Monday, August 8, 2011

Syrian Genocide

A Jerusalem Post article gives us a hint of the horrors taking place in Syria:
Ahmed Khalaf, a lieutenant in the Syrian army said that he was ordered to command his soldiers to shoot indiscriminately at everyone in Deraa, including women and children, London based Asharq Alawsat reported on Saturday.

"I, along with other officers, was ordered by our commanders to commit genocide in Deraa and was told not to spare women and children."

In an interview with Asharq Alawsat, Khalaf claimed that he told his commander that he followed orders while secretly telling his soldiers not to fire on anyone. However, when he was found out and put under house arrest he understood that he had to flee the country.

Khalaf explained that hundreds of Sunni officers are sitting in jails around Syria for refusing to obey orders to fire on civilians, and claims that "4,500 soldiers have defected in the Damascus area."

Lieutenant Khalaf managed to escape from Syria is currently hiding in an undisclosed location.
Wasn't the threat of genocide precisely the reason that President Obama deployed U.S. forces against Libya? Didn't he go on national television to tell us that we could not permit Qaddafi to just slaughter his own people?

It sure would be helpful and reassuring if he would explain what principles, if indeed there are any, govern his decision to order military intervention, or, failing that, at least get off the golf course long enough to condemn Assad every day for what he's doing to these people.

As it is, Mr. Obama is giving the impression of really not caring much about the plight of the Syrian people and of just making his foreign policy up as he goes along.

Does Morality Require God? (Pt.I)

Darwinian biologist (and atheist) Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago wanders out of his field to write a column for USA Today in which he argues that it's a mistake to think that morality depends upon God. Since I believe it does depend upon God, and have argued as much on Viewpoint on numerous occasions in the past, the article caught my attention. I wanted to see if Prof. Coyne made a compelling case for his assertion and was completely unsurprised to find that he didn't.

His argument begins to wobble with his opening paragraph and staggers and stumbles, like a drunk navigating a frozen pond, the rest of the way. He opens with this:
One cold Chicago day last February, I watched a Federal Express delivery man carry an armful of boxes to his truck. In the middle of the icy street, he slipped, scattering the boxes and exposing himself to traffic. Without thinking, I ran into the street, stopped cars, hoisted the man up and helped him recover his load. Pondering this afterward, I realized that my tiny act of altruism had been completely instinctive; there was no time for calculation.
This was kind of him, to be sure, but it's pretty much irrelevant to his point that God isn't necessary for morality. Here's why: If there is no God it wouldn't have been wrong for him to ignore the delivery man's plight. Kindness is something we appreciate, but that doesn't make it moral. It's only morally right if we have a duty to do it. If naturalism (i.e. atheism) is true, however, there are no duties to do anything. One has no more of an obligation to be kind as one does to be selfish. The one is, in the overall scheme of things, no better or worse than the other. The universe is indifferent to whichever choice we make. Prof. Coyne continues:
We see the instinctive nature of moral acts and judgments in many ways: in the automatic repugnance we feel when someone such as Bernie Madoff bilks the gullible and trusting, in our disapproval of the person who steals food from the office refrigerator, in our admiration for someone who risks his life to save a drowning child. And although some morality comes from reason and persuasion — we must learn, for example, to share our toys — much of it seems intuitive and inborn.
The fact that people may instinctively disapprove of a particular behavior doesn't make it wrong. Many people disapprove of Prof. Coyne's atheism, but he would certainly not think it morally wrong. Many others instinctively disapprove of the notion of loving their enemies or treating women as equals, but Coyne wouldn't say that these behaviors are wrong. Disapproval and admiration have nothing to do with whether an act is right or wrong.

Moreover, if morality is indeed instinctive, i.e. if our genes program us to behave in certain ways, then how can those ways be right or wrong? The homosexual community makes the case that homosexuality is genetic and no one chooses to be gay. They're born that way and thus it is inappropriate to consider homosexuality to be immoral. But if being born gay removes homosexuality from the realm of the moral then every disposition we're born with, including the disposition to help the fed-ex delivery man or to refuse to share with others, is also removed from the realm of the moral. We do what we're predisposed by our genes to do and that's the end of the matter.

As a biologist, I see belief in God-given morality as American's biggest impediment to accepting the fact of evolution. "Evolution," many argue, "could never have given us feelings of kindness, altruism and morality. For if we were merely evolved beasts, we would act like beasts. Surely our good behavior, and the moral sentiments that promote it, reflect impulses that God instilled in our soul."

So while morality supposedly comes from God, immorality is laid at the door of Charles Darwin, who has been blamed for everything from Nazism to the shootings in Columbine.
Coyne frames this a bit awkwardly. What he should have said is that many who are skeptical of Darwinism argue that naturalistic evolution could never make feelings of kindness and altruism morally right. After all, many people harbor feelings of meanness and selfishness. If evolution produced the former it must also have produced the latter. On what grounds does Coyne judge the former to be right and the latter to be wrong?

Evidently, what's right are behaviors he appreciates and what's wrong are behaviors of which he disapproves, but not only is it backward to declare behaviors of which we disapprove to be wrong, we might also wonder why anyone else should accept Prof. Coyne's likes and dislikes as normative. Even if the vast majority shared Coyne's approbation and disapprobation it still wouldn't make the behaviors right or wrong. Throughout history the vast majority of people approved of slavery and disapproved of miscegnation, but is Coyne prepared to acknowledge that slavery was therefore morally right and miscegnation morally wrong?

Next the professor trots out Plato's Euthyphro dilemma to show that God cannot be the ground for morality:
[M]orality itself — either in individual behavior or social codes — simply cannot come from the will or commands of a God. This has been recognized by philosophers since the time of Plato.

Religious people can appreciate this by considering Plato's question: Do actions become moral simply because they're dictated by God, or are they dictated by God because they are moral? It doesn't take much thought to see that the right answer is the second one. Why? Because if God commanded us to do something obviously immoral, such as kill our children or steal, it wouldn't automatically become OK.

Of course, you can argue that God would never sanction something like that because he's a completely moral being, but then you're still using some idea of morality that is independent of God. Either way, it's clear that even for the faithful, God cannot be the source of morality but at best a transmitter of some human-generated morality.
What Coyne neglects to mention, though, is that most philosophers of religion believe that Plato's argument simply doesn't do the work Coyne thinks it does. See here for my humble opinion on why it doesn't work.

So far, Prof. Coyne has failed to provide any persuasive reasons to accept his claim that God is unnecessary for morality. I'll examine the balance of his argument tomorrow.