On The Inevitability Of Metaphysics

In an age of internet memes, when everything is meta, it is hard to explain what metaphysics is.

Meme metaphysical

One could say that it is a branch of philosophy that had its votes taken away from it by Kant. One could say that it is the escape hatch of the religiously vague who are unable to confront precision. One could say that “a map is not a territory” and when you ponder that you are doing metaphysics.

Now one group of people who really don’t like metaphysics are the newish atheists. They don’t necessarily know they don’t like metaphysics of course, since reading books is less efficient than watching YouTube videos. It also involves listening to someone for eight hours instead of visiting their blogs and clicking onwards if they say anything you disagree with.

Lest you want to click onwards right now to another fundamentalist’s blog, please realise I was just joking. Us Christians have so little we can be attempt to be funny about, leave us to our strange predilection for bound paper.

What I mean to say is that the positive naturalism that one encounters with contemporary atheism is probably mostly incompatible with any serious metaphysics. If matter is all there is and matter is all that matters, that leaves little space for ontology (the philosophy of being) and epistemology (the philosophy of knowing) or indeed pure metaphysical thinking. Ontology just becomes empirical science and epistemology gets lost in explanations developed by evolutionary neuroscience.

There is something wonderfully simple about all this which is one of the reasons why this brand of atheism is so popular. Whatever logical rigor is required can be picked up from a few wikipedia articles (I personally suspect this is their favourite) and appeals can be made to “common sense” reason that have been the mainstay of dominant schools of thought since time or minds or souls or history or something significant began.

The thing is though, metaphysics is a hard habit to break. The best argument one can come up with explaining its stubborn refusal to slide off the stage to allow empirical reason the spotlight uncontested is that the human desire to provide explanations for phenomena they don’t understand is instinctive.

That argument is the best in the sense that you could flesh it out and it would do the job and put a lot of minds at rest. It is not the best however in that it just moves the problem outside the periphery of rhetoric we are comfortable with in today’s culture. We don’t have words that come easy to point out the error so we don’t get troubled by the error.

The error is that we still have to explain why the desire for explanations, even irrational ones, is instinctive.

All this is leading to something. Recently a movement has emerged called Atheism+ which is a move to tie atheism with “social justice” narrowly understood in terms that only really make sense in America. The proponents certainly don’t think of social justice in terms that would be coherent globally, although they assume the justice they intend to propagate has a global authority.

Atheism+ has come to my attention (via Per Smith and Eoin O’Mahony) the same day that I found the manifesto for ethical atheism written by Irish atheist leader, Michael Nugent.

As a Reformed preacher one could have a field day examining this very human desire from atheists to root what began as an intellectual movement in tangible, creditable good works. One could wax lyrical about Man’s damnable good works. As a blogger, I am free to be a mean, catty bastard (in fact it’s almost the job description) and so I could mock people cruelly for daring to share their less than perfect ideas with the world. I hope to escape both temptations.

I just want to draw out the metaphysical content of Nugent’s manifesto. The third goal of ethical atheism is:

3. Promoting natural compassion and ethics.
It is important to actively promote natural compassion and ethics, because ideas about supernatural gods corrupt our attempts to think and act morally.

If you disbelieve in gods, it necessarily follows that you also disbelieve that we get our morality and ethics from gods. This is a significant approach to a central question about life, in a world where most people believe the opposite.
Morality and ethics are products of our brains, part of the natural evolution of generations of living together as sentient beings. They are based on natural ideas such as compassion, reciprocity and justice.
We should seek to minimize suffering and maximize flourishing of sentient beings, and to treat ourselves and other sentient beings fairly and justly. We should challenge corruptions of natural morality and ethics, that are based on supernatural dogmas.

So the first clause is classic Hitchens and classically soft. Even if the concept “supernatural” can be defined in any sense that would carry weight, it is obviously a big ask to be convincing that such ideas corrupt our attempts to think and act morally. After all, what is corruption if there is not a standard against which we deviate? We’re back into metaphysics.

His second clause is really interesting and I love his phrase “significant approach”. That is a significant claim he is making. Very good.

But then he unfurls all kinds of metaphysics on our ass again. Morality and ethics are products (a revealing metaphor) of our brain. They are part of natural evolution but they are based (indicating a concept prior to natural evolution?) on “natural ideas such as compassion, reciprocity and justice.”

Quite honestly, this sounds Roman Catholic.

That previous sentence should reveal to you that I am not attacking this manifesto as worthless or wrong or dangerous. I am not attacking it at all. I’m all for ethical atheism since it is much better than its alternative. I am as in favour of Atheism+ as I am of Google+.

All I am trying to point out is how profoundly metaphysical these claims are. Invariably, when atheists move off from the territory of the imagined god who is like Santa or the tooth fairy or Zeus and into the much meatier world of how now shall we live, they end up u-turning back up the road that they’ve escaped from.

This shouldn’t worry them. They need to answer these questions and I will be enriched by listening in on them answering these questions. But there is already a long tradition of people who discredit theism asking these questions. It’s not new-atheism, I grant you. It’s old-atheism. It’s where Nietzsche lives and where Schopenhauer lives and it’s a much more interesting place to hang out than the conservative world of empty pomposity that Ditchkins got so rich from.

But it will involve defining reason more rationally than the proposed ethical manifesto thus manages.

Your Correspondent, He should have just sent a crocodile into space as he originally planned

56 Replies to “On The Inevitability Of Metaphysics”

  1. A very interesting article. I agree that metaphysics, or at least meta-ethics, needs to be considered.

    This is also the first time I have come across Atheism or Michael Nugent’s manifesto. I’ll give it a more thorough read and will give my 2 cents on it. The one thing I will say now is that, unlike the Catholic idea of natural law, Nugent’s use of the word natural is much more precise (I.e. Emergence through natural selection of mutations), although it does raise questions about what he is implying, or what ethical lessons he thinks we should draw from the conclusion that compassion is natural. Hopefully that will become clearer once I’ve given it a proper read.

  2. Thanks for the comment and I’d love to hear what you make of Atheism and Nugent’s manifesto (they are totally distinct to the best of my knowledge).

    How is emergence through natural selection of mutations *more precise* than an innate sense of right from wrong placed in every human being by a divine, invested Creator?

    That question might seem unreasonable but it isn’t. In hard philosophical terms, there is nothing precise about an alleged natural law arising from natural selection.

  3. I would go one step further and say a natural law of ethics arising from natural selection is more than imprecise. It is flat out wrong, and anyone who infers ethical laws from nature is committing a non-sequitur at best, and venturing into dangerous social territory at worst. But, and I could be wrong on this point, I don’t think Nugent is doing this. A common line of Dawkins et al is we must be vehemently anti-Darwinian when it comes to tackling ethics, and I have no reason to believe Nugent would disagree with this.

    What I have a feeling Nugent is doing is explaining why we might be able to tackle ethics in the first place. He is outlining where he believes the common(-ish) disposition of compassion come from. A common ground is what would allow us to agree on premises to build upon, which would be impossible if psychopathy was the norm. Unlike the Catholic church, his statement has a limited scope. It is not statement we derive “oughts” from, and hence is more simple and precise. I am still unsure as to what natural law means from a catholic perspective. It seems to be a more convoluted concept of what others would call God’s will regarding certain matters.

  4. Kevin thanks for linking to my blog. On a technical note I had to trash the pingback at first because it seemed like this article didn’t exist when I tried clicking the link to it. Now it does so I resurrected the pingback.

    I’m not sure that I agree with the inevitability of metaphysics. I do agree with your comparison for the most part, but there are other approaches available. For instance, do utilitarian ethics require a concept of “natural” moral dispositions? Not to my mind. From my own personal perspective I would argue that attempting to pin ethics to “the natural,” whether this is done theologically or biologically, corrupts the entire enterprise from the start. Perhaps this is why I’m a social scientist (or vice versa), but to me ethics are a function of human groups, and not something innate in the human being (singular). The very problems that most ethical systems seek to solve only arise when human beings interact with one another. I would argue further that even ethical systems that address human/non-human interactions only arise out of human attempts to share behavioral rules with each other. Now I’m not exactly a utilitarian myself, and I don’t have the time to elaborate further, but consider the notion that the theological and biological arguments you are comparing do not encompass the entire spectrum of thinking about human ethics. Cheers.

