New Atheism’s Moral Meltdown (Part 1)

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(Read Part 2 here)

Coyne’s Abject Failure

A little while ago, Jerry Coyne  replied to our critique of his approach to ethics. We’re not at all convinced by Coyne’s response, which essentially reduces to a rant about religious fundamentalism. Let us restate our case for the sake of clarity. Moral values seem quite at home in a theistic world-view; moral values do not fit in the New Atheist’s world-view. Therefore, any theist -be they merely a philosophical theist, or Hindu, Muslim, Jewish or Christian – has a better explanation for morality than Jerry Coyne, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins or their acolytes[i].

We provide evidence for Christianity, and arguments for Christian faith, elsewhere on our website. [ii]And we are not very interested in advancing a political programme; we are much more concerned that people come to the Son of God for personal forgiveness and new life. Mr Coyne can reject our concerns as nonsensical; but that won’t help him explain morality. So we’ll look past most of the bluff and bluster in his reply, and focus once more on the central issues.

To explain morality is to explain principles of value and conduct. There is a wide consensus that moral principles have at least five traits. They are obligatory– they tell us what we ought to do in a given situation; they guide our actions. Such obligations are overriding – they take precedence over other considerations, be they aesthetic, legal, or political. They are also universalizable –they apply to all who are in relevantly similar situations; if it is immoral for Coyne to “kick an innocent dog” then it is immoral for everyone “to kick an innocent dog.” If there is an exception to that rule – perhaps we might be allowed to kick an innocent dog to save its life – then the exception counts for everyone in a relevantly similar situation.

Moral principles must be liveable – they must be able to motivate us to change our behaviour.  Moral principles must be convincing and plausible. The life they prescribe must be achievable[iii]Finally, moral principles are deep– they do not only prescribe acts and evaluate consequences. Moral principles also deal with our characters, our motives, our goals, the communities in which we live and the traditions that shape us. Now, Coyne might be able to explain the origin of moral feelings – call these “passions for the common good.” He might explain how such passions are good for the species. He might be able to explain how reciprocal altruism benefits the individual organism.The difficulty for Coyne, and New Atheism in general, is moving from moral feeling and social utility to deep, universally binding principles.

Suppose we have a fear of spiders; possibly, this fear has served the human race well in the past. However, it does not serve us well in our present circumstances.  Furthermore, the beliefs incorporated in our fear are false: the spiders of Ireland are a harmless bunch. Our fear is irrational and inappropriate. Now, as we’ll see, Coyne denies that humans have moral responsibility. This means that most of our moral feelings – feelings of duty, guilt, obligation, shame, honour, praise – incorporate beliefs which are false.

Furthermore, such feelings might not suit our current circumstances (we might be able to climb the career ladder by being a little more ruthless; we could ease our workload if we cheated a little more). So moral obligation seems inappropriate and irrational on Coyne’s worldview. Coyne cannot explain why anyone living through life’s lonely emergencies, or in Hobbes dog eat dog state of nature, or the palace of Machiavelli’s Prince, should pay the blindest bit of attention to his or her moral feelings. In fact, Coyne presents them with very good reasons to set morality aside and do whatever it takes to live to fight another day. Our point is not that atheists will inevitably indulge themselves in the excesses of moral nihilism; the point is that Coyne’s account has failed to explain why morality is obligatory, over-riding and universal.

Nor can Coyne explain why we should develop moral virtues. Why should care for the good of the species? I won’t be around to see it prosper. And suppose the good of the species really reduces to the good of genes or other replicators? Isn’t that a good reason to ignore the moral passions whenever they suggest an inconvenient course of action? And why should I allow those pesky moral passions to over-ride my other passions? It might be fair to listen to another’s argument carefully; but suppose I have a passion for caricaturing the views of anyone who has the temerity to disagree with me? Why shouldn’t I indulge the latter passion? Why should I consider the passion for fairness to be binding?

At the end of the day, in Coyne’s world our evolved  moral passions serve no deep purpose. It feels nice to be nice, and if we scratch our neighbours’ backs we’re less likely to suffer from itches. Moral feelings and traditional moral codes might prove useful to most of the people most of the time. But when no-one is looking – whenever we can get away with it – they seem to lose their force. At least they do if Coyne’s New Atheism is true. After all, those moral codes and moral feelings are the unintended outcome of a meaningless process.

