Saturday, May 05, 2007

In which Dr Clam shoots fish in a barrel

Richard's chapter six is about the roots of morality. It is not very satisfying. He seems to be aware of the problem, but he never addresses it. Here is his statement of the problem, placed in the mouth of an imaginary ‘religious apologist’ on page 231:

“If you don’t believe in God, you don’t believe there are any absolute standards
of morality. With the best will in the world you may intend to be a good person,
but how do you decide what is good and what is bad? … If morality is simply a
matter of choice, Hitler could claim to be moral by his own eugenically inspired
standards and all the atheist can do is make a personal choice to live by
different lights. The Christian, the Jew, or the Muslim, by contrast, can claim
that evil has an absolute meaning, true for all times and in all places,
according to which Hitler was … evil.”

The second ellipsis in the quote indicates the removal of a word no sane religious apologist would use, ‘absolutely’. This is the key question. Is there such a thing as good and evil, really? Are there somehow laws of ethics, as objectively true as the laws of mathematics? This is what is called ‘absolute morality’. Absolute morality means that under any particular set of circumstances, every possible course of action can theoretically be assigned a value: some actions will be objectively better than others, while others will be worse, and none need be absolutely good or absolutely evil.

The other possibility is that there is just a social contract defining certain things as ‘good’ and certain things as ‘evil’. This is what is called ‘relative morality’. And here lies the problem. If ethics are just something arbitrarily defined by society, what can possibly justify us in imposing our society’s ethics on societies or individuals who don’t share it? The claim the imaginary religious apologist suggests Hitler might make is perfectly valid. The challenge facing an atheistic worldview is to escape from the logical unenforceability of relative morality and find some justification for an absolute morality in a godless universe.

This challenge is ducked by Richard, who after stating the problem immediately moves on to an irrelevant argument between ‘absolutist’ and ‘consequentialist’ morality. ‘Absolutist’ morality he defines on page 231:

“Good is good and bad is bad, and we don’t mess around deciding particular cases
by whether, for example, somebody suffers.”

This is like putting up the strawman arugment: “East is east and west is west, and we don’t mess around trying to decide whether Baulkham Hills is west of Toongabbie by, for instance, consulting a map.” It clearly has no bearing whatsoever if we are arguing whether there really are such directions as east or west.

An instant’s thought will suffice to see that Richard’s ‘absolutist’ mindset can be applied equally well to absolute or relative morality. In fact, I would venture that it is much more common in situations where the social contract applies. “You were jaywalking to rescue an injured bird? Yeah, whatever, here’s your fine.”

Richard spends all his time talking about this dichotomy between ‘consequentialist’ morality- which considers the consequences of actions and which I would argue is characteristic of all real religious systems of morality as applied by real religious people- and absolutist morality- which consists of following arbitrary rules. Clearly he has not thought very much about ethics, or else he is intentionally muddying the waters.

I can’t think of a good segue to the second point I wanted to make about chapter six, so I will just throw in a long quote (p.221):

‘The ‘mistake’ or ‘by-product’ idea, which I am espousing, works like this. Natural selection, in ancestral times when we lived in small and stable bands like baboons, programmed into our brains altruistic urges, alongside sexual urges, hunger urges, xenophobic urges and so on. An intelligent couple can read their Darwin and know that the ultimate reason for their sexual urges I procreation. They know that the woman cannot conceive because she is on the pill. Yet they find that their sexual desire is in no way diminished by the knowledge. Sexual desire is sexual desire and its force, in an individual’s psychology, is independent of the ultimate Darwinian pressure that drove it. It is a strong urge which exists independently of its ultimate rationale.

I am suggesting that the same is true of the urge to kindness- to altruism, to generosity, to empathy, to pity. In ancestral times, we had the opportunity to be altruistic only towards close kin and potential reciprocators. Nowadays that restriction is no longer there, but the rule of thumb persists. Why would it not? It is just like sexual desire. We can no more help ourselves feeling pity when we see a weeping unfortunate (who is unrelated and unable to reciprocate) than we can help ourselves feeling lust for a member of the opposite sex (who may be infertile or otherwise unable to reproduce). Both are misfirings, Darwinian mistakes: blessed, precious mistakes.’

Why blessed? Why precious? Why should the occasionally valuable urge to altruism be any more blessed than the occasionally valuable urge to xenophobia? Emotively throwing in the words ‘blessed’ and ‘precious’ does not make a very solid basis for a system of morality.
I am afraid Richard’s analogy does nothing for the persuasiveness of his argument. If we are sane, we will channel our sexual desires and will not go around lusting after random members of the opposite sex. Why should we do anything different with our altruistic urges? Perhaps I am a freak, but I have always resented being pushed around by these programmed urges such as sex, hunger, and fear. I feel they are things that exist largely outside of the essential thing that is me, things that cloud my judgment and impair my will. If I thought altruism was one such urge, I would feel it was something that I should struggle against. I submit that basing your justification for morality on such a flimsy analogy is doomed to failure.

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