Sunday, October 7, 2007

An Atheist's Answer to the Morality Question

A freshman at Silliman College of Yale University recently penned an opinion article titled, "Anti-theists avoid morality question."

The freshman, Bryce Taylor, despite his talented writing, displays a naive understanding not only of what the New Atheists such as Dawkins and Harris are trying to accomplish with their books, but also an ignorance of the rich and diverse moral discussions taking place (and which have always taken place) within the non-believing community at large.

Sam Harris is primarily attacking irrational faith, and Dawkins is attempting to 'raise consciousness', as he puts it, of the delusional nature of faith-based religion. Neither of them spend a lot of time on arguments against the existence of God, and merely provide an overview or summary of arguments that have been better put many times before. They are not trying to reinvent the wheel, but are attempting to make cracks in the heretofore respectable fa├žade of religious belief; and, further, that belief in God does not provide an objective foundation for morality either. Taylor is setting up these glaringly visible and outspoken atheists as straw men.

Getting to the question of morality, he writes:

Of course, Christians and other theists have raised the objection that naturalistic materialism — the notion that only the physical world exists — can provide no foundation for morality. That’s not to say that naturalists cannot behave morally, but merely that they can have no real and consistent reason for behaving morally. As this has been a long-standing and widespread objection to naturalism, it would seem only reasonable to expect atheists to devote careful attention to the question of morality.

First of all, as Plato demonstrated centuries ago - and centuries before the Christian religion - God cannot be the foundation for morality without morality becoming something completely arbitrary. Does God value what is morally good, or is moral goodness whatever God says it is? If it's the former, then morality is independent of God; if it's the latter, then moral goodness is arbitrary. God could have chosen torture as a moral 'good.' In fact, that may even be the case, given the predilections of the God of the Old Testament.

Secondly, atheistic naturalists have devoted a considerable amount of time and effort into formulating a naturalistic morality. In fact, ever since Darwin published his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, naturalists have attempted to discover or at least construct and defend a naturalistic morality.

The main problem with trying to ground a naturalistic morality is encapsulated in the dictum, you can't derive an 'ought' from an 'is'; that is to say, science (the epistemological basis for naturalism) only tells us what is - it is descriptive - whereas moral reasoning attempts to tell us what we ought to do - it is prescriptive. There is no logical way to get to what ought to be by simply describing what is. However, one of the most thorough (and most recent) attempts at promulgating a naturalistic morality can be found in Duke philosopher Owen Flanagan's The Problem of the Soul. He devotes an entire chapter to the problem: "Ethics as Human Ecology."

Flanagan acknowledges the challenge:

What is the rational basis for our urges for meaning and goodness? Isn't naturalism required to say that human life in fact has no real meaning and that morality, at least as it is commonly understood, makes no sense?

The naturalist must provide an answer to these questions and quell the associated fears.

The problem for the naturalist is to offer a way of thinking about value, meaning, and worth - moral and nonmoral - that has substance and objectivity.


Flanagan then goes on to describe his conception of a naturalistic morality as a form of ecology:

And ecology is the science that studies how living systems relate to each other and to their environment, and so is the relevant analogy.

Ethics, as I conceive it, is systematic inquiry into the conditions (of the world, of individual persons, and of groups of persons) that permit humans to flourish.

Observations of humans over history discovers flourishing to be their aim, and living meaningfully and morally to be conditions of doing so.

What makes such inquiry empirical is that it starts from an understanding of human nature as revealed by evolutionary biology, mind science, sociology, anthropology and history. So the first reason why it is helpful to conceive of ethics as empirical is that it allows us to use actual observation, rather than revealed and traditional wisdom, to determine what outcomes are most reasonably judged good.


So, needless to say, naturalistic materialists have given considerable thought to secular ethics.

Taylor concludes:

Ultimately, there are two fundamental questions about morality: Is it real, and if so, where does it come from?

Thus, most naturalists, including those mentioned above, would reply in the affirmative. The problem then becomes the second question: Where does this morality come from?

Until they argue convincingly for a naturalistic foundation for morality, anti-theists like Dawkins and Harris would do best to admit with Ivan Karamazov that “there is no virtue if there is no immortality” — or, more to the point, there is no morality if there is no God.

Yes, the naturalistic materialist will answer that morality is real, but it is not independent of human nature. Additionally, the naturalistic materialist will say that, wherever morality comes from, it most certainly doesn't come from God - Plato's Euthyphro's dilemma and a random selection of Old Testament passages can attest to that.

I'm sorry that Taylor remains unconvinced of a naturalistic foundation for morality. I strongly recommend that he read Flanagan's The Problem of the Soul, as well as the prolific writings of Alonzo Fyfe over at the Atheist Ethicist blog.

But since he is only a freshman, and since he appears to be an intelligent and thoughtful young man, I sincerely hope that for at least the next three years his mind remains open to the very real possibility of having and living a moral life without God or gods.







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4 comments:

Stuart said...

Juno, I just ran across your blog and greatly enjoyed reading this entry. We need more well-reasoned and respectful dialog like this to shed the "atheist" stereotype of being angry and dead sure of one's view. Bravo. It seems so clear that your logic works ... that evidence of morality exists in nature as instinctual survival traits, at their base. I think the whole mythology of morality coming from God was created to control children, and many adults (myself included) who like to continue thinking like children!
Stuart.

Our hidden place said...

That Flanagan book is great very thorough and it would do our friend well to read it.

Thanks for clearing things up on this front - it truly is the biggest obstacle for us (in terms of helping people understand ethics).

Anonymous said...

In my opinion the Euthyphro argument is based on a number of fundamental philosophical mistakes. The first being that pagan "gods", have no more moral authority, nor credibility than do mortal humans. Pagan "gods" are no different than The Flash or Superman. I recently wrote an essay entitled, The Euthyphro Argument: A Philosphical Dinosaur. Anyone who is interested in reading it, please email me at
moe.david@hotmail.com, and I will send it to you as a word attachment.
Sincerely, Moshe Averick

Anonymous said...

In my opinion the Euthyphro argument is based on a number of fundamental philosophical mistakes. The first being that pagan "gods", have no more moral authority, nor credibility than do mortal humans. Pagan "gods" are no different than The Flash or Superman. I recently wrote an essay entitled, The Euthyphro Argument: A Philosphical Dinosaur. Anyone who is interested in reading it, please email me at
moe.david@hotmail.com, and I will send it to you as a word attachment.
Sincerely, Moshe Averick