Moral Clarity and the RDFRS Community

Earlier this week I posted “Moral Clarity and Richard Dawkins,”which was then reposted and discussed at the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science website. My first response to the comment thread pointed out the frequent logical fallacies (and incivility) in the comment thread.

Today I want to continue an effort to raise the bar of dialogue with the RDFRS community. My goal in this post is to address the more substantive comments at their site. Before doing so, a brief recap of the original argument is in order.

In “Moral Clarity and Richard Dawkins” I offered the metaphor of a house with a foundation, main floor, and a roof. The foundation is the meta-ethical theory, the main floor is our ethical theory, and the roof is our behavior. I then looked at Richard Dawkins’ overall ‘moral house’ to see how well his meta-ethical theory supports his ethical system and behavior.

The problem here is that Dawkins is on record for denying that good and evil are objectively real. Instead, all we have is talk about right and wrong, an output determined by DNA replicators following their biological scripts. His meta-ethical system is that ethics is just a comforting illusion that promotes survival. But this provides an insufficient foundation for a meaningful ethical system about right and wrong or for objectively describing some behavior as ‘good’ and other actions as ‘bad.’ The best we can do is play a game, according to the dictates of our DNA, that will affect our probability of survival. But once we admit that our universe is “neither good nor evil,” the necessary foundation for ethics and moral behavior has been removed.

Here’s a parallel example, applying for the sake of fairness, my metaphor of a house against the Christian worldview. Let’s stipulate, for the sake of argument, that there is no God, no supernatural beings, nothing which is not natural. What would logical consistency lead us to conclude about theological systems? Some theologies might enhance survival, other theologies might impede survival, but no theological system would be true.

For instance, “God commands us to cooperate with others” might be an evolutionarily adaptive belief, but it would not be a true statement about reality. Likewise, acts of worshipping “the God” or “the gods” might demonstrate someone’s power or wealth, and therefore might enhance their reproductive opportunities. But the activity of worship itself would be a delusion of the brain. There is no God (or gods) to worship, so the prayers and religious rituals would fail to represent or relate to anything real in the world.

To return to the house metaphor, if your meta-theological perspective (the foundation) is “there is no God or supernatural beings” then your theological system (main floor) is without foundation. Whatever the details of the theological system, they are nothing more than a distorted and inaccurate attempt to navigate life and successfully reproduce. They are just fairy tales or myths. Certainly fairy tales are a real thing in the world, and they often inspire people and change how people behave, but they are still fairy tales. Without the foundation (e.g., “there is a God”) the main floor (e.g., “here is what God is like and what God wants”) and the roof (e.g., “these actions please God”) would entirely collapse into the resulting hole.

This is the kind of problem that Dawkins has with his ‘moral home.’ If Dawkins is correct in denying that morality is objectively real, then all the resulting ethical talk and action simply lacks a solid foundation. Morality is at best just talk that furthers genetic propagation, but our world is fundamentally, basically an amoral one. Moral systems are just another kind of fairy tale.

At any rate, that’s the argument.  With that in mind, let’s examine some of the more substantive comments at the RDFRS website. Given the volume of them, I won’t be able to respond to every point raised, so my general plan has been to respond to a representative sample.

Comment #5, “Hs he not realised, yet, that moral reasoning takes place within the context of who we are physically and socially? That human ethics are a result of some serious evolutionary and societal processes?”

Here I think we had a misunderstanding. I do understand that moral reasoning takes place within our physical and social contexts and is shaped by evolutionary and societal pressures. But the force of my question remains: is this ‘moral talk’ reflective of something real about our world or is it just a variety of codes that may or may not enhance survival? Does “do not murder” reflect a transcendent moral standard or is it a convenient fairy tale that supports genetic replication?

Comment #6, “So his whole article is saying “you don’t want to be like Richard Dawkins, for he is a bad person” in the hope that people will believe him and be persuaded to take a dislike to Dawkins.”

Again, with respect, I believe this is a misunderstanding of my article. If anything, I deliberately sought to praise Dawkins in my original article, writing,

“For the moment, lets give Dawkins the benefit of the doubt and stipulate that he generally lives a good and decent life. Let’s also accept that Dawkins ardently defends the reality of many important moral truths: kindness, compassion, altruism, teamwork, and so on. He’s also on the record for stating that rape, murder, and theft are wrong.”

