Thursday, December 18, 2008

Godless morality

Peter Singer and Marc Hauser have written a little brief in defense of secular ethics:

Let’s review their case:

Is religion necessary for morality?

Of course, that’s a straw man argument. A Christian ethicist is not going to argue that Hinduism or Islam is necessary for morality.

Singer and Hauser are trying to position the “religious” argument for an easy defeater by framing the question at an artificially high level of abstraction.

Yet problems abound for the view that morality comes from God. One problem is that we cannot, without lapsing into tautology, simultaneously say that God is good, and that he gave us our sense of good and bad. For then we are simply saying that God meets God’s standards.

That’s an allusion to the Euthyphro dilemma. The implication is that grounding morality in the will of God involves an arbitrary divine fiat. But that’s another straw man argument.

God is the Creator. He endows human beings with a specific nature. For example, the fact that human beings reproduce, which involves the mating of males and females, producing children who take years to mature, immediately generates a set of social obligations which would not obtain if human nature were different. So the Euthyphro dilemma is too simplistic to disqualify Christian ethics.

A second problem is that there are no moral principles that are shared by all religious people, regardless of their specific beliefs, but by no agnostics and atheists.

Of course, this phenomenon is by no means inconsistent with Christian ethics. The Bible furnishes a theological explanation for the origin of idolatry and infidelity.

Indeed, atheists and agnostics do not behave less morally than religious believers, even if their virtuous acts rest on different principles.

Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. More on that later.

Non-believers often have as strong and sound a sense of right and wrong as anyone.

Of course, that’s fatally equivocal. Having a strong sense of right and wrong doesn’t entail a sound sense of right and wrong. A Nazi has a strong sense of right and wrong.

And it begs the question to assert that unbelievers have a sound sense of right and wrong. Whether secular ethics can justify that claim is the very point in dispute.

The opposite is also true. Religion has led people to commit a long litany of horrendous crimes, from God’s command to Moses to slaughter the Midianites – men, women, boys, and non-virginal girls – through the Crusades, the Inquisition, innumerable conflicts between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and suicide bombers convinced that martyrdom will lead them to paradise.

i) Once again, this begs the question. Singer and Hauser are offering a value-judgment on these actions. This presumes that they are entitled to offer a value-judgment. But, of course, they haven’t even begun to establish that presumption.

ii) They also insinuate that you can blame one religion for the misdeeds of another religion. But that’s a very sloppy inference. Should we also blame utilitarians for the misdeeds of deontologists or existentialists?

If you can blame it on religion in general, then why can’t you blame it on ethics in general.

iii) Christian ethics can easily account for the crimes of coreligionists. There’s a word for that: sin. That is hardly inconsistent with Christian ethics. To the contrary, that’s predicted by Christian ethics.

The third difficulty for the view that morality is rooted in religion is that some elements of morality seem to be universal, despite sharp doctrinal differences among the world’s major religions. In fact, these elements extend even to cultures like China, where religion is less significant than philosophical outlooks like Confucianism.

i) Once more, this poses no difficulty for Christian ethics. Have Singer and Hauser never heard of natural law or common grace?

One wonders in reading their caricature of the religious argument whether they are truly that ignorant of Christian ethics, or whether it simply suits their own political agenda to demagogue the issue.

ii) It’s also duplicitous for them to appeal to cultural universals when Singer, for one, has made a career of challenging conventional morality.

iii) Singer and Hauser are also cherry-picking the best of non-Christian civilizations. But even if we were to grant, for the sake of argument, that China was a morally upright civilization, what about ancient Assyria? Or Japan under the Shogun? Or the Aztecs? Or the Iroquois?

Perhaps a divine creator handed us these universal elements at the moment of creation. But an alternative explanation, consistent with the facts of biology and geology, is that over millions of years we have evolved a moral faculty that generates intuitions about right and wrong.

Of course, there are two problems with that alternative:

i) It commits the naturalistic fallacy.

ii) As soon as we become aware of our evolutionary conditioning, we’re in a position to override our evolutionary conditioning.

For the first time, research in the cognitive sciences, building on theoretical arguments emerging from moral philosophy, has made it possible to resolve the ancient dispute about the origin and nature of morality.

Grounding morality in cognitive science continues to commit the naturalistic fallacy. Unless nature has a teleological orientation, which naturalistic evolution denies, you can’t look to nature for moral guidance.

Consider the following three scenarios. For each, fill in the blank space with “obligatory,” “permissible,” or “forbidden.”

