Reader Dean called my attention to an article on a site called Saints & Skeptics? :“Meaning, morality, and Jerry Coyne’s world.” It’s a critique, à la Ross Douthat, on the coherence of secular morality—or at least what J. Coyne sees as “moral.”
I prefer to avoid using the term “moral behavior,” for it implies “moral responsibility,” which in turn implies that we have a choice about how we behave. Since I don’t think we have such a choice, the notion of “moral responsibility” goes out the window. (I recommend Bruce Waller’s Against Moral Responsibility, which I’m halfway through, for a cogent argument about this, as well as a deft evisceration of compatibilist arguments. It’s a Professor Ceiling Cat Book of the Month Club Selection.)
Just because I reject the notion of libertarian free will and moral responsibility does not, however, mean that I don’t think there are better or worse ways for us to behave, nor that I deny that we can influence people’s behavior for the good of society. I hesitate to call the codification of those ways “morality,” since that plays into “moral responsibility,” but for the nonce let’s retain the word “morality.”
At any rate, look first at the “What we believe” section of Saints & Skeptics?, whose subtitle is “For Saints with doubts and sceptics with questions,” for this tells us the starting point for its authors; the preordained beliefs that they must justify at all costs:
Saints and Sceptics is an Evangelical organisation. While recognizing that the early Creeds of the Church express central truths about God and salvation, Evangelicals emphasize the truthfulness of the Bible and the need for personal conversion. Evangelicals believe in ‘the Gospel’ – everyone needs to take responsibility for their moral failings, acknowledge that they have failed God, and personally acknowledge Jesus as their only Saviour and Lord. A brief statement of our beliefs can be found here.
So, Coyne begins with his subjective preference for a world in which we promote the well-being of our fellow humans. Of course, Coyne also believes that every human is an“evolved collection of molecules” which “takes pleasure in certain activities and feels that it has goals.” He is not sure about the origins of altruism: “My own suspicions are that it’s partly genetic and partly cultural”.
So, to be a little more accurate, Coyne begins with his own feelings and goals, which are, in his view, merely the product of his genes and environment. This is hardly the basis for rationally compelling ethical system. Moreover, to get something approximating morality Coyne must show why his preferences should be binding on all human beings.
However, Coyne immediately adds that his moral preferences are justified by their results. In other words, some of his preferences are binding on others because they make for a more rational world. We ought to protect the weak and poor because we would seek protection if we were weak and poor. Oppression is wrong because it “it creates a society in which disorder remains, but is hidden and suppressed.” This is detrimental to the “well-being of society”. So, despite his protestations and best efforts, Coyne has identified the ‘good’ with ‘whatever benefits society’ (or in the longer run, our species).
Prima facie, this seems reasonable. If most people live by the rules of morality then most people will benefit. However, we wonder ask if Coyne could tell us a little more about his vision of a beneficial society. Is it just a place that maximises the satisfaction of its citizens preferences. Or should only certain citizens have their preferences satisfied? If so, how would he choose? In other words, who are the losers and who are the winners in Coyne’s ideal society? Without those details his proposals are empty.
In other words, my argument largely coincides with that of Sam Harris: our moral feelings, by and large (but perhaps not invariably) coincide with what promotes the “well being” of individuals and societies. But, as I’ve pointed out, it’s often a big problem how to quantify well being (the trolley problem), and trade off its different forms among individuals (why not give most of our money to charity?), as well as among individuals vs. societies (Is it “moral” to torture individuals to save a large number of people, or, even if that worked, does it create a bad precedent for society, yielding less well being down the line?). These are not easy problems to resolve, and often come down to judgment calls. If every problem were as easy as “Should I kick this innocent dog?”, we wouldn’t have divided opinions on questions, even in the U.S.’s highest courts. Certainly not all religious people, nor even all Christians, agree on what they consider a “beneficial society”!
