29 January 2008

Amoral Man

We discover ... outside religion and philosophy [that] utilitarianism (socialism, democracy) criticizes the origin of moral evaluations, but it believes them just as much as the Christian does. [It is naivete to believe that] morality could survive when the God who sanctions it is missing. The 'beyond' [is] absolutely necessary if faith in morality is to be maintained. Friedrich Nietzsche, Will to Power, sec. 147.

It is dangerous to rely on it that men will continue indefinitely to pursue their moral ideals within a system of thought which denies reality to them. Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge

One of the many questions Mitt Romney was asked, after his "religion" speech, was whether non-theists (or non-religionists in general) could live moral lives. Naturally, he said yes. But then, we can hardly have expected a presidential candidate to answer the question in the negative and then expect that the media would report his detailed explantation (assuming he might have one) for his reply. Besides, on its face it seems reasonable enough to say yes. Clearly there is a difference between an axe murderer (whether he is a theist or not) and a non-axe murderer (even if he happens to be an atheist). The same goes for rapists versus non-rapists, adulterers and non-adulterers, and so forth. But, on the face of things, the only difference between and axe murderer and a non-axe murderer is that the axe murder has murdered (with an axe, of course) and the non-axe murder has not done. To assert that there is a difference morally is to assert a standard to which all humans must conform their actions. The axe murderer has failed to do this. (I've selected murder rather arbitrarily, I admit. If it bothers you, just choose some other offense and substitute it.)

The question asked of Romney assumes that there is an objective moral standard which it is possible for theist and atheist alike to meet. To say that it's possible for anyone to be moral assumes that there is a set of moral standards and that all humans are obligated to meet these standards. It also assumes knowledge of these standards, both that it is even possible to know this set of obligations and that humans do, in fact, know this set of moral obligations.

According to some we can come to knowledge of the moral law in something like the same way we come to knowledge of the laws of nature. I've always been skeptical (even when I was an atheist myself). A moment's reflection is usually all it has ever taken. Think about how we come to knowledge of the laws of nature, assuming that there are even such laws and that we do know them. These laws of nature are descriptive, not prescriptive. That is, they are descriptions of how nature "behaves" not how nature is obligated to "behave". They are, more or less (sometimes much less) bound to observations, and tell us what usually happens, not what ought to happen. If the moral laws really are discovered in the same way as laws of nature, they also would not really tell us what we must do and what we must not do. They would simply tell us what we, in fact, do. At the very least, they would only tell us what a majority of us do. "Thou shalt not kill" is really not quite the same sort of statement as "For every reaction there is an equal and opposite reaction." The latter is a generalization about observed phenomena. We can hardly say that of the former.

The question about how to know this moral law is related to the first issue above: whether there even is such a law. We are assuming that this moral law "exists" in some form or fashion. It is difficult to see how. I mean the Judeo-Christian moral laws exist by virtue of promulgation, or position, by God. Since we want to know if it is possible for an atheist to live a moral life (where this "moral life" that he lives is a life in accord with some universally applicable moral law) we also want to know if there is -- apart from God -- this moral law which supposedly exists and is binding upon all humans. (We could say, at least provisionally, that the Judeo-Christian law is just a restatement of the moral laws of other human groups. But let's note just three things. First, that fact would tell us nothing about whether there really is a moral law binding upon all humans. Second, the Judeo-Christian view has it that the human race began by knowing God and His moral requirements (see Romans 1.18ff), so it tells us nothing against the Judeo-Christian moral law that it is similar in many respects to the moral laws of other human groups. Third, if the Judeo-Christian view is false, then it's recognition of this moral law may be false, or simply irrelevant; and it certainly tells us nothing about the validity of those moral laws.)

So, if this moral law exists, how does it exist? It certainly is not immaterial, so perhaps it has some sort of material existence somewhere. The initiated will be tempted to think I'm reifying here. I'm not. Probably the only thing we can say about the moral law is that it has its "existence" in the human mind. But, of course, since there isn't a human mind -- only human minds -- we should say that the moral law resides somewhere in the mind of each individual human being. But of course this is more than we can know empirically about every human being since we are hardly able to examine every human being. One surmises that the similarities among human cultures gives evidence of this, but surely there have been humans without those moral laws residing in their minds. Ostensibly those were the minority in their respective cultures and, more than likely, were punished when the differing moral laws in their minds moved them to engage in "unlawful", or "immoral", behavior (i.e., murder, theft, adultery, incest, child molestation, homosexuality, home-schooling, and so forth) -- "lawful" and "moral" behaviors being nothing more than the content of the minds of the majority. And this is entirely justifiable because morality is an evolutionary adaptation given to us by natural selection to ensure our survival.