  5. “. . . unlike the Catholic idea of natural law, Nugent’s use of the word natural is much more precise (I.e. Emergence through natural selection of mutations) . . . ”

    I dunno. I think there’s a false dichotomy here. Catholics have no difficulty at all with the notion that humanity (and therefore human nature) emerges through natural selection. It’s perfectly possible to be a Thomist and affirm this, and I would think most contemporary Thomists do affirm it. In the same way Nugent’s notion that “natural ideas such as compassion, reciprocity and justice” emerge through natural selection isn’t not be inconsistent with a Catholic/Thomist understanding of natural morality.

    It seems to me, though, that the Thomist thinks this through a little bit further than Nugent does (so far, at any rate). Nugent may be correct in observing that compassion, reciprocity and so forth are naturally-evolved ideas. But so are greed, selfishness, the lust for power, and what have you. Nugent has nothing to say about why the former set of ideas is good while the latter is not. Aquinas at least attempts an answer to that question – the former ideas are loving, and therefore God-like, and therefore “good”. Nugent implicitly accepts Aquinas’ conclusion, while explicitly rejecting his reasoning, but he does not – yet – offer any alternative reasoning.

  6. Per: I take your point entirely. I wrote badly because I was not trying to suggest that metaphysical discussion is an inevitability. What a shitty title I gave the blog post!

    What I was thinking, very roughly, is that there is a tendency in contemporary atheism to fall back into metaphysics even while polemically espousing a definition of reason that is hardly compatible with metaphysics.

    I suppose I was trying to sketch out the places Michael Nugent could go that would avoid this trap by referencing Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Bentham and Mill would also be a stream they could tap into. But instead of going down a Nietzschean route or a utilitarian route, they seem to fall without noticing it back into the liberalism of Locke or the ethics of Kant which simply won’t take them where they want to go.

    This isn’t the space to elaborate how my theological commitments, heavily informed by Karl Barth, resonate with your suspicion of any innate moral instinct but I appreciate the comment and basically agree with it.

    And now to my wandering exile/pilgrim:
    I don’t want to get in the way of the conversation you and Morbert could have but it strikes me that if we could get new atheists to read any theology at all it should be some contemporary Thomistic thinker like Herbert McCabe- that would be a wonderful antidote to the idea of God as “mega-manufacturer” and end forever the misplaced confidence in comparing all concepts of deity as if they had the same meaning (and the appalling arrogance that they can be compared to fairytale characters or fictional imaginings).

  7. The Catholic church does accept evolution, thankfully. The term “natural”, however, means something different when applied to ethics by the church. I have a feeling Nugent was using the term “natural ideas” to mean ideas that exist naturally within us, as opposed to ideas pertaining to “the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law”.

    Greed and selfishness are also “gifts” of evolution. This is why I stress that atheists don’t (or at least shouldn’t) point to the natural source of compassion to argue that it is therefore inherently good. The only relevance “compassion is natural” has is whenever a theist is tempted to pull the rug from under any atheistic study of morality by declaring a near universal sense of fairness is absurd unless there is a God.

    You are also correct in saying Nugent does not provide reasons to back up his premises, but this is because his goals are very distinct from Aquinas. Aquinas is attempting to derive morality from whatever might exist, while Nugent is tendering what is ultimately an artificial construct. Atheist treat morality the same way we treat mathematics. We (attempt to) build air-tight arguments from arbitrary premises. You can view this as a shortcoming, but that, of course, presupposes “natural law” as defined by Aquinas, exists.

  8. Morbert, I think I see your point but I don’t think I buy it. The premises of mathematics aren’t actually arbitrary. In the claim that “1 2 =3” the concepts of “1” and “2” aren’t arbitrary constructions, but constructions which we accept and explore because we find they are useful and meaningful when employed in such activities as counting apples. Likewise Euclidean right-angled triangles may have no material existence, but what we learn from reflecting on them is handy if we want to mark out a soccer pitch, and that give the concept of the Euclidean right-angled triangle a validity and significance that it wouldn’t otherwise have.

    Nugent asserts that “it is important to actively promote natural compassion and ethics, because ideas about supernatural gods corrupt our attempts to think and act morally”. He can’t, I think, say this and at the same time agree with you that our morality proceeds from arbitrary premises. If the premises are arbitrary, whence the “importance” of promoting what is built upon them? If the premises are arbitrary, by what standard can reasoning from other premises be said to be “corrupt”?

    I share Nugent’s – and, I’m sure, your – impatience with the claim that without God, goodness is impossible. But it does seem to me that any ethical system worth our attention has to assert [i]some[/i] basis for identifying X as good and Y as not-good. Thomism attempts this; Nugent doesn’t. And nor, unless I’m misunderstanding you, do you. “It’s arbitrary” doesn’t cut it.

    So, yes, I do view this as a shortcoming. But, no, that doesn’t presuppose that natural law as defined by Aquinas exists. I’ve very happy to consider any other basis for identifying good that may be proposed. I just don’t see one being proposed.

    If anybody’s presupposing anything here, it’s Nugent. He isn’t necessarily presupposing Thomist natural law, but he is presupposing something which fills the same function.

  9. Kevin – I see what you mean about McCabe, but I think there are two problems in the way. The first you hint at yourself – there are at least some new atheists who dismiss a priori the possibility that theology might have anything relevant or interesting to say. From that perspective, reading McCabe can only be a waste of time.

    The second problem is that Eagleton has already articulated a very McCabean (have I just invented that word?) critique of new atheism, but he has done so in a way which, while hugely entertaining, is pretty scathing, and is calculated more to get a new atheist’s back up than to get his interest up.

    At this point it would require an almost heroically open-minded new atheist to grapple with McCabe’s ideas.

  10. In your post, you mention Euclidean geometry. This geometry is very useful, and is frequently applied to situations, but it is not necessarily true. Euclidean geometry hinges on the parallel postulate:

    “If a line segment intersects two straight lines forming two interior angles on the same side that sum to less than two right angles, then the two lines, if extended indefinitely, meet on that side on which the angles sum to less than two right angles.”

    I.e. If two infinitely long straight lines are not parallel, they must cross. This postulate is essential for Euclidean geometry, but it is not necessarily true, and does not follow from any physical or metaphysical truth. If we do not assume the parallel postulate holds true, we get non-Euclidean geometry, which is not immediately useful, but no less valid than Euclidean geometry. Similarly, 1 2=3 is true if we adopt the ring of integers, but we can also construct a far less useful, but equally valid ring such that 1 0=0. In Mathematics, it is consistency that determines validity, not any incidental usefulness.

    So to tie this back to the conversation at hand: You say you are not presupposing the existence of natural law as defined by Aquinas in your criticism. At the very least, you are tacitly assuming the meta-ethical position of amoralism is false. An ethical system that is not justified by some metaphysical truth might be uncomfortable, but it is only a shortcoming if you expect it to be justified in this way. The amoralist position says this expectation is as inappropriate as an expectation for Euclidean geometry to follow from some metaphysical truth. The implication is that we atheists wouldn’t have a leg to stand on in a debate against an psychopath, and that is true. But if we assume our audience shares a similar disposition towards the value of fairness, then we can establish what is important and what isn’t.

    It could be argued that I am giving Nugent too much credit. I don’t really mind this criticism, as I am more interested in presenting the position that atheism is compatible with ethical philosophy at the highest levels.

  11. I’ll be more specific, and ask if you and Peregrinus see ethical nihilism as a consistent meta-ethical position. The absence of a realist base for the ethics presented by New atheists was presented as a problem.

  12. Thanks for the feedback on my draft manifesto. It’s at an early stage and I am open to critical commentary.

    Can I clarify what I mean when I say that I believe that religion corrupts natural morality?

    I believe that good and bad are words invented by humans to describe the impact of changes in reality on how we and other sentient beings experience our lives.

    If there was no life, no sentience, no consciousness, no anxiety, no flourishing, no suffering, no relief, then nothing would be good or bad.

    What I mean by religion corrupting our attempts to think and act morally, is that religion adds in suggestions or commands that are not related to these natural outcomes, or that can override our natural sense of morality (e.g. praising someone for being willing to sacrifice their child because they think a god has told them to) or that are related to hypothetical impacts on hypothetical supernatural afterlives.