Veale and Glass are asking the impossible of me: before they’ll accept my proposed code of behavior, they demand that I draw a complete outline of how the good society should work. Well, I could ask them same of them, too.
But what about their code of “morality? It is, of course, based on the Bible:
How can we explain why each individual person is of immense, objective value? Why does the dignity of the person “trump” the long term interests of society? Here Coyne is extraordinarily unconvincing: he certainly does not allow humans the cosmic, metaphysical status that the theistic religions grant us:
If there is any “drama” in creation, most of it does not involve people at all. There’s the Big Bang, all those other galaxies, black holes, exploding stars, and, on our planet, evolution, on whose branching bush we are but one tiny twig.”
If the human race as a whole is insignificant, it is even worse for the human individual: each self is “a neuronal illusion”. Why should we value illusions? Coyne has no answer, yet stubbornly insists that each human life has meaning in his worldview. . .
This is a really dumb argument. First of all, the value of humans are neither immense nor objective, at least compared to other creatures. Morality extends to other animals, too, and I don’t see, for instance, that a human is infinitely more valuable as an object of our consideration than are other primates—or cats. Other animals are, after all, capable of suffering and pleasure. Nor are the value of humans “objective”: they are, like all values, subjective, even if you adhere to the Bible. Jesus certainly valued slaves less than, say, his disciples. And did God tell us, for instance, that orangutans should be treated less kindly than humans? No, because the people who made up the Bible didn’t know about orangutans. As for our “cosmic metaphysical status,” well, that’s made-up stuff, too. We don’t have it because there’s no evidence that theistic religions are true.
But of course it’s crazy to think that if we don’t have “cosmic metaphyical status,” the reasons for behaving “morally” go out the window. I won’t reiterate the centuries of secular thought that give us a non-goddy basis for morality; read Rawls, or Anthony Grayling, if you want some answers. As for the idea that an illusory “self”—and by that I mean the illusion that there is an “us” in our heads that is something more than the product of our neurons—means that we lose all reason to value individuals,well, that’s dumb, too. Even if our notion of a self-directing homunculus in our skull is an illusion, we certainly feel pain, misery, and happiness, and many of those emotions are the result of evolution (pain, for example, alerts us that something is wrong with our bodies, and happiness, like orgasms, can tell us that we are doing something that furthers our reproductive output). But regardless, so long as those qualia exist, it is good behavior for us to promote them, in both ourselves and others. If you ask me why, my answer is because well being is better than ill being, If Veale and Glass knew absolutely that there were no God, and that were were purely the product of naturalistic evolution, would they suddenly think it okay to go around raping, torturing, and murdering?
Now it falls to Veale and Glass to explain why their God-grounded morality is better than secular morality. But, as Hitch would say, “all their work is before them,” for first they must show that there not only is a God, but it’s the Abrahamic Christian God. After that they must tell us what they know of God’s nature, and how they know it. After all, they’re trying to convince us to adopt their morality. But they have not provided this evidence: the arguments for God on their website are pathetic.
. . . When Christians argue that God is the ground of morality, they are not arguing that a revelation from God –the Bible, for example – is necessary to ground morality. Nor are they arguing that in the absence of a reliable secular moral code we should bet on religion.
Rather, the theist is pointing out that atheism cannot explain the existence of moral values and obligations. The simple fact of the matter is that moral concepts have great explanatory power and moral experience is a central feature of human existence. Any worldview which cannot adequately account for morality is deeply unconvincing.
Of course one can explain moral values and obligations without accepting God: such values can be seen as products of both evolution and of secular reason (an ability that is also evolved). If Veale and Glass think otherwise, I demand that they refute centuries of secular-based ethics, as well as more recent secular explanations for the origin of moral feelings as discussed by Jonathan Haidt, Peter Singer, and others.
