Hitchens’ Challenge: Why it’s Philosophically Naive …

There’s a lot of shots taken at the New or Gnu or whatever they’re calling themselves Atheists for them being philosophically naive. I, in fact, think that that’s often the case with them as well. And all of the recent tributes to Christopher Hitchens have brought up one of his more famous arguments that I think demonstrates this quite well. So, despite the fact that he’s the only one of the Four Horsemen whose seminal work on religion and faith I have not read because for the most part when I read his stuff or listened to him I found his arguments to be more rhetoric than substance, I think I’ll use that argument to demonstrate how there’s more to these sorts of arguments philosophically than might meet the eye, or than you might see by relying on sound bites.

And for those who think that this is somehow mean-spirited given the current situation, I think it can be credibly argued that the best tribute you could make to Hitchens would be to take a run at him. Anyway, I come neither to praise nor bury Hitchens, but simply to talk about something that he talked about.

Anyway, the argument is basically this:

Name me an ethical statement made or an action performed by a believer that could not have been made or performed by a non-believer.

Now, to start with I think a little disambiguation is required. In order for this to have any real argumentative thrust, it must be the case that Hitchens wants us to name an action or a statement made ethically, in a sense where we can argue that the person is being good or ethical in taking that action or genuinely talking about good or ethical in making that statement. Obviously, we can all do every single action that anyone could do and could say anything that anyone can possibly say. But for it to be interesting and to link up to the charge that it’s used against — that atheists cannot be moral or ethical — it has to be the case that Hitchens is asking us to give an example of something that atheists cannot do ethically, even if they can take the action.

And to start replying to it, we need to look at the two broad categories of theists, who we discover when we look at Euthyphro’s dilemma. And what we have are:

Type 1: What is ethical is what God says is ethical; there is no other objective criteria.

Type 2: There is an objective criteria for what is ethical that is independent of God, but God knows what that criteria is.

We can debate whether or not these stances work or not — I think that both can, although I’m a Type 2 myself and think that the Type 1 case is wrong — but that’s not the point of this post. Taking their actual views and seeing how they’d reply to the challenge is. So, let’s try that, starting with the Type 1s:

H: Name one action that non-believers can’t do ethically.

A: All of them.

See, for Type 1s what makes an action ethical is nothing more than that it was decreed so by God. If you aren’t taking that action because you believe that it was decreed by God, you are not doing it for ethical reasons, according to that view. So atheists would never be acting ethically because they would never have ethical reasons for their actions. And if you don’t take an action for ethical reasons, it isn’t an ethical action. So atheists, then, can ape or imitate ethical behaviour, but could never actually act ethically according to the standards of Type 1 ethics.

Now, someone could say that you just need to take the actions, but don’t need to have ethical reasons for doing so in order to be ethical. The problem is that this leads to nasty conclusions like that if you are intending to kill someone by poisoning their drink but use too little so it sends them to hospital where a tumor is discovered that is treated and so their life is saved when it wouldn’t have been if you hadn’t tried to kill them then that action is ethical. That’s a bit absurd, so only strong consequentialists hold it.

Anyway, Type 1s, then, reply to Hitchens with a reply that reveals that Hitchens doesn’t actually understand their view, and so his challenge to them is almost immediately made moot.

So, what about Type 2s?

H: Name one action that non-believers can’t do ethically.

A: There aren’t any.

H: Ha! So then atheists can be ethical!

A: We’ve never denied that atheists can be moral. We want to know what your justification is for being ethical, though, so we can see if it works and if you really do have an ethical system.

For Type 2s — and, again, I’m a Type 2 — that atheists could act ethically has never been in question. If there is a way to objectively justify ethics independently of what God says, then this just simply follows. What we want, however, is what does underlie your ethical actions. We’re just as interested in the reasons for actions as Type 1s are; we just don’t have a presumed preferred ethical system by definition like Type 1s do. So the challenge from Type 2s to atheists is simply for them to tell us where they are getting their ethics from. We know where Type 1s get it, rightly or wrongly; they get it from their Holy Books. Where atheists get theirs from, however, is an interesting question. And a reply of “We’re humanists!” doesn’t work because we — and, we think, you — don’t know what that means.

So, again, the challenge is made moot. Since Type 2s don’t and can’t insist that atheists cannot be ethical due to the stance Type 2s take towards ethics, failing to “answer” Hitchens’ challenge doesn’t actually prove anything; we still want to know what the ethical justifications atheists are using are, and why they are as good or better than the ones that we are using … even if we get ours from the Bible, say, itself like Type 1s do (for the record, I don’t. The perils of being both a philosopher and a theist [grin]).

So, we can see that once we unpack the relevant philosophical details, the challenge is philosophically naive if you conceive it as an ending instead of merely a starting point. How Type 1s and Type 2s reply is what’s interesting, not what they reply. Once we see the differences in positions and what they mean for the challenge, we can see where the arguments are going and what proof each side has to offer, and who has a burden of proof and who doesn’t.

Note that I’m not saying that all of the replies will meet what I say here. I think that a good many of the normal responders get sucked into the shallow debate and never plumb the philosophical depths. But, to me, this is where the arguments have to go if we take the stances seriously, and unlike some other cases where taking the stances strongly seriously leads to a lack of nuance, here it merely clarifies while leaving lots of room for nuance.

So, then, in my view this sort of analysis could be seen as sophisticated theology, and so the challenge to those who deny that such a thing can exist would be “What’s wrong with this?”.


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