Sunday, June 08, 2014

On My Frustrations With 2.5 Atheist Philosophers

Those who read this blog on a regular basis will know that I think atheism poses tremendous challenges when it comes to the formulation of a system of morality. As a consequence I've recently turned my attention to philosophers who claim to have developed "objective" (for various definitions thereof) moralities compatible with secular epistemology. Having just finished reading Natural Goodness I find myself once again frustrated by what seems to me to be a failure to grapple with fundamental, and blindingly obvious, problems.

To review, to date I've looked at Daniel Fincke, Philippa Foot, and Richard Carrier, and haven't been particularly satisfied by any of the answers they have to offer. Part of this, I'm starting to recognize, is that we're using similar language but are interested in distinctly different problems.

In particular, I believe that the primary moral challenge for contemporary secular thinkers is to figure out how to arbitrate conflicts between parties asserting P and parties asserting !P when the proposition P isn't testable/verifiable, even in theory. Lest this be taken as an abstract concern consider the following propositions:

  • The good of the individual is more important than the good of the group.
  • The good of the individual is not more important than the good of the group.

We needn't get bogged down in arguing one side or the other to understand the enormous impact to subsequent decision-making of whichever proposition is endorsed. And don't tell me that we can split the difference and try to "balance" between the two; you can, but that sort of utilitarian calculus has all sorts of problems and still requires the selection of axioms. Any way you slice it you're left with conflict which appears to be completely irreconcilable using any of the tools available in a secular toolkit. It is thus necessary to go one level "meta" and try to develop a framework where both propositions can exist to the greatest degree possible.

Now, one response to the above is to claim that I'm mistaken and that the P/!P conflict can be arbitrated empirically. This is the tack that Carrier (whom I count at the ".5" philosopher since his work isn't nearly as developed as the other two) and Foot take, both of whom start with the proposition that what is "good for"/"rational"/"in the best interests of" a person provides this empirically-based metric.

Which is great, as far as it goes, but the unavoidable reality is that interests will conflict, so there has to be some way to deal with them. This isn't even the meta conflict that I outline above, but the plain old conflict of two people wanting X in a world of limited resources.

Carrier, by his own admission, can't even do that, which blows a hole in his syllogism, since step 4 implies bounds which will necessarily be socially arbitrated. Why bother throwing a theory out there with a big, gaping hole like that? That's when I got the first inkling that Carrier (and possibly others) isn't trying to solve the problems of social morality. Carrier seems more interested in demonstrating that an atheist can pursue an end, that there is an objective "good" for any particular individual. Foot does better as a whole but seems to share his interests in individual virtue, complaining at one point that focusing on "volitional faults that impinge particularly on others" makes moral philosophy "prissy" and "moralistic".

I will confess that the question of individual virtue interests me not at all. I cannot come up with a single reason why I should care, or have cause to judge, or claim to dictate what someone does in isolation. Contra Foot, concern with what others are doing off by themselves seems to me to be the very definition of "prissy" and "moralistic".

Foot, at least, attempts to grapple with social morality, but her efforts to give an empiric grounding to efforts to arbitrate disputes ultimately fails a test which she herself raises in the book. She is able to demonstrate that certain behaviors are necessary for self-perpetuation on an individual level, and also that certain group-level norms are of net benefit to the individual as well. However, she never effectively rebuts the assertion that "the best policy will be to be unjust and not be found out".

Again, this is not a small defect but rather the key problem which must be addressed. Most people are good most of the time; society wouldn't have persisted this long if they weren't. It does us very little good to be able to say "it's wrong to kill" as a statement of aggregate behavior when we can't say the same thing at an individual level.

Which brings us to Daniel Fincke. I would like to take a moment to reiterate how glad I am that he's out there writing, since he's one of the few currently active atheists I've been able to identify who seems to grasp the challenges implicit in throwing out Divine Command Theory. It's clear from his writing that he's thought long and hard about atheist morality which, paradoxically, makes some of the things that he says all the more frustrating.

Daniel, to his credit, confronts problems such as "Why is murder bad?" head-on. I don't find his answer particularly persuasive; among other critiques, "empowerment" simply isn't well-defined enough for him to be able to make statements about murder being bad in a majority of cases, much less categorically. And even if it is, it still suffers from various structural problems associated with the use of "maximize X" as a guiding principle.

However, I'm not here to rehash my disagreements regarding Empowerment Ethics. Where I find my greatest frustration with Fincke is in our shared rejection of human-independent ends. He claims that there are no ends independent of human reason while simultaneously maintaining that "[t]eleology should not be at all out of bounds for atheists", at which point I throw up my hands and say "You keep using that word... I do not think it means what you think it means".

Cutting to the chase: If there are no ends independent of human reason then, rather than maximizing empowerment, I can suggest that we maximize pleasure, or the benefit to those least well off, or any one of a number of other metrics that have been suggested since philosphers took up the question. Each suggestion has the exact same epistemic grounding as all of the others, namely that some human pulled it out of the ether, so there's no obvious way to select one over the other.

Daniel answers this charge, in part, by noting that there's a lot of intersubjective agreement over goals. This is true, but there's a lot of reasonable and substantive disagreement over goals as well. And, even if there's agreement about goals, Fincke omits to mention that there needs to be intersubjective agreement over means as well. He and I can both be interested in reducing human suffering, but if my preferred solution is nuclear annihilation he's well within his rights to object to my methods.

None of this should be news to Daniel; the notion of "reasonable disagreement" goes back to Rawls at least. Good-willed truth-seekers can have irreconcilable differences with broad ramifications. I honestly think that a lot of the "schisms" in the skeptical community have more to do with fundamental differences of this nature than with people just being assholes. So more than anything else I guess is seems odd to me that Fincke invests so much time and effort in his Empowerment Ethics when there are more fundamental problems which remain unresolved.

I'm going to end this by getting up on my soapbox and saying the same damn thing I've said before: All atheists are ultimately deontologists whether they recognize it or not, because they acknowledge that humans make the rules. The problem of reasonable disagreement is why I'm a libertarian, and why I think it's best to build a moral system using a small number of broad axioms which can be stated up front.

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