Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Determinism and Moral Coherence

James Atlas of the New York Times, in a review of books on the subject of thinking, touches briefly on the subject of the relationship between free will and morality. He closes his essay with this thought:
Does this mean we have no “agency,” no capacity to act on our own? Or can autonomy thrive within the prison of self-ignorance? “We have to believe it does,” says Steven Lukes, a professor of sociology at New York University highly admired for his work in moral philosophy. “If we seriously thought that our intentions made no difference to how we behave, we couldn’t go on using the language of ethics. How would we go on living the lives we live?” Or doing what we think is right? “People have free will when they ‘feel’ they have free will,” says Professor Kahneman. “If we didn’t believe in it, we would have no responsibility.”

But of course what one “feels,” as we’ve learned from all these books, could well be — indeed, probably is — an illusion. As Timothy Wilson puts it with haunting simplicity: “We are strangers to ourselves.”
We can't have it both ways, however. If we believe free will is an illusion then we have to believe the same thing about morality. If determinism is true and we have no genuine choices then words like "ought" and "should", when used in an ethical context, are purely emotive. If I say A ought to do B all I'm saying is I would like it if A did B. It doesn't mean that B is "right" in any moral sense. If A doesn't do B there's no reason for him to feel guilty about it since A is not guilty of anything other than doing something that disappoints, or perhaps angers, others.

It would not be "wrong" in any transcendent sense if A did not do B. If there's no genuine choice in the matter there is no morally right or wrong choice. There are only alternative behaviors. Whether Mersault in Camus' The Stranger shoots the Arab on the beach or doesn't shoot him is morally the same. Whether one "chooses" to help hungry children or refuses to help them is morally indifferent. Our behavior was determined by the laws of nature and we're no more capable of doing otherwise than what we do than the moon is capable of choosing to change its orbit around the earth.

Of course, there are some who would welcome the ethical nihilism that would result from the widespread recognition of this fact, but most would blanch at the moral chaos that would be unleashed on our social landscape. Ethics would quickly devolve to a matter of simple power, of might makes right, and few would want to live that way.

Most people are convinced in their hearts that they and others are indeed in some sense free to choose even if they can't articulate exactly what a free choice is. Most people are profoundly persuaded that they and others are morally responsible for what they do, but if one is an atheist (or naturalist) it's very difficult to avoid the conclusion that determinism is true and that there is, therefore, no genuine moral responsibility.

That's one reason why atheism is irrational. The atheist has to live as if his atheism is wrong in order for him to live in harmony with his moral instincts. In order to be consistent with his atheism he has to sacrifice moral coherence, and this most atheists are just unwilling, and psychologically unable, to do.