. . . second, when humans seek a life with meaning and purpose, they are asking for rather more than a life in which they make a few choices. Humans yearn for significance, the knowledge that we matter on some fundamental scale. But Coyne confuse [sic] discovering the good life with creating the self- perception that we are living the good life. The good life to Coyne is just a value projected on to the world by our cognitive systems. It does not correspond to any fact outside human psychology. Yet humans typically seek a good greater than themselves.
If there is no God—and Veale and Glass certainly have given us no evidence for one—then our yearning for “significance” is like a child’s yearning for a visit from Santa at Christmas. We make our own purposes, just as we make our own Santas.
Yearning for something does not make it true. In that one sentence we see the whole fallacy not only of Veale and Glass’s argument, but of religion itself.
Insofar as we seek goods greater than ourselves, well, there are plenty of secular explanations for helping others, ranging from self-interest to reason. No, what Veale and Glass mean when they talk about “significance” and “purpose” is not donating to African charities, but by making your “purpose” to live by God’s will.
And here is their unconvincing explanation of why theistically-grounded religion is superior:
. . . Does the theistic worldview do any better? Arguably, yes. If atheism is true the only value that we have is the value that we choose to give to ourselves. And what the human race gives, the human race can take away. By contrast, God would be a transcendent source of moral value: the very source we need to make sense of ethics. If everything else depends on God for its existence then the value that God has for everything else cannot be surpassed.
God would be supremely rational, and his power cannot be limited by the irrational and chaotic effects of evil. The earth and the opinions of human beings will pass away into the void. God’s values are eternal. His judgments can be trusted, and his worth is inestimable. If atheism is true we are unplanned and insignificant on a cosmic scale. [JAC: yes, and?]
On theism we have immense significance because the creator of the Cosmos values us, made us to be like him, and can enter into a relationship with us. We have a great value because we are significant to God. There is no room for morality in Coyne’s world; therefore his worldview is unconvincing. In God’s world, morality makes sense. That does not prove that one particular theistic religion is true – but it should give the thinking sceptic moment’s pause before accepting the views of a writer who casually and glibly dismisses them all.
So tell us, Messrs. Veale and Glass, precisely what ethical values God “makes sense of.” If this pair of theists demand to know my system, then I demand to know theirs. What does God tell us about how to treat gay people, women, and slaves? After all, their “Saviour and Lord” Jesus promulgates a moral code in which we are to leave our families, give everything away, and follow the Saviour. That Saviour also will send those who don’t accept him to an eternity of torment in flames, even (according to Catholics) for offenses like unconfessed adultery, homosexual acts, or masturbation. The Saviour implicitly condones slavery.
Or, if you don’t take Christianity as the “true” religion, then how about Islam? That morality consists of enforcing rigid dictates on female behavior, as well as killing gays, adulterers, and apostates. Under sharia law a woman’s word counts in court as only half as much as a man’s. And those dictates are also based on the “eternal values” of Allah.
In the end, Veale and Glass are grounding their morality on a God for which they have no evidence, and whose nature they do not know. By their lights, Jews, Aztecs, atheists, Muslims, and, in fact, all non-Christians will go to hell, and that is the threat that undergirds moral behavior. If they deny that, then they’re denying their own belief: “the truthfulness of the Bible.” If they cannot give us convincing evidence of their God, and what He wants, then they cannot convince us to adopt a God-based morality.
If atheism really did dispose of morality, why are countries like Sweden and Denmark, which are largely atheistic, still moral? Are they deluding themselves? No, they have good secular reasons to adhere to moral principles. And we can reason about those principles, and reject them or modify them if our reason is flawed. That, in fact, is why—if you believe Steve Pinker’s thesis—morality is improving over the centuries. Those changes in how we view good or bad behavior have come not from religion, but from secularism: the values of the Enlightenment. There is no way to question or re-evaluate a morality based on God—unless you use secular reason!
The religious morality of Veale and Glass is unchangeable because it comes from God. And if you want to see what kind of society we’d have if its morality were based on religion, imagine that the U.S. was run by the Catholic Church. What a horrible place this country would be!