Sunday, April 26, 2009

Atheism and Morality Redux... Again

I think I've put my finger on why I find most discussions of atheism and morality to be so annoying: they equate morality with the display of a certain set of predefined behaviors. The latest offender is this morning's post from Amanda Marcotte, whose argument essentially amounts to "look, atheists can be decent people too". Specifically:

No wonder they think you need religion for morality! But, as is usual in these culture war battles, liberals have science on our side. In a sense, beating authority into a kid is hard because you have to squash their nascent sense of morality that increasingly appears to be rooted in biology. Radio Lab did a fascinating episode tracking the research into where morality comes from, and it’s a combination of an innate human desire to latch onto cultural taboos and a sense of empathy, which is something they can even pinpoint developmentally. The notion that atheists wouldn’t have a sense of morality is completely ridiculous if you look at the research, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they found that atheists and liberal religious types actually have a stronger sense of morality, because they aren’t distracted by a bunch of religious teachings that put, for example, patriarchal authority over your empathy for gay couples wishing to marry or abused women wishing to escape bad marriages.

Argh... that's not morality, that's just reflex. There's no evidence that the people described above have stopped to reflect on the "why?" of their behavior. Absent such reflection how can they possibly know that they're behaving morally and not just behaving in an ultimately self-serving manner?

Amanda, who's usually such a sharp social critic, totally misses the boat on this one. She fails to see that the reason why she believes that the atheists mentioned above exhibit a sense of morality is because she, personally, values "a sense of empathy". Likely she equates the display of empathy towards others with a positive personal morality, even though it's far from self-evident that empathy is a universally positive moral trait.

Worse still, Amanda goes on to paraphrase the finds of a study on disgust and morality:

There’s also questions about stealing, lying, incest, and violating people’s boundaries. What they found was interesting----the stronger the fart stench, the more wrong the students found things like stealing or masturbating with kittens.

That really doesn't bolster her case; to the contrary, it shows that people's moral evaluations are highly suceptible to irrelevant outside influences. Look folks... it's for just such reasons that we should reject personal intuition as a sound basis for morality. We trust other people's ethical intuition as long as it agrees with our own, but what do we do when people's ethical intuition is wildy divergent? We need a coherent moral system which is less susceptible to personal biases, one that arises from the thoughtful application of pre-defined axions. And, as I've written about before, atheists have a problem formulating and defending their axioms.

This is a genuine problem, not just the epistemic equivalent of "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?". For example, there are a number of sharp divisions within the great big lump that call itself the "progressive movement". On one side you have libertarians, who believe that rights are solely vested in individuals, and on the other you have people whom, in the minimum, seem to strongly imply that groups have rights as well. Atheists are totally fucked when it comes to arbitrating between these mutually-exclusive positions because each group has an equally strong truth claim.

What we do is muddle along and make compromises as necessary; in our defense this approach seems to work pretty well in practice most of the time. It's probably accurate to say that most of us are utilitarians or principled pragmatists, but that's not the same thing as "being moral" in the sense that we have a set of rules that we live by. The "Atheists are moral too!" crowd misses this distinction; we shouldn't be representing ourselves as something we're not.


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