  13. Morbert, you ask if I see “ethical nihilism as a consistent meta-ethical position”. This is a sentence that I’d want to interrogate because it seems like something that would be written in an obscure textbook. If I understand it rightly it is similar to “Christianity is a religion”. To whatever extent it is true, it is banal and where it is false we’d need a long chat.

    But maybe I can answer this way: the most intellectually stimulating atheist thought I’ve encountered is the work of the German speaking philosophers of the 1800s who really did grapple with the unpleasant and radical ethical implications of nihilism and managed to construct something that was genuinely unblinking in the face of the void. So was Nietzsche consistent? Well I’d be happy to grant him that and much much more. The same holds for Feuerbach and Schopenhauer.

    I have yet to meet a human being (outside of the pages of books) who even dares to follow them.

    Michael- thanks for commenting and thanks for taking my critique in good humour. I genuinely don’t want to start a fight or be in any way trolling.

    You write: “I believe that good and bad are words invented by humans to describe the impact of changes in reality on how we and other sentient beings experience our lives.”

    And I want to say that there is no serious orthodox Christian who disagrees with everything you’ve said. Christian faith doesn’t deny social construction. If there was no life, no sentience, no consciousness, no anxiety, no flourishing, no suffering, no relief, then nothing would be good or bad. Absolutely!

    Where you break with the Christian account, as I’m sure you’ll agree, is that you stop there. And in stopping there you (not necessarily but in the current form of your words) declare a metaphysical position that is unwarranted on your own definition of reason. You declare the social construction of “good and bad” to be natural but in so doing you attribute to an imagined general category “morality” the status of “natural”.

    In the course of societies constructing particular edifices of morality, there is nothing less natural in the entirety of the planet. Morality, as you describe it, is a cultural product, a technology, as removed from natural as the light-bulb, electricity supply systems and Jevon’s paradox.

    You mistake inevitable for natural.

    Or at least, that is what seems to be going on from where I stand.

  14. By natural I mean distinct from supernatural.

    To me, social constructions are natural and the distinction between natural and human-constructed is caused by the arrogance of humans who think that we and our behaviors are beyond (the rest of) nature.

    So in that context light-bulbs and electricity systems are natural, as are Jevon’s paradox and other ideas, including the idea that gods exist. We humans are part of nature, and what we do and produce is as natural as what any other part of nature does and produces.

  15. That’s a genuinely surprising reply.
    At first glance it seems as if you’re tying yourself to seeing culture as another (arrogant?) elaboration that is more immediately accessed by calling it nature. If that is accurate, then both morality and culture are epiphenomena, right? That’s audacious, I’ll give you that! 🙂

  16. Well, I’m not particularly tied to anything as I am open to changing my mind, but to use what I think you mean by your terminology, all thoughts and abstract ideas would be epiphenomenal to the functioning of the brains that generate the thoughts and ideas.

    And it is all part of nature.

    The idea of the supernatural is also part of nature. The existence of an actual supernatural dimension, as opposed to ideas about this, is speculative at best, is constantly in retreat from scientific advances, and in practice is corrupting of our attempts to investigate actual natural reality.

  17. Where the contention seems to lie is that atheism (more specifically, the brand of materialism that most atheists adopt) implies a rejection of moral realism, and this has been described as a shortcoming. I disagree that this is a shortcoming, and maintain that it is a consistent foundation for a system of ethics that postulates compassion and fairness as guiding principles. Atheists don’t reject metaphysics. It’s just that the metaphysics we adopt is probably banal and uninteresting to those who like to keep track of the subject.

    In other words, I believe moral nihilism is true in the purest, most useless sense of the word “true”.

  18. I think you’ve put your finger on it, Morbert. Materialist atheist ethicists postulate fairness and compassion (and perhaps not just those) as guiding principles, and build a system of ethics on them. They offer no proof or demonstration that fairness, compassion, etc possess any inherent objective validity as fundamental moral principles; they just start from a sense that they are worthwhile principles, and they invite others who share that sense to join with them in building a shared ethical system on them.

    If this is a shortcoming, it’s one that all ethical systems share, as far as I can see. They all start from one or more claims that X has a moral value – claims whose truth cannot be demonstrated. A theistic ethicist who shares the sense that, e.g., compassion has a moral value might go a little bit further than his atheist colleague, grounding that sense in a proposition about God. But, in the end, that proposition is itself untestable.

    Where (some) materialist atheists (not you, obviously) might be embarrassed by all this is in acknowledging that that the fundamentals of their ethical system cannot be proven or demonstrated or empirically tested. Adherence to untested and untestable propositions is, I think it’s fair to say, an act of faith, and “faith” is a label that materialist atheists tend to be leery of.

    I don’t want to be unfair to Michael – we’re reading an awful lot into half a dozen lines that are certainly not intended to be a comprehensive account of a materialist atheist ethics – but his pointing to the natural evolution of ideas like fairness, etc could be seen as an attempt to mask the fact that his attribution of moral value is in fact an act of faith, or something very like it. As already pointed out, ideas like greed, self-interest, etc are equally natural evolutions, but we don’t attribute moral worth to them. The natural evolution of the ideas of fairness and compassion is not really the reason why Michael attributes moral value to them, and it’s not a plausible argument for suggesting that anyone else should. It’s bit of a red herring.

    The second potential area of embarrassment is that the whole argument depends on an initial shared agreement about fundamental values. If I don’t agree that fairness and compassion are fundamental values, the fact that you do is no basis for insisting that I ought to. Or, if I agree that they are fundamental values but I also attribute fundamental value to some other quality and you do not agree, there is no basis on which you can say that I am wrong. Again, at the risk of being unfair to Michael, it seems to me that in describing non-materialist ethics as “corrupt”, all he is really saying is that they proceed from fundamental assumptions which he does not share, and they arrive at conclusions some of which, starting from his fundamentals, he doesn’t arrive at. But if their ethics are corrupt from his point of view, then his ethics are just as corrupt from theirs. “Corruption” isn’t a particularly useful concept in this context, and Michael’s use of the term looks like an attempt to claim an objective validity for his moral fundamentals, while denying it to others.

  19. When I say that compassion and reciprocity etc are natural, I mean natural as distinct from supernatural. And yes, greed and self-interest are also natural. Concluding that they are all natural, not supernaturally derived, is an expression of belief that is most consistent with the best currently available evidence, which is not faith. Unless you want to technically define every belief about anything as being ultimately based on faith, which renders the term useless for making any distinctions.

    When I say corrupt, I mean that basing beliefs on supernatural attributions corrupts the search for truth about reality based on the evidence of the world we live in. It’s not about the conclusions – a Christian could come to the same conclusions as I would about whether a particular act is ethically wrong – it is about how you reach the conclusions, and whether you are basing your conclusion on the impact of the action or on what someone tells you that the creator of the universe has told them.

  20. “Concluding that [compassion, reciprocity, greed, self-interest, etc] are all natural, not supernaturally derived, is an expression of belief that is most consistent with the best currently available evidence, which is not faith.”

    Agreed. But asserting that compassion and reciprocity are morally good, and therefore the proper foundations for an ethical system, and/or that greed and self-interest are the opposite, is an act of faith, in the sense that there is no evidence at all for “goodness” or lack of same.

    “When I say corrupt, I mean that basing beliefs on supernatural attributions corrupts the search for truth about reality based on the evidence of the world we live in.”

    I take your point. But the theistic ethicist at least offers his reasons for asserting that X is good and Y is not-good – reasons which can be critiqued, and accepted or rejected. You – in, I grant, a very short and not comprehensive paragraph – offer no reasons at all for asserting that fairness and compassion are good. You do make the point that they are naturally evolved and I grant that point, but I don’t see how it helps you to sustain a claim that they are good.

    Is an ethical system which is founded on unevidenced, unarticulated, unexamined and perhaps even unacknowledged fundamental beliefs any less “corrupt” than one whose fundamental beliefs are stated, and are available for critique? It’s not clear to me that it is. And you can’t really object to theistic ethics on the ground that it is unsupported by the evidence if your own ethical beliefs are equally unsupported by any evidence.

  21. “Materialist atheist ethicists postulate fairness and compassion (and perhaps not just those) as guiding principles, and build a system of ethics on them. They offer no proof or demonstration that fairness, compassion, etc possess any inherent objective validity as fundamental moral principles; they just start from a sense that they are worthwhile principles, and they invite others who share that sense to join with them in building a shared ethical system on them.”