Now, Mr Coyne will immediately protest that he has not provided any code at all.[iv] We do not expect him to, or require him to. Any code he produces will be, on his view, the product of an imaginary self  filtering the moral codes and feelings produced by a meaningless process. So his moral principles will not be persuasive or convincing. They might suit his lifestyle, and he’s welcome to them. Why anyone else would bother to listen to such a code with such an origin is beyond us.

Furthermore, he is quite clear that our lives are ultimately meaningless. So the quest for a good life is ultimately hopeless. In the long run, the whole species is dead. Eating, drinking and being merry might not be for everyone; in our misplaced pride we might prefer more refined lifestyles. Civilized pastimes certainly seem more attractive than wild partying. Each to their own. What Coyne cannot explain is why we should put any effort into developing moral virtues when there are so many other fun things to do! Time is limited, after all.

Coyne’s moral world-view not only fails to motivate- it could actually demoralise[v] anyone who is setting out on a moral life. If the self is an illusion, if the moral codes have no real force beyond their immediate practical usefulness, if the only real beneficiary is a more satisfied society (or those pesky “selfish” genes) why bother? You aren’t fulfilling your nature by being moral and there is no guarantee that you will increase your own chances of happiness. There’s no guarantee that anyone will benefit from your sacrifices. [vi]

Simply put, Coyne leaves most of the core features of morality unexplained: he simply ignores or dismisses the features of moral experience which do not suit his world-view.

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

Should Atheism Lead to Despair?

[i] Coyne, oddly, asks us to refute John Rawls’ secular morality. We say odd, because Rawls’ method of resolving differences between competing “comprehensive doctrines” assumes values like fairness and justice. He does not purport to explain or justify such values. It’s also odd because we have articles on our site which discuss Rawls and secular morality.

[ii] It is always helpful when someone who is entirely unsympathetic to your world-view, and who only has a cursory knowledge of your work, prescribes a methodology that you “must” follow. Coyne, in a helpful mood, has accessed our “What We Believe” page, read the opening paragraph and deduced that we have “preordained” beliefs that we must “justify at all costs”. (Which leaves us wondering what the penalty is for failure: Coyne’s disapproval?)

This is, of course, a diversion on Coyne’s part, a rather desperate ad hominem. It is entirely possible, logically speaking, that we could be mistaken in our theology yet correct in our critique of Coyne’s atheism. We do not have to prove that our theological convictions are correct to show that Coyne is wrong about morality. In any case, Coyne might have taken a few seconds to glance at our “Mission Statement”. We only set out to defend the central claims of Christianity.

[iii] Coyne seems to think that we will not be convinced that secularism can explain morality until he provides a moral code – “a complete outline of how the good society should work.” That’s a complete misunderstanding on his part. Beginners’ guides to morality and ethics distinguish between normative ethics, applied ethics and metaethics. Metaethics investigates the justification, origin and meaning of moral principles; it would be evident to the average philosophy undergraduate that we were asking metaethical questions in our article. We are not very interested in Coyne’s approach to normative and practical ethics. We would like to hear a little more detail about Coyne’s view of “the good.”

If Coyne is a moral realist – that is, if he is attempting to explain morality – he must be able to identify “the good” with some material state of affairs. “The well-being of society” is intolerably vague. Without some clarity, we cannot assess Coyne’s explanation for morality. After all, Stalin, Trotsky, Lenin and Mao all claimed to be promoting what was good for society; their moral visions were less than compelling. Take up and read Brave New World or Fahrenheit 451; it is possible to conceive of well ordered, civilized societies which are deeply immoral.

[iv] Ah, but what about all those atheistic Swedes? Well, let’s not assume that they’re all card carrying reductionists who believe that there’s nothing more to the universe than can be described by science. The secular world is teeming with individuals with vague spiritual beliefs. (Like Sam Harris, in fact.) In any case, we believe that morality has a binding force which Coyne has failed to explain. We aren’t arguing that an atheistic Sweden should be an amoral apocalypse. The universal  moral code is, well, universal. You can’t dodge it, no matter your worldview. But our question to atheistic Swedes would be how do you explain the binding force of morality? Doesn’t it seem strange that you feel compelled to live by moral rules? Why do you find it impossible to ignore them?

 [v] Perhaps an existential hero could rise to that challenge – but then, Coyne would tell us that existentialism is a crock, because there is no self!

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