Sunday, June 14, 2009

Atheists' Use of Moral Language

Finishing up this week’s theme on how nice atheists should be I would like to note a continuing deficiency among atheist writers – the degree to which they shun genuine moral language – terms like virtue and evil.

Even though they deny a necessary relationship between religion and morality on an intellectual level, when it comes to actually using moral language it is as if they feel ashamed or nervous. It is as if they hold that the use of a moral term is like quoting a biblical passage – something that no decent atheist could do.

I have a nice definition of evil that has nothing to do with any type of God or supernatural entity – that makes reference only to things found in nature.

A person is evil to the degree that he has malleable desires that people generally have reason to inhibit (because that desire tends to thwart other desires), or to the degree that he lacks a malleable desire that people generally have reason to promote (because that desire tends to fulfill other desires).

Conveniently, saying that somebody is evil means directing people generally to afflict condemnation on that person. Being identified as, “somebody who has malleable desires that tends to thwart other desires’ should be enough to make anybody nervous. It says that he (and people like him) are a rational target for condemnation. It directs people generally to treat the target individual with hostility, and this is something that no individual has reason to seek.

None of this requires any type of supernatural or divine element.

Of course, many religious people will raise the challenge, “How can you call me evil? You do not believe in a God. Without a God there is no morality. Your assertion that I am evil is, itself, an admission that there is a God from which evil springs.”

This type of circular reasoning is to be expected from a bunch of self-serving, hate-mongering bigots. “You want to think this because it gives you an excuse to make arrogant presumptions as to your own moral superiority. You like the thought that you are morally above everybody else, so you desperately grab onto whatever excuse touches your brain that gives you the ego stroking you so desperately crave.”

This is as legitimate an answer as any, and one that can be sufficiently demonstrated. People generally have many and strong reasons to inhibit the type of egoistic self-importance exhibited in the remark the comment above is responding to. The moral tool that they have for inhibiting arrogance is by targeting examples of arrogance (even fictional examples of arrogance as depicted in art, for example) with condemnation and ridicule.

There are two unfortunate consequences of the atheist disposition to avoid actual moral language.

The first is that it yields the moral ground to the theists. It perpetuates the myth that morality only springs from religion when moral claims only come from those who profess to have a religious moral authority. When atheists make moral claims, and they mean what they say, it gets people accustomed to the idea of morality coming from a non-religious source. It would be useful for people to get a stronger taste of this type of claim.

The second is that it leaves fertile ground on which to grow the types of entities that the people generally have reason to inhibit. If we are not calling people evil when they are evil, if we are shying away from applying the social tool of condemnation whose main use is to inhibit that which is condemned.

If we do not take steps to actively weed the social garden, we should not be at all surprise to find our garden dominated by weeds. And if you do not take steps to feed and water the good plants growing in the garden, we should not be surprised to discover that the good plants have shriveled up, failing in competition to the weeds and noxious plants that we allowed to flourish.

In using moral terms, it is important to use them accurately. There are also problems associated with praising that which people generally have the most and strongest reasons to inhibit (unknown to them, perhaps), and with inhibiting that which they have reason to promote. The use of moral language demands a certain amount of moral responsibility in making sure it is used accurately.

But not using moral language carries a certain amount of moral irresponsibility. Not using moral language means leaving fertile ground for immorality to grow. In the case of atheist reluctance to use moral language, it feeds the illusion that morality belongs in the realm of the theist. Neither effect can be counted as a good thing.


Martin Freedman said...

You pre-empted my own post on this topic, which, if I had had the time would have been a follow up to my Is the Archbishop of Westminster promoting evil? the title alone should indicate that I agree with you!

Thesauros said...

The word that atheists avoid most frequently is 'objective.'

Most Christians know and accept that any given atheist has developed a moral and value system as good as anything Christianity promotes. Mostly because s/he stole it from the Christian influenced culture around him but, whatever.

What the atheist lacks is a basis from which to promote h/her value system. Even Alonzo's definition of evil is just Alonzo's definition of evil. Who cares? Joe from next door or even faithless, here, might have one that's as good as or better.

Atheist morals = desires, feelings and opinions. You might think that you have one unit of value but in a secular world, if your neighbour says you don't have any value, your neighbour is just as correct as you are.

Inquisitive Atheist said...

Props to Makarios for hitting the nail on the head. Alonzo I once again have to strongly disagree with your definition of evil.

First of all it's far to vague, the phrase "malleable desires that people generally have reason to inhibit" is so vague it's borderline moral relativism.

For example, let's say that someone wishes to lash themselves to punish themselves for a deed that they committed which they feel guilty for and to pay penance to God. If this person lived on a monastary then that action would fall under that category of a desire that people have a desire to promote, but if they were living in a secular society that would probably fall under the category of of a desire that people have a reason to inhibit.

