On Not Boiling Babies

Sometimes you just get tired of being the bad guy, but if you are not religiously minded, that’s the role you get. For those of us who find religion mildly interesting, but wholly unconvincing and rather odd, it has been a good spring.  As Rachel Zoll of the Associated Press notes


The time for polite debate is over. Militant, atheist writers are making an all-out assault on religious faith and reaching the top of the bestseller list, a sign of widespread resentment over the influence of religion in the world among nonbelievers.


Christopher Hitchens’ book “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” has sold briskly since it was published last month, and his debates with clergy are drawing crowds at every stop.


Sam Harris was a little-known graduate student until he wrote the phenomenally successful “The End of Faith” and its follow-up, “Letter to a Christian Nation.” Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” and Daniel Dennett’s “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon” struck similar themes – and sold.


“There is something like a change in the zeitgeist,” Hitchens said, noting that sales of his latest book far outnumber those for his earlier work that had challenged faith. “There are a lot of people, in this country in particular, who are fed up with endless lectures by bogus clerics and endless bullying.”


And Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, the evangelical school out here in Pasadena, says the success of these books reflect “a new vehemence in the atheist critique.”


Will folks be going around quoting George Carlin?  He seems to have once said, “I would never want to be a member of a group whose symbol was a guy nailed to two pieces of wood.”


See also Chaz Bufe, in The American Heretic’s Dictionary: Atheist (n) – A person to be pitied in that he is unable to believe things for which there is no evidence, and who has thus deprived himself of a convenient means of feeling superior to others.” That’s nasty. 


But then they call us immoral. They say we’re the cause of all evil in the world. If there’s a major hurricane that takes out a city, it seems God is angry with having secular non-believers in this nation and did something about it, and that Falwell fellow said the attacks of September 11, 2001, were God’s work – our punishment for tolerating gays, feminists, for allowing the ACLU to thrive, not allowing prayer in schools and all the rest (his issue with the purple Teletubby and Spongebob Squarepants being part of a plot to turn our children into homosexuals came latter). The message was you do NOT want to get God ticked off – as He has quite a temper.


Well, Reverend Falwell is now dead.  He probably didn’t read this from Albert Camus – “Since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn’t it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him, and struggle with all our might against death without raising our eyes towards the heaven where He sits in silence?” That’s from The Plague (1947), and God hasn’t said much in the sixty years since.  He hasn’t said anything – unless you believe he spoke to Falwell, as the man claimed.


But the real problem that has been around forever, the “bad guy” thing, is best summed up by The Moral Atheist


Quite a number of religious people argue that an atheist cannot be moral, as morality springs from religion. This is a heavy claim, since immoral people are not a good thing to have in a civilized society. As an atheist I’m lead to defend the position that atheists, too, can be moral. In fact, I will go a bit beyond mere apology. I will claim atheists are actually in a better position to become moral in the real sense of the word than someone following a literal interpretation of biblical morality.


And in a long essay he does just that. And the key passage is this –


The concept of a literal reading of an axiomatic system of morality is what really bugs me in conventional views of the genesis of moral thought. I view morality as being about informed, societally beneficial, context dependent choices, not about simplistic principles. Abiding by a literal reading of a moral doctrine will amount to inflexible, uninformed choices, which will by and far not be beneficial. Neither to the individual, nor to the society. And if such interpretation is supported only by fear of damnation or pain, we will also witness extraneous emotional harm to the individual. Living in fear never produces wellrounded, civilized, healthy individuals. Instead it gives rise to dogmatic, fearsome, stressedout, irrational misers.


Well, there enough of those around.  Hitchens says it’s worse than that, and you can find some of what he says covered previously here.


Bet we are not bad people, even if folks like Fred Klett (a former atheist) throws us a bone


Beyond dispute there are moral atheists. I’ve known atheists who are more ethical than some people claiming to believe in a god. This is not the issue. The question is, why be ethical? Can an adequate basis for morality be found given atheistic premises? Think about it. Unless God exists, there is no eternal and transcendent standard for right and wrong. If God did not give the Ten Commandments to Moses at Sinai, thereby establishing a moral standard above human creation, we are merely left with humanly devised scruples. If humanity is left to create its own ethical standards, we are left with only three options to base ethics upon: 1) collective tradition, 2) human survival, or 3) personal preference.


Bull – there may be more than those three options, although those three are not to be sneezed at by any means.