I agree with a great deal of Dawkins’ ethical system, including respect for his “Ten Commandments.” And I gladly acknowledge that much of Dawkins’ behavior is noble and worthy of praise. Why is this? Shouldn’t I, as a Christian, hate Dawkins, an atheist who wants to eliminate religion from the world? By no means!

Instead, to the contrary, because I believe that God’s good and loving character is the foundation of morality, and because I see reflections of God’s good and gracious teachings in Dawkins’ ethical system and lifestyle, I am encouraged to appreciate and respect Dawkins in those areas. Nevertheless, when Dawkins explicitly rejects the objective reality of moral truth, I believe he undermines his own ethical statements and actions, and that this fundamental error should be rebutted with careful reasoning.

Comment 8, “It cannot be stupidity but deliberate dishonesty that people like this keep straw manning atheists as believing there is no such thing as morality. Just because something is the product of thought processes and not supernatural woo does not mean it is not real in the sense of having symbolic value. Nor does it mean it doesn’t relate to physical reality.”

Again, I believe this comment represents a slight – very slight – misunderstanding of my original article. Let me be clear: I affirm that atheists believe morality exists. I affirm that atheists have ethical systems and that they strive to live good lives. To return to the house metaphor, I affirm that most atheists have well-furnished ‘main floors’ and ‘roofs’ in excellent repair. At these levels of moral discourse, atheists believe in morality and seek to live moral lives. Furthermore, their ethical systems and good deeds are related to physical reality in a million different ways. As this commenter implies, it would be insulting and unfair to say otherwise!

Nevertheless, most atheists do deny the objective reality of moral truth – the foundation of the house. As I argued above, I think this generates very problematic logical consequences for ethical systems and moral behavior.

Comment #9, “To him morality is a metaphysical absolute, a real property of the universe, and he can’t go beyond that. If someone says it’s something else (like, for instance, an intersubjective social coping strategy) then he hears that as “it isn’t anything at all”.”

I think this comment is largely accurate. Though, again, I recognize and appreciate that morality is an intersubjective social coping strategy. Of course it is. The interesting question, for me, is this: “Is morality anything more than an intersubjective social coping strategy?” Is morality a real property of the universe – or just a game we play, a myth we tell each other? If it is just a tool in our quest for survival, then my argument (not just what “I hear”) is that morality lacks the requisite foundation.

Comment #11, “you can’t argue against something by appealing to its consequences being uncomfortable (this is a fallacy called the appeal to consequences), but only to their being self-contradictory (a method I myself use against this theist later).”

I agree that an appeal to consequences is a logical fallacy. Just because it would be uncomfortable to lack a foundation for morality doesn’t mean, QED, that there must be a foundation. However, as Kai Nielsen says about child abuse and wife beating,

“It is more reasonable to believe such elemental things to be evil than to believe any skeptical theory that tells us we cannot know or reasonably believe any of these things to be evil… I firmly believe that this is bedrock and right and that anyone who does not believe it cannot have probed deeply enough into the grounds of his moral beliefs” (quoted in “A Moral Argument” by Paul Copan, in To Everyone An Answer, 111).

In other words, it is rational to carefully reflect upon great evils, such as child abuse, and draw the conclusion that these actions are objectively wrong. This observation about reality provides evidence against any skeptical theory that denies such actions are objectively wrong.

Comment #12, “First to claim that someone actually has a foundation in morals based upon the Bible is overlooking modern psychology. I think of this as the basement of the house, the unseen and unaware motivators of our lives.”

Again, this comment represents a misunderstanding of my position. The psychological ‘foundation’ for why we are motivated to do certain actions rather than others is certainly an important subject that deserves careful study and ongoing scientific research. However, the foundation in my original metaphor was related to meta-ethical claims, about whether or not we believe that moral truths are objectively real. Secondly, I wouldn’t argue that morals are based in the Bible, but in God’s good and loving character.

“A humanist morality is much superior since we have allowed our views to come under the scrutiny of modern psychology, science, and actual human interactions.”

As a Christian, I’m also very interested in the results of modern psychology, science, and actual human interactions. I think that knowledge from all of these domains can inform and strengthen our ethical systems. It is primarily at the meta-ethical level where I believe the naturalistic worldview falls short.

Another way of looking at this is to ask, “by what objective standard do you evaluate that some moralities are better than others?” Again, I agree that a moral system which is informed by modern psychology and science is likely to be richer than one that is not. But I believe that because of how I read the Bible and understand the gracious purposes of God. And also, because there is an objectively real standard for morality – God’s loving and holy character – which provides a proper basis for evaluating all moral systems.