    There’s a subtle misunderstanding of the atheist position here, but it’s important to clear it up. We don’t simply abstain from providing proof or argument that fairness etc is inherently good. We actually believe fairness, compassion, etc do not possess inherent objective validity at all. We don’t believe any act is inherently right or inherently wrong. There are probably not many Richard Dawkins fans around here, but when he describes the universe as having

    “no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference”

    he is painting an accurate picture of the nihilistic core of materialistic ethics. This might seem like a very uncomfortable position to take, and you certainly can’t accuse atheists of wishful thinking, but nor can you accuse us of having faith in our ethics being inherently good. We don’t have faith in fairness being an inherently good idea. We simply express our desire or “lust” for fairness.

    A good wikipedia article on the language of morality that most atheists adopt:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Expressivism

    As for the question of natural ideas being corrupted:
    “Is an ethical system which is founded on unevidenced, unarticulated, unexamined and perhaps even unacknowledged fundamental beliefs any less “corrupt” than one whose fundamental beliefs are stated, and are available for critique?”

    The following is a statement by the philosopher William Lane Craig, in relation to the killing of Caananite children.

    “Moreover, if we believe, as I do, that God’s grace is extended to those who die in infancy or as small children, the death of these children was actually their salvation. We are so wedded to an earthly, naturalistic perspective that we forget that those who die are happy to quit this earth for heaven’s incomparable joy. Therefore, God does these children no wrong in taking their lives.”

    I have been thoroughly impressed with the thoughtfulness of what little theology I have been exposed to, but there is something deeply unnerving about paragraphs like the one above. This is presumably what Michael Nugent is talking about when he discusses corruption of natural ideals.

  22. Let me borrow an argument that Sam Harris uses. If good and bad mean anything, then we should be able to agree that the worst possible world would be one in which every conscious being suffers to the maximal extent all of the time. In principle, moving away from that hypothetical world is good and moving towards it is bad. There are many ways of moving away from it, and many ways of moving towards it.

    If you have a meaning of good and bad that allows you to imagine that a world in which every conscious being is suffering to the maximal extent all of the time, is somehow the best possible world, or even a good world, then your definitions of good and bad are so different to what the words mean in rational discourse that you may as well be speaking a different language.

    It’s not arbitrary to say that the above scenario can be either good or bad, unless you are just using the words good and bad as random placeholders for whatever meanings you want to arbitrarily attach to them. Sam Harris also uses the example of health. If you argue that health is an arbitrary concept, and that someone who is violently ill all of the time, has just broken their back, and has a terminal illness is actually healthy, then there is no point in having a conversation with you using those terms.

  23. Hi Morbert

    On ethical nihilism: thank you for this. I think I had understood that, but you lay it out very clearly here.

    But, when a materialist atheist (such as Michael) argues for an ethical system based on fairness and compassion, I think the corollary of what you are saying is that the foundation of this system is nothing more or less than Michael’s personal and subjective preference for fairness and compassion as foundational ethical principles; fairness and compassion have no inherent claim on us, such that we are all bound to share Michael’s preferences.

    And the corollary of *that*, I think, is that Michael’s ethical system has no traction with, or appeal to, or authority over people whose personal subjective preferences in these matters are different to Michael’s. And if Michael describes their ethics as corrupt, is he saying anything more than that their subjective preferences in this matter are different to his?

    On corruption in ethics: I share your revulsion at what Craig says about human sacrifice said to be justified by religious beliefs.

    At the same time, I don’t live in a world in which religious human sacrifice is practiced on a significant scale. I *do* live in a world in which human sacrifice is practiced on a significant scale for purely secular ethical reasons – a fairly crude and savage application of Michael’s “fairness” principles favours a notion of retribution, and significant numbers of convicted criminals are ritually sacrificed to this notion in socially-sanctioned executions in many countries (though China is of course the standout). It’s easy for me to condemn the sacrifice of Caananite children three thousand years ago, but how I am going to react to the human sacrifices that go on today is perhaps a more pressing moral question.

    Right. If the (to me, repugnant) sacrifice of Caananite children, for which a theistic justification was offered, is supposed to tell me something generally true about the corrupting nature of theistic moral reasoning, is the (to me, repugnant) sacrifice of convicts to the non-theistic ideal of eye-for-an-eye retributive justice supposed to tell me something generally true about non-theistic moral reasoning? And, if not, why not?

    The bottom line, I think, is that I doubt we can demonstrate the basically corrupt nature of religious ethics by pointing to instances of ethically repugnant actions for which a religious justification was offered. Every such instance can be matched with a counter-example of an ethically repugnant action for which a secular justification was offered, and we end up discussing whether more people died in the Holocaust or in the Crusades. No, the claim has to be supported with some demonstration that the foundations of religious ethics inevitably include elements which are themselves inherently unethical, and that’s bloody difficult to argue if we reject the notion that *anything* can be inherently unethical.

    In short, I think there’s a tension between your ethical nihilism and Michael’s claim that promoting a particular ethic is “important” and that other ethics are “corrupt”. If Michael accepts your ethical nihilism (and he hasn’t said that he does) then I think the most he can say is that promoting a particular ethic is important *to him*, because of his own personal and subjective preferences in these matters. And why should the rest of us care about that, or why would Michael expect that we would? Similarly, the most Michael can say about other ethics is that they are corrupt in the rather limited sense that they proceed from beliefs which are different from the beliefs which he holds.

    Implicit in Michael’s stance is an appeal to other people to share the particular set of values which he regards as appropriate foundations for an ethical system (“it’s important”) and a criticism of those who have a different (even though quite closely overlapping) foundational set of values (“it’s corrupt”). The reasons why one particular set of values is the objectively right one are not set out but, still, that seems to me a step away from ethical nihilism.

  24. In response to: “Agreed. But asserting that compassion and reciprocity are morally good, and therefore the proper foundations for an ethical system, and/or that greed and self-interest are the opposite, is an act of faith, in the sense that there is no evidence at all for “goodness” or lack of same.”

    It’s not an act of faith. There is evidence for goodness as an abstract idea that people have invented. There is no evidence for goodness as something that would exist independently of conscious minds.

    How you best approach goodness is open to debate. There are people who believe that greed and self-interest are morally better than compassion and reciprocity. I disagree with them, but that is nothing to do with faith.

    By the way, what I mean by faith is belief that is disproportionate to the best available evidence. If you mean something different we are just talking at cross purposes. What do you mean by faith?

  25. In response to: “Moreover, if we believe, as I do, that God’s grace is extended to those who die in infancy or as small children, the death of these children was actually their salvation. We are so wedded to an earthly, naturalistic perspective that we forget that those who die are happy to quit this earth for heaven’s incomparable joy. Therefore, God does these children no wrong in taking their lives.”

    Yes, that’s a great example of what I mean by supernatural ideas corrupting morality. This is nonsense, which I assume is invented to make people feel better, but which is nevertheless nonsense, and it corrupts the value that we should put on the only life that we know that we have to live. It’s unsurprising that this nonsense would come from a theology that praises a founding figure for being willing to murder his own child because he thought the creator of the universe was telling him to.

  26. Hi Michael:

    I’m sorry; I’m not making myself clear.

    I accept that there is evidence that the idea of, e.g, “compassion” exists. And, although I haven’t actually studied the evidence that it is naturally evolved, my assumption and expectation is that it is, so if you were to take me through that evidence you’d be pushing at an open door.

    Similarly, I also accept that there is evidence that the idea of “goodness” exists, and I accept (on the same thinking) its natural evolution.

    I’ll go further, and happily accept that there is abundant and easily-observed evidence that many people hold that compassion is good.

    But “the idea of compassion exists” is not an ethical claim. Neither is “the idea of goodness exists”. Nor is “many people believe that compassion is good” an ethical claim.

    The ethical claim is “compassion is good”, and it seems to be a claim that you make. My question is, why do *you* say that compassion is good?

    We can dismiss a couple of justifications straight away.

    1. The fact that many people believe compassion to be good is not evidence that it is. Many people hold many ideas – naturally evolved ideas, even – which are false. (You yourself identify the idea of the existence of supernatural realities as a naturally evolved idea which is false.)

