Keith Parsons is a moralistic militant atheist. He denounces hell and OT "genocide." But, of course, moralistic atheists face a familiar dilemma: unless secular ethics can underwrite moral realism, they have no basis for their attacks on the morality of Scripture. Parsons has attempted to defend secular ethics:
It is important that an ethical theory not be gratuitously at odds with our basic ethical intuitions. For instance, an ethical theory that says that it is acceptable to rape if you can be sure that you will get away with it can hardly be acceptable. The reason that a moral theory, as opposed to a physical theory, has as one purpose the aim to show us how to live well, and to live well means, in part, to be at peace with ourselves and others. We cannot be at peace with ourselves or others if we espouse ethical principles that are in plain conflict with our deepest moral feelings.
i) An obvious problem with that appeal is the lack of universal moral intuitions. Indeed, that's a stock argument for moral skepticism. What people find morally intuitive varies from person to person, time, and place. That's why anthropologists typically espouse cultural relativism.
We can only reject that if we have an objective standard, independent of mere intuition, by which to adjudicate competing moral intuitions.
ii) To take his own illustration: throughout history, armies rape the women in the countries and cities they invade, occupy, or conquer. Was that in "plain conflict" with their "deepest moral feelings?"
What if Parsons alleges that deep down, they know that's wrong? But what's his evidence that their conduct is "gratuitously at odds with their basic ethical intuitions"? He can't infer that from their actions. And unless they confess that it's contrary to their deepest moral feelings, he has no appreciable evidence to suppose they are suppressing their basic ethical intuitions.
Objection: Facts are different from norms. You cannot derive an “ought” from an “is,” as Hume observed long ago. NAEN appeals to the facts of biology to support ethical norms, that is, facts are adduced to justify norms. Yet the facts of biology—or psychology, anthropology, and sociology—can only tell us how we do in fact act. At most, it can only tell us what we do regard as morally worthy or unworthy. What such empirical sciences cannot do is tell us what we should value. Perhaps we do in fact value the well-being of other people, but that fact fails to reveal why it is morally imperative that we do, i.e. why we should do it. Thus, NAEN fails in the most basic requirement of an ethical theory, that is, in providing a basis for moral obligation.
Reply: NAEN does indeed fail to provide a basis for moral obligation if “ought” is required to be based only on a categorical imperative. A categorical imperative is a pure ethical command that defines our duties as universal and necessary and therefore independent of fact or circumstance.
It's unclear to me why he thinks a moral obligation must be independent of fact or circumstance. That may be true of Kantian deontology in particular, but why assume that's a general condition of moral obligation?
For NAEN, ethical norms are hypothetical imperatives that have the form “If you want to actualize good G in situation C, then take steps a, b, c…n.” For instance: “If you want people to thrive, then support education.” But if moral norms are hypothetical imperatives, then we will have to start with some values that are just given, i.e. all we can say about them is that we do in fact value certain things. As Aristotle observed, I might value x because it leads to y and y because it leads to z, but at some point, unless we have an infinite regress, we have to stop with something that, in fact, is just valued for its own sake and is not made valuable by anything else. For Aristotle, that ultimate value was human well-being. For the neo-Aristotelian, it is the well-being of all sentient creatures.
All we would really have to say is that humans are adapted--by natural selection, of course--to live the lives of rational and social creatures and that we are happiest when we are doing so successfully. A person who makes rational decisions and enjoys fruitful personal relationships will--other things being even roughly equal--be much better off than one who decides irrationally and has dysfunctional personal relations. The intellectual and moral virtues should be inculcated because those are the states of mind and character that are conducive to a good life.
i) One problem with his position is that it's a pastiche of Aristotelian ethics, evolutionary ethics, and hedonism. Is there a consistent underlying principle or criterion?
ii) His definition of moral obligation reduces to doing whatever makes you happy. But doesn't the concept of moral duty mean we are sometimes obligated to do something that we don't enjoy doing, just because it's the right thing to do? If "morality" is simply the pursuit of personal happiness, why not drop the talk of morality? What does "moral obligation" add to that characterization? We don't pursue happiness because we ought to be happy, but because we like to be happy. Happiness is an end in itself. Something "we just value for its own sake." So what does duty have to do with it?
Some answer has to be given to Thrasymachus, the character in Plato’s Republic who demands to know why we should not just be unjust and enjoy the benefits of lying, cheating, stealing, and deceiving, when it is to our advantage to do so. We need to have some reason for saying that Thrasymachus was wrong when he alleged that the best way to live would be to be perfectly unjust yet to be thought perfectly just. That way we could get the benefit of being totally self-serving, and yet enjoy the honors and respect accorded to those who exhibit morality. There has to be something unreasonable about such an option.
I think Thrasymachus' question is a bit more basic than the one you mention. Thrasymachus challenges the very basis of morality. Why be good if you can get your goodies by appearing just while successfully lying, cheating, and stealing? Unless it is in some sense more rational to be good than to be bad, then morality is for suckers.
If Thrasymachus was right, and the best, most rational, most rewarding way to live is to be like Vito Corleone--a rich, powerful criminal, with the respect and honor of his community--then morality would be for cynics and chumps. Cynics would deploy moral standards to manipulate the chumps into willingly being exploited and controlled.
I don't see where he refutes cynicism. Take a Latin American drug lord who murders business rivals. Has them tortured to death. Tortures their wives and kids as a deterrent. Even if a brave man is prepared to oppose him, that man won't put his wife and kids at risk. Likewise, the drug lord has his bodyguards kidnap any pretty woman he takes a fancy to, so that he can rape her. And his product (cocaine) destroys individuals and families.
It's unclear why that's wrong on Parsons' construction. That's what the drug lord values. That's what makes him happy.
You can only say that shouldn't be what makes him happy if you have an objective standard of morality. Perhaps Parsons would counter that while that benefits the drug lord, it does so at the cost of the common good. If so, that's a different criterion. What makes one person happy or happier may not make another person happy or happier. So where's the universal standard?
Perhaps Parsons would counter that the business of a Latin American drug lord is a high-risk occupation. You make a lot of enemies. You're unlikely to have a normal lifespan. For instance, Pablo Escobar died a violent death at age 44.
But suppose the risk of a shorter life is the tradeoff for a life of unimaginable indulgence. From a secular standpoint, is it better to die of senile dementia at 80 than die younger, but live it up?
Morality may be for suckers but that doesn't mean that it doesn't exist.
It seems to me that the proper answer to Thrasymachus is to acknowledge that what morality requires and what self-interests commends often do come apart. Morality, as you suggest, requires impartiality, and this implies that what we are morally obligated to do will at least sometimes conflict with what is in our self-interest. So there really is no problem here once we understand the nature of moral requirements and their connection to impartiality.
So, why should we be good? Because we are morally required to.
Of course, that begs the question. Why should an atheist act contrary to his self-interest?