Saturday, April 11, 2015

Ethical Duties

The journal Science (subscription required) ran a review a year or so ago by Rudolph Griss of a book by atheistic biologist E.O. Wilson titled The Social Conquest of Earth. At one point Griss says this:
As intriguing as self-understanding may be from an intellectual point of view, Wilson sees it as a means to an end: something that must be achieved if humans are to bring their unsustainable and destructive lifestyle to a halt. He laments, "We are needlessly turning the gold we inherited from our forebears into straw, and for that we will be despised by our descendants." We are not only polluting our planet beyond recognition, we are also bidding good-bye forever to species after species. Wilson tells us to grow up, to stop making excuses and shuffling off responsibility onto deities. We alone are responsible for the future of our planet. The sooner we understand who we are and where we come from, the sooner we will know where we need to go.
I thought this was interesting because Wilson seems to assume that we have some sort of moral obligation to future generations not to despoil and deplete the planet, but where does such an obligation come from? Who imposes it? Why is it wrong to exploit the earth's resources to make our lives as comfortable as we can and let future generations fend for themselves? Our descendants may despise us for acting this way but why should we care? What's wrong with selfishness?

It may seem obvious to some readers that of course we have a duty to care about the planet and our descendants, but it's not obvious to me at all that we do, or at least it's not obvious to me that an atheist has any grounds for believing that we do.

Indeed, I don't think Wilson, who is a Darwinian materialist, can cogently answer any of the above questions, because for the atheist there simply is no answer. To paraphrase philosopher Richard Rorty*, for the secular man there's no answer to the question, why not be selfish. Or to paraphrase Richard Dawkins*, what's to prevent us from saying that selfishness is right? That's a genuinely difficult question.

If we're simply the product of blind, purposeless Darwinian processes which enabled us to succeed in the struggle for survival then to suggest that we should not be selfish, that we should suppress our instincts and deny ourselves the benefits of the earth's largesse for the sake of generations yet to come, is absurd.

The only basis for thinking that we have a duty to conserve the earth's resources is the belief that a transcendent moral authority, a God, has imposed upon us the obligation to be stewards of the earth and to care about the well-being of others. Take away the divine source of that obligation, as Wilson does, and the obligation itself disappears.

Atheists delight in calling theists irrational, but what's more irrational, believing that we have a duty to care for the planet because the creator of the universe imposes that duty upon us, or believing that we have a duty to care for the planet even though there's nothing at all that could possibly impose such a duty upon us?

If Wilson thinks we do have such a duty then maybe he should reassess his commitment to atheism.

You can read more about Griss' review of Wilson's book at Evolution News and Notes.

* I substituted the word "selfish" for Rorty's original word "cruelty," and I substituted "selfishness" for Dawkin's original word "Hitler."