Saturday, December 31, 2016

Looking for Ethics in All the Wrong Places

A friend some time ago passed along a link to Susan Jacoby's discussion in the New York Times of a book by Phil Zuckerman titled Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions. Jacoby's review serves up several examples of missing the point. As an atheist herself Jacoby is eager to defend Zuckerman's thesis that one can live a life that's just as morally good, or better, than that of any theist. Belief in God, both Jacoby and Zuckerman aver, is not necessary for the moral life. She writes:
Many years ago, when I was an innocent lamb making my first appearance on a right-wing radio talk show, the host asked, “If you don’t believe in God, what’s to stop you from committing murder?” I blurted out, “It’s never actually occurred to me to murder anyone.”
In addition to the usual tendentious use of the word "right-wing" whenever a progressive is referring to anything to the right of the mid-line on the ideological highway, her answer to the question is a non-sequitur. The host is obviously asking her what, in her worldview, imposes any moral constraint on her. To answer that it never occurred to her to do such a thing as murder is to duck the question. The question is on what grounds would she have thought murder to be morally wrong if it had it occurred to her to commit such a deed? She continues her evasions when she says this:
Nonreligious Americans are usually pressed to explain how they control their evil impulses with the more neutral, albeit no less insulting, “How can you have morality without religion?”
We might want to pause here to ask why Ms Jacoby feels insulted that someone might ask her what she bases her moral values and decisions on. Is it insulting because she's being asked a question for which she has no good answer? Anyway, after some more irrelevant filler she eventually arrives at the nub of Zuckerman's book:
[Zuckerman] extols a secular morality grounded in the “empathetic reciprocity embedded in the Golden Rule, accepting the inevitability of our eventual death, navigating life with a sober pragmatism grounded in this world.”
Very well, but why is it right to embrace the principle that we should treat others the way we want to be treated but wrong to adopt the principle that we should put our own interests ahead of the interests of others? Is it just that it feels right to Zuckerman to live this way? If so, then all the author is saying is that everyone should live by his own feelings. In other words, morality is rooted in each person's own subjective behavioral preferences, but if that's so then no one can say that anyone else is wrong about any moral matter. If what's right is what I feel to be right then the same holds true for everyone, and how can I say that others are wrong if they feel they should be selfish, greedy, racist, dishonest, or violent? Just because I, or Susan Jacoby, feel strongly that such behaviors are wrong that surely doesn't make them wrong. Jacoby seems unaware of the difficulty, however:
The Golden Rule (who but a psychopath could disagree with it?) is a touchstone for atheists if they feel obliged to prove that they follow a moral code recognizable to their religious compatriots. But this universal ethical premise does not prevent religious Americans (especially on the right) from badgering atheists about goodness without God — even though it would correctly be seen as rude for an atheist to ask her religious neighbors how they can be good with God.
This paragraph is unfortunate for at least three reasons. First, Jacoby's insinuation that only a moral pervert would reject the Golden Rule (GR) is a case of begging the question. She's assuming the GR is an objective moral principle and then asks how anyone could not see it as such, but the notion that there are objective moral principles is exactly what atheism disallows. Indeed, as indicated above, it's what Zuckerman and Jacoby both implicitly deny.

Second, the fact that someone can choose to live by the GR is not to the point. Anyone can live by whatever values he or she chooses. The problem for the atheist is that she cannot say that if someone disdains the GR and chooses to live selfishly or cruelly that that person is doing anything that is objectively wrong. In a Godless world values are like selections on a restaurant menu. The atheist can choose whatever she wants that suits her taste, but if her companion chooses something she doesn't like that doesn't make him wrong.

Third, Jacoby seems to imply that belief in God doesn't make one good, and in fact makes it hard to be good. This is again beside the point. One can believe in God and not know what's right. One can believe in God and not do what's right. The point, though, is that unless there is a God there is no objective moral right nor wrong. There are merely subjective preferences people have to which they are bound only by their own arbitrary will.

