Monday, October 22, 2007

Jimmy Akin and Moral Philosophy

How appropriate that one of my favourite apologists is taking time to discuss the underlying principles of Moral Philosophy:

Materialism and the moral argument - Part 1: "

SDG here (not Jimmy — but you already knew that, didn't you?) with the first in a series of posts on materialism and the moral argument, adapted from a semi-restricted discussion in another forum.

This post, and those to follow, were originally occasioned by a discussion around what has been called the 'New Atheism,' i.e., the militantly anti-religious, naturalist‑materialist polemics of the likes of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.

Discussion around this issue has focused on a number of interrelated subjects, including arguments regarding design, miracles, revelation, theodicy, and morality.

Here is how one Christian board member put the moral argument to a self-proclaimed 'bright' (a loopy self-designation intended, like the hijacking of 'gay' by homosexuals, to co-opt a positive term to replace negative terms like 'atheist'):

If the final answer is really 42 and survival is really of the fittest, then what does it matter if the strong take what they want from the weak? The feelings of the weak are irrelevant because the weak are irrelevant. If I am having a slow day and I fancy a spot of raping and pillaging before supper, where's the harm? After all, when I read the morning news or look back over human history, raping and pillaging would seem to be perfectly normal human pastimes. Everybody is at it. Sometimes even whole nations!

To this, our 'bright' (who calls himself Archie) responded:

I'm sorry, but I grow weary of this kind of argument. If your morality is based on your religion, what stops you from copulating with your daughters (like Lot)? What stops you from stoning people to death with stones, for gathering firewood on the Sabbath? Why don't you make a pact with your god that if you win your next war, you'll sacrifice the first living thing that comes out of your house, even your daughter (like Jephthah)? Why don't you gag your women before they go into church (following the apostle Paul)?

The real truth is that religion and morality are two totally different things, and there are a great many examples of people who adhered to one and not the other. If you like, I am strong, and the thing that stops me bullying weaker people is that I'd feel like a louse afterwards. I will not indulge in that kind of behaviour. Simple.

Now, deep breath, everyone.

Rather than get sidetracked by the transparently silly exegetical aburdities, I decided to take this post as a springboard for some prolonged discussion of the moral argument. What follows is the first post from this series; in the days to come I will follow up with subsequent posts.

First, let me point out that the burden of the moral argument for non-materialists is not that atheists must be bad or even amoral people, or that they have no basis of knowing right from wrong.

Theists generally and Christians particularly do not believe that morality is something that we come to know solely through divine revelation — though we do believe revelation may help clarify, supplement and correct what valid but imperfect moral insights we have.

(While I'm at it, I might also clarify that I don't believe that morality is essentially connected, even for theists, with belief in judgment, life after death, heaven or hell. What matters to me as a theist is above all that God is, and who he is — not how he may reward or punish me. In principle, I think I would still feel that way even if I believed that death were the end. More on this some other time, perhaps.)

At any rate, the point is not 'Unless you read it in the Bible (or unless you hear directly from God in some way, shape or form), how do you know right from wrong?' On the contrary, the Bible itself says that the moral law is written on the human heart (Rom 2), and no theory of biblical authority is required to hold a more or less converging opinion on this particular point.

Archie: You say, 'If you like, I am strong, and the thing that stops me bullying weaker people is that I'd feel like a louse afterwards.'

Fair enough. I can accept that, as far as it goes — at least, insofar as I prescind from whatever epistemic or ontological claims may or may not lie behind the phrase 'like a louse.'

To bracket a caveat or two, this is of course not literally what you mean; I doubt if any substantial connection could be maintained between whatever feelings you might have and any of the small, wingless insects of the order Anoplura.

In slang usage, according to the dictionary, 'louse' can mean something like 'contemptible person, esp. an unethical one' — an affective definition that doesn't help us out with clarifying the actual denotative value, if any, of the judgments underlying these classifications.

To some, in fact, it may seem as if what you are saying essentially boils down to 'I will not act in what I consider to be a contemptible fashion because that would make me feel like a contemptible person' — which would seem to be a rather circular and tautological way of putting things.

