New Atheism’s Moral Meltdown (Part 2)

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One Coyne with Two Sides?

Read Part 1 here 

In our original article we wrote “Of course, [Coyne] believes in moral obligations and the significance of the individual.” It seems we were much too generous, for his commitment to moral reality is far from clear. It is rather difficult to tell if Coyne is a realist or an anti-realist about moral principles. Indeed, he may be rather confused himself. Does he believe in moral facts? If he does, he is a moral realist who needs a materialist explanation for morality. If, however, he believes that moral principles have no truth values and that in making moral judgements we merely project attitudes or emotions on to the world, he is a moral anti-realist who claims he can explain morality away.

Can science explain morality away? It’s difficult to see how any scientific explanation of moral feelings would allow us to live as if there are no moral demands on us. It seems impossible to live as if morality is an illusion; Dawkins calls morality a “blessed, precious mistake”, and he believes it. But if morality is a mistake nothing is truly blessed or precious. Suppose our moral feelings are nothing more than an instinct to co-operate with other humans. If something like this is the case, then a mother’s instinct to care for a threatened child is no more “blessed”, “precious” or “good” than an impulse to sneeze. That strikes us as wholly implausible.

In fact, we often have to appeal to moral facts to explain the world. It is impossible to understand the writings of Richard Dawkins without appealing to concepts like “moral outrage”. Dawkins and other New Atheists rely heavily on moral intuitions to motivate readers and to challenge the injustices of organised religion. It would be practically impossible to fully understand New Atheism in terms of neurons and cognitive functions. We are regularly forced to use moral concepts like “malicious”, “compassionate”, “courageous” and “selfish” to deepen our understanding of other persons, to predict their behaviour and to recommend courses of action. They might not show up in test tubes, or under microscopes, but moral facts stubbornly refuse to leave our world-views. We just ought to accept them as real.

Coyne’s rejection of the self, however, seems to take him on a collision course with moral realism:

Just because I reject the notion of libertarian free will and moral responsibility does not, however, mean that I don’t think there are better or worse ways for us to behave, nor that I deny that we can influence people’s behavior for the good of society. I hesitate to call the codification of those ways “morality,” since that plays into “moral responsibility,” but for the nonce let’s retain the word “morality.”

This is a stunning concession: Coyne cannot explain morality. By “better”, “worse” and “the good”, Coyne seems to mean “practically better”, “practically worse” and the “pragmatic good.” He certainly can’t mean “morally better”, “morally worse” or “morally good” because in rejecting “moral responsibility” he has rejected the very essence of morality. No wonder he has reservations about using the word “morality”!. [i] When he hesitates to call the “codification of certain behaviors” morality that hesitation is appropriate.  Coyne  believes that the “self” is an illusion created by the brain. It seems rather clear, to us and to Coyne, that a person cannot have obligations if that person does not exist. If there are no selves who can understand and meet their obligations then there are no moral duties.

But, then, if there is no self who is morally responsible what happens to intellectual responsibility? If Coyne’s brain is a bag of tricks, a parcel of modules assembled by natural selection for survival and reproductive success, who exactly are we arguing with? We usually assume that one subject grasps the different premises of an argument and deduces a conclusion. Not all reasoning can be squeezed into a neat algorithm, of course. In such cases we assume that one subject assesses various pieces of evidence and forms a judgement that improves their understanding of their world, or gives them insight into a state of affairs.

But Coyne tells us that this is all folk psychology. There are no subjects in the world. “Jerry Coyne” is merely a useful fiction, a label we attach to a collection of neurons and qualia. Is it fair of us to expect Coyne to give a rational response to our arguments if ‘his’ response is fully determined by a bundle of mental mechanisms which only exist today because they helped his ancestors feed, flee and reproduce in the distant past?

Further reading

The Evidence for God: Morality

Coyne, Meaning and Morality (our original critique of Coyne)

Swinburne on Morality ( a response to Euthyphro’s dilemma and Swinburne’s critique of the moral argument)

Is the Old Testament Law Unethical? (Not if you read it in its historical context)

The Bible and Slavery

Does the Bible Condone Genocide? (nope)

Weird laws and genocidal tribes (The moral universe of the Old Testament)

The Roots of Religious Tolerance (There’s more to it than the Enlightenment!)

Can New Atheists Condemn the Holocaust? (Yes. But they need to reflect on the meaning of “objective morality”)

Why Science Can’t Explain Morality


[i] Some will take issue with Coyne’s argument that determinism and moral responsibility are incompatible. However, he assures his readers that he has read part of a book on this subject. We wish him luck with such a robust defence of a controversial thesis.


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