Winning the battle and losing the war …

So, P.Z. Myers is really annoyed. Okay, that’s not new. And he’s really annoyed about an argument that some theists use against atheism. Okay, again, not new. But what is at least partially new is that this argument is about morality, and the morality of Myers, and a stab at stating clearly an objective, secular morality, in response to a demand for it. And when he actually spells it out … well, let’s not spoil the surprise.

Anyway, Myers says in this post:

There is a common line of attack Christians use in debates with atheists, and I genuinely detest it. It’s to ask the question, “where do your morals come from?” I detest it because it is not a sincere question at all — they don’t care about your answer, they’re just trying to get you to say that you do not accept the authority of a deity, so that they can then declare that you are an evil person because you do not derive your morals from the same source they do, and therefore you are amoral. It is, of course, false to declare that someone with a different morality than yours is amoral, but that doesn’t stop those sleazebags.

Well, first, I, personally, when I ask that question am, in fact, genuinely interested in the answer, because one of the main issues with many atheists is that they reject at least potentially the common source of morality — religion — and yet claim to not only be moral, but also to be more moral than those who do follow religion. Which leads to the second point, which is that people like Myers aren’t exactly hesitant to declare people who have a different morality from them immoral or amoral, so this complaint isn’t fair at all, and is in fact hypocritical. After all, has Myers ever hesitated to call out those who think that you should not allow an abortion even when both will die horrible and evil, despite the fact that the judgement is simply based on a different morality? One that Myers dislikes, of course, but still just a different one.

(Which I always find interesting, because the Catholic morality in those cases is closer to the Stoic/Kantian moralities I favour than the Utilitarian inspired, at least, consequentialist views that people like Sam Harris espouse, and so I actually find those more reasonable than those of many of the New Atheists, even if I disagree with the specifics).

Anyway, Myers actually outlines his four rules — really considerations — for his objective humanist morality:

1. Interest. Am I even interested in carrying out a particular action? There’s a wide range of possible actions I can take at all times, and all of them have consequences. In this realm of possibilities, most options never come up: I have never been in situation where I desire or am compelled to torture a toddler, nor can I imagine a likely scenario for such an activity. It is a non-decision; my default choice is to not torture, and the only time the choice comes up is in bizarre abstract questions by not-very-bright philosophers.

2. Consent. If I’m contemplating an action, I’d next consider whether all participants agree to engage in the action. If it isn’t consensual, it probably isn’t a good idea.

Where does this value come from? Not gods, but self-interest. I do not want things done to me against my will, so I participate in a social contract that requires me to respect others’ autonomy as well. I also find a non-coercive, cooperative culture to better facilitate human flourishing.

3. Harm. I avoid behaviors that cause harm to others.

Again, this is not done because an authority told me to do no harm, but is derived from self-interest and empathy. I do not want to be harmed, so I should not harm others. And because I, like most human beings, have empathy, seeing harm done to others causes me genuine distress.

4. Stigma. This should be the least of my four reasons, but face it, sometimes we are constrained by convention. There are activities we all are interested in doing, that do no harm and may be done with consenting partners, but we keep them private or restrain ourselves to some degree because law or fashion demand it.

These are human and social constraints, not at all divine, and are also not universal or absolute — they can and do change over time. And sometimes, when cultural biases cause harm, I think we have a moral obligation to change the culture.

Here, then, is where he wins the battle — by being able to provide an answer to the question — and loses the war. Sure, here are his rules for morality, and so now we can see precisely how an atheist can, in fact, have a morality and at least potentially an objective one without God. Fair enough. The problem? It’s an Egoist morality. All of his rules are based on self-interest, either explicitly or implicitly.

1 is easy: his first consideration is what he wants to do. So, his first filtering criteria is if he wants to do it. Well, that’s not very interesting morally; where morality gets interesting is those cases where you would, for example — and using Myers’ example, no less — want to kill that toddler … or, alternatively, not want to kill that toddler even if it is your duty to do so. Which is why, in fact, those “not-very-bright philosophers” skip the “I don’t want to” parts in their thought experiments by giving you a reason to want to do it, or think it your duty to do it. It’s not an interesting question to ask if you ought to kill a random toddler on the street … but is an interesting question to ask if you should kill that baby that is the reincarnation of an all-powerful being who previously had killed many people and could and has threatened to destroy the entire universe, while it is currently vulnerable and this will be the only chance to end that threat (Marvel Comics, Secret Wars II, Issue #9. Most of the heroes won’t, but the Molecule Man decides to. A fascinating thought experiment). So, by giving you a reason to want to do something that you might not otherwise want to do, your morality can be tested to see what it really entails.

So, 1 is clearly self-interest.

2 doesn’t have to be self-interest, but Myers of course says that he bases it on self-interest, and so thus his rule 2 is justifed by self-interest.