Theodore Schick, Jr., getting all scholarly, has this to say


Although Plato demonstrated the logical independence of God and morality over 2,000 years ago in the Euthyphro, the belief that morality requires God remains a widely held moral maxim. In particular, it serves as the basic assumption of the Christian fundamentalist’s social theory. Fundamentalists claim that all of society’s ills – everything from AIDS to out-of-wedlock pregnancies – are the result of a breakdown in morality and that this breakdown is due to a decline in the belief of God. Although many fundamentalists trace the beginning of this decline to the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species in 1859, others trace it to the Supreme Court’s 1963 decision banning prayer in the classroom. In an attempt to neutralize these purported sources of moral decay, fundamentalists across America are seeking to restore belief in God by promoting the teaching of creationism and school prayer.


The belief that morality requires God is not limited to theists, however. Many atheists subscribe to it as well. The existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, says that “If God is dead, everything is permitted.” In other words, if there is no supreme being to lay down the moral law, each individual is free to do as he or she pleases. Without a divine lawgiver, there can be no universal moral law.


The view that God creates the moral law is often called the “Divine Command Theory of Ethics.” According to this view, what makes an action right is that God wills it to be done. That an agnostic should find this theory suspect is obvious, for, if one doesn’t believe in God or if one is unsure which God is the true God, being told that one must do as God commands will not help one solve any moral dilemmas. What is not so obvious is that theists should find this theory suspect, too, for it is inconsistent with a belief in God. The upshot is that both the fundamentalists and the existentialists are mistaken about what morality requires.


He goes on at length to argue we’re pretty much on our own, and it’s slow going. The short version – what is permitted, or not, is something we come to know.


What can be added to the argument that hasn’t been said? Well, for those of us being told we’re immoral, that we have no principles, and would allow anything, there is hope. We know we’re good people, trying to do our best and not hurt anyone and living as responsibly as we can. Being told you cannot really be anything but evil, even if mean well, is really tiresome – and even more tiresome in this, the most openly religious nation on earth.


The hope comes from Alex Byrne, who teaches philosophy at MIT. Who is he? His short bio explains –


Alex Byrne did his graduate work at Princeton before arriving at MIT in 1994 via a postdoc at Caltech. His main interests are philosophy of mind (especially perception and consciousness), metaphysics (especially color), and epistemology. He also dabbles in other areas, including philosophy of language, metaethics, and Wittgenstein.


Topics of Alex’s recent papers include the representationalism debate, the knowledge argument, scepticism, nonconceptual content, and two-dimensional semantics. He has written a number of papers on color with David Hilbert of the University of Illinois at Chicago; they also edited the two-volume collection Readings on Color for MIT Press. Alex recently edited (with Judith Thomson), Content and Modality: Themes from the Philosophy of Robert Stalnaker, and is editing (with Heather Logue) a collection on disjunctivism. He is also working on a book on self-knowledge.


Okay, so no one knows what metaethics is.  Try this


In philosophy, meta-ethics or analytic ethics is the branch of ethics that seeks to understand the nature of ethical properties, and ethical statements, attitudes, and judgments. Meta-ethics is one of the three branches of ethics generally recognized by philosophers, the others being ethical theory and applied ethics. Ethical theory and applied ethics comprise normative ethics. Meta-ethics has received considerable attention from academic philosophers in the last few decades.


While normative ethics addresses such questions as “Which things are (morally) good and bad?” and “What should we do?”, thus endorsing some ethical evaluations and rejecting others, meta-ethics addresses the question “What is (moral) goodness?” – seeking to understand the nature of ethical properties and evaluations.


So this then involves reasoning about the presuppositions behind the moral systems developed under the category of “normative ethics.” You see, whenever a moral system is created, it is based upon certain premises about reality, human nature, values, and all that sort of thing. Metaethics is, then, all about questioning the validity of those premises, and arguing that perhaps we don’t really know what we are talking about after all.


That’s cool – but as for the representationalism debate, and disjunctivism, you’ll have to look those up on your own.


The issue here is whether anyone at all know what we’re talking about – at least when we talk about just who knows right from wrong.  The claims of the evangelicals, who also claim they represent almost all Americans (and God), are clear – right and wrong are concepts that come for God, and if you don’t believe in God, or are a tad unsure, you simple cannot know right from wrong and should be, at the very least, shunned. (The explosion of new books on the core irrationality and obvious awful effects of religion are the counter-reaction – shun us and we’ll laugh at you.)


Okay – the question on the table is just where morality comes from.  Must it come from God, or could it actually be a natural phenomenon?


Byrne examines that in the March/April 2007 issue of the Boston Review, in Knowing Right and Wrong – and it’s not as heavy a topic as it seems, or his prose style makes it all quite clear.