There is reason to believe that the moral law does somehow reside in the human mind. Michael Ruse used to argue that morality resides in epigenetic rules. ( See his Taking Darwin Seriously [1986].) (He may still argue that. I don't know. I haven't paid him much attention for some years now. I've been busy.) What Ruse meant was that our beliefs about what is right and what is wrong are part of our genetic make-up. It's just wrong to murder or to rape. We can't help thinking otherwise. Now, either some of us have a different set of epigenetic rules or we are able to ignore this "epigenetic morality". Whichever is the case, it still is not clear how we are obligated to this "epigenetic morality". The most likely answer is that the sense of obligation -- for those who have it -- is just part of the equipment of the epigenetic rules. We get both the sense of morality and the sense of obligation from our genetics.

One might wonder: If we don't feel this sense of obligation, are we still obligated? But even if we could know that every human being, equipped with these epigenetic rules, feels this obligation, we could still justifiably ask whether feeling obligated truly means that one is obligated.

But if it is the case that our sense of morality (including the sense of obligation to obey that morality) is a function of our genetics, then it is difficult to see how anyone, including an atheist, can be credited with -- patted on the back for -- living a moral life, with being a "good", "moral" person. He is no more responsible for his “moral” behavior than a homosexual is for his “immoral” behavior. The simple fact is that a "good" atheist is no more -- or less -- "moral" than an axe murderer.

Sounds harsh, I know. But both the "good" atheist and the "evil" axe murderer have this in common: they both act on the basis of their respective autonomous moral notions; and this is not changed by epigenetic rules. (Those rules simply explain the source of the autonomous moral notions.) We are told that morality and ethics are rooted in human values. But human values are simply the values that individual humans possess. Evidently all humans do not possess the same values; or, if they do, they do not give the same priority to some of these values. For example, to some humans sexual chastity is a value; to others it seems not to be. For some of those for whom sexual chastity is a value, this value really only applies after and within marriage. Before marriage (and between consenting adults) anything goes, up to and including the exchange of "benefits" between friends. To some humans human life is a value; to others it seems not to be. For some of these, war involves no conflict because, however paradoxical or loathsome, killing some can save the lives of others. For some others, no killing ought to be permitted, not war, not capital punishment, not even killing in self-defense, except in the case of defenseless babies, of course. Each of these acts on the basis of his autonomous values. So does the atheist. So does the axe murderer.

Now if somehow the values of the atheist are superior to those of the axe murderer, then perhaps the "good" atheist is morally superior to the "evil" axe murderer. But since our sense of these values is genetic then one is hard pressed to see how the atheist's values are superior to the axe murderer's, any more than the atheist's brown hair is superior to the axe murderer's blonde hair. One could assert that what makes the values of the “good” atheist superior to those of the “evil” axe murderer is that the atheist’s values include the valuing of human life. But this only assumes that human life is worthy of being valued. If a human life has no more value than a bug’s life – or if all life is equally valueless – then it may not be worthy of being valued.

One could argue that if an atheist just happens to live in a manner that coincides with what the theist thinks is a moral life, then the theist must concede that atheists live moral lives. I don't think this is the case. The theist has to concede no such thing, unless, perhaps, the atheist is willing to concede that the theist’s moral values are the true values. And this assumes that all theists share the same moral values, which they seem not to do.

The important phrase above is "just happens to live". While I'm not a Kantian I do think one of the many things about which Kant was right is that for any act to be considered an ethical act it is not enough that it be consistent with duty. An act must be performed precisely because it is a duty. (See his Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, Ak. 390.) The atheist may not kill, but an important consideration is why. Someone could say it makes no difference why, it only matters that one not kill. But this is to acknowledge that one can choose one's own reasons for not killing, which is to say exactly what I said above about "good" atheist and "evil" axe murderer both acting on the basis of their own autonomous notions of morality. It also acknowledges -- whether or not one likes to admit it -- that one can also choose one's own reasons for killing. There is no true duty involved here. And to be moral means to perform a duty intentionally, not coincidentally.

No, I think we really need to consider why someone does not kill. It does matter why, unless we are admitting that there is no duty not to kill. And in order for the atheist to be credited as living a moral life when he doesn't kill, he must have a duty not to kill, not simply a lack of desire to kill, or the simple fact of not having killed.

How does an atheist come to have a duty not to kill? Perhaps, more importantly: To whom does he have this duty? Not to God, naturally. To his fellow humans? To himself? Surely, it is one or the other. And if it is to be considered an ethical duty, then we really ought to rule out that the duty is to himself. Either way one question remains: How does he come to have this duty? If the duty is to his fellow humans, then how did he come by this duty? How is it that his fellow humans (theist or not) feel no compunction about imposing obligations upon him? Who do they think they are, God? Focus on the Family? The Republican (or the Democrat) Party? Osama bin Ladin? The United Nations?

