Last weekend, I had the opportunity to attend Skepticon II, a free conference on skepticism held in Springfield, Missouri. I had a fantastic time, and if anyone lives nearby and missed it this year, I highly recommend going to Skepticon III. There were many excellent speeches, but the one I found most interesting was DJ Grothe’s speech on morality. DJ is someone who thinks deeply about life’s big questions, as demonstrated by his Point of Inquiry podcast. He is also a great speaker and all-around good guy. So I was excited to hear that he was going to be speaking on morality, a subject that I have recently become very interested in. While I agreed with many of the points he made in his speech, I do not think he succeeded in showing how morality can exist without God.
- Evolution can help explain ethics; it alone cannot justify ethics.
- Justifying ethics requires critical reasoning.
- Mere knowledge of evolution does not make people less moral.
The first part of DJ’s speech was his attack on evolutionary ethics. He made the excellent point that showing that the golden rule evolved would not establish it as moral any more than showing that xenophobia evolved would establish it as moral. As he said in his speech, “Evolution is inefficient, wasteful, [and] cruel.”
After explaining why he disagrees with grounding morality in evolution or in God, DJ briefly explained his view of morality. He stated that freedom from unnecessary suffering is something good to the individual, something that has value. He then went on to say that something everyone values is good in a more general sense. He defined his position as “well-being consequentialism” whereby the goodness of an action is determined by its effect on the well-being of individuals.
One problem I have with this is that he never explains why he thinks it makes sense to call this collective good a moral good. Everyone can value something without it being a moral good. For example, if everyone on earth valued the Mona Lisa, that wouldn’t make it morally good. Even taking things like this into account, there’s still the question of whether any of the remaining goods can be rightly called moral goods.
He addressed this a little bit when he was asked about the “is-ought distinction” which basically says that you can’t get from what is to what ought to be. DJ said that he buys into the is-ought distinction, but there can still be something that feels like the science of ethics. I saw this as a very poor response. Creation science may feel like real science to some people, but that doesn’t mean it is. This seems like a concession that DJ was not actually talking about morality all along and that while something similar to morality might exist, morality itself does not exist. I’m sure that DJ would disagree with that implication, but if so he should explain why he thinks morality exists in spite of the is-ought distinction.
Another problem is that he never defines “well-being.” He instead leaves it so incredibly vague that it’s almost like saying the goodness of an action is defined by whether something has good consequences. It seems so vague that you could use it to pretend you have a basis for your moral beliefs when instead you are really just relying on your moral intuitions (which may be completely unreliable since they are products of evolution). Is drinking alcohol good because it makes people happy and happiness is part of one’s well-being, or is it bad because it has negative health consequences?
And there is also the problem of what happens when something is good for someone’s well-being, but is bad for someone else’s. Instead of putting forward a means of saying what is moral when there are competing interests, DJ just says that when something is good for each individual’s well-being, it is good. But if you can only establish morality when something is good or bad for everyone, it becomes a useless concept. The morality of an action only matters if that action might actually take place. But if something makes everyone worse off, then who would have the incentive to do that action?
After the speech, I asked DJ how he defined well-being and how he determined morality when an action made some people better off and other people worse off. He named a couple things that he saw as part of well-being, but he never really defined exactly what he meant by it. We only talked for a few minutes, but hopefully we’ll be able to continue our conversation in the future. It may turn out that DJ has good answers to my objections, but based only on this talk, I am very skeptical of his view of morality.
Update: I just listened to the recent Reasonable Doubts podcast in which they interviewed DJ. While this post is primarily about DJ’s speech at Skepticon, he makes a few points in the podcast that I wanted to respond to.
He says that his response to moral nihilists is to say that just because something evolved doesn’t mean that it’s unreliable. Our eyes evolved, yet we think it’s reasonable to trust them. I agree that the fact that our view of morality evolved does not make it unreliable. But there’s a key difference between our moral sense and vision. While we have good reasons to expect that evolution will give us a generally reliable sense of sight, we do not have any reason to expect our evolved morality to generally match true morality. If predators looked like human babies and babies looked like predators, our species probably would not have survived as long as it has. However, if there are moral facts distinct from all other facts, why would evolution make our moral sense match these facts instead of whatever led to the greatest reproductive success? I think our senses and intuitions are pretty reliable in cases where we need them to be accurate, but are unreliable in other cases. For example, while my intuitions about physics are roughly accurate in the everyday world, science has shown that my intuitions about the very large and the very small are way off. And finally, I don’t see how someone could say it’s rational to trust our moral sense, but it’s irrational for someone to trust their sense of God (their sensus divinitatis).