He opens with Immanuel Kant – “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we meditate upon them: the starry firmament above and the moral law within.”


And here’s the riff –


The awesome starry firmament inspires plenty of controversy – about the composition of dark matter, for example. But a lot is known: the sun is composed of hydrogen and helium, the Horsehead Nebula is 1,500 light years distant, and so on.


There’s also plenty of controversy about moral law. Should we give much more to charity than we actually do? Is torture permissible under extreme circumstances? Is eating meat wrong? Could it ever be permissible to kill one innocent person in order to save five? But, again we know a lot. Throwing good taste out with the bathwater for the sake of a clear example, everyone knows that boiling babies for fun is wrong. Boiling lobsters is a matter that reasonable people may disagree about, but as far as boiling babies goes, agreement is pretty much universal. Babies suffer when boiled – they are not like the worms that live near undersea vents, who are partial to scalding water. If something goes without saying, it’s this: one ought not to boil babies for fun.


But are those moral laws in the stars? They’re just made of the same physical stuff that makes up the objective universe – and us. We’re all part of it –


Everything, in short, is a natural phenomenon, an aspect of the universe as revealed by the natural sciences. In particular, morality is a natural phenomenon. Moral facts or truths – that boiling babies is wrong, say – are not additions to the natural world, they are already there in the natural world, even if they are not explicitly mentioned in scientific theories. Fundamental sciences such as particle physics and molecular biology do not speak explicitly speak of sand dunes, or boiling water, or lobsters, but facts about sand dunes and the like are implicitly settled by more fundamental facts: arrange bits of matter a certain way and you have an eroding sand dune, or boiling water, or (here the arrangement needs to be very complicated indeed) a lively lobster. And, presumably, the same goes for the moral facts.


But then how can morality be a natural phenomenon? That’s a puzzle –


We ought not to boil babies, but the natural world seems not to contain any trace of an “ought,” or an “ought not.” A dropped stone is under no obligation to fall, it just does. Admittedly, I might say, before dropping a stone out of the window, “This stone ought to hit the ground in three seconds,” but here I just mean something like “It is likely that the stone will hit the ground in three seconds.” If the stone doesn’t do that, it has done nothing wrong, and is not to be blamed for anything. In the natural world, nothing ought to happen, or ought not to happen, in the relevant sense of “ought.” Keeping within the confines of nature, there is no space for the fact that we ought not to boil babies. Yet since nature is all there is, there is no place left to go.


… The natural world contains plenty of facts concerning what is (or is not) the case: babies suffer in hot water, boiling water is hot, Virginia will drown if no one pulls her from the River Ouse, and the like. But how do we get from these facts to what ought (or ought not) to be the case – facts that are “entirely different”? As the philosopher Simon Blackburn puts it in his Ruling Passions, “the problem is one of finding room for ethics, or of placing ethics within the disenchanted, non-ethical order which we inhabit, and of which we are a part.”


… The problem is not one in ethics, like the issue of whether we should give more to charity than we actually do, but rather is about ethics or morality. It accordingly belongs to that branch of philosophy called “meta-ethics,” which started in earnest when G.E. Moore published Principia Ethica in 1903, and which has been flourishing ever since.


And the rest is in the world of meta-ethics. It may be more fruitful than the usual “God said so” way of looking at things –


This “divine command” theory of morality has the rather alarming consequence that – to borrow an aphorism Sartre attributed to Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov – if God is dead, everything is permitted. The more fundamental difficulty, however, was pointed out by Socrates in Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro. Do the gods love good things because they are good, or are good things good because the gods love them? Surely the former – if Zeus, Uranus, and the rest started loving pointless suffering that would not make pointless suffering good. No doubt God, if there is one, enjoins us to avoid pointless suffering, but that is not why pointless suffering is bad. It is bad anyway – that is precisely why God enjoins us to avoid it.


So we have a hall of mirrors.  The good comes before God, not from God.  And somehow we know that –


Divine-command theory can be watered down in various ways and in recent years has experienced a minor revival; even diluted, it remains a fringe position. A considerably more popular suggestion is that moral facts can be squeezed into the natural world with no effort at all, because moral facts are actually natural facts in disguise.


Some of us just bypassed the Middleman, but it may not be that straightforward –


Here’s one simple idea: “Stealing is wrong” and “People ought not to steal” are fancy ways of saying “I disapprove of stealing.” And if they are, then moral facts just are natural facts (specifically, psychological facts), their naturalistic credentials obscured by language.


