Morality is an issue that I like to write on simply because I find it cathartically simple and reassuringly complex at the same time. That paradox is aligned with my own moral standing, which is Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape (approximately), which my regular readers will already know. The simplicity comes from the simple mantra of safeguarding against suffering and promoting wellbeing. The complication comes from trying to do that in a dynamic social structure where each person reacts about the same but definitely different to the same stimuli. Morality is simultaneously simple and difficult.
And already I have broken the essay writing advice I taught my students last week: make the opening paragraph about what you want to talk about. I actually want to do two things with this post: defend atheism against the accusation that New Atheists (meant without baggage, literally meaning the atheists that are around now as opposed to Nietzsche or Russell or Hobbes) do not properly engage with the issues (note here); and to raise the question of whether God really is an answer as a rebuttal. My opening paragraph is a dislocated passage about the former issue. (I don’t know how my readers feel about this meta-posting–posting about posts–but I was pulled up the other day on not using a discursive essay structure to my blog posts)
Obviously atheists like Sam Harris have tried to deal with the deeper issues of atheism, with a big focus on morality. Sam Harris is not alone in this, Hitchens and Dawkins have also had their say on this, and I shall mention all of them. In fact, sticking with paradoxes for a moment, I’m going to start with Dawkins.
Richard Dawkins hold two views about natural selection and morality, which many religious people seem to miss the nuance of, or ignore a part of. Dawkins believes, as many do, that natural selection has selected for certain behaviours in us that create cohesive social structures. Essentially a part of the environmental niche that we occupy, and share with our evolution, is a social niche. There are clear benefits to being a community—the whole is greater than the parts—and so we benefit from society; we evolve as an organism. It may seem that selfish behaviour benefits the person, but only at a low-level. If most people allowed selfishness to dictate their actions then society, and its benefits, would surely dissolve. So natural selection has selected for our moral ideas.
However, Dawkins also says that if we let ‘survival of the fittest’—a big element of natural selection—inform our actions then we would surely would have immoral people as each individual fights for its own survival and cuts out the weak. If our morality was survival of the fittest this would surely happen. Theists often present a problem here; I have intentionally ordered these two ideas this way around because then the issue is not apparent. And the issue is not apparent because it’s not really there. Natural selection can select for a process that is not a simulacrum to itself; it is a process of selecting a winner of a competition, not a game of selecting in kind.
To save on word count, I shall focus only on Harris as an extra part of this. Although Dawkins clearly takes this idea deep, and elucidates idea about how the selfish gene doesn’t select in kind but instead selects for social and beneficial behaviour, and then discovers the original of our moral ideas, Harris goes deeper again into what morality is. Harris is not the only person to do this, of course, but I think he is the better known and his books are easiest to get hold of (if you want to buy one to do further reading). Harris argues that we have a clear idea in our head about what morality is, but we rarely bother to articulate that idea; if we do try to articulate the idea we come back to a concept of protecting things. The moral “right and wrong” we use are clearly distinct from factual “right and wrong”, and use a different referent, but to us they are as real as each other. Facts are derived from concepts like mathematics or evidence from science. Moral facts are derived from some understanding of how if makes things feel; we all know you can’t behave immorally to a rock, but you can be wrong about a rock.
I distinguish between Dawkins’ morality and Harris’ morality by referring to them differently: moral intuitions and objective morality. Dawkins only tells us where we get certain ideas from, and those ideas are as wrong as the intuitions we have about physical reality (think about Ancient Greek ideas: people don’t intuit atoms or Newtonian physics or non-Euclidian geometry). By ‘as wrong’ I mean practically and functionally right, but on occasion fundamentally wrong. Harris, however, gives us a way of measuring whether our morality compares to our intuitive ideas. How much more deeply does a person have to think before people stop accusing them of dealing only superficially with the issue?
(As a side note, and a response to the article that sparked this, atheists actually can get away with saying ‘where we get out morality from is not our issue [until you demonstrate that objective morality is a real thing]’. The original post is from The Spectacle, but I originally read it as a re-blog from another reader)
The theists who don’t think atheists think deeply about this issue probably think they do think deeply about this issue; how would they recognise shallow thinking if they hadn’t seen how deep the issue can go? But as far as I can see, they haven’t. The argument seems to be that if a God exists objective moral values exist, so there! But I can equally argue that if consciousness exists then objective morality exists. Neither side seems to think we’re at an impasse here, as theists seem to think there is nothing binding about the secular version of objective morality. But there is nothing binding about the objective morality from theism either. There may be a greater punishment system, but that’s in place precisely because the morality is not binding. Okay, people can escape punishment on the secular objective morality, but is that it? Is the sole reason that religious morality is better than secular morality because you get to punish people? That’s vindictive and cruel and unproductive.
Think deeply, dear atheist-discouraging theist, about what the point of eternal damnation is. You cannot rehabilitate these people, they are there for eternity; you are not protecting anyone any more than if you just let them die; it is just retribution. It is a case of God thinking another person deserves eternal damnation. And no one answers the question of how on Earth that could be moral because we delegate the issue to God. People that accuse atheists of not thinking deeply have avoided the job of thinking deeply.