Wednesday, August 10, 2016

There is no God, therefore there is no morality, according to Marks

Here. 

How I arrived at this conclusion is the subject of a book I have written during this recent period (tentatively titled Bad Faith: A Personal Memoir on Atheism, Amorality, and Animals). The long and the short of it is that I became convinced that atheism implies amorality; and since I am an atheist, I must therefore embrace amorality. I call the premise of this argument ‘hard atheism’ because it is analogous to a thesis in philosophy known as ‘hard determinism.’ The latter holds that if metaphysical determinism is true, then there is no such thing as free will. Thus, a ‘soft determinist’ believes that, even if your reading of this column right now has followed by causal necessity from the Big Bang fourteen billion years ago, you can still meaningfully be said to have freely chosen to read it. Analogously, a ‘soft atheist’ would hold that one could be an atheist and still believe in morality. And indeed, the whole crop of ‘New Atheists’ (see Issue 78) are softies of this kind. So was I, until I experienced my shocking epiphany that the religious fundamentalists are correct: without God, there is no morality. But they are incorrect, I still believe, about there being a God. Hence, I believe, there is no morality.

18 comments:

B. Prokop said...

I was about to write, "Well, at least he's honest!" But then I thought, "What does honesty mean to a person with no morality?"

entirelyuseless said...

He explains there that honesty makes him more likable to other people, and says that he likes being liked.

grodrigues said...

@entirelyuseless:

"He explains there that honesty makes him more likable to other people, and says that he likes being liked."

This presumes that he is being honest about his motives, a presumption that he has forfeited. Or as Dr. Johnson remarked:

"But if he does really think that there is no distinction between virtue and vice, why, Sir, when he leaves our houses let us count our spoons."

David Brightly said...

Is 'Marks is honest' in contradiction with 'Marks is an amoralist' ?

Marks seems to draw a sharp line between morality and behaving well. He's given up the former but retains the latter! This is hardly a sustainable understanding of 'morality', so he must be using the word in a technical sense. He is after all a moral philosopher. What he has abandoned is morality seen as divine or categorical commands. For example, he says,

Thus, ‘survival of the fittest’ could naturally promote honesty as a prevalent trait even in the absence of any moral concern.

Honesty, which is just telling the truth, clearly has a moral colouration. So 'moral concern', if a prevalent trait is compatible with its absence, must have a much narrower sense. Judging from his section (I) he takes this to be external command. So if God is the only source of such commands, and there is no God, then there can be no morality in this technical sense. We just have to go on being honest regardless.

Ilíon said...

What does "behaving well" mean absent a moral yardstick against which to compare the behaving so as to determine whether it is well?

Victor Reppert said...

There are two forces which, apart from some sense of ultimate reality underwriting one's moral code, which lead us to behave in ways that most people think of as moral. One is our social interests. We like to be liked, and if people find out that I am a serial killer, they are unlikely to like me. If people come to see me as a pathological liar, they won't believe the words that come out of my mouth, which will destroy the entire point of my saying them in the first place. The other is sympathy. It is part of most people's makeup to feel sympathy for others. Where this is entirely lacking we use words like "psychopath" to describe them.

But I don't think there is a perfect match between these motives and morality, nor do I think that these motivations are necessarily overriding from a rational standpoint. Yet morality seems to be something that is supposed to be overriding.

Aron Zavaro said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Aron Zavaro said...

"since I am an atheist, I must therefore embrace amorality. "

What sort of "ought" is the word "must" in this sentence supposed to be? A categorical imperative, or a hypothetical imperative?

If it's a categorical imperative (i.e., everyone ought to do do X, regardless of their desires, circumstances, etc.) then Marks apparently does in fact believe that atheism can make room for normativity.

If instead Marks is following a hypothetical imperative (i.e., you ought to do X, if you have desires A, B, C) then Marks still thinks that certain behaviors can be motivated and rationally compelled, even if atheism is true. And behaviors that he previously regarded as "moral" can still be rationally required on the grounds of hypothetical imperatives (e.g., if I was to be trusted, I ought to be honest; if I want to be liked, I ought to be kind: if I want to live in a stable society; I ought to be peaceful and encourage this behavior in others: etc.)

