Thursday, September 8, 2016

Metaphysical Freeloader

Note: This post ran on VP three years ago, but, given what my students and I are talking about in class, I thought it'd be helpful to run it again.

P.Z. Myers is a very devout atheist. He's committed to an evolutionary view of life so it's perplexing that he makes so many moral pronouncements in his recent condemnation of atheistic fellow-traveler Richard Dawkins' latest transgressions against Myers' moral sensibilities. Myers quotes from an article in The Times magazine in which Dawkins discusses an incident from his childhood:
In an interview in The Times magazine on Saturday (Sept. 7), Dawkins, 72, said he was unable to condemn what he called “the mild pedophilia” he experienced at an English school when he was a child in the 1950s.

Referring to his early days at a boarding school in Salisbury, he recalled how one of the (unnamed) masters “pulled me on his knee and put his hand inside my shorts.”

He said other children in his school peer group had been molested by the same teacher but concluded: “I don’t think he did any of us lasting harm.”

“I am very conscious that you can’t condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours. Just as we don’t look back at the 18th and 19th centuries and condemn people for racism in the same way as we would condemn a modern person for racism, I look back a few decades to my childhood and see things like caning, like mild pedophilia, and can’t find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today,” he said.

He said the most notorious cases of pedophilia involve rape and even murder and should not be bracketed with what he called “just mild touching up.”
That was Dawkins saying that being briefly fondled by his teacher as a child was no big deal. Well, it is to Myers. Note the moral outrage in his criticism of Dawkins:
I can think of some lasting harm: he seems to have developed a callous indifference to the sexual abuse of children. He was a victim of an inexcusable violation; that he can shrug it off does not mean it was OK, or ‘zero bad’, or something trivial.

Should I have raised my children with such a lack of self-respect that they should have allowed dirty old men to play with their genitals? I would have wanted them to inform me, so that such behavior could be stopped.

Just when did it stop being OK for acquaintances to put their hands inside Richard Dawkins shorts? I presume it would be an utterly intolerable act now, of course — at what age do the contents of childrens’ pants stop being public property?

Should we be giving pedophiles the idea that a “mild touching up” is reasonable behavior? It’s just a little does no “lasting harm”. [T]hat sounds like something out of NAMBLA.

And that all Richard Dawkins experienced was a brief groping does not mean that greater harm was not being done. That man was a serial child molester; do we know that he didn’t abuse other children to a greater degree? That there aren’t former pupils living now who bear greater emotional scars?

We do not excuse harm to others because some prior barbaric age was indifferent to that harm. Furthermore, the excuse doesn’t even work: are we supposed to believe that a child-fondling teacher would have been permissible in the 1950s? Seriously? Was that ever socially acceptable? And even if it was, in some weird version of British history, it does not excuse it. It means British schools were vile nests of child abuse, just like Catholic churches.

Thanks for swapping the moral high ground for a swampy mire of ambiguity, Richard. I’m not going to argue that compelling kids to memorize Bible verses and fear hell, as stupid an excuse for education as that is, was child abuse, while getting manhandled by lascivious priests was a trivial offense, to be waved away as harmless. I’m sure many Catholics are quite gleeful that Richard Dawkins has now embraced the same moral relativism that they use to rationalize crimes against children.
Myers is incensed that Dawkins would pooh-pooh what Myers sees as a terrible wrong. He condemns the act because of the harm it does, and expresses disdain, while he's at it, for Dawkins' moral relativism.

Now I share all of these sentiments with Myers, but what I'd like to know is where does Myers think his moral sensibilities come from? If he says they've evolved in us over the eons then why, exactly, should we pay them any heed? Evolution molded us for life in the stone age, not the modern age. Besides, if our sense of moral aversion to pedophilia is a product of evolution then so is the urge to indulge in pedophilic behavior. Why does the aversion take precedence over the indulgence? Why is the antipathy toward molestation any more "right" than the desire to fondle children if both are the products of evolution?

Moreover, how can an impersonal process like evolution impose a moral duty on us to refrain from molesting children in the first place? Moral duties cannot be imposed upon us by an impersonal force or process. They can only be imposed by the personal Creator of the universe, but Myers is absolutely hostile to the idea that such a Creator exists. Yet the fact is that for someone who shares Myers' worldview there are no grounds whatsoever for saying that pedophilia is wrong because in the absence of a personal, transcendent moral authority we have no moral duties at all.

Myers can say he doesn't like what happened to the young Dawkins and doesn't like Dawkins' minimizing of it, but for him to talk as if there's something terribly wrong with it, for him to talk as if there's much more than a simple expression of his personal distaste involved, is just silly.

As I argue in my novels (see links above right) when an atheist makes a moral judgment, he's essentially acting as if God existed. On atheism there are no grounds for such judgments, but man can't live consistently with the nihilism his atheism entails so he temporarily piggy-backs on Christian theism in order to favor us with his moral pronouncements and hopes all the while that no one will notice that he is, in effect, a metaphysical freeloader.