Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Atheism and Social Justice: A Response to Greta Christina

Greta Christina posted an interesting piece yesterday over at Freethought Blogs in support of the proposition that atheism demands social justice. Regular readers of this blog will know that I'm highly skeptical of such claims (see here for a general statement of my views) but am generally willing to be persuaded by a good argument. What attracts me to Greta's post is the clarity/transparency with which she's stated her premises and conclusions; you're more likely to get fruitful dialogue under such circumstances.

So, first off, why link atheism and social justice at all? How does a lack of belief in god(s) compel us to treat our fellows in a certain way? Greta acknowledges that the link is indirect:

A lot of atheists will argue with this. They’ll say that atheism means one thing, and one thing only: the lack of belief in any god. And in the most literal sense, they’re right. It’s different from secular humanism in that way. Secular humanism is more than just not believing in gods or the supernatural: it’s a positive, multi-faceted philosophy that includes specific principles of ethical conduct. Atheism, technically, means only the conclusion that there are no gods.

But conclusions don’t stand in a vacuum. They have implications. That’s true for the conclusion that there are no gods, as much as any other conclusion. And when you conclude that there are no gods, I would argue that one of the implications is a demand that we work for social justice[.]

I'll get to an analysis of her arguments in a moment, but first I'd like to stop and consider her invocation of "implications". Fundamentally, Greta is arguing that we should take the consequences of our beliefs into consideration, a sentiment I heartily endorse with the caution that we have to avoid over-generalizing when we do so. Some beliefs have moral implications while others do not. For example, I can believe that all sentient beings are free and equal, in which case there are certain moral/ethical positions I must endorse in order to be consistent with that belief. I can also believe that the sky is blue, but this belief seems to me to be an acknowledgement of empirical fact which is compatible with basically any moral philosophy.

So here's an item for consideration: Is non-belief in the existence of god(s) more like "all sentient beings are free and equal" or "the sky is blue"? As an atheist it seems to me that its closer to the latter. Logically its an assertion that a particular class of entities does not exist; its fundamentally an empirical question with a true/false answer even if we can't answer it with metaphysical certainty. That atheists come to that conclusion by probabilistically evaluating lots of different bits of evidence rather than just looking up at the sky doesn't change anything; within the context of atheistic epistemology the non-existence of god(s) is an empirical fact. This fact does have moral implications, but they're very weak: atheism is consistent with any moral system which does not require the existence of god(s). Greta says as much in the quote above, but I wanted to get that statement out on the table explicitly before continuing.

So, Greta's assertion that "atheism demands social justice" isn't to be taken literally, but rather as linguistic shorthand for a more complex idea. If I had to hazard a guess I'd say that the long form version is something along the lines that "The community of individuals who agree that god(s) do not exist have an underlying set of shared values which should cause them to work for social justice". I think that's an iffier proposition; the atheist community is highly fragmented, so its entirely possible that, apart from non-belief, there's no significant set of shared values amongst all individuals who self-identify as "atheist". That said, let's look at Greta's evaluation of why atheists should work for social justice.

Her pragmatic ("Machiavellian", in her words) reason that atheists should work for social justice is that

[I]f we want to create a world with more atheists — and thus a world that’s safer and better for atheists — it would be very much to our advantage to create a world that’s safer and better for everybody. A world with greater social justice is far more likely to be a more atheist world.

Fair enough, she's advancing an argument that "more social justice → more atheism". If that's true its certainly worth taking into consideration, though as a general rule I think that people should be careful about consequentialist reasoning (ends and means and Machiavelli and all that). But then she goes on to say

Now, I’m going to be very clear about this: We don’t all have to agree about how exactly social justice should be reached, or what our priorities and goals should be in reaching it, or even what the concept means.

After a closer reading I'm going to retract my earlier comment about clarity/transparency; she's basically waving her hands and saying "social justice" without even taking a cursory stab about specifying what she means by that phrase. Greta's not dumb; she knows that she's dodging the hard part. That makes me mad enough that I'm going to swear at her directly for a little bit:

What the fuck? How the hell can you say "x does y" if you can't even be bothered to define x? That's lazy, intellectually dishonest, and it blows a fucking hole in your Machiavellian argument:

  • How do we know that social justice promotes atheism if the concept of "social justice" remains undefined?
  • How can atheists work towards "social justice" if we can't even agree on the basics of what that process entails?
  • How can we reason about the costs/benefits of social justice if we don't know what it is?

Ok, I feel a little better now, but so much for the pragmatic support for her position. Let's move on to her "high-minded reasons"; maybe they're built on firmer foundations. Greta says

And if this mortal life is all we have — and there are millions of people whose only lives are hopeless lives of misery and despair, for no reason other than the bad luck of how and where and when they were born — then that is a fucking tragedy. It is injustice on a gruesomely epic scale. And we have a powerful moral obligation to fix it. If we have any morality at all — and the evidence strongly suggests that we do, that human beings have some common moral principles wired into our brains through millions of years of evolution as a social species — then seeing terrible harm done to others through no fault of their own should make us cringe, and should demand our immediate and passionate attention.

Fuck... not this again. Points in rebuttal:

  • We've evolved compassion and empathy, but we've also evolved disgust and in-group bias. There's no principled way to distinguish among these emotions without invoking some external (and as yet unidentified) criteria. If it's OK to be motivated by compassion then it's OK to be motivated by disgust, and I needn't remind Greta the problems that the latter causes.
  • The Is-ought problem.

So, in summation:

Greta: I’m saying that we need to do something.
Me: Doing something blindly is worse than doing nothing at all.


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