    2 You reject, obviously, the typically theistic claim that the universe is endowed with some purpose or destiny, and that things which tend towards that purpose are good, and vice versa. So this line of thinking is obvious not going to support your claim that compassion is good.

    3. It’s not enough to say, for example, that compassion confers an evolutionary advantage by tending towards the preservation not just of the individual but of a viably diverse gene pool. Why is the preservation of a viably diverse gene pool good? It’s trivial to defend a claim that phenomenon X is good because it tends to produce outcome Y, but that defence is incomplete unless we go on to say why Y is good. Ultimately, we need to find some foundation for goodness which isn’t a simple assumption of goodness.

    So the question remains; if compassion is not good simply because many people consider it to be good, and its goodness is not grounded in some transcendent supernatural purpose or destiny, and it’s not good on account of serving some other end already shown to be good, then why *is* it good?

    I can’t conceive of a foundation for goodness which can be supported by empirically demonstrable evidence. What evidence can you offer me that *anything* is good which doesn’t invoke an assumption that something else is good?

    It therefore seems to me that all ethical propositions are, when you drill down far enough, unsupported by objectively demonstrable evidence. And adherence to, and advocacy of, a proposition which is unsupported by objectively demonstrable evidence is what I mean by “faith”. In some cases this is a theistic faith; in some cases a non-theistic faith. But, either way, it’s faith.

  27. Hi Michael:

    OK, I wrote and posted my 7:00 am contribution without noticing yours of 4:04. (As no doubt you guessed.)

    Sam Harris’s argument, as you state it, proceeds from an assumption that suffering is bad, and that maximal suffering is maximally bad. It’s an assumption that most of us would find attractive, but of course that doesn’t make it correct. Suffering is obviously undesirable, something we seek to avoid, but it’s not obvious that our desires and our instincts are, in themselves, enough to create a moral reality. So why is suffering “bad”, as opposed to merely undesirable, or contrary to our tastes or interests? Does “bad” mean anything more than “I really don’t like it”?

    You can’t dismiss my position here by saying that my “definitions of good and bad are so different to what the words mean in rational discourse” etc. I *agree* that suffering is bad, so there is plenty of common ground for rational discussion between us, and for the construction of a largely shared set of ethics. The fact is, though, that neither you nor (so far as I know) Harris have demonstrated by reference to any empirical evidence that suffering is bad; nor do I think you can do so. You are simply appealing to a sense shared by Harris and you and me (and lots of other people) that suffering is bad.

    But if I don’t agree that suffering is bad (or, more plausibly, if I think it’s bad but that there are or might be other things which are worse) you haven’t offered me any argument at all as to why I should adopt Harris’s faith. (In fact, you’ve rather hinted that you can’t even talk to me if I don’t start out as a devotee of the faith of Harris.)

    Suppose I don’t start out by sharing the undemonstrated and undemonstrable claim that maximal suffering is the maximal evil, but instead reason from some other equally undemonstrated and undemonstrable claim (e.g. “failure to fulfil potential, failure to grow failure to flourish is evil, and the utter absence of any growth or flourishing at all is the worst possible evil”). Both of these seem to me to be faith-positions, since they are undemonstrated and undemonstrable. They are inconsistent, and in some cases will lead to different ethical conclusions. For example, a universe in which no conscious beings existed would necessarily be free of suffering, and therefore entirely free of Harris-evil (it would be the best of all possible universes, in fact) but a great deal of flourishing and growth would also be precluded, which (in this scenario) would represent a significant Peregrinus-evil.

    Is there any basis on which you can describe one of these ethical systems as more “corrupt” than the other which doesn’t proceed from an a priori acceptance of the foundational principle of one them rather than the other? And can you offer me any argument for accepting one rather than the other, beyond than the threat that you won’t talk to me if I don’t?

  28. I’ll reply to your substantive points later, but just a couple of quick clarifications:

    I’m using corrupt as a verb, not an adjective. I’m saying that one idea corrupts the other, not that either is objectively corrupt.

    And I’m not threatening to not talk to you, Sam Harris is 🙂

  29. Then I can only thank blind, pitiless providence that you are more open-minded and tolerant than Sam Harris! 🙂

  30. Peregrinus – It is the lack of traction or moral authority that makes the position so uncomfortable, insofar as we can only appeal to a common disposition towards promoting fairness. If the audience does not possess these dispositions, then there is little progress that can be made. This is uncomfortable, but it is coherent, and does not leave atheism vulnerable to any axiological argument against it.

  31. A discussion in the comments section of a blog that is actually worth reading: There *is* a God!

    Since I can’t let Dawkins get away without a put-down…

    When he describes the universe as having “no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference”, is that not itself a moral judgment on the universe? Surely there are few more evil things than blind, pitiless indifference, therefore Dawkins contradicts himself in the same sentence.

  32. Hi Morbert

    I’m not trying to argue against atheism here. I’m just interested in exploring and understanding the way(s) in which nontheistic ethical systems are formed.

    I take it for granted that coherent and intellectually respectable nontheistic ethical systems are possible, so there’s no need to persuade me of that.

    You are confirming what I think; the foundation for all nontheistic ethical systems is a moral sense that we observe ourselves to possess, and it has no justification or force beyond the fact that we possess it. So if we ask why, say, fairness is a moral imperative, the only truthful and accurate answer is “it just is, right?”

    But this leaves us with a problem, and it’s a problem you point to yourself; what happens when people don’t share a common moral sense, but rather divergent moral senses? And this is a pressing problem, because the reality is that people’s moral senses do diverge – not completely, of course, but enough that we have to take account of it.

    Your suggestion is that, if the divergence in moral sense is great enough, “little progress can be made”. That sounds like a counsel of despair to me given that, actually, we *have* to develop a social morality; society is impossible without it. It also flies in the face of experience, which is that we *do* develop shared moralities in diverse societies, though I grant it isn’t always easy and the results are sometimes messy. I think, nevertheless, it’s worth exploring how we do this, and thinking about how we ought to do it, whereas both you and Michael (channelling Harris?) seem to be in a place where you are averse to doing that.

    Or, in other words, if the foundation of an ethical system is a shared moral sense, is a pluralist ethics possible?

    This isn’t a theist versus atheist issue. Harris (by Michael’s account – I haven’t read him) proposes a morality constructed on the proposition that suffering is the ultimate evil. But a stoic would say no, suffering is a fact of existence, and the moral imperative is not to wish it were not, but to learn how to live, given that it is. Evil, therefore, is found not the existence suffering, but in the failure to respond to it, and good does not lie in avoiding suffering, but in responding appropriately to it (where avoidance is just one possible response, and not always the most appropriate one). Both the Harrisians and the Stoics may be either theists or nontheists.

  33. Again, just to clarify a point re Harris (and I will get around to some of the substantive points when I get a chance), he’s not saying that morality is only about suffering. He is saying that the worst possible world is one in which all conscious beings suffer to the maximal extent all of the time. That world would also incorporate the absence of flourishing and an inability to cope stoically with the suffering, because if you could flourish or cope stoically with the suffering then you would not be maximally suffering all of the time. It’s not a real world, it is a thought experiment. But it has consequences for your thinking about good and bad if you accept the premise.

  34. In response to: So if we ask why, say, fairness is a moral imperative, the only truthful and accurate answer is “it just is, right?”

    It’s not really “It just is, right’ as if it just happens to be that way.

    It’s closer to “because we developed the language of moral imperatives in order to describe our evolved beliefs about fairness.”

    To complicate things further, I also think free will is likely to be illusory, but I’m happy to continue the discussion on the assumption that we are actually making choices.

  35. Hi Michael

    Harris and suffering: I take the point you make. It leads me to make two comments.

    First, I offer stoicism and flourishing-as-a-value as evidence that you can be an atheist, and yet start your moral reasoning from a different point than Harris does. But they are just examples. The fact that these different starting points do eventually prove congruent in the way you have shown out doesn’t mean that *all* defensible starting points will prove congruent.

    And, of course, as you point out “suffering is bad” is not Harris’s only moral axiom. I might agree with Harris about that axiom (thus, Harris and I “speak the same language” and he will talk to me) but disagree about other axioms in a way that means our moral systems will or might not be congruent. There’s an intermediate space between “we all have a common moral sense” and “our moral senses have so little in common that dialogue is impossible” and I suggest that middle space is (and always has been) where, in fact, we find ourselves. Harris needs to face this.

