, drawing attention to your current post series on "under God" and "In God We Trust". Hopefully you'll be getting a bunch more hits, readers, and comments soon. :)

Anonymous said...

Why do you believe that no one is "morally perfect"? If I tell you I am morally perfect, what have you to say to me to demonstrate that I am in fact not morally perfect? Even though many atheists, as you have pointed out, internalize the view that atheists are fundamentally less moral than say, Christians, and thus must prove their morality somehow--it seems you may have internalized the Christian idea of moral imperfectability; that we are all sinners who will always fall short of complete righteousness.

And why has no one the right to assert moral superiority over a whole group? Who are these rights being issued by?

I do not think that dividing the world into groups and asserting that one group is superior to all the others is so clearly evil as you assert. There are many ways people can divide their social world into groups. For example, college students consistently divide themselves, Bruins, Banana Slugs, Trojans; they have rivalries. And each asserts that they are the greatest and #1. I do not think that this is *evil* (Thats a harsh judgment). I may not participate in it, and may even disapprove of behavior that I think goes to far (like brawls), but I think the division of social groups is potentially good. It need not lead to genocide and war, and the solution isnt likely totalitarianism.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Actually, desire utilitarianism, the moral theory that lies at the foundation of these posts, hold that moral perfection would be next to impossible.

Moral perfection would mean having exactly those desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others. Given the wide variety of circumstances that a person might find himself in, that a person has exactly the right desires for every one of those circumstances is unlikely at best.

By the way, I did not speak about it being wrong for one group to declare superiority over others. I spoke specifically about moral superiority over others, a claim that clashes with each individual's right to be evaluated according to his or her own conduct.

Declaring a person guilty of a moral failing in virtue of group membership is akin to declaring a person guilty of a crime by arguing that he is a member of a group that tends to perform a particular crime.

We are each members of a virtually infinite set of groups. Each of us belongs to at least one group whose members are more likely to commit crimes than members of any other group we belong to. So, declaring a person guilty in virtue of group membership will trap every one of us, depending on exactly which groups we decide to focus on.