What does seem clear at any rate is that 'like a louse' feelings represent an undesirable state of affairs, an unpleasant experience contrary to a general sense of well-being. On its face, that is a perfectly respectable factor to take into consideration for deciding between or among possible courses of action. Unpleasant feelings are, well, unpleasant, and all things being equal, we would prefer to avoid them, thank you very much.

But of course all things are not always equal. A given level of unpleasantness by itself is not always enough to deter us from a particular course of action; and that too is entirely reasonable.

Potential causes of experiences of unpleasantness are many and greatly divergent. Some represent harmful behaviors, such as cutting oneself with razor blades. Others do not, such as eating some food that you personally find revolting.

Sometimes incentives to do a thing are substantial enough warrant facing up to even very formidable unpleasantness without compunction or misgiving, such as going to the dentist for necessary dental surgery. Other times, the unpleasantness even of contemplating a given course of action is so appalling that such action would be simply out of the question, such as being sexually intimate with a person whom one finds physically and personally repulsive.

When it comes to the unpleasantness of 'like a louse' feelings (or guilt, or other potentially morally charged affective responses), in many cases it's easy to see that such responses may be far from random or irrational, as far as they go. There is often a perfectly empirical dimension to old moralistic observations about virtue being its own reward and vice is its own punishment. Even on an entirely materialistic worldview, certain behaviors will tend to correlate with greater happiness, and others with greater unhappiness.

For example, heavy alcohol abuse might make you happy for a few hours at a stretch, but in the long run it is going to cause you more unhappiness than not — and not just because you may feel 'like a louse' afterward (although that may be one factor).

The virtue of moderation commends itself, at least to an extent, to the materialist and the supernaturalist alike, and for many of the same reasons. When Hitchens tries to explain morality by saying 'We evolved it,' it may reasonably be felt that there is at least partial justification for something like what he is saying.

Even when 'like a louse' feelings happen to be associated with an activity for which we can find no rational basis for such feelings, it may still be reasonable to choose to avoid irrational but unpleasant feelings in the absence of sufficient motivation in the opposite direction.

Suppose a boy is brought up in strict Fundamentalism and taught to believe that card-playing is evil. Later in life, throwing off this belief (whether by coming to a more balanced faith or by abandoning faith altogether), he finds that he quite enjoys cards while the game is in play — but afterwards, despite himself, he can't help feeling down. Intellectually he knows that cards aren't evil and there is no reason to feel that way, but he can't shake the irrational 'like a louse' feelings that his upbringing has instilled in him in connection with them.

All things being equal, he might reasonably decide that the fun of playing cards is not worth the irrational depression that follows (though he might also decide otherwise, given a sufficiently strong social motivation, or perhaps a determined intention to root out the emotional consequences of his upbringing).

All to say, the unpleasantness of 'like a louse' feelings can be a reasonable rationale for forgoing even a potentially appealing course of action. So far so good; but how far it goes is as yet an open question.

Archie, you say that bullying the weak correlates for you with 'like a louse' feelings, and thus you will not do it. Fine. I also gather that you find that following what has been called the Golden Rule makes you feel good about yourself, and on one level surely that is justification enough for doing as you would be done by.

And that's fine for you. Of course, what causes one person undesirable feelings may affect another person quite differently, just as a particular dish (haggis, say) may thoroughly nauseate one person while sending another into paroxysms of gastronomic delight. I might be grossed out to see you enjoying a meal that would turn my stomach, but my unquiet gorge has no particular relevance to you or your enjoyment.

Whatever else unpleasant feelings may be, or mean, or tell us, on one level they may surely be regarded as a sort of bio-electrical-chemical reaction in our brains triggering an aversive response. Indeed, on a materialist perspective I'm not sure how else they might be regarded.

Thus, while you might experience negative feelings of sorrow and disapproval to see me bullying a weaker party, what relevance, if any, your bio-electrical-chemical aversion-response has on me or the very different bio-electrical-chemical response in my brain remains to be seen.

To be continued...



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