I’m going to comment on this article:
We “moralistic atheists” do not see right and wrong as artifacts of a divine protection racket. Rather, we find moral value to be immanent in the natural world, arising from the vulnerabilities of sentient beings and from the capacities of rational beings to recognize and to respond to those vulnerabilities and capacities in others.
She fails to explain how moral obligations are generated by the vulnerabilities of sentient beings.
For instance, both the serial killer and his victim are vulnerable sentient beings. Do both have equal value? Are both entitled to equal treatment?
This view of the basis of morality is hardly incompatible with religious belief. Indeed, anyone who believes that God made human beings in His image believes something like this — that there is a moral dimension of things, and that it is in our ability to apprehend it that we resemble the divine. Accordingly, many theists, like many atheists, believe that moral value is inherent in morally valuable things. Things don’t become morally valuable because God prefers them; God prefers them because they are morally valuable. At least this is what I was taught as a girl, growing up Catholic.
i) That’s a false dichotomy. Take a da Vinci painting. Because da Vinci was an artistic and scientific genius, his painting is a concrete expression of his genius. The painting has inherent value, but that’s because da Vinci transmitted some of his genius to the painting. The value of the painting is still derivative.
ii) Creatures aren’t valuable merely because God prefers them, but because God made them. God made morally valuable creatures. That’s a design feature of certain creatures.
It is only if morality is independent of God that we can make moral sense out of religious worship. It is only if morality is independent of God that any person can have a moral basis for adhering to God’s commands.
Let me explain why. First let’s take a cold hard look at the consequences of pinning morality to the existence of God. Consider the following moral judgments — judgments that seem to me to be obviously true:
• It is wrong to drive people from their homes or to kill them because you want their land.
• It is wrong to enslave people.
• It is wrong to torture prisoners of war.
• Anyone who witnesses genocide, or enslavement, or torture, is morally required to try to stop it.
To say that morality depends on the existence of God is to say that none of these specific moral judgments is true unless God exists. That seems to me to be a remarkable claim. If God turned out not to exist — then slavery would be O.K.? There’d be nothing wrong with torture? The pain of another human being would mean nothing?
Notice that she’s assuming what she needs to prove. She’s hardly entitled to take that as a given, then premise her argument on that gratuitous assumption.
Think now about our personal relations — how we love our parents, our children, our life partners, our friends. To say that the moral worth of these individuals depends on the existence of God is to say that these people are, in themselves, worth nothing — that the concern we feel for their well being has no more ethical significance than the concern some people feel for their boats or their cars. It is to say that the historical connections we value, the traits of character and personality that we love — all count for nothing in themselves. Other people warrant our concern only because they are valued by someone else — in this case, God. (Imagine telling a child: “You are not inherently lovable. I love you only because I love your father, and it is my duty to love anything he loves.”)
i) But we don’t have equal concern for everyone. We don’t value everyone equally. Louise Antony surely values her own kids more highly than someone else’s kids. She surely has more concern for the wellbeing of her own friends than she has for perfect strangers.
Or, to put it crassly, a mother and a serial killer don’t place the same value on the mother’s daughter.
ii) Abortion proponents don’t ascribe inherent worth to their babies.
iii) Actually, there is something to be said for valuing someone because they are valued by someone else. Take a son who introduces his friends to his father. Because of what the son means to his father, the father befriends the friends of his sons. He values them because he values his son, and they are valued by his son.
What could make anyone think such things? Ironically, I think the answer is: the same picture of morality that lies behind atheistic nihilism. It’s the view that the only kind of “obligation” there could possibly be is the kind that is disciplined by promise of reward or threat of punishment.
But that’s a typical atheistic caricature of Christian morality. Threats and rewards function as incentives or disincentives. They’re not the basis of morality.
Such a view cannot find or comprehend any value inherent in the nature of things, value that could warrant particular attitudes and behavior on the part of anyone who can apprehend it.
Notice how she keeps begging the question. Yet that’s the very issue in dispute.
For someone who thinks that another being’s pain is not in itself a reason to give aid, or that the welfare of a loved one is not on its own enough to justify sacrifice, it is only the Divine Sovereign that stands between us and — as Hobbes put it — the war of “all against all.”
i) She has yet to establish how that in itself is a reason to give aid. Suppose a suicide bomber is hurting. Is that a compelling reason for me to come to his aid?
ii) On a secular basis, why is the welfare of a loved one enough to justify sacrifice? That has emotional appeal, but how is that objectively obligatory? For one thing, your loved ones aren’t my loved ones. Why should I sacrifice for your loved ones? Or is she admitting that it’s relative after all?
D.C.T. says that it is God’s command that explains why the good acts are “good” — it becomes true merely by definition that God commands “good” actions...This makes for really appalling consequences, from an intuitive, moral point of view. D.C.T. entails that anything at all could be “good” or “right” or “wrong.” If God were to command you to eat your children, then it would be “right” to eat your children. The consequences are also appalling from a religious point of view.
i) That’s a straw man. There’s no reason to reduce Christian ethics to voluntarism. To some extent, moral obligations correspond to the nature God gave us. For instance, lions will kill the cubs of a rival lion. That doesn’t give me the right to kill the offspring of another man. For I’m not a lion. What’s permissible for lions isn’t ipso facto permissible for humans, given natural differences. And that, in turn, is grounded in how God designed different creatures.
ii) There is also the fact that, in varying degrees, creatures exemplify the goodness of their Creator. Like the relation of a painting to a painter. They reflect the wisdom of their designer.
If “good” is to have normative force, it must be something that we can understand independently of what is commanded by a powerful omnipresent being.
That confuses the ontology of ethics with the epistemology of ethics.
So what about atheism? What I think all this means is that the capacity to be moved by the moral dimension of things has nothing to do with one’s theological beliefs. The most reliable allies in any moral struggle will be those who respond to the ethically significant aspects of life, whether or not they conceive these things in religious terms. You do not lose morality by giving up God; neither do you necessarily find it by finding Him.
She hasn’t shown that there are any ethically significant aspects of life to respond to. You’d expect a secular ethicist to begin her article by making a case for secular ethics, then compare and contrast that to Christian ethics (or Jewish ethics, or what have you). But she never does. Instead, she cites some emotionally appealing examples of what she takes to be paradigm-cases of morality or immorality. But that’s just sentimental.