Unfortunately, this idea is just too simple to be true. One problem, pointed out by Moore in his 1912 book Ethics, is that the view cannot accommodate the phenomenon of ethical disagreement. If I say “Stealing is wrong,” and you say “No it isn’t,” you are denying what I am asserting: if I spoke truly, you spoke falsely. But according to the simple idea, I am in effect saying “I approve of stealing,” and you are saying “I do not approve of stealing,” and if that is so, then we aren’t disagreeing and can both be right. Similarly, if I say “I live in Cambridge” and you say “I live in Somerville,” we aren’t disagreeing and can both be right, which we will be if I live in Cambridge and you live in Somerville. And if that objection isn’t completely convincing, here’s another one. The simple idea implies that a person’s attitudes settle the truth of her moral claims, which is obviously mistaken. If someone disapproves of interracial dating that doesn’t mean that she speaks truly when she says “Interracial dating is immoral.”


Drat.  That complicates matters, as does this –


What if we switch from the first person to the third? Suppose that “Stealing is wrong” means “The community disapproves of stealing,” or something similar. That would at least allow for moral disagreement. In our little dialogue I would be saying “The community disapproves of stealing,” and you would be saying “The community doesn’t disapprove,” and one of us must be wrong. But the second objection has not been deflected at all: if the community follows Leviticus and endorses slavery, that hardly makes slavery permissible.


Maybe moral facts are somehow natural facts in disguise, but what can you do with that?


Try this –


Modern naturalistic theories of morality are reactions to the challenge laid down in Moore’s Principia Ethica. Moore argued that although the moral facts do not have their source in any deity, neither are they facts about happiness, attitudes of approval and disproval, human biology, or any other kind of natural fact. It is true that we ought not to boil babies – but this is not a natural fact or truth. It is a “non-natural” fact, in short. To identify the moral facts with natural ones was, Moore charged, to commit “the naturalistic fallacy.”


…The divine-command theory and Moorean non-naturalism both reject the demand to find room for the moral law in the starry firmament: no room is needed, because the moral law has found agreeable accommodation elsewhere.


But where?


Maybe it’s a language thing –


We use language to try to state facts, or assert things. “The pub is open” is typically used to assert that the pub is open. If it is open, then the speaker has made a successful assertion: she has stated a fact, namely the fact that the pub is open. But there’s much more to conversation than the exchange of information. Someone might ask “Is the pub open?,” or give the order “Close the pub!,” or express her delight that the pub is open by saying “Yippee, the pub is open!,” to give three of many examples. Someone who asks “Is the pub open?” is not attempting to state that the world is a certain way. And although someone who says “Yippee, the pub is open!” is stating that the pub is open, she is doing much more than that, namely expressing her delight at that fact. If she had just said “Yippee!,” she would have expressed her delight without stating anything.


That is one observation. Here is another: our impression of how parts of language work is sometimes seriously mistaken. “It was Russell who performed the service of showing that the apparent logical form of a proposition need not be its real one,” wrote Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Tractatus, referring to Bertrand Russell’s seminal 1905 paper “On Denoting,” which argued that the semantics of definite descriptions (like “the author of Waverley” or “the closest planet to the sun”) are quite unlike what one might naively take them to be. According to Russell, “the author of Waverley” is not a kind of name for Sir Walter Scott, but is instead an expression like “some author” and “all authors”, which are not names at all.


Let us apply these two observations to the case at hand. On the face of it, someone who says “Stealing is wrong,” or “Silvio ought not to shoot Adriana,” is attempting to state a moral fact, just as someone who says “Tony lives in New Jersey” is attempting to state a geographical fact. If stealing isn’t wrong – if the world isn’t that way – then the speaker’s attempt failed, and she spoke falsely; similarly, if Tony doesn’t live in New Jersey. But – drawing on the second observation – appearances can be misleading. Perhaps someone who says “Stealing is wrong” is not making an assertion about some mysterious realm of moral right and wrong, but rather is doing something else. What could this other thing be, though?


Of course language is sometimes used not to state facts but to express the speaker’s attitudes – if someone says “Stealing is wrong” she typically disapproves of stealing. So, the thinking goes, perhaps when someone says “Stealing is wrong,” she is not attempting to state any moral fact, but is rather choosing a way of expressing her disapproval of stealing. This is “emotivist” view – moral language doesn’t have the function of stating moral facts but serves rather to express the speaker’s attitudes –


Emotivism solves the problem of finding room for morality in the natural world quite neatly. No room needs to be made for moral facts, because there aren’t any. But the absence of moral facts is no strike against moral talk, because it was never in the fact-stating line of work – it serves the function of expressing attitudes instead. The whole quest for the ground of moral truth is like Ponce de León’s search for the fountain of youth – misconceived from the beginning, because there’s no such thing to be found.