Your definition of good is entirely dependent on the moral atmosphere of the society that the person is living in and cannot say anything about good or evil objectively.

GMRaphi said...

It is one of the strengths of modern behavioral sciences that good and evil not only do not stem from god but complement and fit in perfectly with evolution.

Syth said...

One reason that I tend to avoid words like 'evil' and 'virtue' is because they will immediately be related to religious belief on the part of the reader. "How can you 'believe' in evil if you don't accept jesus as your savior." Nonsense, of course, but it forestalls one avenue of argument.

Anonymous said...

Suppose an individual accepts this definition of evil. What sort of argument can we present him with that he ought't do evil things (i.e., things motivated by, or corresponding to malleable desires...)? He can legitimately say, "yes I recognize that [evil act] is evil, and that people generally have reason to inhibit such behavior, and even that I might experience negative consequences as a result, so it might be pragmatic for me not to do it, but is there any reason I oughtn't do it?"

Anonymous said...

Oh Makarios, why must you darken our doorway once again? /sigh

Anyway, your words are the words of one who is ignorant of morality. Anyone who was ignorant of physics could say the exact same thing about physics. IE: "Who cares about about Newton's definition of gravity? Joe from next door, or even Socraties, might have one that's as good or better. If your neighbor says you don't have any knowledge of physics, your neighbor is just as correct as you are."

Same could be said about chemistry, evolution, whatever. The fact that YOU are ignorant about a particular subject does NOT mean that there isn't truth to be found on that subject in the physical world.

Inquisitive Atheist -

Actually, self-flagulation is not a desire people generally have reason to encourage, no matter where or who you are. Monks in a monastary may encourage this desire, but they are wrong to do so. In general, all people have reasons to promote a desire to compensate the wronged party. Self-flagulation rarely does this.

Remember, what desires SHOULD be promoted and what desires ARE ACTUALLY promoted are often different.

Anon -

Yes, Alonzo has written on this before, frequently. There is no way to reason someone like this into not doing evil. But we do have the tools to shape their desires, so they will no longer WANT to do evil. Please see the oft-cited Hateful Craig Problem

Eneasz said...

last post was mine, again. Getting absent-minded about putting my name on these. :/

Eneasz said...

Inquisitive Atheist -

I forgot to address:
I once again have to strongly disagree with your definition of evil.

First of all it's far to vague, the phrase "malleable desires that people generally have reason to inhibit

It's actually not vague, the definition of evil as "malleable desires that people generally have reason to inhibit" is pretty specific. It's just that it applies to a LOT of desires that makes it appear to be vague on the surface. But the word "evil" is SUPPOSED to cover all such desires.

By way of analogy, the word "matter" also has a specific definition, but it applies to all matter in the universe, so it might appear to be vague. But it is the purpose of the word to cover all these things.

Mark C. said...

Perhaps my biggest issue, when it comes to accepting DU explanations and definitions, concerns the term "generally". Perhaps this is the vague part of the definition that Inquisitive Atheist was talking about.

Exactly how do we decide how many contextual facts need to be considered when thinking about the morality of committing any particular action?

How do we decide on whose desires we should be thinking about? How far into the future should the causal chain, initiated by our action, conceptually go, and which consequences within it should we consider? How would the proposed restrictions be justified?

DU sounds good, but I just don't know how we could ever be justified in ascribing terms like "good", "bad", etc. to people and desires without having a calculus that deals with the issues, phrased in questions above, that I'm having with DU. To me, it looks like the best we could do would be to only tentatively believe the aforementioned ascriptions, were they made.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I am going to be spending the next few posts answering some of the issues raised in these comments, starting with

Paying Penance to God

whatbelief said...

Anonymous said...
"He can legitimately say, "yes I recognize that [evil act] is evil, and that people generally have reason to inhibit such behavior, and even that I might experience negative consequences as a result, so it might be pragmatic for me not to do it, but is there any reason I oughtn't do it?"

There is a reason you oughtn't do it; because society imposes consequences to the (evil act).

Thinking about an act (car theft, for example) in a non-religious way, you should not steal my car because it impinges on my desire to own and operate my car, doesn't stop the act from happening any more than god telling you that stealing my car is evil. The difference is the moral judgment is coming from a logical and non-religious view point rather than a mystical and religious view point.

A belief in god does not inhibit a person from committing the evil act. The car thief may believe god has told him he oughtn't steal that car (thou shalt not steal is one of the first things religiously raised children learn), but it doesn't stop him from doing it.

What I think this article is saying is that it's ok to say that act is wrong, there by imposing a moral judgment on that act, without it coming from a religious perspective.

I'm a first time reader of your blog. Very interesting. Thank you.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


You wrote, "Suppose an individual accepts this definition of evil. What sort of argument can we present him with that he ought't do evil things (i.e., things motivated by, or corresponding to malleable desires...)?"

You can find an answer to this question in the posting, The Hateful Craig Problem