Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A Weakness In The Defense of Atheistic Morality

With all due respect to PZ I think he's dwelling on the wrong question in regard's to Sam Harris' and Richard Carrier's theses. The problem is not so much whether atheists can make moral judgments but rather how do they defend these judgments to other people.

As I've said before, one major problem with atheistic systems of morality is that they are transparently anthropogenic. This, in-and-of-itself, is not necessarily a bad thing; I generally consider it positive that these types of systems acknowledge their bases in human reason. But this self-awareness makes it tremendously difficult (maybe even impossible) to defend moral judgments based on these systems.

Let's posit the existence of persons A and B who assert the moral propositions A and A, respectively. From a purely epistemic standpoint both assertions, being normative rather than empiric, have equal priority; there's no way to test the truth of either. So what do we do when the moral systems represented by A and B come into conflict?

Under theistic systems of morality this conflict is generally resolved via an appeal to authority:

  • Person A: My book says A, therefore A; Person B is in error.
  • Person B: My book says A, therefore A; Person A is in error.
They then go back to fighting over the same piece of land for another thousand years, each firmly convinced of their own rightness.

Such a resolution is impossible under atheistic systems since Persons A and B openly acknowledge that their respective moral systems are a result of their own moral intuitions. If they're intellectually honest they will recognize that the other individual's truth claims are equally as strong as their own, at which point they'll be left with no way to break the tie between A and A. This triggers an existential crisis, leaving A and B to gibber and clutch at each other as they contemplate the vast emptiness of an impersonal universe.

Of course the existential crisis doesn't happen in practice, largely because atheists suffer from the same failings as everyone else. When confronted with conflicting, untestable truth claims they tend to privilege their own positions over those as others. In civilized society we "agree to disagree" and get on with things which, pragmatically, works just fine but is a total cop-out from an intellectual standpoint.

Getting back to PZ's post, I find it not the least bit contentious that he can take a firm moral stand on the slaughter of a young girl. But what if someone were to challenge his position, framing it as a conflict between individual liberty and oh... say... "family honor". We're then in a situation which approximates A/A, with PZ arguing for the primacy of individual liberty on one side and the opposition arguing for the primacy of family honor on the other.

In this specific case I would be inclined to attack the pro-slaughter position as being internally incoherent as would, I suspect, PZ as well. But, as PZ has pointed out numerous times in his discussions of evolution vs. creationism, demonstrating weaknesses in your opponents' argument is not the same thing as supporting your own. There exists, I'm sure, an internally coherent value system which would support the slaughter of 13-year-olds in the name of family honor which, while we might find it repugnant, we cannot attack on the grounds of inconsistency. What then?

PZ says that such a system is "not fair or just", "does a great deal of harm", and so on. But, as he points out in his discussion of Sam Harris' thesis, these sorts of assertions are ultimately untestable as well, so we're back at square one. Fundamentally the pro-slaughter case is no stronger or weaker than the anti-slaughter case, so how can we censure the pro-slaughter policies of others while maintaining our intellectual honesty?

Which goes back to my main point: Atheists are fucked on this front. Theists are quite happy to go on appealing to authority; they're at least convinced of the rightness of their own position. Atheists, on the other hand, must acknowledge their own fallibility; our gut says that it's not OK to slaughter small children, but we could be wrong about that. Having made that admission we no longer have any grounds for argument when we encounter systems of morality with which we disagree.

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