So, the next chapter in Bannister’s book that Seidensticker examines focuses on the question of morality. Now, we’ve we’ve already discussed Seidensticker’s view of morality, which is that morality is not objective. As we’ve also seen, I disagree and think that morality is objective, but as someone more philosophically minded I don’t think that it needs to be grounded in God, and that one of the many objective moralities that do not directly invoke or need to be directly grounded in religion would work fine. I really wish that more atheists would take that approach instead of, like Seidensticker, rushing to ground morality in subjective preference, since that always leads them to rather odd arguments. And this post is no exception.
So let’s start. Bannister’s first argument is essentially that atheists can’t just go ahead and re-define morality to be whatever they want it to be in order to allow room for morality to not require God. Seidensticker replies in a way that has been common for him:
I agree that changing definitions to suit your whim is a bad idea, but Bannister might want to get his own house in order first. “Faith” is an important concept that has two incompatible definitions, and many Christians switch between them as convenient to make their argument (more here). Another slippery area for many Christians is morality. They imagine that any moral statement must be a claim to objective morality, even though that’s not how morality is defined (more here).
By, of course, not defending the atheist use or redefinition, but by instead conceding that it is — or, rather, there, would be a bad argument — but trying to argue that Christians have similar problems with another concept, which here is “Faith”. That’s not a defense of the atheist use of morality. And when Seidensticker turns to morality, he still doesn’t defend the atheist tactic that Bannister is talking about, but instead argues that Christians are invalidly defining moral statements as objective, despite that not being how morality is defined. So, not only does he not defend the atheist argument, he actually makes a very controversial statement. How in the world does he justify claiming that morality is not objective? Certainly moral philosophy — the field that is best suited for settling such questions — sees morality being objective as a very live option. Also, most people do think that morality is at least in some sense objective, or at least act like it. You might think that the “here” would indicate a post or link that would prove it … but you can go and read that link yourself. It doesn’t. It’s just more of Seidensticker’s assertions that it is and he even tells the person he’s replying to — Frank Turek, there — to look morality up in the dictionary and doesn’t provide a link to the dictionary definition that he’s using to come to his conclusion. And since this chapter is about debating over what morality means or requires, using that as an example of Christian confusion is him putting the cart well before the horse here. Suffice it to say, we need to settle if morality can be objective and if the atheist move to define — or re-define — morality to not be objective and/or not require a God can work before he tries to use it to excuse atheist slipperiness on the basis of Christian slipperiness … and if he could do that, then he wouldn’t need to defend potential atheist slipperiness because they wouldn’t be doing anything slippery at all. So this response is utterly irrelevant to the discussion at hand.
Bannister demands, “Who gets to define what the words ‘good’ and ‘evil’ mean?”
Uh . . . humans? The definitions are in the dictionary. But if he’s asking how we put moral actions into the Good bin or the Evil bin, we do it with the imperfect sense of right and wrong that we got from evolution and society (more here and here).
And whom is to say that the dictionary definitions are correct? How do we know what morality really is? And how do we know that our imperfect sense of right and wrong works, especially if we disagree? If Seidensticker has a dictionary definition of morality that he likes, then he can link to the dictionary and show that his evolutionary/societal theory fits and is the only theory that does fit that definition, and also rules out morality being objective. The reason he never does this, I suspect, is because he knows that the dictionary definition, in fact, does no such thing.
He notes that as long as two people with very different views on things “can agree not to try to suggest that the other one is wrong, everybody can get along famously.”
But of course, we often correct each other’s morality. We talk it over. We debate. We argue. Can he have never seen how humans try to resolve disagreements? It’s not always pretty, and minds often don’t change. But no supernatural is required to explain morality, as he wants to imagine.
