Daily Atheist Quote

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Plato, gorillas and the morals of the heathen - a response to Shane Meehan

If we did a good act merely from the love of God and a belief that it is pleasing to Him, whence arises the morality of the Atheist? It is idle to say, as some do, that no such thing exists. We have the same evidence of the fact as of most of those we act on, to wit: their own affirmations, and their reasonings in support of them. I have observed, indeed, generally, that while in Protestant countries the defections from the Platonic Christianity of the priests is to Deism, in Catholic countries they are to Atheism. Diderot, D'Alembert, D'Holbach, Condorcet, are known to have been among the most virtuous of men. Their virtue, then, must have had some other foundation than love of God.
-Thomas Jefferson

Human behavior is a slippery beast. We are at once rational and logical while being irrational and stupid. We're creative and destructive. We can be beautifully and honestly dishonest while being terribly and brutally truthful. Honourable and horrible. Sometimes we are at the mercy of forces that seem beyond our direct control - consider how an emotion like love can cause an otherwise rational man to do things he otherwise would consider ridiculous.

Getting a firm grip on the hows and whys our own behavior is sometimes like trying to grab a handful of quicksilver. Trying to come up with rules that suit every circumstance of human behavior is just as difficult. Life often seems like a perpetual series of trade offs between equally lousy choices. Moral and ethical rules that seem to be iron clad can, under the right circumstances, seem hopelessly out of date or completely useless. If there is such a thing as an absolute it is that there is no such thing as an absolute when it comes to human behavior.

Oh we try to create to rules that answer all situations don't we? Bushido, the Ten Commandments, philosophy, legal codes and the like all try to predict future behaviors, decide which are permissible and which are not and remedy them when required. More primitive efforts to codify morals and ethics, like the texts of the Bible or the laws the Spartans, tend to be hopelessly rigid or naive in a modern context. The reason modern legal codes are so complicated is because we are so complicated and tend to get more complicated and confusing all the time. The moral zeitgeist changes as we change. It has always been this way.

Nevertheless, theists often try to distill human activity down to rather low common denominators that can be easily answered with a couple of simple rules. And in a world where the moral and ethical relevancy of the Bible fades every year, religious conservatives are deeply worried. You see it all the time in the blogosphere, Youtube or television. I've lost track of how many times fundamentalists have bemoaned the state of modern morals.

Beyond those who ape the Jerry Fawell's of the world - wailing and gnashing their hypocritical teeth against feminists, homosexuals, or anyone who don't accept their bronze age view of humanity - there are those theists who simply cannot understand how anyone could act in a moral or ethical manner without their religion. It's a kind of thinking that betrays, it seems to me, an obvious and pathetic narcissism. But it also demonstrates, when examined closely, why theism, particularly of the Abrahamic variety, fails as immutable moral and ethical systems.

A really good example of this naive approach to morals can be found in Shane Meehan, who writes for the Examiner website as the Phoenix Protestant Examiner. In his most recent entry "Can atheists be moral?", he riffs on a common and tired theist attack on atheists - without the Bible, human beings cannot be moral. Atheists do not believe the Bible is the word of the Christian god and, as such, have no means upon which to act morally. Therefore, atheists are incapable of moral action. Lacking any belief in a "objective" morality, atheists believe that anything goes and anything can be justified. Human beings change their mind, therefore there is no "good" without someone telling us what the good is. Meehan uses his version of an argument that usually take the form of: "If you don't believe in god's moral law, why is it wrong for me to murder or rape you?"

I've addressed the this sort of theist approach to morality before, and pointed out how the entire notion of an "objective" morality fails by it's own definitions. I will not repeat my entire argument here, so feel free to read it, but there is one part that is worth repeating here as it addresses the core of what Meehan is arguing:


In the dialogue Euthyphro, Plato poses the question this way: “Is what is moral commanded by God because it is moral, or is it moral because it is commanded by God?”

If the first conclusion is true then the entire moral argument for god is rendered inert. It would imply that god orders that which is intrinsically moral – and if that is so then what makes those standards moral has nothing to do with god. He merely recognizes their moral character. Therefore there is no extra-human source of morality, or if there is, it isn’t god.

If the second is true, then morality is not objective at all as the theist defines it. It is an extra human morality, but not objective. The whims of human beings are replaced by the whims of a supernatural agency. Anything and everything god orders is moral by definition. That means that any horrible act can be justified simply by saying “god said so.”

This argument, if accepted, leaves the theist – particularly Abrahamic believers – in particular moral pickle. Take the often cited Christian idea that god is “love.” He is omi-benevolent and does issue orders we recognize as moral such as “thou shalt not kill” or “thou shalt not bear false witness.” Some Christians, for example, will go so far as to say that god would never issue a command that was not moral.

Well, even a glance at the Bible raises some serious questions. University of Michigan philosophy professor Elizabeth Anderson in her essay “If God is dead, then everything is permitted?” points out that “if we accept biblical inerrancy, I’ll argue, we must conclude that much of what we take to morally evil is in fact morally permissible and even required.”


Meehan goes off the rails in his opening paragraph in which he says: "Having the benefit of the Bible and the ten commandments as a guide, I struggle [sic] to see where the atheist might get his morality from because it is not externally revealed to him in any way." This is extremely telling. Meehan is suggesting that we, as a species are too damn dumb to figure out for ourselves what is right or wrong, what is ethical or not. Mind you, he is unable to demonstrate the Bible was just written by people like every other book ever written.

(It also begs the question: does he only think some things are moral or immoral because it says so in the Bible? What does he do about those things upon which the text is silent?)