1. A runaway boxcar is about to run over five people walking on the tracks. A railroad worker is standing next to a switch that can turn the boxcar onto a side track, killing one person, but allowing the five to survive. Flipping the switch is.

2. You pass by a small child drowning in a shallow pond, and you are the only one around. If you pick up the child, she will survive and your pants will be ruined. Picking up the child is.

3. Five people have just been rushed into a hospital in critical condition, each requiring an organ to survive. There is not enough time to request organs from outside the hospital, but there is a healthy person in the hospital’s waiting room. If the surgeon takes this person’s organs, he will die, but the five in critical care will survive. Taking the healthy person’s organs is.

If you judged case 1 as permissible, case 2 as obligatory, and case 3 as forbidden, then you are like the 1,500 subjects around the world who responded to these dilemmas on our web-based moral sense test ( If morality is God’s word, atheists should judge these cases differently from religious people, and their responses should rely on different justifications.

There are three problems with this argument:

i) As I already pointed out, Christian ethics can explain the common decency of the unbeliever consistent with Christian ethical presuppositions (i.e. natural law, common grace).

ii) Choices like these fail to present a real challenge to morality since the respondent, projecting himself into a situation like this, has nothing to gain or lose.

The acid test of morality is when doing right would be personally disadvantageous while doing the wrong would be personally advantageous. Ruining a pair of pants is trivial. It doesn’t cost you anything of consequence.

iii) It’s duplicitous of Singer to invoke common sense moral intuition when Singer goes on of his way to question and deny common sense moral intuitions on a number of moral issues:

For example, because atheists supposedly lack a moral compass, they should be guided by pure self-interest and walk by the drowning child. But there were no statistically significant differences between subjects with or without religious backgrounds, with approximately 90% of subjects saying that it is permissible to flip the switch on the boxcar, 97% saying that it is obligatory to rescue the baby, and 97% saying that is forbidden to remove the healthy man’s organs.

I’ve already drawn attention to some of the problems with this straw man argument. Now I’ll point out another problem:

There’s a difference between what a morally prereflective unbeliever might do and what a morally reflective unbeliever might do. Singer himself is a case in point. Take his third scenario. From his utilitarian standpoint, would it not be justifiable to kill one person to save five others? How would he himself answer the question of involuntary organ harvesting? Would he agree with the 97% of respondents, or the 3% of respondents? What is he teaching his students at Princeton?

Likewise, I don’t think that public policy in 21C Holland is as virtuous as public policy in 19C Holland. The secularization of Holland (to take one example) has had morally deleterious consequences.

When asked to justify why some cases are permissible and others forbidden, subjects are either clueless or offer explanations that cannot account for the relevant differences. Importantly, those with a religious background are as clueless or incoherent as atheists.

Of course, what all this amounts to is that some respondents lack an adequate worldview while other respondents lack the sophistication to articulate their worldview.

These studies provide empirical support for the idea that, like other psychological faculties of the mind, including language and mathematics, we are endowed with a moral faculty that guides our intuitive judgments of right and wrong. These intuitions reflect the outcome of millions of years in which our ancestors have lived as social mammals, and are part of our common inheritance. Our evolved intuitions do not necessarily give us the right or consistent answers to moral dilemmas. What was good for our ancestors may not be good today.

So why even bother referring to evolution if evolutionary ethics is admittedly inadequate?

But insights into the changing moral landscape, in which issues like animal rights, abortion, euthanasia, and international aid have come to the fore, have not come from religion, but from careful reflection on humanity and what we consider a life well lived.

Of course, that sidesteps the question of whether the “changing moral landscape” is a change for better or worse. It’s clear that Singer and Hauser are writing for a sympathetic audience. There’s no effort to actually prove a single one of their basic claims. What they do, instead, is to pander to the ethnocentric prejudice of the modern, Western reader. Someone who identifies with contemporary Eurocentric values.

In this respect, it is important for us to be aware of the universal set of moral intuitions so that we can reflect on them and, if we choose, act contrary to them. We can do this without blasphemy, because it is our own nature, not God, that is the source of our morality.

But unless our nature is God-given, there’s nothing normative about our nature. What’s the natural distinction between gang-rape and consensual sex? What’s the natural distinction between murder and self-defense?


  1. really good articulate summary of these arguments, man - I think the beginning of C.S. Lewis' 'Mere Christianity' would agree with exactly what you're saying as well.

    Is religion necessary for morality? Well, that depends on definition of religion in the first place. A law giver is absolutely necessary for the existence of right and wrong, otherwise morality is just a constantly changing, ever evolving mess that we can "use our higher evolved intelligence" to say whenever an old moral rule becomes outdated.

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