Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Problem of (No) Evil... again

I wasn't planning a sequel to this post, but there has been a bit of comment on the original (on Facebook, alas. So sorry if you're reading this on the 'blog. And if you're reading this on Facebook, why not cross-post your comment to the 'blog?). I wanted to clarfiy a few things and state the argument in a slightly more robust way - which inevitably means that this post will be more argumentative and contain less of my feelings on the subject. Let me begin by clearing up what I am not trying to do.

Firstly, I am not trying to prove the existence of God. If I wanted to do that I would take another tack completely. As it happens I do not want to do that, for reasons which I won't explain right now. To be clear: the fact that I do not think morality makes sense without God does not provide any sort of argument for the existence of God. It merely means that as far as I can see one must not pretend that morality exists as most people normally think of it if one is an atheist.

Secondly, I am not trying to show that theists are, as a matter of fact, more ethical in their lives than atheists. I am not even saying that Christians are more ethical than people who are not Christians. But I am arguing that theists have a basis for a moral system that is lacked by atheists. (Of course for some (or all) theists it must be the basis for a wrong moral system, since their systems differ. But that is strictly irrelevant to the point I am making).

Thirdly, I am not trying to say that for the theist issues of ethics and morality are straightforward. I acknowledge that for everyone, from whatever starting point they come, ethical issues are tricky. I would even go so far as to say that often there is no absolutely right answer. However, I am trying to say that an atheist has no right to even engage in the conversation about what is right and wrong. (Understand what I am saying here. An atheist may and must, de facto, as a member of any society engage in such conversations. I am glad that they do - consistent atheism would be a terrible thing! - but I do not think that de jure they can engage in such conversations, for reasons which will become clear).

So what I am trying to do? I am trying to flag up the following three problems for the atheist moralist - problems which I think are impossible to resolve within atheist presuppositions. (Some of this will be retreading my earlier post, but in a more philosophically acceptable way). Here they are:

Firstly, the problem of objectivity. This problem is most easily demonstrated by contrasting different cultures across the world and through time. For example, in ancient Rome the right thing to do with a sickly baby was to leave it by the backdoor until it died; in modern Europe, that is murder, and actually one of the most morally repugnant things we can imagine. So, is it right, or is it wrong? Within what framework would the atheist judge this question?

The issue can be thrown into sharper relief by imagining that we live in the third century. The rapid Christianisation of the Roman world means that for many exposing babies is now immoral. But there are still many pagans who regard it as the right thing to do. These two groups co-exist. Which is right? Should the state punish those who continue to expose their children? If so, why? At what point should it start to do so? When the Christians become the majority, perhaps?

In order to make morality objective, there must be some sort of objective value to which we could appeal. The atheist might appeal to the good of society - but they would then have to define what that 'good' is. They would also have to provide a framework for arbitration between two disagreeing societies. They might perhaps appeal to the need to preserve the species. That is well and good, but why is it a good thing to preserve the species? I do not think they can answer.

The result must be that 'right' and 'wrong' come to mean only what the majority consider to be right and wrong. Atheists must not be permitted to fudge the issue by appealing to what the 'discerning' think, for what is there for the discerning to discern? Why should any one person's opinion count for more than any other person's? If there are no objective values, what makes Socrates wiser than the fool?

Secondly, the problem of obligation. I challenge the atheist to give me any reason to be ethical when it doesn't suit me. Even if we could show that some things really are right and others are wrong (and I do not think the atheist can do so), why should I do what is right? Why, for example, should I not fiddle my insurance claim if I can get away with it? What is there that obliges me to do what is right?

Understand that the idea of obligation is central to ethics. 'What is right' means the same as 'what I ought to do'. But there is no 'ought' in an atheist world. To whom do I have an obligation? If you say, to society, I ask why? If you say, to my friends and family, again, why? On what grounds do you postulate any sort of obligation to be moral?

Thirdly, the problem of naivety. I suppose this is the least philosophical point, but it is the most practical. Continually, appeal is made to the good nature of human beings. To quote from one of the comments on my original post "there is a common part of our nature that has a basic social consideration and respect for the interest and well being of others". I suggest that this simply is not true. There is a certain, middle-class, well-taught morality that causes many to consider others beyond themselves. But it is frankly plain to see that this is not part of human nature, but a learned behaviour (and one that is without reason on atheist presuppositions).

Consider one of the examples I cited in my original post: the bunch of youths who wilfully damaged another man's property, and then kicked him to death when he came out of his house to protest. Were they not human? Did they lack this "common part of our nature"? Things like this happen all the time, and the atheist, who does not believe in metaphysical evil, cannot explain them or suggest any solution that does not itself smack of tragic naivety.

Nietzsche is a man for whom I have a lot of respect, despite hating almost everything that he said. He had the courage of his convictions. He knew that in the absence of God, anything goes - and therefore the strong will, if sensible, impose their will on the weak. The weak, in turn, will take advantage of any opportunity they can to advance themselves at the expense of others.

After all, why not?


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. My reply is on facebook or my blog. It's a bit long to stick here.

  3. I'll comment here and on your blog, for the sake of anyone else reading...

    I haven't replied at once, partly because I've been away, but partly because I'm a little nervous. I know that discussions like this can easily be friendship-disrupting, especially at a distance. After all, we are essentially saying a very offensive thing to one another, namely, "your fundamental beliefs about the world are wrong". And I suspect that I am being the more offensive. Since in your post you indicate that you think our ethical systems are fairly compatible, I suppose that you think that I am mistaken in matters of fact (like whether God exists) but not necessarily in how I live much of life. I am necessarily saying, however, that you are mistaken in those same matters of fact, and therefore in every aspect of how you live - because if the Christian God exists, any aspect of life that is not directed toward him is morally wrong. Ouch.

    Understand I only say this to make it really really clear how huge an issue we're discussing.

    I wish to suggest that your post does not so much answer my concerns as illustrate them, and that at several points. For example, you assert that someone should simply do what is right because it is right. But how do you answer someone who doesn't care about that, or who disagrees with you about what is right? Or your statement that you believe that ethics can be constructed from what reasonable and enlightened people think - but what sort of enlightenment? Doesn't this boil down to "people with the same education, culture and moral opinions as me"? And your final admission that you don't know why you have some ultimate values rather than others must surely bother you...

    It boils down to the big question: what is good? (What is the good life, what is a good person, what is a good course of action...) I am not sure you can give me an answer I will find satisfatory...