Comment #19, “It is clear that most Christians (the ones who aren’t raving sociopaths) use Bible verses selectively, as a mere alibi for values that they originally subscribe to for reasons other than religion, and precisely these “other reasons” are our real criterion for distinguishing right from wrong whether we are religious or not.”

This may be an accurate description of most Christians (perhaps we can argue about that another day). But my article went for the deeper issue underneath how we develop our ethical systems: the presence – or absence – of an objective foundation for ethics in the first place. A further response may be made: whatever these original, non-religious values are, how do we decide which ones are right – and which are wrong? Lacking an objective standard, we can prefer those values that promote survival, that make us happy, that make others unhappy, that we can get away with, or that are most creative. But we lack a basis for identifying which values are better than others. How do you decide whether “Hansel and Gretel” or “Cinderella” is a better fairy tale?

What cannot be justified without the God hypothesis cannot be justified with such an hypothesis either.” (emphasis in original comment).

Here’s one action that cannot be justified without the God hypothesis: “it is proper to give God worship.” However, if God exists, as a loving, holy, all-knowing, and all-powerful being, then it follows that the worship of God is very appropriate – perhaps even ideal – for human beings.

Comment #21, “Off the top of my head “Foundation” for his house: “This ethical system is the most effective way to ensure minimal harm for the greatest number of individuals while producing a functional society.” That’s approximately mine anyway.”

Along with this person, I look for effective ways to ensure minimal harm and produce a functional society. We share these values in common. The question is: why is a functional society better than a dysfunctional one? Why is our existence to be preferred over our non-existence? Most importantly, are there any moral truths which ground our ethical systems? A positive answer to that question is the kind of foundation that I’ve argued is necessary for logical consistency.

Comment #40, “What I suspect is true about the nature of our ethical system is that, sooner or later, it has a subjective component (i.e. it relates to peoples’ experiences grounded in the real world). This is often dismissed as “Personal preference” or “Bowing to popular opinion” or committing the popular fallacy, but if I say that people would lead happier lives and have more enjoyable experiences if they cooperated than if they fought one another, how is this not a fact dependent upon reality? … Even deluded people are obeying real world rules of reality, though these rules would be psychological, historical, and neuroscientific ones.”

Again, I find myself in  great deal of agreement with most of this comment. I agree, for instance, that in most cases, people will lead happier lives if they cooperate rather than fight. (This post, believe it or not, is an effort to cooperate with the RDFRS community in our joint search for truth, meaning and morality).

I also agree that our world is described by a variety of psychological, historical, and neuroscientific rules of reality. Understanding these rules and harnessing those insights to produce a better, happier society is an important task, whether you are a Christian, an atheist, an agnostic, or however you describe yourself. All of this work will produce a better ‘first floor’ ethical system and we can likely find a great deal of common ground here. Nevertheless, my original post was focused on whether or not any of these ethical systems, no matter how scientifically informed they may be, have a proper meta-ethical foundation. I would argue that the naturalistic worldview lacks a proper foundation.

Comment #50, “The fact that the universe as a collection of forces and particles does not give a rat’s ass about an individual human or their life or their feelings does not mean that humans cannot be moral. Morality is a social construct: WE MADE IT UP. It makes us feel good to live by it and it is conducive to our continued, feel-good existence. There is nothing wrong or illegitimate about this. Just because we invented it, bit by painful, bloody bit, over millenia of living together, with the result being what we see around us today, does not mean it isn’t worth following.”

This comment is very clear. The meta-ethical position couldn’t be more baldly stated than to say, “Morality is a social construct: WE MADE IT UP.” In other words, it is a pleasant and evolutionarily successful fairy tale. I agree that, even if this is the case, our moral systems can make us feel good and contribute to our continued existence. It certainly wouldn’t be wrong or illegitimate to have moral systems if they are just what we’ve made up. Again, the parallel, as with theology if God doesn’t exist, is to fairy tales: nothing wrong with liking some of them more than others and being inspired by them to live a different life.

But if morality is just a social construct that we’ve made up, then you lack any standard for preferring one moral system to another. You cannot identify moral reformers as heroes until they are successful at getting everyone else to agree that their reforms are good. And so on. The problems with moral relativism are legion. (I recommend Beckwith’s book Relativism for more on this).