    Secondly, the fact that different starting points *can* take us to similar moral conclusions highlights the fact that I think you need to provide a better justification for your “corrupt” language than you have so far. If I start from a belief that you don’t share, but nevertheless arrive at a moral conclusion that you concur with, has my moral reasoning been “corrupted” by my belief? And is the test of “corrupting” simply whether my belief that you reject leads me to a moral conclusion that you disagree with? And if it is, then am I not equally justified in saying that your moral reasoning has been “corrupted”, since your beliefs which I do not share lead you to a conclusion which I do not agree with?

    Language: It may be true that we developed the language of moral imperatives in order to describe our evolved beliefs about fairness, but isn’t it equally true to say that we developed that language to describe our evolved beliefs about our duties to the gods? I’m not sure that this gets us anywhere.

    Free will: Let’s not go there!

  36. I would not like the idea of a pluralist system of ethics. It sounds a bit too much like normative moral relativism, which is a self-defeating position. If common principles cannot be agreed on, then I don’t see how a functioning system of ethics could ever be established. Though this could be a language issue. I think what you call shared moralities is actually a single, encompassing morality. We might disagree over the morality of sex outside of marriage, but we both might agree that consenting adults, in the privacy of their own homes, should be free to choose.

  37. Dec – Calling the universe blind, pitiless, and indifferent does not imply a moral judgement unless you presuppose the amorality is inherently immoral, which Dawkins clearly isn’t doing.

  38. Hi Morbert

    I dunno. If you and I have divergent views about sex before marriage, this divergence may be sidelined by the fact that we share another moral principle, about individual dignity and autonomy, the application of which means that your views about sex before marriage are not that relevant a consideration in my bedroom activities, and vice versa.

    But the solution is not always so neat. If my same-sex partner and I seek to be married, we are looking for recognition, endorsement and support for our relationship from the community, and if community members have views about SSM which diverge from ours, that’s a problem which can’t be so easily dismissed. We can seek to resolve this tension through a crude majoritarian winner-takes-all approach, or though some other engagement or negotiation, but we do have to seek to resolve it somehow, and how we should seek to resolve it is itself an ethical question.

    Similarly, if I seek to abort my pregnancy, the impact of your commitment to dignity and autonomy crucially depends on your views about the foundations on which human dignity and autonomy rest, and whether my unborn child has an independent claim to dignity and autonomy. Depending on how you frame it, your commitment to human dignity and autonomy could lead to radically different conclusions about whether you should, or may, intervene either to influence my decision or to override it.

    The bottom line is that we are social beings; we are relational. To a significant degree, our ethical decisions have to be taken collectively or at least collaboratively. In that context, any viable ethical system must address the question of how we are to take collective or collaborative ethical decisions, and if it’s going to do that usefully it has to start from the reality of a degree of diversity in ethical starting points.

    I take your point that, if sufficient common moral principles can’t be agreed upon, then a functioning system of ethics cannot be established, but to me that just gives rise to an ethical imperative to develop sufficient common moral principles, and to the ethical problem of how we ought to do that. I don’t think simply throwing up our hands at the problem is an ethically acceptable response.

  39. I apologise for the fact that I haven’t been part of the conversation on my own blog. I’ve been stuck in workflow that couldn’t be interrupted. But I am delighted everyone is still getting on so well.

    It seems that the atheists are in some ways more tied to objectivism than the Christians in this thread. For example, Morbert; it seems you can only possible imagine a “natural” ethics that are reasonable as understood within the logic of materialism or its sole counterpart, the chaos of “self defeating” pluralism.

    The observable reality is that contrary to confident claims of “corruption” affecting people tainted by supernaturalism (a concept a Christian could never own in a rigorous conversation like this, by the way) the world we live in is full of subjective moral agents who enact moral models (I might as well admit my debt to MacIntyre here and call them traditions) that while being distinct from each other, overlap with each other.

    It seems to me that because atheists are unwilling to genuinely own the axiomatic nature of their ethical constructions they are especially prone to this flaw at the centre of their efforts to build manifestos for moral behaviour or Atheism advocacy or whatever might follow. Thoughtful Christians recognise you can be good without God. The atheist, simultaneously so confident and so casual about their metaphysical convictions, can’t offer the same graciousness.

    And ironically, refusing the acknowledge the good in the other quite undermines any ethical system.

  40. Also! To claim indifference, either personally or to attribute it to a concept like the universe (metaphysics again?) is an inescapably moral claim. To hold a position of amorality is to judge not just between moral and immoral but to make the meta-evaluation placing morality into a relationship with other fundamental concepts.

    Amorality is not inherently immoral. Declan would never suggest such a thing. 🙂 But choosing an amoral option in any given instance or assigning amorality to any given system remains a decision that must be seen as within the domain of the moral.

  41. I suppose I was treating things rather simplistically. If someone told me they had a father who was pitiless and indifferent, I would not think him amoral. I would think of him as a bad father, and therefore immoral. Of course on the other hand, a new born baby might be described as pitiless and indifferent, because if I suddenly suffered from a heart attack the baby would just lie there as if nothing was happening, feeling and doing nothing for me. However, I think that would be a useless, even immoral description of the child, akin to complaining that said child was giving me the silent treatment because she wouldn’t talk to me.

    When Dawkins says that the universe is pitiless etc, I actually have no idea what that sentence is doing. The universe is the totality of all things, made up of things like this chair I’m sitting on and the bones of Mother Theresa. As such, it makes no sense to describe it in the way Dawkins does…right? (I think)

  42. The observable reality fits well with the ethics and meta-ethics of atheism. We fully accept the existence of a variety of moral models, but maintain that the only meaningful anchor to any debate about ethics is the identification of where different ethical systems overlap. A pro-choice advocate and a pro-life advocate might begin their discussion by establishing a common axiom, like “killing innocent people is wrong”. As Peregrinus has pointed out, it is not as straightforward as mathematics, as ethics contains far more implied subtleties.

    Regarding the accusation of theists being “corrupted”: I am not enthusiastic about the language used (as you say, it is not rigorous enough to be meaningful in a conversation like this). The only thing I will say is Michael Nugent has clarified what he means, and acknowledged a symmetry: Natural instincts can subvert a supernatural understanding of morality, just as supernatural ideas can subvert a natural understanding of morality.

    I’m not sure who you are referring to when you say atheists are not willing to genuinely own the axiomatic nature of their ethical constructions. I certainly do, as I pointed out in my comparison between ethics and mathematics, and in my emphasis on the futility of any discourse if common axioms cannot be found. Sam Harris also emphasises the importance of a common ground, and the futility of discourse if, no common ground is identified.

    In short, there is very little to support the accusation that atheists are hiding from the metaphysical consequences of their position. Whether or not we have successfully tackled the consequences is up for debate (I believe we have), but we are certainly aware of them.

    —-

    When Dawkins is saying the universe is characterised by blind, pitiless, indifference, he is only making a meta-ethical claim. In other words, I agree with the claim that Dawkins is making a meta-evaluation, but not with the claim that he is making a moral judgement between moral and immoral. He is simply espousing moral nihilism. He is describing the stage we must use to understand our morality.

  43. Hi Dec, only saw your post just there.

    I agree with you when you say a pitiless father is a bad father, but would you agree with me if I say a pitiless hurricane is not a bad hurricane?

  44. If we can say “pitiless hurricane” — and I’m not sure we should — then of course I agree. But the universe is made up of hurricanes and babies and fathers, so I’m not sure we’re doing much good by describing it as if it were only a hurricane.

  45. The merits of moral nihilism are certainly up for debate, but it is, at the very least, consistent. Dawkins might be incorrect when he describes the universe, but I don’t think he is contradicting himself.

  46. “We fully accept the existence of a variety of moral models, but maintain that the only meaningful anchor to any debate about ethics is the identification of where different ethical systems overlap.”

    It seems to me you’re starting half-way through the book here. It’s true that diverse ethical systems exist and that they overlap and that they often concur and sometimes conflict. But there’s more to be said; where do these different ethical systems come from, and is there any basis on which we ought to prefer one over another? The very fact that one is committed to any ethical system means that one has already addressed the latter question, at least implicitly, so why the reluctance to examine it explicitly, and to engage in dialogue about it?

