Friday, June 06, 2008

Reasonable Atheism (21): Atheism and moral relativism

Some engagement with Tony Lloyd's logic (which I mostly agree with).

Sam's comments in italics.

If X follows from Y then it is not the case that you have Y and not X.

Minor quibble - I think you need the word 'necessarily' in there to exclude other conditions, but we can take that as read.

Moral subjectivism “M” would follow from Atheism “A” (“M follows from A”) if, and only if, you cannot have not-M and A at the same time. If we can show not-M and A then we have refuted “Moral subjectivism follows from Atheism”.

So far so good.


The import of a logical assertion of “M follows from A” is that it is inconsistent to hold “A and not-M”.

I do not see any contradiction in:
1. God does not exist
2. You should do what is right
Indeed there cannot be any contradiction. Whether God does, or does not, exist is a factual statement: an “is” statement. Whether we should do what is right is an ethical statement: an “ought” statement. The oft repeated maxim “you cannot get from ‘is’ to ‘ought’” can be rephrased as “an ‘ought’ statement does not follow from an ‘is’ statement”.

This is where it starts to get complicated, a) because no definition of God is offered, and b) because of the reliance on 'no ought from is'. A Christian would deny b) because of their understanding of a) (and their 'definition' of God probably differs also). So if the premises are different it's not surprising that different conclusions follow.

Mind you, Peter Hitchens may not agree that you cannot get from ‘is’ to ‘ought’. Let’s ignore the maxim and look in a little more detail. What does “moral subjectivism” mean? It plainly means that one considers morality to be a function of something about the subject. “It’s right, because I like it” would be a good summary of the position. So person does not subscribe to moral relativism if they hold that “it is not necessarily right just because I like it”.

Not sure I'd run with 'It's right because I like it'. I would rather have something like 'I choose what is right'. Not sure this affects the underlying logic though.

“It would be wrong to kill Elton John even though I would dearly like to” would be an example of an objective moral statement, if I held to that I would be denying Moral Subjectivism.

The question at issue is whether atheism offers any intellectual support to that statement. Also, saying 'it would be wrong to...' could simply be a pragmatic recognition of social mores. What is the atheist meaning when they say this?

Is there any contradiction in:

1. God does not exist
2. It would be wrong to kill Elton John even though I would dearly like to

No. For it to be a contradiction would be to add a third premise:

3. If God does not exist then nothing is wrong.

I accept 3. I would also affirm the reverse - if something is wrong (outside of our choices and preferences, either individually or collectively) then God exists. That's a central part of what I understand the word 'God' to mean.

There is nothing contradictory in holding that some things would be wrong if God does not exist.

This is what needs to be unpacked. This doesn't need to be in the sense of providing a 'basis' or 'foundation' for something being wrong (although that's perfectly possible). What I am after is something distinguishing 'holding something to be wrong' from 'I choose (or like) X'.


Even though it is possible to hold to moral objectivism and atheism at the same time without contradiction it may be in fact impossible. It may not contradict the meanings of the word but may contradict the facts about how people are. Does, in practice, Moral Subjectivism follow from Atheism?

“Blackness follows from raven-ness” (all ravens are black) can be refuted by showing a raven that is not black. If we change the hypothesis to say “Blackness generally follows from raven-ness” we can refute that by showing a lot of ravens that are not black, enough to rule out the word “generally”.

On the empirical side I give you Japan and China. The vast majority of these populations are atheist. The vast majority are not moral subjectivists, they do not think it is fine to act however one wants but that you should do what is right whether one likes it or not.

I agree with this. What I find interesting is how their "atheism" differs from that offered in the West, ie they have something to put in its place as a frame of reference for evaluating moral situations. I want to know what a Western atheist puts in place of the inherited Christianity.

“I've not seen it refuted anywhere”

You have now. But more importantly Peter Hitchens has heard it refuted. The above is the general import of Christopher Hitchens’ more colourful question: (paraphrasing from memory) “are you telling me that before the Ten Commandments came the Israelites wandered the wilderness thinking that murder, adultery and false witness was perfectly acceptable until God told them to “cut it out”?”.

The distinctive part about the Ten Commandments is the first half, not the second (and the first half gives specific weight to the second). I recently read that the first elements of the Ten Commandments are unique to Israel.

I repeat the original allegation. Not only does Atheism not entail Moral Relativism but Peter Hitchens knew that when he wrote the piece. He wrote it because of the rhetorical effect it would have not because he thought it true. That is defined as “bullshit”.

My concern is that the logical point (you don't have to be a moral relativist if you're an atheist, look at the Chinese) is being used to evade responsibility for the pragmatic social consequences (most atheists within UK society are moral relativists; the one led to the other historically; and moral relativism contributes to the breakdown of society). I've asked before about this - I want to know what are the generators of moral growth within an atheistic (Western, humourless) frame of reference?

ADDENDUM - picking up one thing from Tony's later comment: "It depends on what you mean by “appeal can be made”. Do you mean that, in the last analysis it is the individual who decides what to do? In that case the statement is true, but trivially so. Even with an authority you have decide whether to obey it or not. In the last analysis the Pope is a catholic because his individual conscience tells him to be."

I don't think it is trivially true - partly because of an understanding of 'obedience' but more profoundly because of the nature of moral growth. 'Ah, now I understand' doesn't seem to be possible if there is nothing outside of the individual's choices to determine what is right and wrong. Conscience undoubtedly has a crucial place, but catholic theology recognises the importance of the conscience being educated, in other words there is an iterative engagement between conscience and authority that leads to right judgement. I want to know what stands in the place of the authority for the (western, humourless) atheist.

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