Morality requires a transcendent, objective, morally authoritative foundation, a foundation which has the right to impose moral strictures and the ability to enforce them. That is, it requires a personal being. If no such being exists then debates about right and wrong behavior are like debates about the prettiest color. They're no more than expressions of personal taste and preference.

Jacoby unwittingly supplies us with an interesting example from which to elaborate on the point:
Tonya Hinkle (a pseudonym) is a mother of three who lives in a small town in Mississippi....Her children were harassed at school after it became known that the Hinkles did not belong to a church. When Tonya’s first-grade twins got off the school bus crying, she learned that “this one girl had stood up on the bus and screamed — right in their faces — that they were going to HELL. That they were going to burn in all eternity because they didn’t go to church.”
Jacoby thinks this was awful, as do I, but why does Jacoby think that what these children did to Tonya's children was wrong - not factually wrong but morally wrong? She might reply that it hurt the little girl, and so it did, but on atheism why is it wrong to hurt people? Jacoby, falling back on the GR, might say that those kids wouldn't want someone to hurt them. Surely not, but why is that a reason why it's wrong to hurt others? How, exactly, does one's desire not to be hurt make it wrong to hurt others? All an atheist can say by way of reply is that it violates the GR, but then she's spinning in a circle. Where does the GR get it's moral authority from in a godless universe? Is it from social consensus? Human evolution? How can either of these make any act morally wrong?

At this point someone might reply that it's wrong to hurt others because it just is, but at this point the individual has abandoned reason and is resorting to dogmatic asseverations of faith in the correctness of their own moral intuitions - sort of like some of those obnoxious fundamentalists might do.

The unfortunate fact of the matter is, though, that, on atheism, if those kids can hurt Tonya's children and get away with it, it's not wrong, it's only behavior Jacoby doesn't like, and we're back to right and wrong being measured by one's personal feelings.

It's a common error, but an error nonetheless, when non-theists like Jacoby and Zuckerman seek to defend the possibility of moral values while denying any transcendent basis for them, and it's peculiar that Jacoby feels insulted when she's asked to explain how she can do this.

Another atheist, Robert Tracinski at The Federalist, makes a related mistake in an otherwise fine discussion of the work of Ayn Rand. Tracinski explicitly acknowledges that most thoughtful atheists, at least those on the left, embrace moral subjectivism. He writes:
Probably the most important category [Rand] defied is captured in the expression, “If God is dead, all things are permitted.” Which means: if there is no religious basis for morality, then everything is subjective. The cultural left basically accepts this alternative and sides with subjectivism (when they’re not overcompensating by careening back toward their own neo-Puritan code of political correctness).
This is mostly correct except that I'd quibble with his use of the term "religious basis." Morality doesn't require a religious basis, it requires a basis that possesses the characteristics enumerated above: It must be rooted in an objectively existing moral authority - personal, transcendent and capable of holding human beings responsible for their choices. The existence and will of such a being - God - may or may not be an essential element of a particular religion.

Tracinski, then says that:
The religious right responds by saying that the only way to stem the tide of “anything goes” is to return to that old time religion.
It's not necessarily a return to "old time religion," or any religion, for that matter, which is needful for eliminating the subjectivity of moral judgments. It's a return to a belief that the world is the product of a morally perfect being who has established His moral will in the human heart and who insists that we follow it, i.e. that we treat others with justice and compassion.

Those beliefs may be augmented by a belief in special revelation and by the whole edifice of the Christian (or Jewish, or Islamic) tradition, but the core belief in the existence of the God of classical theism is not by itself "religious' at all. That core belief may not by itself be a sufficient condition for an objective morality, but it is necessary for it.

Which is why people ask the question Jacoby finds so insulting. Put a different way, it's the question how an atheist can avoid making right and wrong merely a matter of personal taste. If that sort of subjectivity is what the secular life entails then its votaries really have nothing much to say, or at least nothing much worth listening to, about matters of right and wrong.