Thursday, January 21, 2016

Does Maher Know Whereof He Speaks?

Bill Maher seems like a very bright guy and is one of the better-known and more outspoken representatives of contemporary atheism, which is why I was surprised to see his response to a question in an interview he did recently.

The interviewer asked him a question about Republican candidate for president Ted Cruz: "Why do you find him [Cruz] scarier than Trump? He is certainly more cunning than him and a far more educated guy with Princeton, Harvard Law, and his constitutional law background."

Maher's reply was this:
It’s high intelligence in the service of evil. It’s one thing to have evil people who aren’t that bright! There’s a reason why everyone hates Ted Cruz. There’s a reason why the big question about Ted Cruz is always, “When he shaves in the morning, how does he avoid spitting in the mirror?” To think of this guy being the president of the United States, this ambition and love of power combined with being on the wrong side of every issue, it’s a very scary prospect. (emphasis mine)
Set aside whatever feelings you may have about Ted Cruz and focus on Maher's use of the term "evil." Evil is a moral category. It denotes an act or a person who does horribly wrong acts, so my question is, how does an atheist like Maher explain his use of a moral term? If atheism is true then there are no wrong acts, we are, as Nietzsche put it, beyond good and evil. What's morally wrong, as Hemmingway says, is simply whatever one feels bad after doing.

In other words, on atheism, to call something or someone evil is simply to express one's own disapprobation, one's own dislike or aversion to the act or person, but it tells us no more than that. Moral evil, like moral good, can only exist in any meaningful way if there's an objective standard of behavior to which we are held accountable and that standard can only exist if there is a personal, transcendent, perfectly good source of it, i.e. God or something very much like God.

If one wishes to hold onto moral value and the ability to make moral judgments one must forego atheism. If one insists on atheism then one should face up to the fact that to be consistent he/she should be a moral nihilist and forever renounce the right to say of anyone or anything that it is morally wrong. What one cannot reasonably do is embrace atheism and also make moral judgments of other people's behavior.

For Maher to call Ted Cruz evil, then, is misleading, inappropriate, and silly. It's like calling a grizzly bear evil because it attacks hikers. It's what philosophers call a category mistake - imputing to something a property which does not belong to that thing. Maher should know better, and maybe he does in which case he's damaging his credibility. On the other hand, maybe he doesn't.