But here’s the problem: if someone suggests that my view of morality is wrong, then they need to demonstrate it. But to demonstrate it, they need to assume that there is a right answer, and that my view is not tracking it properly. Then we can walk through the steps and the arguments and both come to the conclusion, hopefully, of what the right answer is. If Seidensticker wants to deny that there just is a right answer, then when we disagree I don’t even need to engage him, any more than I need to engage him if he claims the obviously ridiculous claim that the Persona series is not the best video game series ever or that kale actually tastes good. So the dilemma is this: if you make morality subjective, then moral disagreement is pointless, and if you want meaningful moral disagreement, you need to make morality objective.
Bannister makes clear our error:
Quite frankly, my first reaction, when I meet anybody who tells me that they sincerely believe that we decide what is ‘good’ and ‘evil’ based on our preferences or our feelings is to lean over and steal something from them. When they protest (“Give me back my seal-skin gloves!”), I simply say, innocently and sweetly: ‘But I thought you said “good” and “evil” were just questions of personal preference. Well, my preference is that I’m smitten with your mittens.’ That usually changes the conversation quite rapidly.
Does he really want to steal my stuff? If that doesn’t fit with my plans, then I have society and the law to back me up. Theft where I come from is illegal. But if he’s just making a point, what’s the point? That people can steal things? Yes, they can—is that a revelation? We live in an imperfect society with many moral disagreements. If harm is involved, that’s usually central to society’s resolution of the problem.
Maybe he’s saying that his stealing something will snap me out of my simplistic reverie and return me to the real world. But what insights does he imagine he’s given me—that people don’t like being stolen from? That we share morals? We already know that. None of this argues for objective morality.
Here’s what I’m sure Bannister is getting at: if I steal something from that person, they are likely to protest on the basis that what I’m doing is not just illegal, but is in fact immoral. In short, they want to argue that stealing that is morally wrong. But Bannister’s reply is that while that person might indeed feel that that is morally wrong, if morality is just a matter of personal preference or feeling that if by their own personal preferences stealing that thing from them is not immoral — because, in this case, their personal morality is based solely upon their own wants — then it isn’t in fact immoral to the person who has just stolen their mittens. At that point, the original person can no longer argue on the basis of morality, but has to argue on the basis of other things, like the law. Which, you’ll note is precisely what Seidensticker does here: he drops any argument about morality, and instead retreats to the law to try to convince Bannister not to steal the mittens. At which point, it seems that morality isn’t going to play a large role in stopping someone from, say, stealing from you or, in fact, doing anything that you don’t want them to do because you think it is immoral. Which, again, seems to make morality and moral judgements rather meaningless.
Next, Bannister moves on to fret if might makes right.
Yeah—sometimes it does. The Allies defeated Germany, so guess whose laws were used during the Nuremburg Trials. A German concentration camp commandant might have honestly thought that he was carrying out a noble mission, that he was right. However, the Allies disagreed, and since they won the war, they decide the standard of “right” used in the court.
Here’s the obvious and immediate counter to this argument: if the Germans had won WWII, they would have tried the Allies as war criminals, and since they had the might then they would have set the standards of right. So, then, not handing over Jews to be sent to the concentration camps would have been immoral. And, in fact, it was right for that concentration camp commandant to kill all of those people because at the time the Germans in fact had the might to do so. Thus, any action taken by the group that has the power is automatically right — or, as Seidensticker says later, as close to right as we can get — because it is backed by might. Seidensticker commits the common fallacy of taking the morality that we have now, using that as the basis for his argument, and ignoring that his argument makes the things that he considers utterly immoral equally justified. He can argue that he agrees with that assessment, but it really kills his example here when we can point out that it equally justifies the Holocaust as it does punishing those who participated in the Holocaust.
Seidensticker eventually tries to deal with some challenges Bannister raises towards, presumably, the end of the chapter:
Challenge 1: If we go back to the 1950s and tell people that in 2017 we’re largely pleased that same-sex marriage is finally legal, most people would be horrified. Now imagine that the tables are turned so that we are the horrified, regressive people compared to people in society fifty or a hundred years in our future. What society declares as “good” changes with time.