    Michael raises the question of whether one ethical system is to be preferred over another. The very first ethical claim he makes is that “it’s important to actively promote natural [by which he means non-theistic] compassion and ethics”. But if, as you suggest, the foundational premises of any ethical system are arbitrary, on what basis can it be said that it is “important” to promote one particular system?

    Similarly, Michael’s next claim is that “ideas about supernatural gods corrupt our attempts to think and act morally”, which I think implies that there must be incorrupt, healthy, whole ways of thinking about morality, against which theistic ways are measured and found wanting. But that is itself a moral claim, and where does it come from, if not from Michael’s arbitrary assumptions?

    This, to quote the eminent philosopher Jonathan Miller, is a logical cleft stick from which there is but one escape; Michael doesn’t agree with you that the substantive content of his moral system is arbitrary; he thinks it has a validity that other systems lack. He hasn’t actually said that, but I think it is strongly implicit in what he writes.

    But that, of course, begs the question; if Michael doesn’t think the substantive content of his morality is arbitrary, where does he think it comes from? And his answer – or, rather, Harris’s answer, from which Michael admittedly distances himself – is, “if you don’t share my moral axioms, I can’t talk to you”. I think that’s a disappointing cop-out, which serves to enable Harris to avoid a discourse which must inevitably involve critical scrutiny – by himself, as much as by his interlocutor – of his own untested, untestable beliefs and assumptions, and even to avoid acknowledging that he is operating out of assumptions of that kind. I’m being slightly provocative when I say that Harris’s position is faith-based, but I think I’m justified.

    Is Michael’s position also faith-based? Well, so far, it looks a bit like that to me, but that’s only because Michael hasn’t yet answered the questions I put to him. I wait with keen interest.

  47. What an interesting discussion this post generated. Within the approach to ethics that seems to be shared by most of the interlocutors here (the atheists and the non-atheists) I agree that metaphysics is inevitable. However, to repeat myself, I would personally reject the the approach altogether and I’m wondering what the objection is to doing so. Here’s what I mean. Peregrinus wrote:

    “But there’s more to be said; where do these different ethical systems come from, and is there any basis on which we ought to prefer one over another?”

    Why is the first part of the question important or necessary to answer? The arguments (against the materialist position especially) are premised on the notions that we must be able to explain where ethics comes from AND consequently that this explanation must form the basis for taking a preference to one system over another. Why? Is there a reason why we have to play by the rules of metaphysics? I agree that atheists who want to make claims about “natural” ethics are playing this game, but their views are not the only ones around, and I worry that in this discussion a lot has been stated about all atheists or all nontheists as if they were. Here’s a good example of where I think Micheal is explicitly playing this game:

    “When I say corrupt, I mean that basing beliefs on supernatural attributions corrupts the search for truth about reality based on the evidence of the world we live in. It’s not about the conclusions – a Christian could come to the same conclusions as I would about whether a particular act is ethically wrong – it is about how you reach the conclusions, and whether you are basing your conclusion on the impact of the action or on what someone tells you that the creator of the universe has told them.”

    Here again ethics is entangled with the “search for the truth about reality…” Why? Why aren’t the conclusions enough? Or more specifically, why aren’t conclusions based “on the impact of the action” enough? One could argue that even a utilitarian ethics makes metaphysical claims about what is or is not a “good” impact of an action. Sure, but why argue that? Comprehensible speech makes metaphysical claims, but so what? Do we need to understand WHY certain outcomes are desirable to most people? From a pragmatic perspective, the insistence on metaphysics might be seen as the CAUSE of inevitable division and lack of co-operation between groups of people who, for whatever reason, share desired outcomes. As a pragmatist (small s) if I start from the premise that seeing those basic outcomes achieved is good, framing ethics metaphysically itself becomes counterproductive or even bad.

    The idea of transcending metaphysics can also be applied to transcending “morals,” in relation to the claim that Dawkins’ indifferent universe is a moral claim. It is only a moral claim if we force the frame of morality onto the discussion. But then everything becomes a moral claim if you force that frame onto the discussion. Seen morally, indifference is X. I agree. But why does it have to be seen morally? And so on…

  48. I meant “pragmatist small p”…and I meant that I’m not arguing this as a follower of James, Dewey, etc. (though I very much like them). Think dictionary definition of “pragmatic.” Cheers.

  49. Peregrinus – The use of the word arbitrary needs further explanation. We say an ethical system is arbitrary insofar as it follows from axioms which are no more or less “correct” or true than alternative axioms, just as Euclidean geometry is no more or less correct than non-Euclidean geometry. However, we do not claim people flip a coin or roll a die when choosing a system of ethics. This is where expressivism enters the equation. We do more than implicitly address the question of which system to adopt. We choose which system to adopt, based on which system we like best (and not on which system is the “true” system). You used the perfect word: “prefer”.

  50. “Why is [where do ethical systems come from?] important or necessary to answer? The arguments (against the materialist position especially) are premised on the notions that we must be able to explain where ethics comes from AND consequently that this explanation must form the basis for taking a preference to one system over another. Why? Is there a reason why we have to play by the rules of metaphysics?”

    Good question. Up to a point, we don’t have to do this. I may feel that X is good, and my feeling may be strong enough that I am satisfied to make “X is good” a key axiom of my ethical system without further inquiry, and I make my ethical decisions accordingly, and perhaps that’s fine.

    But only up to a point. Making my own ethical decisions is one thing; engaging in ethical advocacy, urging others to adopt my ethical system and to act in accordance with it – as Michael does in his manifesto – is another. Once I start down that road, then I need to be able to offer an answer to the question “why is X good?”. “Well, it’s good enough for the likes of me” is not an answer around which the masses will rally. If I can’t talk about why X is good, then I can only engage in dialogue with people who already agree with me and that, as we all know, makes for piss-poor dialogue, and even worse advocacy. (“Never speak out unless you are already sure that everyone agrees with you” is, I recall, one the rules of life that Homer Simpson offers to Bart, tempered only by “make fun of those who are different from you”.)

    But even before we get to the stage of advocacy, or of trying to build a shared ethic, it seems to me that “why is X good?” is a question that it is difficult to avoid. As has already been noted, few if any ethical systems depend on just one axiom. So not only do I believe that X is good, but I also believe that Y and Z are good. Inevitably, the day will come when my axioms will be in tension with one another, pulling me in different directions, and I’m going to have to find some way of prioritising them to construct a harmonious whole.

    One way to do this, of course, is to do the mental equivalent of taking my feelings about X and Y and Z and rubbing each of them between finger and thumb. Which do I feel strongest about – X, Y or Z? Right, so, there we go! But I can’t but feel that this is almost deliberately ignorantist. I can note the strength of my feelings and accept that as an important factor, but that does not excuse me from exploring *why* I feel as strongly as I do, and hopefully learning something from that exploration. My moral insights, such as they are, come from *somewhere*; how can I argue, on the one hand, that moral insights are important and must be attended to and, on the other hand, that it is unnecessary to reflect on where they come from? The fact is they do come from somewhere; they do not rise fully-formed out of the sea, attended by cherubs and fluttering drapery. And I’m suspicious of an approach to ethics which encourages us not to explore this lest, perhaps, we find something nasty in the woodshed.

    Morbert, I accept that to describe moral axioms as “arbitrary” is not to say that they have been drawn out of a hat. All you’re saying is that they don’t have any intrinsic validity; moral axioms are chosen because of their subjective appeal. But, as I indicate above, I still think its meaningful to ask myself *why* this axiom appeals to me more than that one, and I think it’s useful and important to do so. And in any project of constructing a shared morality, I think it’s pretty well inescapable.

  51. @Peregrinus

    You quote me: “Why is [where do ethical systems come from?] important or necessary to answer? The arguments (against the materialist position especially) are premised on the notions that we must be able to explain where ethics comes from AND consequently that this explanation must form the basis for taking a preference to one system over another. Why? Is there a reason why we have to play by the rules of metaphysics?”

    Then you say this: “Once I start down that road, then I need to be able to offer an answer to the question ‘why is X good?’.”

    I was not trying to suggest that answering the question of why X is good is worthless. I was trying to suggest that requiring an answer that is necessarily tied to where ethics comes from is problematic and unnecessary. I will admit that further down in my post I got a bit sloppy with my language, and do not blame you for the misunderstanding. That said, I still disagree with a few of your assertions.

