The Dishonesty of ‘New Atheism’

morality

I recently watched a debate between William Lane Craig and Lawrence Krauss; the former, a Christian Philosopher, and the latter, an atheist physicist – and I was overcome by a familiar frustration I’ve come to expect while watching atheists debate theists on the question of God and morality.  Time and again, Craig made the point that if there is no God and therefore, no supremely perfect moral authority upon which to base the objectivity of our own moral assertions, then, it follows that moral claims have no objective truth value … only for Krauss to reply again and again, that of course our moral claims are objective because we reason them out using our evolved cognitive abilities and our innate understanding.

My source of frustration lies in the fact that, like Krauss, I’m an atheist … but, unlike Krauss, I agree with William Lane Craig.  While I passionately reject the theism of Dr. Craig, I agree with him that when the concept of a supremely perfect lawgiver is abandoned – or a cosmic mind-independent source out of which objective moral laws arise – then what also must be eschewed is the notion that our moral claims have any objective, factual status.  It’s highly frustrating to watch atheist thinkers that I deeply respect like Krauss, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Shelly Kagan and the late Christopher Hitchens fumble their way over territory that the great archetypal atheist Frederick Nietzsche rightly conceded to theism well over a century ago.  It’s further testament to me, that too many contemporary scientists and atheist intellectuals are ill-equipped to engage in moral discourse because they are unfamiliar with the vast corpus of literature illuminating the subject.  I should say, however, that while I think theism is better placed than atheism to argue for the objectivity of moral claims, it does so in the face of insurmountable problems: namely, and briefly stated, the claim that God exists is itself subjective and rests on bad evidence (if any); the Euthythro Dilemma, the problem of evil which implies that God is not actually a morally good being, and the endless plurality and relativity of religious claims to authority and revelation.

Nietzsche acknowledged, rightly in my view, that a moral claim could only assume the status of objective fact if it could be grounded in some factual state of affairs existing outside of ourselves, something ‘mind-independent’.  He understood that the “wrongness” of murder, for example, could not be found anywhere in the murderous act itself, nor in the effects of that action.  Hume established the fact/value gap long before him – that it is not possible to move from a set of objective facts about what “is” the case to an objective fact about what “ought” to be the case.  The latter cannot be deduced or derived from the former.  Thus moral claims represent values which we attach to facts, but which are not facts themselves.  There are no facts out there in the world that make murder morally “wrong” in the way that there are facts out there in the world that make the statement, ‘water is H2O’, factually true.

Historically, the concept of God or gods afforded us an objective foundation on which to base our moral claims and assign them the status of ‘fact-hood’.  But with the advent of Darwinian evolutionary theory, Nietzsche concluded that the concept of God was unnecessary and thus proclaimed the death of God, largely on those terms.  For Nietzsche, the stage was set for a new morality, but one, crucially, conceived entirely by man and thus one without objectivity.  Krauss, Harris and others would do well to accept the state of play here without trying to have their cake and eat it.  If there is no source outside of ourselves on which to ground our moral claims then it surely follows that our moral claims cannot have the status of ‘fact-hood’.

I would like to outline my own moral position and demonstrate why I think it is the most consistent with an atheist position.  To begin with, let me acknowledge several natural facts about the kind of creatures we are:

  1. Along with John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham, I would argue that it is a natural fact that, on average and for the most part, human beings are averse to pain and that we desire pleasure/well-being.
  2. I would also argue that, on average and for the most part, human beings are social creatures capable of and inclined towards compassion, empathy, cooperation and the ability to think rationally about how best to minimize human suffering and increase human well-being. 
  3. 1 & 2 explain, broadly speaking, why we behave “morally”.
  4. I reject the claim that objective moral facts exist and I contend that this rejection is one which best reflects the evidence from the empirical world and the natural facts of our human condition.
  5. For example, I contend that rape, pedophilia, murder, torture and genocide are not morally wrong, objectively speaking.
  6. Because of 1 & 2, however, I believe that rape, pedophilia etc. should not be permitted because they cause suffering … but I acknowledge that my moral assertion (the “should” part of my sentence) … has no objective truth value and thus carries no obligation.  The only obligation is that which like-minded individuals impose upon themselves and each other by way of a social contract whereby laws and statutes are enacted, but in no sense is it established that these laws represent objective truth or have any transcendent authority.  Consequently, there is nothing morally wrong with human suffering and we stand under no objective obligation to prevent it.  It simply happens to be the case that most human beings don’t like to suffer and feel moved by the suffering of others and want to prevent it where they can.  Equally, there is nothing morally right about human beings treating each other with respect and dignity and we stand under no objective obligation to do so.  It just so happens that, despite our inner beast, most human beings are naturally inclined to treat other people with respect and dignity, and the construction of a rights based framework serves as a means to that end.  Out of these natural facts it makes sense to construct a subjective morality, (as I argue we have) which reflects these underlying facts about the kind of creatures we are.
  7. Finally (and this is the reason why I think the new atheists lack the courage of their convictions), I concede that human beings who take pleasure in the suffering of others through a lack of compassion and empathy are not acting “immorally” in the sense defined.  Furthermore, I acknowledge that if the natural facts were different and pedophilia, to take the most emotive example, did not bring about severe and irreparable physical and psychological harm but contributed to the well-being of all concerned… that, all things being equal, pedophilia would be permissible on atheist lines.