He also is implying here that ethics and morals are impossible without this revelation. A simple examination of human culture shows this is not true. The samurai possessed a highly organized and well defined ethical and moral code. It clearly defined what actions could or could not be taken and why. They organized their entire lives around the code of Bushido - which does not appeal at all to a supreme sky god that dictated it, never mind Jesus. It was a code that developed over time and with experience. Nevermind the ethical and moral philosophies of Greece which did not depend on revelation but human reason.

Which brings us to Meehan's MASSIVE whopper of a mistake when he launches into an attack on humanism and, unknowingly, on utilitarianism (which by his blog he confuses as one in the same thing.) He suggests that humanism/utilitarianism is unworkable because what is constitutes "harm" is subjective. Like emotional harm when a marriage falls apart:

So, how might the humanist view adultery? If we are not breaking the law, we have to examine if it does harm to another. Again, this comes down to perceived emotional harm based on breach of trust. Since the harm done is merely hurt feelings it is difficult to establish as true harm.
Makes you wonder if the boy has lived a sheltered life. Emotional damage and extreme emotional stress is the definition of harm. No thinking atheist would think otherwise. The demise of a relationship is not, in most circumstances, about "hurt feelings" in the trivial manner in which Meehan presents it. In the case of adultery, the emotional harm it causes to the faithful party (assuming there is one) is very real and from a utilitarian perspective would therefore be unethical. However, Meehan tries to imply that the dissolution of a marriage itself is damaging to society at large - "let no man put asunder" and all that. And this is what I was talking about before about rigid and naive ethical rules. The fact is that like many things, human relationships are ugly grey areas. Sometimes, as tragic as it can be, one person simply doesn't want to be with the other and no amount of wishful thinking or religious belief in the divine approval will change that. Saying its fundamentally immoral or unethical for a marriage to break up would leave people trapped in forced or unhappy relationships - which in of itself causes emotional harm.

He heads down a similar garden path when it comes to telling lies. After all, the Bible counsels us to not bear false witness. Meehan treats lies as though they are all equal and that not telling the truth is fundamentally unethical or immoral. He says that a humanist would have no issue with lying to protect one self from getting into trouble because, well, the lie doesn't harm anyone. Except from most humanist ethical thought and utilitarian ethical thought, if the liar had done something to harm another, and then lied about it, the lie is part and parcel of the original action that caused harm....and would be regarded as unethical.

Moreover, honesty is regarded as good because we want to be dealt with honestly by others.
The Greeks had a basic moral and ethical idea that can be expressed as “Be careful whom you turn from your door.” It is famously the operating ethical system of Homer’s Odyssey. And it says that you help your fellow creatures in need because one day you might be the one who will survive on the charity of strangers. Human solidarity, as expressed in this fashion, gets us a very long way to creating a better society for everyone.

In any case, Meehan's "revealed" ethics cannot grapple with even simple problems. Let's borrow from Plato's Republic for a moment and consider a friend who has loaned you a knife. In the time since you borrowed it, your friend has become depressed and it seems as though he wants to kill himself. Clearly returning the knife at this point would not the best idea. He asks if you have the knife and demands it back as it is his property. It would be perfectly ethical at this point to say you do not have it. Yes, it is a lie, but at the same time, you are keeping a dangerous weapon out of the hands of your suicidal friend. The bronze age, black and white morals that Meehan suggests allows for no such subtle thinking. To be consistent he would have to not only say he had the knife, but return it. Thou shalt not covet they nieghbours goods, remember?

Also, he oddly links humanist philosophy (although he does not really understand that humanism has many branches and does not have a single "code" akin to the Ten Commandments that all atheists follow) with the theory of evolution. Humanism, as an ethical philosophy, goes back to thinkers like Epicurus, Thales, Xeonphanes, and others in ancient Greece. Moreover, humanism as a modern political/ethical philosophy emerged in Europe until around 100 years before Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species. While it is true that most atheists see links between humanism philosophy and evolutionary science, humanism as a school of thought did not depend upon or lead to evolution as Meehan suggests.

However, if he did understand evolutionary science at all, he's understand that morality/ethics increasingly appears to be a biological drive similar to language or sex. We know, from observations of our closest genetic relatives like chimps and gorillas (Meehan makes a gross error by suggesting our closest evolutionary relatives are monkeys!), we see social creatures that possess a rudimentary, if very familiar, ethical sense - all without religious texts. Without it, the kind of group cohesion that enables them to survive would be impossible. Indeed, without a such a sense our own species would not have got very far. It may be a sense that originally emerged to foster in-group cooperation and has since become something far more complicated in our case, but there is no denying that it is there - sans a holy scripture.

Which brings me to my final point about Meehan's train wreck of an exploration into ethical philosophy and science - Meehan tries to suggest that adultery would never be considered "bad" by atheists because our closest evolutionary cousins (referring erroneously to monkeys not apes) engage in"rampant, undiscerning pro-creation". They do it, he says, why can't we if it is good from an evolutionary standpoint. Well, I hate to break his bubble (not really) but the mating strategies of most animals - including humans and the great apes - is the opposite of "undiscerning." I'd go on about just how utterly wrong Meehan is when it comes to discussing evolution, but it kinda gets mean. So I will leave it here for now.

It just goes to show what my best friend's mother used to like to say - a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.

2 comments:

miohippus said...

Grant, you wrote;

"although he does not really understand that humanism has many branches and does have a single "code" akin to the Ten Commandments that all atheists follow.)"

Did you mean to say;

'although he does not really understand that humanism has many branches and does *NOT* have a single "code"....'

Grant LaFleche said...

Yes I did. Thanks for the catch.

GL