    “‘Well, it’s good enough for the likes of me’ is not an answer around which the masses will rally. If I can’t talk about why X is good, then I can only engage in dialogue with people who already agree with me and that, as we all know, makes for piss-poor dialogue, and even worse advocacy.”

    The idea that the masses rally around reasoned understandings of why something is good is not supported by empirical observation. In fact it’s at direct odds with what we know about social behavior and human psychology. People rally around emotional (and irrational) connections to various ideas. In fact the very notion of “rallying” should tip you off to this. We are, for the most part, not rational actors. We can extend this to the rest of your claim because the ability to enter into dialogue with someone about ethics is usually premised on shared conclusions and not shared explanations, or shared ethical genealogies. I say this as an existential matter. It’s the felt connection you share to the goodness of some behavior or another that allows you to begin dialogue. You and Micheal have, as a starting point, some shared conclusions, which you can feel whether or not you can ever explain them fully or adequately. In fact you share them in spite of disagreeing on a basic premise about the nature of the Universe. So I would flip your claim here on its head. And I would argue, from authority 😉 that the social sciences back me up.

    The difference here is one of priorities of course. If you are not interested in working out a shared ethics, despite differing premises, then you’ll not care if I’m right. But I would argue that then the advocacy is not ethical, it’s something else entirely. Micheal might come back at me to say that he’s not interested in some ecumenical or interfaith ethics, but specifically an atheistic ethics. OK, but atheists are not all the same, and assuming that they are is a recipe for disaster. There will always be disagreement about some premise or another. Focusing on those disagreements and trying to evangelize people to your particular perspective of where the ethical system comes from is, once again, not ethical advocacy, but something else entirely. It’s advocacy about what atheism is in the first place.

  52. I should add something about the “why X is good” issue since I said that I didn’t actually reject it as worthless. The existential similarities create openings for dialogue, but sometimes they may not be adequate to sustain dialogue. I would argue that the less dialogue veers into metaphysical territories the more likely they are to be sustained but that’s another matter. Perhaps people feel the need to share a “why good” as well as the basic “is good.” In that case it is not necessary to go all the way into the rabbit hole. Very basic, and widely shared propositions can suffice without explanation. If we all agree that killing is wrong, or that human life has inherent value we don’t need to go deeper to explain why that is the case. Let me turn something back at you in this regard as well. You reduced my position to a subjective one. I would argue that the reverse is true. You might feel a need to understand the logical basis of an ethical proposition like “human life has inherent value” but most people don’t. Metaphysicians are the ones projecting the subjective needs onto a human population that for the most part doesn’t share them. It makes no sense to me, as a (p)ragmatist to talk in practical terms about sharing an ethical system of others that requires that those others share your needs, as opposed to trying to understand and work with theirs.

  53. Hi Per

    Thanks for this.

    “I was not trying to suggest that answering the question of why X is good is worthless. I was trying to suggest that requiring an answer that is necessarily tied to where ethics comes from is problematic and unnecessary.”

    I didn’t mean to suggest that a metaphysical answer is absolutely required; just that *some* answer is required, because everybody’s ethics do come from somewhere.

    In the context of a polemical discourse between theism and atheism – which is the context of Michael’s piece is – I think a focus on rejecting theistic claims about the metaphysical basis for ethics is understandable. But that does leave open the question, what *is* the foundation of the ethics offered? If Michael is urging people to adopt and adhere to a particular ethic – and that does seem to be what he is doing – then he does need to offer them some reason for doing so. And he does seem to be painting himself into a bit of a corner, suggesting that if I adopt the right ethic for the wrong reasons, that’s not good enough. So I think it is imperative for him to to say what the right reasons would be.

    Michael makes no direct attempt to answer the question of why he finds his system worthy of support. He has devoted some attention to explaining our natural, evolved predisposition for adopting *some* ethical systems but he makes no real effort at all to persuade me that I should adopt the particular ethical system for which he advocates. But, if I put two and two together to get about 27, the language he uses to talk about ethical systems does seem to be consistent with a metaphysical (though obviously not theistic) basis for his own ethics. As you rightly point out, there isn’t a single atheist ethical system to which all atheists are presumed to subscribe, and I don’t get the sense that Michael subscribes to the same ethical system as Morbert.

    “The idea that the masses rally around reasoned understandings of why something is good is not supported by empirical observation. In fact it’s at direct odds with what we know about social behavior and human psychology.”

    It’s fair to say that metaphysic plays, at most, a minor role in influencing our moral systems. As children we absorb them from our parents and wider community, through explicit instruction, intentional ethical formation, simple observation of how others behave. We internalise them; as we grow we develop them and make them our own. That latter process involves some degree of reevaluating and rejecting what our parents and community have instilled in us, but mostly this is at the margins (and somebody who does this in a *very* sweeping way is generally regarded as psychotic).

    And I suspect what we evaluate our learned values against is mostly other learned values. The high value I attach to compassion, for example, may lead me to justify telling untruths in order to keep people happy (“you looked wonderful tonight, darling”) whereas the high value you attach to truth or knowledge may lead you to the opposite conclusion. In fact both of us value both compassion and truth; we merely weight them differently, and there may be something in our personal psychology, experience, heritage or whatever which explains the difference in weighting.

    Similarly, if I offer a metaphysical explanation of why I value things, my predilection for doing so may be driven by a preference for living in a world which has purpose, meaning, significance, since (perhaps) I find aimlessness terrifying. Whereas if you reject the metaphysical explanation, this may because you prefer to see the world in materialist terms – you choose a world in which every reality is at least in principle amenable to empirical observation, testing and understanding, since (perhaps) you find mystery and impenetrability terrifying.

    So, is a metaphysical answer required? Well, it’s required if one requires it, but not otherwise. And whether one requires it or not is itself a preference which is driven by subjective factors.

    Which brings me back to the original point. Michael is somewhat scathing about those whose preferences in this regard differ from his. Is he justified in his assumption that his preferences enjoy a greater validity than theirs?

    “If you are not interested in working out a shared ethics, despite differing premises, then you’ll not care if I’m right.”

    I think I’m with you on this, if I understand you rightly. Ethics is about choosing how we behave, and you and I have a shared ethic to the extent that we would make (or seek to make) similar choices about how to behave in similar circumstances. How we explain or justify our choices is a secondary consideration (except perhaps to the extent that it may point to the fact that in different circumstances, we would have made opposing choices).

    I understand the notion of an atheist ethics (or for that matter of a theist ethics) but I’m a bit leery of it. Trying to develop ethics as part of a project to validate atheism is understandable, particularly in a world in which the view is frequently expressed that atheists cannot be ethical, but it’s essentially corrupting (hah!) to allow the project to be distorted by a desire to validate a particular metaphysical claim. Ethics is first and foremost about what you do, not what you believe. From my perspective, if you and I agree about caring for others and keeping our promises and helping old ladies across the road and so forth, then we broadly share the same ethics, and it matters not that one of us would offer a metaphysical and theistic account of why these things are good while the other would not. But I don’t get the sense that Michael would agree with me about that.

  54. “From my perspective, if you and I agree about caring for others and keeping our promises and helping old ladies across the road and so forth, then we broadly share the same ethics, and it matters not that one of us would offer a metaphysical and theistic account of why these things are good while the other would not. But I don’t get the sense that Michael would agree with me about that.”

    Yes and yes. But I do think other atheists and nontheists would agree with us. I’m a nonbeliever myself, but I do not use the atheist label for a variety of reasons. So perhaps I share that one major premise about reality with Micheal, but it seems like in that area between that premise and conclusions about how to behave ethically I might share more with you. That is if I’m reading you correctly when you write this…

    “Which brings me back to the original point. Michael is somewhat scathing about those whose preferences in this regard differ from his. Is he justified in his assumption that his preferences enjoy a greater validity than theirs?”

    Cheers.

  55. My friend Pádraig Ó’Tuama has a poem in his recent book “Readings from the Book of Exile” called “Affirmative Action”. I think it might offer a nice companion piece to this discussion about the primacy of an ethics of action…

    Let your yes be yes and your no be no.
    Let your eyes be seen in your doing.
    Let your no be not-doing.
    If you say yes, but do-not-do, it is a no.
    So forget all your talk.
    Tell me by what you do.

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