Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Dawkins is right, but he didn't answer the question

(Originally posted by Pat on 5/2/2010)

Recently an acquaintance of mine posted a video of Richard Dawkins fielding a question about morality.
It was a limited amount of time, and Dawkins made some very good points quite eloquently... but still I'm a little disappointed that he didn't directly answer the question.
He did point out plenty of ways that secular morality is obviously superior to religious morality, and this is certainly worth pointing out; but he didn't get at the really deep question here, which is "How can we ultimately justify moral claims?"

What I would have said (and, if my next book is successful, will in fact say) to such a questioner:
What do you mean, "absolute morality"?
If by "absolute" you mean simple black-and-white rules "Do this, don't do that," then no, reason cannot justify such rules because such rules are obviously wrong. "Don't kill people" is a heuristic, a pretty good heuristic; but it's not an absolute rule that we can always apply. When an invading army is trying to enslave your country's population, "Don't kill people" is not the rule you should be using! The universe is full of complexities and shades of gray, and any true morality will reflect this.
But if instead by "absolute" you mean "objective", that is to say, rules that apply to everyone equally, rules that are universal to human nature or indeed universal to all rational beings in the universe, then yes, reason can justify such rules---in fact, it can justify them a good deal better than religion can. Christianity differs from Islam which differs from Buddhism which differs from Hinduism; they all make different claims of morality and metaphysics that can barely be justified on their own terms, much less in terms than an impartial observer would be prepared to accept.
Moreover, "Do what God tells you to do because God will punish you if you don't" is a decidedly terrible source of morality; it's the level of morality practiced by four-year-olds who think that it's all right to steal from the cookie jar if Daddy can't see you. That kind of religion is just one gigantic Daddy in the sky; it tries to elevate this kind of childish selfish behavior to the source of ultimate normativity. You say God is always watching; but first, how do you know that, and second, even if it were true, what does that have to do with morality? Big Brother was always watching too; that didn't make dissent from the Party immoral.
Genocide is wrong, not because God will punish us for it (in all probability there is no God, but even if there were, and he would punish us for it), but because it causes harm, because it hurts people who do not deserve to be hurt! That is the core of morality---not harming people because they are the sort of being that ought not be harmed! Hitler and Stalin, and Genghis Khan and Julius Caesar, and all the other mass murderers of all time, sinned against humanity, not against imaginary gods.
All serious ethical philosophy for at least the past 400 years has recognized this basic fact, that rational beings are the core agents and targets of morality. In fact, the tradition goes back much earlier, to at least Socrates. Indeed, it was Plato who penned the Euthyphro, which contains the single most compelling knock-down argument in all of ethical philosophy, namely: Is what is good good because it is loved by the gods, or is it loved by the gods because it is good? Either way you answer that question, religious morality is completely undermined. "God will punish you" has always been a terrible source of moral claims, and philosophers---even religious philosophers---have recognized this for centuries.
There are real challenges in ethics, particularly in applied ethics.
I'm increasingly convinced that meta-ethics is a dead end, that we will ultimately come around to seeing that moral realism is correct and nowhere near as problematic as others have claimed. The Open Question Argument is either a failure ("I know it's our duty as rational beings, but is it good?" sounds a lot like nonsense to me!), or it reduces to the Problem of Analysis. The ought-is problem is not even a problem; it's a statement of relevance logic---you can't infer anything substantive about X without premises that include mention of X.
But applied ethics is definitely difficult. It is extremely complicated and messy, and the empirical data we have is very poor. How do we minimize inequality while maximizing happiness and prosperity? How do we balance individual liberty with collective responsibility? By what means---diplomatic, political, military---can we best convert unjust regimes into just ones? How do we weigh the awesome benefits of new technology, especially biotechnology, against the terrifying risks? These and many other questions face us in the 21st century, and they are truly difficult, complicated questions.
But they are scientific questions---empirical questions, amenable to experimental evidence. It is an objective fact that certain economic systems produce more inequality than other systems, and this is something economists can study empirically. It is an objective fact that certain political systems have more liberty and more happy citizens than others, and this is something political scientists can observe. There are answers, and we can find them if we look; but religion will not help us do so. In fact, it has been getting in our way, and will probably continue to get in our way.

No comments:

Post a Comment