When asked about how we can justify our ethics without looking at what is (in light of the is-ought distinction), DJ said that we can ground our morality in critical rational reflection. But this doesn’t make sense to me. If you can’t use what is to determine morality, what are you basing it on? I guess you could arbitrarily make up a few moral facts and then rationally determine the implications of those facts, but then there’s no reason to trust your conclusions.
When asked about moral duties, DJ says that we have to start at the beginning: what is valuable to us. I agree completely. He says that we value well-being, which he minimally defines as “limiting unnecessary suffering.” But I think you need to consider all things that we value. If you only look at one thing, then all of your moral conclusions are suspect because there are some times that limiting suffering is worse than the suffering itself. As an extreme example, hooking my brain up to a machine that makes me experience a virtual world in which every day is the same may prevent me from ever feeling suffering again, but it would also deny me other things that I value. A more complete definition of value is needed.
Finally, DJ says, as he did at Skepticon, that from his vantage point, he can say that what the Nazis did is morally wrong, even if it made sense to the Germans. But anyone can say anything; the key is whether he has good reasons for saying that what the Nazis did is wrong. This depends on whether he has good reasons for believing that his view of morality is true. I could believe in a Magic 8-Ball based system of morality in which whether something is moral is determined by what a Magic 8-Ball tells me. If I ask it whether what the Nazis did was immoral and it says “It is certain”, then from my view of morality, I would be able to say definitively that what the Nazis did is wrong. If we have no good reasons to believe that a certain theory of morality is true, then we have no reason to believe that theory’s implications. Unless DJ has some other justification for his view of morality, I see no more reason to trust his theory as a reliable guide to morality than to trust the Magic 8-Ball based theory.
Sunday, November 29, 2009 | 3 Comments
While atheists and theists often disagree on what constitutes evil, they can usually agree that unnecessary suffering is evil. If God brings about immense suffering without some greater good coming from it, it’s hard to see how he could still be good without the word ‘good’ losing all meaning. As I discussed in a previous post, it doesn’t work to just say that God has unknown purposes.
So animal suffering appears to pose a problem for an omnibenevolent God. If animals do not have eternal souls, what possible greater good could come from a deer dying in a forest fire? While this initially appears to be a tough question, philosopher Alexander Pruss explains, in a recent post at Prosblogion and his personal blog, why animal pain is not such a problem after all. But Pruss is far too modest in his conclusions. His argument can also explain why female pain is not a problem for the view that God is omnibenevolent.
The first argument Pruss addresses is that an omnibenevolent God could have created something that had the same effect as pain, but that did not hurt. When we touch something hot, instead of feeling pain and instinctively pulling away, God could give us the instinct to pull away without the pain. But, as Pruss points out, how do we know that God hasn’t done this? He writes that “if the pain-replacement, call it shpain, had the same motivational effects, we would observe the same kinds of aversive responses to shpain as to pain.” Animals would react to shpain exactly as they would to pain, but without the experience of pain.
Since the reactions to shpain and pain are the same, the fact that many animals act similar to us is no evidence that they actually feel pain. Of course I could argue that since my brain looks similar to a chimps brain when we get hurt, chimps probably feel pain. But Pruss does not think this would work. He argues that there are differences between human and non-human brains. If animals feel shpain instead of pain, we would expect lots of similarities, but some differences, which is exactly what we find.
Pruss’ argument can also address the problem of female pain. If females experience shpain rather than pain, we would expect them to have a similar response to things that would cause men pain. But just because they look like they’re in pain doesn’t mean they actually are. Just like a dog’s whimper is no evidence that a dog is experiencing pain rather than shpain, a woman’s tears are no evidence that she is experiencing pain rather than shpain. Shpain has the same motivational effects and would cause women to talk like they were in pain, even though they’re not. Someone could argue that the similarity in how our brains react could provide evidence that women actually feel pain. But that is not the case. A 2003 study showed that when men and women receive the same painful (or shpainful) stimuli, the parts of the female brain that get stimulated are different than the parts of the male brain that get stimulated. While there are many similarities in how our brains react, there are also some differences, which is exactly what we would expect if women only experience shpain.