I conclude that 1-7 represent the most honest ethical position for an atheist to hold in contrast to atheists like Krauss and Harris who seem to think that they can reject God and yet retain moral objectivity.

 

 

 

 

 

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13 thoughts on “The Dishonesty of ‘New Atheism’

  1. There are now a spate of self-proclaimed atheists” declaiming against this or that alleged glaring fault of the “gnu atheists,” but there are very few, if any gloves laid. Here, you say the “gnu atheists” are somehow intensely “dishonest,” but I cannot figure out any way in which you establish that extreme charge. So the harupices are somehow paragons of “honesty,” and those who did more to raise the Q level of atheism are somehow unable to establish any objective basis for morality? That just doesn’t compute. If I were you I’d consider the case for atheism completely settled, and let the chicken-entrail readers like Craig go on their merry way.

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    1. “Intensely dishonest” is a little strong and not something I claimed. In the context of the debate circuits, I’ve not observed atheists owning up, honestly, to the full implications of an atheist morality. That is the charge I’m leveling. They have tried to argue, unsuccessfully in my view, that one can reject a mind-independent source for moral objectivity and yet somehow construct out of the ruins a fully objective moral system. If you think you can argue for the objectivity of moral claims on atheist lines, then, be my guest, argue away …

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  2. I enjoyed the article but I believe you should look more closely at Sam Harris’ argument. He requires only that you accept that the worst possible suffering for all conscience creatures is bad and that every step away from that is good to have an objective morality. It is unnecessarily restrictive to disagree with that obvious fact. It is in fact nonsensical to claim that this is not objectively true. It isn’t at all dishonest to claim that this is an obvious fact.

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  3. I think Harris blurs the lines between subjective and objective truth. He thinks that his ‘worst possible world’ thought experiment can establish an objective moral fact. It can’t, and he hasn’t.

    The worst possible misery for everyone
    The worst possible misery for everyone … is bad

    One of those statements represents a fact based description of a possible state of affairs and the other one includes a fact based description (The worst possible misery for everyone) and then attaches a value that is nowhere found in the description itself … “is bad” is an add on value that cannot be deduced logically from the description, ‘The worst possible misery for everyone’. Thus, the assertion, “The worst possible misery for everyone is bad” represents a subjective value judgement and not, as Harris maintains, an objective moral fact. The same would apply if we were to place “is wrong” at the end of the statement. It cannot be deduced from the description itself. Even if everyone agrees that ‘The worst possible misery for everyone is bad’ you would still not have established an objective moral fact. All you would have is multiplied the subjective value to include everyone. It would be an objective fact that ‘Everyone agrees that the worst possible misery for everyone is bad” but it would not be an objective fact that ‘The worst possible misery for everyone is bad’.

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    1. As Sam says and you likely know…to say that the worst possible misery for everyone isn’t bad is nonsensical. If the term bad means anything it means that. A similar thing could be say about medicine. Who’s to say what represents good health? Do you believe medicine has an objective ground?

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  4. Brandon, with respect, I’m not sure you’re understanding my point. Of course I agree with Harris that “The worst possible misery for everyone *is bad*” … That’s not in dispute. But my point of contention is with Harris’ claim that “The worst possible misery for everyone *is bad*” represents an objective moral fact. It simply doesn’t for the reasons I gave above. The “is bad” is a subjective ‘add on’ value that cannot be deduced from the natural fact that ‘everyone in the world is experiencing the worst possible misery’. Harris needs to spend some time reading David Hume and the history of philosophy on this important subject. He would then understand that Hume’s fact/value gap has NEVER been bridged in the context of objectivity and that, sadly, there is nothing in Harris’ clumsy moral theory which refutes Hume. Yes I would agree with him that the worst possible misery for everyone “is bad” but in so doing I am just expressing the same non-factual and entirely subjective valuation that he is. Even if everyone in the world agreed with him that the worst possible misery for everyone is bad the “is bad” part would still represent a subjective value and would not in itself constitute an objective fact.

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  5. The other problem Harris has to contend with in defending the claim that ‘the worst possible misery for everyone is bad’ constitutes an objective moral fact – is that for a subset of the human family the misery of others is of no consequence. Were I an ethical egoist, for example, I might form the subjective valuation that “the worst possible misery FOR ME *is bad*” – but that the worst possible misery for everyone else is neither “bad” nor “wrong” because I don’t care about the misery of others. I care only about myself and my own suffering. It does not follow that ‘everyone will agree that the worst possible misery for everyone *is bad*’. All that Harris can do is attempt to explain by appealing to a set of natural facts, WHY I don’t care about the misery of others, but he cannot justify why I “ought” to care because the “ought” doesn’t represent a fact.