So regardless of whether Marks is obeying a hypothetical or categorical imperative, he clearly still believes that humans have ratioanal reasons for action, and that some actions are worse at accomplishing our desires and goals. So even his newfound "hard atheism" does not entail compete relativism and nihilism. It would be wrong to think that, on atheism, there is no reason to behave one way rather than another. It can very well accommodate a system of rules and behavior, even if he doesn't feel comfortable calling that "morality."

oozzielionel said...

If I have the belief X than behavior Y is rationally consistent with that belief. In the case where behavior Y is inconsistent with a standard of moral behavior, then we conclude that belief X produces immoral behavior Y. Now the behavior in this case is evaluated based on belief(s) A,B,C... This indicates a dissonance between belief X and belief(s) A,B,C.

This dissonance does not require the imposition of a separate person with a distinct belief. We are capable of developing our own dissonant beliefs where we violate our own stated beliefs. This is a violation of conscience resulting from competing internal beliefs, values, desires, etc.

In a social setting, morality can be determined by consensus as Victor alludes to. However, the morality of the majority can be even more disappointing than our failures to live up to our own internal moral compass.

There seems to be an impetus to seek a higher standard -- to aspire to something better.

Belief always affects behavior. There is no amorality.



Crude said...

It would be wrong to think that, on atheism, there is no reason to behave one way rather than another.

No one's saying that. There are reasons, in the broad sense, to live in this or that way on atheism as Marks outlines it.

"I want to do X." is one reason.

"Someone will beat the crap out of me if I don't do X." is another.

That about sums it up.

jdhuey said...

It seems to me that a key component of any moral calculus is that it is meant to be a restriction on the behavior of everyone. Morality is not just a personal decision to restrain MY behavior but is meant to restrain YOUR behavior. To enforce this restraint on others, especially when that other might be alone, is to create a magical being that sees all and punishes people for transgressions. In other words, divine command morality is just a con - pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

Crude said...

It seems to me that a key component of any moral calculus is that it is meant to be a restriction on the behavior of everyone.

Hey hey hey either everyone can slice open each other or no one can mister surgeon.

In other words, divine command morality is just a con -

This follows from nothing you said, but don't let that stop you.

By the way, I love the typical New Atheist logic generally displayed, where the omniscient, omnipotent Creator of All's moral dictums can't have authority, because he doesn't have the credentials of the mighty Sam freaking Harris and his hypothetical band of dorks scientifically determining morality.

But getting back to the point - which bugs New Atheists - yeah, if you're an atheist materialist, morality's not available. Enjoy your reasons for behavior, which are 'this is what I like' and 'oh um they have guns don't they'.

David Brightly said...

Victor proposes some determinants that can be seen as constraining behaviour in morally approved ways: the desire for popularity and sympathy for others. To these I'd add conscience. People often say things like 'if I were to do that I couldn't live with myself'. At times, conscience can push us against both popularity and sympathy.

Crude said...

As a rule, people only treat 'nice desires or feelings' as coming from the conscience. Come to think of it, the same goes for empathy. Which is why Stalin, for example, gets cast as a man with no conscience or empathy. The idea that his conscience was urging him to do what he did, or that he was motivated by sympathy (the poor underclass!), doesn't seem to compute for many, despite it being pretty straightforward to see.

Victor Reppert said...

David: Maybe, but conscience can be subject to naturalistic debunking in ways that desire for popularity and sympathy for others cannot. If the promptings of my conscience are explained in just the same way that my liking for pancakes or dislike for spam can be explained, then it is hard to answer the question "Why be so scrupulous, and give up a pleasure or suffer a pain when you can avoid it?"

Crude said...

Re: conscience versus popularity and sympathy, maybe a key difference is that popularity and sympathy are things a person desires, while conscience is just desire, full stop, on an atheist model.

David Brightly said...

We may have divergent notions of conscience. I think of it as a pleasure/pain colouration of thoughts of past acts or proposed acts. If this can be explained in the same way as a distaste for spam (I have no idea what such an explanation would look like) I doubt it would alter the colour, just as spam would still taste as bad. There's no question of giving up the pleasure or pain. The promptings of the conscience arrive, well, unprompted.

Ilíon said...

David Brightly: "We may have divergent notions of conscience. I think of it as a pleasure/pain colouration of thoughts of past acts or proposed acts. ..."

It's far more basic than that -- we "have divergent notions of [notions]"