Monday, June 09, 2008

Sine qua non

Let me preface this by saying that I like Reverend Sam Norton. I think he is a decent, sincere man with a genuine interest in the well-being of others. I also think that he’s stubbornly incapable of stepping outside his own axioms while insisting atheists do precisely that. I find this endlessly frustrating, partially because I make it a personal point to do so whenever possible, but mostly because as a former atheist, the good reverend shouldn’t have that much trouble with it when discussing atheism and morality.

This is what makes discussions with theists about atheism and morality endlessly frustrating and, ultimately, discussions that broaden beyond the scope of apologetics and axioms totally fruitless. A theist typically – and wrongly – believes that morality flows from god one way or another. Either god is the source of morality or the prime mover behind laws of universal applicability. Either view is flawed, though – to borrow Rev. Sam’s words – one is more “sophisticated” than the other.

If morality flows from god, then morality cannot be absolute, no matter god’s nature: If god is capable of dictating what is and is not correct at any given time, then god is capable of changing that, which makes morality totally mutable by the whims of god. This view is simply an authoritarian one – we follow god’s wishes because they come from god. If god told the Israelites, “Slaughter me some Medianites” or “Stone thee thine disobedient children,” then they damn well did it, “Thou shalt not kill” notwithstanding. There are always pragmatic exceptions to even the most hard and fast rules under this view, and it requires endless semantic peregrinations to claim otherwise. This is the view of god as morality that falls prey to “The Euthyphro.” Morality, if it is directly of god, cannot be absolute, because then by their nature as dictates from god they are mutable by god. Which makes them subjective to god’s view (whether that changes or no; the very tale that Rev. Norton believes in, that of the Christ, argues that it does), which essentially creates an unfortunate bind for the theist: Moral subjectivism is the default state, and the argument simply becomes whose moral subjectivism is legitimate, god’s or man’s, returning one to the discussion of axioms.

Now, while I have interacted with or read no end of theists who believe the above (“Vox Dei,” he of the “I’ll kill babies if God tells me to,” might be perhaps one of the most notorious in the blogosphere), I don’t think Rev. Norton is one of them. I would ascribe to him the more “sophisticated” view that moral absolutes exist because god set them in motion. Much like the laws of physics, they are what they are. This removes the above problem of default moral subjectivism. This has the added bonus of neatly undermining the “but atheists are moral too!” argument: Of course we are; god’s rules in creating man mean we all have that moral compass that follows the rules of morality, regardless of whether we acknowledge its origin or not.

This is also wrong, but far more interesting, since both atheists and theists can get on board with similar premises so long as they agree to disagree on the axiomatic origin of these rules. The analogy to laws of physics, though, is inapt. Were morals absolute, they would be like the laws of physics and we would be incapable of broaching them. I should be no more able to murder than I am able to contravene gravity and drift into the stratosphere. Free will is not directly analogous to the physics of thrust, which allows flight, though. Murder is an act of finality, with a definite start and stop. Were an engine to stop generating thrust, gravity would re-assert itself with its own finality. So, by virtue of having free will (how much is a question I leave to psychologists and neurologists far brighter than I), and thus the ability to contravene moral rules in discrete acts, morality cannot be “absolute” in the sense intended by religious moral absolutists.

Neither of the above are proofs against the existence of god. What they do, however, is demonstrate that even if god is taken as axiomatic, one cannot arrive at moral absolutism. Moral objectivism independent of god is another issue entirely.

I find the existence of moral instinct in general pretty fascinating, and on the whole very convincing of a type of moral objectivism: there are clearly rules the average person is either loathe to contravene or will feel genuine self-generated repercussions for doing so (guilt, sadness, leading to repentance or suicide, etc.). But these rules are self-evidently not hard and fast. Not only that, but people can be trained to subsume their moral compass – or even born without one to begin with, and suffer few punishments, or even none at all.

Take the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders for example. A whole section of disorders, called Personality Disorders, are “an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectations of the individual’s culture.” Included – erroneously, I feel, based on the quoted definition – in these is Antisocial Personality Disorder, more commonly referred to as sociopathy. Such an individual has no conscience. They can learn moral rules, such as those taught by Christianity, and even mimic them, but do not feel their legitimacy. It is simply more convenient to follow them. They lack empathy for their fellows and feel no guilt or remorse when they abridge moral “laws.” This should simply not be possible were these laws as absolute as the laws of physics – a sociopath who jumps off an overpass still, just like a schizophrenic or a suicide, plummets straight down.

And so we are brought to the question of where moral laws come from. Rev. Norton, approvingly citing Peter Hitchens latest “but without god how can atheists be moral?” claptrap, makes an implicit nod to this when he argues that, wherever the ultimate authority for moral law comes from, in an explicitly Christian culture, atheists are undermining that culture by denying its legitimacy. This is not directly true. Though in subsequent posts Rev. Norton has trotted out the “atheism equals moral relativism” arguments, the original thread seems to me to be the more honest one: by denying the authority (not to mention existence) of god, atheists undermine the social order. But how so? Only if morality then, is like religion, which, to quote John Cleese from a lecture I was privileged to attend, “is simply crowd control.” Religion is one way in which moral rules – rules for social order – are instilled. But if the populace accede to these rules, then the legitimacy of god has no bearing on the legitimacy of – and willing adherence to – those rules. That they are successful for creating a social order deemed acceptable (if not desirable) by a sufficient threshold of people is all that matters.

Thus bringing us back to axioms. In Hitchens’ view, it is the denial of a final arbiter of justice that he finds offensive. This creates an undeniable tension: given the fallibility of man-made justice, how then are we to convince those lacking a moral compass to adhere to the moral laws? The myth of god, the all-seeing and -knowing archon who will adjudicate your sins, then, is an extremely useful, if outdated, social tool. Hitchens and Rev. Norton unwittingly concede that point when they argue that atheists “undermine” the social fabric. This is only true if an arbiter is necessary in order for their to be moral laws. I would argue not; however, the subject of moral objectivism versus moral subjectivism, and whether or not atheism must entail either, is very interesting, and deserves more elaboration later.

[Cross-posted at Often Right, Rarely Correct.]


  1. The form in which one mostly encounters the argument among less sophisticated people is that atheists have no "objective" source of morals. Pressed, they concede that by "objective" they really mean external and divine. That, of course, opens the gates to the sort of refutation you've described above.

  2. a former atheist, the good reverend shouldn’t have that much trouble with it when discussing atheism and morality...

    There's no non-smoker like an ex-smoker.

    Turkish Prawn


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