Sunday, December 17, 2006

Atheism Does Lead To Moral Relativism

(via Dispatches) Ilya Somin has an excellent post up at the Volokh Conspiracy rebutting the idea that atheism leads to moral relativism. He points out, rightly enough, that atheists can hold to moral systems that are just as strong and socially beneficial as those of their theist fellows:

While some atheists are moral relativists, there is no necessary connection between the two beliefs. Atheists, like theists, can have strong commitments to objective views of morality based on reason, tradition, communitarianism, and so on.
However, this statement is somewhat misleading in that it accepts the logical consistency of these "strong commitments" at face value. I've touched on this topic briefly before in the context of universal human rights. In assessing whether or not atheism leads to moral relativism you must examine the logical underpinnings of the "strong commitments" of which Ilya speaks. If it turns out that most atheists behave in a logically indefensible manner then it really doesn't bolster the case for atheism, even if the result is socially beneficial.

The theist has it easy in this respect; when asked whence spring their rules for living the theist can just reply "God". It matters not that various sects disagree on the nature of God or which rules they should follow; we're merely interested in the internal coherence of their belief system. Right or wrong, theist philosophies have an internally consistent foundation, namely belief in a deity or deities with the power to dictate social norms1.

But how does an atheist answer the question? If there is no deity, but rather just nature red in tooth and claw, what it the ultimate justification for their behavior. Commonly there seem to be two basic responses to this question, one based on social contract and one based on the assertion of some sort of universal set of rights.

In the social contract version the answer is something along the lines of "because we all benefit if we play by this set of rules". That's undoubtedly true in many instances, but such an answer reduces morality to game theory. We're all just players seeking to maximize our respective outcomes. I'll allow Maynard James Keenan to summarize this particular position:

Consequences dictate our course of action
and it doesn't matter what's right.
It's only wrong if you get caught.
If consequences dictate
my course of action
I should play GOD
and shoot you myself.
The social contract view is morally hollow on close inspection.

But what about atheistic theories that each person is possessed of an unalienable set of rights? Well, by denying the supernatural world you're left with only the natural world. If nature is non-normative (and I've never met an atheist who insists otherwise) then how can a person be intrinsically possessed of a set of rights? Humans are just another natural phenomenon; how can a natural phenomenon be vested with rights when nature is non-normative? Even if, by some miracle of logical judo, you can demonstrate the existence of such rights, how do you go about testing the truth or falsehood of any specific instance?

Its clear from the discussion above that atheism logically leads to moral relativism. I can hold true to a set of noble and socially beneficial beliefs without invoking any sort of deity, and society may judge my behavior to be exemplary, but that's all of that is entirely irrelevant. What recourse do I have when I meet someone who holds a different set of beliefs? Its logically indefensible for me to say that my beliefs are right and their beliefs are wrong. Since I can't make a decision between two sets of beliefs I must hold that either everyone's beliefs are equally valid, or no one's beliefs are valid at all. That's moral relativism, period.


1 Though I suppose you could turn around and ask "why should I do what God says I should do?".

8 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The theist has it easy in this respect; when asked whence spring their rules for living the theist can just reply "God". "

This is what's so frustrating. This isn't an answer: in fact, it's just sort of laughable, no different than replying "cereal box."

It's much like creationism: biologists are expected to explain in real detail how something evolved. Creationists just say "poof!"

You can claim that you're talking about an "internally consistent foundation, namely belief in a deity or deities with the power to dictate social norms."

But this doesn't get us anywhere. What does it mean to "dictate norms?" Isn't that EXACTLY what everyone claims to find distasteful about moral relativism.

I mean, come on. Plato pointed out the vapidity of such a "moral" system and so far I've not heard any sort of coherent response to his critique.

The fact that a God says something is moral isn't fundamentally any more helpful than anyone saying so. Someone can still answer "so what: why does that matter?" You can give all sorts of answers, but none of them are any more compelling than the answers an atheist moralist can give someone who doesn't share his values. If you don't hold the amoral value of "whatever God says goes" then the idea of a supreme lawgiver is as empty as any other.

The problem is simply that when it comes to theology, people for some reason are willing to give a pass on logic, consistency, and the rest, where before they were demanding it for non-theists.

6:55 PM  
Blogger GG said...

You're most certainly right; as I pointed out in the accompanying footnote there are problems with the theistic view as well.

