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Friday, March 13, 2009


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Bill, would you say that consistency is the most important aspect in this situation? This is to say that an atheist can be as moral as a theist, but, if you grant that morals must at least eventually rest upon a metaphysical foundation, the atheist is being inconsistent in adhering to morality as if it was objectively valid.

This, to me, has always been the crux of the moral argument, practically speaking. I know of now prominent theist philosophers who have actually argued that atheists are in fact less moral as a people than theists. Harris, along with all of the other anti-theists, is responding to a straw-man.

For my part, I think it's got to be true that atheists are on the whole less moral than atheists. (In other words, that the answer tt Q1 is yes.) Certainly, if I were than atheist then my attitube would be: do good for the most part until there arises a dark opportunity with a suitably large payoff and an appropriately slight risk of detection.

Comments like the second one, I think, tell us more about the author's attitudes than anything else.

Oops, I meant to also ask why it is the case that an atheist cannot have metaphysical foundations for morality? Are you saying that in order to have metaphysical foundations for morality they must be theistic foundations? It seems to me a non-believer can still be a neo-Kantian or a neo-Aristotlian about morality without being inconsistent.


My remarks do indeed tell you something about my attitudes. But you fail to mention what, if anything, is illigetimate or wrong-headed about my expressed attitudes.

How can atheism have a metaphysical foundation for anything? To my mind, at least, popular atheism entails naturalism and materialism.

Edward, that's what atheists get out of a content-less definition, that Bill blogged about just a few days ago.

Atheism, as a designation for those that lack a faith in God, does not say anything about any other metaphysical system.

However, how that applies to Harris is a little problematical. Let's say atheist Al believes in a metaphysical Good, and is dutifully skeptical of most other "soft" ideas. Let's say we have atheist Bob, a pure materialist and naturalist. Well, Bob just believes in "one less" metaphysical system than Al. Harris is known to use the "one less God" argument, and the "one less" metaphysic argument is roughly equivalent.

If we start to argue about the applicability of the "one less" argument, then we throw some doubt on whether, even if it has validity (which I am not convinced) it was applied right in either case.

Harris is a mystic, though. However, he's bewildered by the ridicule he receives from the non-believing side over his buy-in to meditation and mysticism. He doesn't seem to understand how this relates to the "one less" argument. And he has not realized this yet as far as I can see.

I think that Harris would try to argue that he has the right balance of belief and skepticism. However, that would cut against all "one less" arguments.

Materialists are just subscribers to "one less" substance. Naturalists to "one less" class of events....


For an old or ancient take on what's wrong with it see Plato's "ring of Gyges".

I've never been quite sure how theism is supposed to succeed where any form of atheism fails at giving foundations for morality. Exactly what does God add to the picture, and how? Matt's attitude seems to suggest that what theism adds to the picture is that God will punish you if you don't "do good." But there are two problems here: 1) The attitude seems to concede that we can give plenty of content to "doing good" without theism; 2) the attitude seems to justify "doing good" on the grounds that you'll be punished if you don't. 2 arguably doesn't justify *moral* action at all, since its motivation is basely self-interested. If we concede that genuinely moral action can be justified by appeal to its benefit for the agent, then atheists have plenty of appeals to make, many of which will at least be more noble and genuinely other-regarding than the "God will burn you in Hell" justification. Worse still, if 1 is right, then it's not clear that we're defending the original claim at all -- that claim was, remember, that morality requires a theistic foundation. If we concede that we can make sense of "doing good" without theism, then why are we saying that we need theism as a foundation for morality?

Perhaps Matt is confusing questions about *morality* with questions about *the rationality of morality*. It is by no means obvious that morality must, as a conceptual matter, be rationally justified. If it must, then it must involve a contradiction to say that a) theft is unjust and b) some conceivable rational agents might have sufficient reason to steal. We could multiply the examples, but you take the point. Some philosophers *do* think that there is a necessary conceptual relationship between morality and rationality, but anyone who even considers taking immoralism seriously implicitly rejects that position. To be clear, rejecting the necessarily rational character of morality is not to say that morality is not rationally justified; it is not even to deny that morality is *always* rationally justified or that acting immorally is always rationally unjustified. It is simply to say that the rational justifiability of morality is not a conceptually necessary matter.

It is arguable that theism could supply extra reasons for being moral, but it isn't obvious that they would be very important reasons, reasons that would actually motivate a genuinely moral character, or reasons that add much to the overall justification available to atheists.

Another debate that may be of interest:

Daniel Dennett vs. Alvin Plantinga, Science and Religion, Are They Compatible? (mp3)

In case links don't work: http://www.brianauten.com/Apologetics/Plantinga-Dennett-Debate.mp3

The audio quality is inferior, but of course hearing Plantinga dismantle Dennett is a sufficient compensation.

[Sam Harris:] "If you are right to believe that religious faith offers the only real basis for morality, then atheists should... "

Then atheists should what? According to Sam Harris, atheism is not a system of beliefs nor a world-view nor even a "thing." So it is about as relevant to morality as bricklaying or (more correctly) the absence of bricklaying. He says: "Attaching a label to something carries real liabilities, especially if the thing you are naming isn’t really a thing at all. And atheism, I would argue, is not a thing. It is not a philosophy, just as “non-racism” is not one. Atheism is not a worldview—and yet most people imagine it to be one and attack it as such." (Harris, The Problem with Atheism).

[Sam Harris:] "... are at least as well behaved as the general population."

In the preface to Leonhard Euler's classic text on arithmetic, Euler's biographer assures the reader that Euler considered atheists "to be among the most pernicious enemies of mankind." Surely there is a reason for this. A man may pay his taxes and even be faithful to his wife and seem to adhere to the moral codes of the people around him, but is that all there is to morality? What if he is spreading pernicious ideas? The effect of this is not immediately evident. It is easy to claim he is as moral as the next guy, behaviorally. But ideas have consequences. I think this should be factored in when evaluating the atheist's claim of being 'as moral as the next guy.'

I can't seem to post my full comment, but FWI, it has been reposted here.

And by "here" I mean to click on my name for the link. I guess it's some kind of anti-spam filter.


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