But here’s the problem with that –


Despite its great benefits, emotivism is too clever to be true. The really crushing objection was made by a contemporary of Moore’s, W.D. Ross, and much later, in expanded form, by the philosophers Peter Geach and John Searle.


Emotivism works nicely for standalone moral sentences, like “Eating meat is wrong,” but of course sentences can occur as parts of larger sentences. For instance, the sentence “Eating meat is wrong” occurs in the subordinate clause of the conditional sentence “If eating meat is wrong then Meadow should have the salad.” Consider now the argument:


1. If eating meat is wrong then Meadow should have the salad

2. Eating meat is wrong; so

3. Meadow should have the salad.


This is a good (“valid”) argument: it is an instance of the logical rule called “modus ponens”: from “If P then Q” and “P,” infer “Q.” Crucially, it is only a good argument because “P” is univocal throughout – it means the same thing when it occurs alone and when it occurs as part of “If P then Q.” For example, take “pen,” which is ambiguous between “writing instrument” and “enclosure,” and consider the following argument: “If the pig is in the pen then the pig is very tiny; the pig is in the pen; so the pig is very tiny.” Assuming that “pen” changes its meaning half-way through, this argument is plainly not good – the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premises.


Do you follow that?  No? This might help –


Now, “If eating meat is wrong then Meadow should have the salad; eating meat is wrong; so Meadow should have the salad” is a good argument. As we have just seen, if this is a good argument, then its component words must be univocal throughout. However, notice that the emotivist must tell some special story about the meaning of complex sentences like “If eating meat is wrong then Meadow should have the salad.” “Eating meat is wrong” as it occurs in the subordinate clause cannot mean “Boo to eating meat!” because “If boo to eating meat! then Meadow should have the salad” is not remotely grammatical, and makes no sense at all. In other words: if emotivism is true, “Eating meat is wrong” changes its meaning halfway through the argument, which accordingly fails. However, the argument is perfectly good, so emotivism is false.


That probably didn’t help. The idea is that “moral talk is bunk: it is not true because it is false.”


Help!  Enter one John Mackie, with his 1977 book Ethics – “Inventing Right and Wrong.” In the first chapter of that book, Mackie argued that morality is, like astrology and the theory of the crystalline spheres, a false theory-  but that is not necessarily to say that we should reject it as entirely useless –


Indeed, Mackie himself, after he has argued in chapter one that it is false that we ought not to boil babies, that it is false that we ought to keep our promises, and so on, spends most of the rest of the book discussing which moral principles we should adopt. That might sound paradoxical, but Mackie is not recommending that we believe moral claims (which he thinks are all false), but rather that we act as if some of them are true. Why should we do that? Mackie takes a hint from Hume, and the 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes: in a nutshell, playing the moral game serves our interests. In particular, it is a “device for counteracting limited sympathies”: paying lip service to a system of morality, despite its falsity, greases the wheels of social cooperation. Mackie adds that the adoption of a moral system might be an evolutionary adaptation, a hypothesis discussed at length in Marc Hauser’s recent Moral Minds.


Then there is Kalderon’s Moral Fictionalism – we were never seriously committed to moral claims in the first place –


Admittedly, the ordinary person says “Stealing is wrong,” but someone’s commitments cannot be so easily read from what she says. Maybe when the ordinary person says “Stealing is wrong” she is rather like our skeptical partygoer who says “Aquarians are unconventional.” Or perhaps she is like someone who, in a conversation about detective fiction, says “The world’s most famous detective lived at 221B Baker Street” – even though no detective has ever lived there, the speaker is not mistaken.


And on it goes.


It could be that no one knows what they’re talking about when it comes to these big moral statements.  As Byrne notes –


To a significant extent morality is not a self-contained system with its own proprietary vocabulary and problems: it is inextricably tangled with our normative and evaluative thought and talk in general, which extends to reasons, rationality, aesthetics, etiquette, and much else besides.


Where does “morality” come from? Not from nature, and not from God, and maybe from our thousands of ways of speaking about what we prefer, what we’ve heard, what we think is right, and what, quite separately, we’ve been told is right (because God says so, or it just makes sense, or it seems to make sense), or what we hope is right.  We do our best with common sense, and as much kindness as we can muster – so stop picking on some of us. We’re all in the same boat.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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