However, Ilya was specifically discussing atheism, so I felt that it was important to point out atheism's shortcomings when compared to theistic systems, specifically in the area of internal coherence. You're right that a theist pointing to God offers no more substantive proof than an atheist invoking natural rights. The difference is that within the theist's system of belief the reason "God says so" is axiomatic and, as such, represents a coherent basis for morality. Within atheistic moral systems there is no corresponding axiom; an atheist can't fall back on "nature says so" because such a stance contradicts the axiom "nature is non-normative".

You could resolve this conflict by accepting the axiom "nature is normative" in place of "nature is non-normative", but I've never actually encountered an atheistic moral system fashioned in such a manner.

7:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"as I pointed out in the accompanying footnote there are problems with the theistic view as well."

but that's exactly the problem with what Ilya was dealing with: the constant sneering about how atheists can't solve a philosophical problem, with the tacit but completely unquestioned assumption that somehow they are making themselves worse off in answering it by not being theists. In reality, the problem is there utterly irrelevant of whether one is an atheist or not. The sneering is entirely unwarranted, and just the usual smearing of atheists as a convenient target. Somehow, despite everyone being in the same boat, it's the atheists who are all "really" or "fundamentally" moral relativists. That's just slimy.

"atheism's shortcomings when compared to theistic systems, specifically in the area of internal coherence."

Atheism isn't a system of anything: it's not directly comparable to any theistic belief. Atheism is a category, not a philosophy of its own, and one primarily defined as an outgroup (those who don't hold a PARTICULAR philosophy: theism). It's specific moral theories that are at issue, any of which might not be theistic.

"You're right that a theist pointing to God offers no more substantive proof than an atheist invoking natural rights. The difference is that within the theist's system of belief the reason "God says so" is axiomatic and, as such, represents a coherent basis for morality."

Nonsense. All one is doing in this case is referring to a commonly held value. But if that's all one needs to do, this is utterly trivial atheist, theist, whatever. Natural rights and things like the Randian "value of others capability to value = the golden rule" are just as strong amongst human groups as any reference to a holy writ, with the added advantage of being a lot more fundamental (i.e. an atheist can tell you WHY something is wrong in and of itself and what value it harms, while a theist can only reference god's inscrutable wishes and speculate)

All you are essentially saying is that amongst people that agree with your moral axioms or values, you can have a coherent discussion. Well, duh. Again, how does that get theists any further along than anyone else?

We're all in the same boat vis a vis the problems with absolute morality: most people feel instinctively that something like rape just IS wrong, no ifs ands or buts. But if we encounter someone who doesn't share such a conviction, we just don't quite know how to even start convincing them to agree that we are correct. There don't seem to be any compelling arguments that don't beg the question. Can theists offer a solution to this? Nope.

Furthermore, insisting that atheists, since they can't answer this question are "really" moral relativists is, ha ha, simply put, dishonest. They aren't unless they say they are, and in most cases they don't.

8:47 PM  
Blogger GG said...

"All you are essentially saying is that amongst people that agree with your moral axioms or values, you can have a coherent discussion. Well, duh. Again, how does that get theists any further along than anyone else?"

That's the heart of the matter. A theist, when faced with someone who disagrees with them, has an internally consistent rebuttal/truth test ("God says so"); atheists generally lack this ability. A right/norm must come from somewhere be it natural or supernatural (I'll allow that this might be a false dichotomy, though I'm unsure what other sources may exist). Most atheists explicitly reject the normativity of both of these sources, leaving themselves without a rock to stand on.

Answer me this: Assume you're an atheist; how do you coherently (in the strict logical sense of the word) rebut someone who disagrees with you?

9:35 PM  
Blogger jonra01 said...

Fundy: You say you are an atheist. Do you believe in evil?

Me: Depends on the definition of evil.

Fundy: I knew it. You atheists believe in moral relativism.

Me: No, I just mean that we should define evil before we have a discussion about it.

Fundy: Ok, go ahead.

Me: Well, do you think that woman that ripped open that woman’s belly and stole her baby was evil? I think it happened last year in Kansas City.

Fundy: Yeah, I do, but you atheists say we should all do what we want so how can that be evil?

Me: Hang on, I’ve only started. How about the terrorists that kill innocent civilians – men, women, and children in the name of their religion?

Fundy: Evil Islamofacists! Nuke the bastards!

Me: Whoa, calm down. We’ve barely begun to define evil here.

Fundy: I’m OK. I’m calm. It’s just those damn mooslims. They believe all that shit about 72 virgins and that other nonsense. They just get me goin’.