3 is the same, except that he slips empathy in there. Of course, not doing something because it would make you feel bad is in and of itself self-interest, and morally one can argue that the truly moral person will do the right thing even if it would make them feel bad. Again, the Molecule Man didn’t like killing the baby, but he thought it was the only thing to do. In Secret Wars I, Reed Richards thinks that the right thing to do would be to let Galactus eat Battleworld, defeat his enemies, and get his wish granted: the freedom from his hunger that drives him to destroy entire planets and civilizations. Sacrificing himself and the lives of all the other heroes isn’t something that he likes to do, but he does it anyway. Later, Colossus votes with the group to attack Doom even though he clearly doesn’t want to and it makes him feel bad risking the woman he now loves for it. So empathy’s not relevant morally — at least in terms of “it makes me feel bad if I do it” — and it’s still self-interest.

So, 2 and 3 are also clearly self-interest for Myers.

This leaves 4, which is the social aspect. Myers doesn’t say explicitly, but it seems clear that implicitly he does it because it benefits him to do so or, at least, that he would be punished if he didn’t follow the social conventions. So this is self-interest as well.

Thus, Myers’ objective humanist morality is based entirely on self-interest. Which means that it is a selfish morality, where each person’s moral decisions are based entirely on calculations of their own benefit. Which should imply, then, that if there is any case where Myers can preserve his self-interest by breaking one of these rules, he logically ought to do so, since it is only self-interest that justifies his following these rules in the first place.

I have argued before that a lot of the New Atheist moral justifications implied a selfish morality, but I never expected one to just come out and say it so baldly. And thus, instead of asking where Myers’ morality comes from, we can know say that it is in fact a totally selfish morality, and one where they only do good things because it benefits them and not because it is right or, in fact, even good for the most people.

This does not seem like an improvement to me. If theists can claim that without God all you have are selfish and self-interested and self-centred moralities, where what is right is based only on what benefits you, then they can claim that the only moralities that can accommodate true altruism and true self-sacrifice are religious ones, grounded in God. At that point, Myers’ objective morality hardly seems like an acceptable morality at all, since most people reject the Egoist moralities of Hobbes and Rand. Thus, atheists who follow this are no longer amoral in the sense that they lack a proper moral code to follow, but are immoral in that they follow a dangerous and rejected morality based entirely on selfishness, even while they pretend to be noble and good.

No, this way to win the battle loses atheists the war. I think Myers should go back to the drawing board.

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3 Responses to “Winning the battle and losing the war …”

  1. Wacholder M. Says:

    So this is a really old post, but I’ve just found this (again, I believe to recognise your writing style), so please forgive me. I don’t understand your final line, as the truth (or untruth) of atheism is entirely independent of moral considerations. It’s tangentially interesting where somebody’s morality originates, but any debate on whether atheism or some flavour of religion is more reasonable has just been derailed once this comes up.

    Of course the whole basis for your problem with morality based on interest is that you are not an Übermensch and seek some external justification for your moral beliefs, but perhaps I’m wrong in reading a lot of Nietzsche in Myers’ comment.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      The challenge to atheists was how they ground their morality without God, which is generally that without God you can’t have a morality at all. Myers stepped up to the plate to try to give one, and ended up with one that was entirely Egoistic. If that’s the best an atheist can come up with — and it isn’t — then that sort of answer gets him out of the initial challenge — where’s your morality — but only at the cost of having it be the case that atheists are, in fact, complete Egoists about morality, which most of them desperately want to deny for very good reasons.

      As for the problems with morality based on interest, I wonder whether one can really conflate pragmatic and moral interest that easily. But I haven’t read Nietzsche, so can’t comment on your specific comment any further than that.

      • Wacholder M. Says:

        I’m sorry for my rather misleading, casual Nietzsche-line. I can only offer as an excuse that I was tired and should have refrained from posting at that moment, and I apologise.

        The details of Nietzsche’s Übermensch aren’t that important, I only meant it in an analogous sense. Myers solves the problem of *whence* by proposing his own sense as the base of morality. I think that the reason why he presents it as a form of egoism is that a fully realised Nietzschean position, in which an Übermensch recognises that there is no value left in supernaturalism (“god is dead”) and erects a life-affirming, creative morality to fend of moral nihilism from within him or herself that provides grounds for moral systems again, is too close to “might is right” for Myers (although that is partly a misunderstanding of Nietzsche I think). Similar thoughts have been uttered by many prominent Atheists, such as Dawkins, who noted that evolution imbues us with a kind of pragmatism that leads to values not dissimilar from existing moral systems, Harris axiomatically defines avoiding pain (or more generally unwanted negative experience) as a basis of morality, et cetera, but ultimately all such statements are expressions of subjective will; they are true because Myers, Dawkins, Harris will them to be.

        They ground their morality in themselves.

        There is of course more to Nietzsche, and I hope no adherent to his philosophy will be too annoyed by my butchering thereof.

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