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  6. First, he does address it in ‘The Moral Landscape’.
    Second, the standard that you are attempting to impose on the issue of lack of objective moral standard could equally destroy the ‘value’ that you assign to reason itself. In another post of yours you admit that reason could be an adaptation and not a peek into reality at all. If I don’t value reason then what reason can you offer to convince me to value it. You are left to abandon a proof and appeal to the practical value. The same can be said of anything in science. There are also outliers in the other branches of science. This only means that more work needs to be done…or that they have a mental illness or an interest in not joining consensus for some other reason. Much of science is not linked to any objective logical proof. I believe Sam Harris would concede that morality doesn’t have the eternal objectivity that you’re attacking. There is another perfectly valid use of the word. He claims that he uses the term in the same sense that he might say that it’s objectively true to say that there is ringing in his ears.

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  7. Erm… Sure … That’s precicely my argument. All “valuing” is subjective in my view and cannot be reduced to facts as Harris maintains. I’ve been very clear on this point and you haven’t offered anything to refute it. I’m not sure how your point about reason is meant to challenge my argument either. I’ve already conceded that there is no fact out there which obligates anyone to value reason and the same is true of life, suffering etc. This is precisely my argument… I agree with Harris all the way in his moral reasoning right up until he uses the word “objective”. I’m actually a massive Sam Harris fan and pretty much agree with him on every position apart from this one. His moral theorising is a serious mess. Oh, and “eternal objectivity” … Come on, don’t waste my time with this straw man distortion. I’ve been crystal clear about Harris’ assertion that values reduce to facts. This is the claim I’m attacking and nowhere did I even imply anything about “eternal objectivity”.

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    1. The reason I use the word eternal is because that is how you are using it. The logical proof that demonstrates that values cannot come from facts is exactly that…a mathematical imposition upon language which in this case and in many others is improperly imposed. I concede the mathematical proof but do not cede the word to you as you insist that we must. This is where I believe you are doing a great disservice to the cause of making morality an underdeveloped branch of science as we must if the world is going to move forward. You are insisting that we cede the word to you. To claim that someone is misusing a word is not merely a matter of logic. Words are much deeper and richer and you lead people astray when they do not understand that you are speaking of the strict logical sense. Logicians do not own the language and to insist that this strict interpretation of objective is the only interpretation is preventing us from coming together on the most pressing matter of the issue. It makes us (atheists) look like we are without morals and this is the biggest public relations problem we have in my opinion. We have got to get behind the concept that we have a proper foundation of morality that is untainted by dogma.
      I will tip my hand a bit more however and say that I also concede as does Sam Harris that the kind of ‘objectivity’ we are talking about does not (admittedly) exist outside the human construct. This still does not mean we must cede the word. I simply feel that it is perfectly reasonable to use the word when the ground for moral reasoning based on the worst possible misery of all creatures is so solid.

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  8. Excellent post, much to dwell on. I agree with the frustration. If we would, as a community, admit the lack of objectivity I believe we would be able to debate better. I also find the subjective morality you’ve laid out here to be a better thing for humanity than the objective reality of the Bible god. Within your subjectivity, many of Yahweh’s evils would not have been permitted in the Israelite communities. Cut to the 21st century and we wouldn’t be having court cases like Hobby Lobby or that bigot baker. At least that is my hope, because one day I dream the world will let go of religion and find the peace it’s been looking for.

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  9. Well, I diagree. An objective fact is quite simply a mind-independent fact about the way the world happens to be. Those facts are subject to change depending on naturally evolving factors and so for you to claim that I’m talking about “eternal objectivity” is entirely baseless and doesn’t remotely resemble my moral position. What you seem to be suggesting in your defence of Harris’ moral theory is, quite frankly, a misappropriation of the meaning of the word “objective” as it has been defined in the sciences and in academia. You’re free to do so, of course, but I won’t be joining you. As I’ve argued a number of times already, Harris’ claim that “The worst possible misery for everyone *is bad*” is an objective moral fact is simply wrong. It is a subjective value attached to a factual state of affairs. It is not a fact in and of itself, and no amount of language play and semantic stretching is going to make his argument valid.

    Now, here’s a point we might agree on … When you say that “values cannot come from facts” … that’s not actually what I’m claiming. This whole discussion is highly nuanced (a nuance, I have to say, I don’t think Harris takes seriously) as of course it is the case that values come from or are derived from facts. Facts inform values, constitute reasons for why we hold certain values in relation to facts etc. but Harris is claiming something much stronger, that values *reduce* to facts, which is to say that a value is a certain type of fact… I disagree with him on that last part but I do agree with him that our values are shaped by our understanding of the facts, and that as science is best placed to inform us about the facts of our condition, a morality that reflects those facts is likely to be one that can offer us the most practical benefit. We can agree on this perhaps …

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  10. Maybe then it would be a more ‘honest’ portrayal to title the blog…”A Nuance that New Atheists don’t seem to take seriously” rather than the current title.
    I still strongly disagree with your approach. I will continue to devour everything you write on the subject because you’re obviously brilliant but on this point you miss the forest for the trees. As a practical matter you win this battle with me but we lose the war with theists because you insist that we cede a word to you…which creates the appearance to the casual observer that we don’t have a solid ground for moral reasoning. Which is more important…the battle or the war?

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