How does one come to have duties the fulfilling of which means that one is living a good life, being a moral person? My own view -- as an atheist -- was utilitarian. That is to say, I thought that the moral thing for me to do was either to refrain from harming others, or, better, to try to increase the amount of happiness in the world. But then, I didn't really conceive of this as a duty; I really thought of it as a good idea, an approach that would be superior to all of us living in a "state of nature", a way that we could all get along with each other. But a duty? No, not really. Even back then I could not conceive how I could have a duty towards anyone -- not even my parents. (One of my most difficult struggles as a child was just how an accident of birth gave my parents -- or anyone else, for that matter -- any authority over me. My parents, and quite a few teachers, can attest to this difficulty.)

We have to wonder, I think, in just what sort of universe ethics make any sense. I don't think it is the sort of universe which non-theists conceive. Of course, you could say I only say that because I'm a Christian. But the fact of the matter is that I'm a Christian because I say that; I became a Christian (among other reasons) because I first came to believe that only a theistic view of the universe makes ethics intelligible as ethics, things we really have to do or not do, rather than as a survival tool, or a handy set of rules for getting along.

I've been pondering ethics -- seriously pondering -- since I was at least twelve. I became convinced by the time I reached twelve that my family had been the victims of great injustices; and I was angry about those injustices. Those injustices formed part of my set of reasons for professing myself an atheist in my mid-teens. Like the writer of Ecclesiastes, the more I looked about the more injustices I saw.

But wherein lay these injustices? What were the duties and obligations which the perpetrators of these injustices failed to perform? Was it that they were not increasing the amount of pleasure in the world, as utilitarianism suggests they should have done? (Especially my pleasure, naturally.) Was it a failure to embrace the categorical imperative?

We are told that the laws of nature govern the operation of the universe. Everything -- and everyone -- is controlled by the laws of nature. One wonders how thoughts, beliefs and feelings are independent of this mechanism. If these things are not independent then it is difficult to hold people responsible for their actions. Our ancestors, pathetic fools, thought, for example, that homosexuals chose to commit sexual acts with other members of the same sex. Now we know better. We know now that biology is what determines this, and must stop asking homosexuals to change their behavior. (Shockingly, those who think homosexuals can change their behavior are not victims of their biology. They are (culpable!) victims of homophobia. They are responsible. Only certain favored groups are victims of their biology.)

Behind biology is chemistry; and behind that is physics. If and when the final theory is discovered it will not (according to Steven Weinberg, at least) leave any special place for ethics. (See his Dreams of a Final Theory [1993].) How could it? A law of nature tells us how things operate, not how they should operate. They suggest no ethical principles, nor can they.

So we have to look elsewhere for ethical standards. But where? If we want to know that it is wrong to murder, how might we find out? You say to someone, "It is wrong to murder." He asks, "How do you know that?"

Well? Do you know it's wrong to murder in the same way that you know George Bush is President of the United States, or that it is (or is not) snowing outside (where you live) right now? Is the proposition, "It is wrong to murder" true by definition in the same way as "2+2=4"? It is difficult to see how it could be.

The proposition, "It is wrong to murder" is not supported by empirical investigation; no amount of experimentation is going tell us how probable the truth of the proposition is. Neither is the proposition really capable of being supported rationally. Forget utilitarianism; apply Kant's categorical imperative: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." In other words: Go ahead and murder, but only if you can honestly will that "Murder is permissible" be a universal law. Now, who wants that? No one, very likely. But all we are saying here is that murder is wrong only because we don’t want to be murdered.

We have to ask, of course, just why we should apply Kant's categorical imperative. We should do so, according to Kant because, rational creatures, which we are, ought to act on principle, not mere desire. (See Critique of Practical Reason [3d ed., Lewis White Beck, trans., Prentice Hall, 1993], pp. 23, 24.)

Perhaps Kant is right. But since we can, even as rational creatures, act upon desire rather than principle, we ought to ask why we should not do so.

So, no. It is not possible for the atheist to live a “good, moral” life. But take heart. It is not possible for him to live a “bad, immoral” life either.

As Hamlet says: “[T]here is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so” (2.2.251-52).

The continued discussion:

Post Script
“Practical Antinomianism” (Post Script II)
“Fear and loathing” (Post Script III)
“Arrogance and Assumption” (Post Script IV)
“Whence is duty?” (Post Script V)

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James Frank SolĂ­s
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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