Several of the talks at the Pittsburgh Atheist/Humanist meetings were excellent, and I hope to have time later to discuss one or two more. But first I want to say a few things about Daniel Fincke’s talk, titled “Empowerment Ethics.” Daniel (I don’t know if he goes by “Dan”), as you may know, is a philosopher whose website at Patheos is called “Camels with Hammers.“
I had given my own talk earlier, and during the Q&A someone asked me whether, because of my penchant for using science and rationality rather than faith, I nevertheless had a faith-based ethics system. (It’s a good question.) I said no, it wasn’t based on belief in something for which there was no evidence (my conception of “faith”) but simply a preference—a judgment call based on what I think would create a more harmonious and just society, and some of those judgments are informed by evidence. In the end, though, my view that a harmonious and just society—like Sam Harris’s view that the most moral society maximizes well being—is at bottom a preference. People hate that, but it’s what I do believe. I still don’t believe there is any such thing as an objective ethical judgment, though of course I believe that ethics rests heavily on empirical observation: what helps vs. what hurts people, and how societies function under different moral codes. But your criteria for what makes one thing moral and another not cannot, I think, be objective.
Others differ, and think morality is objective, one of them was Fincke, who in his 20-minute talk outlined his vision of “empowerment ethics,” which seems to be a quasi-utilitarian form of ethics along the lines of Sam Harris’s. (I may be doing him a disservice, but I’m remembering the best I can).
Fincke claimed that yes, ethical judgments are objective. What are the criteria for such judgments? Finke said it was “human flourishing”: whatever is more moral is that which allows for the most human flourishing. This criterion was supposed to be objective, though Fincke didn’t define what “human flourishing” is. He also emphasized—and here I agree with him—that ethical judgments must be based on rational thought as far as possible, and that they must be consistent within a person: you cannot, say, that it is never moral to embezzle, and then cheat on your taxes.
Now this sounds good to people, and many agreed with him. Why I think they did is simply because for most moral judgments there is no disagreement among most people. We don’t hurt children or animals or anybody unnecessarily, we don’t steal, and so on. Much of that common feeling may be based on moral judgments that are instinctive because they are evolved: they allowed our ancestors to live in harmonious bands. (That doesn’t mean, of course, that they’re good behaviors now.) But there is no unanimity among people in two instances: religion-based morality and the “hard cases.”
Religions, of course, differ strongly in what they consider moral and immoral. Many Catholics see homosexuality as immoral, and the Church sees homosexuality as a “grave sin.” Catholics also see divorce and contraception, as immoral. Many Muslims think it’s immoral for women to drive, go to school, or show their faces. How do you convince them that human flourishing overrides these dictates? I think it does, but they would simply claim that that is not so, for those moral dictates are given by God, and the best society is the one that obeys God’s rules. In other words, if those dictates were disobeyed, society would not flourish. (God might even destroy it, or send hurricanes!)
Now you can say that this is an irrational view, because it’s based on faith, but try convincing religious people that they are objectively wrong about that.
The more difficult cases are when religion isn’t involved, and in the Q&A I asked Dan to answer three questions.
If morality is objective, what is the objectively more moral action in these three cases:
1. Is it more moral for you to keep all your money or to save lives by giving away to Third-World charities everything you have beyond what you really need to live?
2. Is it more more moral to kill 1000 chimpanzees to save a maximum of 100 human lives?
3. Is it moral to torture someone if you think there is a 50% chance by so doing you will save 10,000 human lives?
I don’t think you can give an objective answer in any of these cases, for we simply cannot weigh “flourishing”. How do we value a chimp life versus a human one? We don’t know exactly how much chimps suffer, or how sentient they are; and does that matter anyway? Why is Fincke (and the rest of us) not acting immorally if flourishing would be maximized by giving away most of what we have and don’t need? (Saving a life, after all, which you can do by feeding poor kids in, say, Africa, is the best way to help people flourish with the least effort.) And as for torture, well, you can always say that torturing someone, even if it saves 10,000 lives, would brutalize society, and so reduce flourishing. But how do we know that? We can’t do the experiment, or look at other societies who do torture, because they differ in many other ways from ours, and at any rate, we could, as Alan Dershowitz thinks, put stringent legal controls on who should be tortured and how—controls that other countries don’t have. (Dershowitz thinks we should have “torture warrants.”).
There are other hard cases. Is ethnic profiling of terrorists on plane flights immoral if it would save lives? What about abortion? Is it immoral to allow a woman to abort an infant in the third trimester? How do you answer such questions objectively? I have my own answers (for example, I think abortion should be allowed on demand), but I couldn’t say that that is the objectively moral thing to do. I could argue that our society is better when such abortions are allowed, but a religious person could say that a third-trimester fetus is sentient and could be removed from the mother and have a life and that in the end that individual would be glad it wasn’t aborted. It comes down, I think, to what kind of society you prefer. After all, how do you balance the various aspects of “flourishing,” one against the other (keeping your wealth versus saving children, or killing chimps versus saving human lives)? That, too, was a problem with Sam Harris’s view: there are various ways to judge “well being,” and how do you weigh them one against the other?
We even may all agree on the utilitarian ideal of “maximum well being” or “maximum flourishing,” but different people will weight different aspects of these criteria differently. In the end, I still think it comes down to preference and a judgment call, and for me that involves what you think is the best behavior for individuals and societies to be well off. Some of one’s judgments are empirically testable in principle, but the criteria for what is moral, and how to weigh different facets of those criteria, still seem to me in the end to be subjective and not objective.
Objective ethics is a view that is gaining traction, and I wish I could get on board. But I have yet to be convinced that, say, anything involving animal rights can be judged objectively, except for easy cases like sacrificing ten mice to save a thousand humans.
This doesn’t get religious people off the hook, of course. Although they may claim that their ethics are objective—and superior—because they’re based on God’s dictates, virtually every religious person picks and chooses which of God’s dictates to obey. Christians do not, as the Bible mandates, kill adulterers, those who work on the Sabbath, or adulterers. That, too, is picking and choosing based on some extra-Biblical notion of what is right. And that, to me, seems to me no more objective than my own secular ethics.