Me: OK, if you’re calm now we can go on. Let’s take that a step further. What about when the Japanese soldiers would go into a city and kill a bunch of civilians – men, women, and children in the name of their emperor. Was that evil?

Fundy: Yeah, but you atheists…

Me: Let me finish. I’m almost there. So you agree that ripping open the belly of a pregnant woman and killing her is evil. You also agree that slaughtering unarmed civilians, including men, women, and children is evil.

Fundy: Yeah, I would call that evil. But you can’t. You believe in moral relatives, I mean relativity, er.. relativism.

Me: That last example I gave comes from your holy book. That’s the kind of thing your god does. Or, at least he orders it done. Guess he doesn’t want to get his hands dirty. Read Hosea 13:16 and 2nd Kings 15:16 if you don’t believe me.

Fundy: Wait a minute. Yer tryin’ ta trick me. That was different. Them people had it cum’in.

Me (just before I turn and walk away): Which one of us did you say believes in moral relativism?

11:39 PM  
Blogger Roy said...

Sound biting. Easy to do. Pick out the words you want, add some commentary; case closed. Politicians and the media do it daily. Similarly, it's easy to pick out scriptural verses and paint your own picture. Much better to make a careful search and get the full picture. In the case of the scriptures this is not easy, admittedly. It covers a long history and only gives us a glimpse of a wide and long landscape. But it is possible. Accurate facts in meaningful context---good but often missing principles of journalism that could be applied here.

Hosea 13:16 and 2 Kings 15:16 are cases in point. What is the context?

Notice it refers to Samaria. The rulers and people of this nation were influenced by the moral relativism of Assyria, renowned for their brutality. Why were they held guilty at Hosea 13? Because at 2 Kings 15, they perpetrated the very practices you (and the scriptures you cite) abhor. Menahem at 2 Kings was a king of the 10-tribe kingdom of Israel and effectively a puppet of Assyria. At 2 Kings (and also at Amos 1:13) you can see why Menahem's corrupt and brutal regime did what it did: to expand their territory and due to the people not opening their gates to them. This is not unlike the brutality exercised by some regimes of the 20 and 21st century.

Scriptures contain both positive and negative examples. The ones you refer to are negative. They are warnings against moral relativism, not recommendations for it. The scriptures do not advocate unjustified killing, let alone brutality against women. Exactly the opposite. Look at the law concerning hurting pregnant women at Exodus 21:22, 23 where an unborn child's life is as valuable is any man or woman's. That's real care!

In conclusion, the cases you site do not demonstrate moral relativism. Your citations exemplify the opposite.

The fundamental issue is one of accountability. As individuals and groups we remain accountable, even to a higher source, for our actions and in-actions. This principle is sadly lacking in people today; at least in part, I would suggest, due to atheistic beliefs. Atheism has no norms or axioms. People are just bags of atoms after all! Such foundations promote moral relativism with a culture that devalues life because all sets of beliefs become valid, even life-devaluing immoral ones!

4:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Roy, the moral relativism of Hosea 13:16 that is referred to is god's relativism. In the verses you site there are condemnations of killing but in Hosea 13:16 god punishes those folks by killing them. Logical inconsistency might be a better term. God says killing is bad but then does it himself on a massive scale, or orders it from his followers. You correctly point out that the victims here have offended god with various misdeeds but gods solution is for other humans to not only kill them but to maim and torture them. One set of moral rules in one situation, another set in another, this is moral relativism. Why anyone would worship a god who was such a genocidal maniac is beyond me. I suspect the moral reasoning of these worshipers has atrophied from non-use, relying instead on fiat morality rather than reason.

7:04 PM  
Anonymous Roy said...

Dear Anonymous,

Thanks for your reply to my comment. However, you demonstrate the point I was trying to make. 

Are you assuming (without examining the greater context) that God condones or even creates the calamity befalling ancient Samaria, just because he says 'it will happen' and can even foresee the nature of the calamity at the hands of ancient Assyria? My guess, you do assume so, even though the verse does not say that. It only says what will happen. 

By way of illustration, newspapers often report terrible atrocities. Does that mean that the reporters approve of murder and rape? Of course not. 

God can and often does "write the newspaper," as it were, in advance. But similarly, that does not mean he condones or approves of what will happen. He predicts inevitable consequences. 

There are many other examples. God said that Adam "will positively die" from eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Does that mean he approved of Adam's eating? Positively not. 

5:18 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

Blog Information Profile for gg00