Response: Obviously. Morality changes, and each society thinks that it has things largely figured out, though there are moral dissidents in each society, some longing for the morality of the Good Old Days and some pushing new attitudes that will gradually become accepted.
This causes no problem for my position, but I’m not the one who needs to justify the Bronze Age morality in the Old Testament.
So, let’s examine Seidensticker’s position here. What is Seidensticker going to argue here? That we would be right to be horrified at the perceived “immorality” of that future society? Then those in the 1950s are equally right to be horrified at our immorality for accepting same-sex marriage. Or is he — as his response actually implies — going to claim that their morality is right and that we were wrong, but misled? Then he seems to be arguing that there is some kind of criteria for determining what is moral beyond just what the person thinks is moral. And what if the future society is one that finds same-sex marriage or abortion immoral? Is Seidensticker going to insist that they’re wrong? Then again he’d be pushing for some kind of objective morality, some set of really right and wrong answers. Or is he going to call it immoral, but only on the basis of his own personal subjective assessment? Then the person from the 1950s can do the same thing.
So Seidensticker misses the point of the example, as it seems that with the challenge Seidensticker is forced to either accept that the person in the 1950s did not hold an actual immoral view or insist that there is a right answer and one or both sides of the example are wrong about what is really moral, making morality objective.
Challenge 2: Without God, you can (1) let everyone decide good and evil for themselves. Or (2) the state decides, but then might makes right. With (1) morality is impossible, and with (2) morality is meaningless. In both cases, you have no absolute authority with which to overrule another person or state. But there is a solution: “If goodness were something bigger than us, something outside us. Only then could ethics, morality, and law actually work.”
Response: You know what it’s like to tell a joke and have it fall flat? That’s like Bannister’s Hail Mary suggestion that ethics, morality, and law might actually work if God were behind it. He supports this claim with nothing. He imagines that God is the authority that will resolve moral dilemmas, but how is that possible when you can find Christians today on every side of every moral issue?
Seidensticker here makes the common atheist mistake of claiming that just because there is disagreement over the right answer that there therefore must not be a right answer. Bannister’s argument here is that with God there is a right answer to all moral dilemma, given by a being with the proper authority to set that right answer, God. Given that, to figure out what the right answer is we just need to figure out what God really wants (which may not be simple). However, Seidensticker’s reply in no way addresses that. He dismisses Bannister’s solution, but never addresses Bannister’s actual challenge, which is how you can’t use either of those two options to make a morality that works. So, Seidensticker, despite defending both propositions, doesn’t reference how Bannister is wrong about his actual challenge in responding here, but instead focuses on saying that he doesn’t think that Bannister’s answer works and doesn’t even actually make a valid argument against it. Huh.
Challenge 3: Sam Harris wants to use science to find morality. “I do give Harris credit for at least realizing something that many other atheist writers have failed to grasp—that atheism has a major problem when it comes to the question of goodness.”
Response: Atheism says nothing about goodness. That’s not a problem, just like it’s not a problem in chemistry or geology. It’s not supposed to—atheism is simply a lack of belief in god(s).
But atheism — as many atheists continually argue — has a moral consequence: much of the morality our society has accepted has been at least grounded in religious mores, and the religious mores of the society. So, if you give up religion, you give up that basis as well. Many atheists argue that most moral decisions are actually not religious anyway as, at best, religion is used as a post-hoc justification of our own moral intuitions. Fine, but then atheists still need to find a justification to replace what religion was doing, or else admit that their moral principles are not justified. Also, since Seidensticker earlier chided Bannister for having to justify Bronze Age morality, presumably if we abandon the religious basis then much of those moral principles ought to fade away as well, which requires an argument. So either there are moral consequences to becoming an atheist or else all of those atheists just miraculously had the right morality despite one of the main things that taught them what is or isn’t moral being a Bronze Age morality and presumably wrong about a number of things. Either way, Seidensticker’s answer simply dodges the question of what the impact of atheism on ideas of goodness is.