The second argument Pruss addresses is that even if some cases of animal pain were beneficial, God could still miraculously prevent pain in cases where it wasn’t necessary, for example when an animal is about to die. Pruss again responds by saying that maybe God does do this. This intervention may be as minimal as possible, so it doesn't disrupt anything. He may intervene to prevent the pain, but keep everything else the same. He may make it so their brains react similarly to how they’d react to pain, so that they’d display the outward signs of pain, even though they are only experiencing shpain. Of course this also applies to women. Even though it may look like a woman that is being beaten to death is in extreme pain, she may actually be feeling no pain at all.
At first the evidence that animals experience pain appears to be strong, as Michael Murray explains:
We also have independent evidence that many animals are capable of experiencing pain, evidence that parallels the evidence we have for thinking our fellow humans are capable of feeling pain: We witness pain behavior, not just reflex actions to noxious stimuli (protective pain), but subsequent pain-induced behavioral modification caused by bodily damage (restorative pain); we observe significant anatomical and neurophysiological similarity between humans and many animals (including all mammals and most vertebrates); endogenous serotonergic and opioid pain-control mechanisms are present in all mammals[Why would organisms incapable of feeling pain have endogenous pain-control systems?]; efferent and afferent nerves run throughout their bodies; analgesics and anesthetics stop animals from exhibiting pain behavior, presumably because these substances prevent the pain itself in much the way they prevent pain in humans; and there is compelling experimental evidence that the capacity to feel pain enhances survival value in animals, based on the self-destructive tendencies displayed by animals that have been surgically deafferented.
But as Alexander Pruss’ article shows, this evidence is exactly what you would expect if animals felt shpain rather than pain. Similarly, even though it may initially seem obvious that women feel pain, there’s actually no reason to think their pain is real (at least if God exists).
However, since I do not believe in God, I think that female pain is real. It just seems incredibly unlikely that evolution would result in men experiencing pain and women experiencing shpain. But since the Christian God is supposed to be omnipotent, this seems perfectly reasonable if Christianity is true.
I think Pruss’ argument provides just as good of a solution to the problem of female pain as it does to the problem of animal pain. While this still leaves male pain unaccounted for, I think this is a very significant step in solving the problem of evil.
Monday, November 16, 2009 | 1 Comments
One argument that has come up a few times in my discussions with theists is the argument from desire. While I don’t think it works, I think many atheists are too dismissive of it. The argument from desire basically says that God exists because we have a natural desire for God (or the transcendent) and for each of our natural desires, something exists that can satisfies it. One objection is that this doesn’t prove that God exists. That is true, but given that nothing is provable with absolute certainty, this is an unreasonable demand.
Peter Kreeft formulates the argument from desire as follows:
- Every natural, innate desire in us corresponds to some real object that can satisfy that desire.
- But there exists in us a desire which nothing in time, nothing on earth, no creature can satisfy.
- Therefore there must exist something more than time, earth and creatures, which can satisfy this desire.
- This something is what people call "God" and "life with God forever."
Sunday, November 15, 2009 | 33 Comments
The subject of their debate is whether Christianity is good for the world. Pastor Wilson argues that it is since it is objectively true, beautiful, and good. Hitchens argues that religion is not good because of all the evil acts that religion has led people to do.
If you don’t want to know any specifics about what happens in the movie, stop reading this review now. It’s not like there’s any dramatic conclusion for me to spoil, like Hitchens converting to Christianity, or Hitchens and Wilson becoming lovers, but I just thought I’d warn you in case you don’t want to know any details about what gets said.
One thing that surprised me about the movie was how well Hitchens and Wilson seemed to get along with each other. They joke around with each other and also recite quotes by P.G. Wodehouse, an author they both admire.
Hitchens shows off his apartment in D.C. as well as his extensive library, much of which is taken up by books on religion. Throughout the movie, a number of people recognize Hitchens on the street and thank him for his work. Hitchens comments that given how much hate mail he gets, there must be an even greater number of people who recognize him but don’t say anything because they think he’s a dick.
But Hitchens remains somewhat enigmatic. Early in the movie he remarks that “I try and deny people their illusions.” He says that the idea that faith is a good thing needs to be repudiated "because the most faith based people in the united states on September the 11th 2001 were undoubtedly the people who high jacked those planes.” But later he admits to Wilson that if he could eliminate religion, he wouldn’t do it. He says it is not just because he’d miss having religious people to argue with, as he made it seem in the Four Horsemen discussion. He says, "I don't quite know why I wouldn't do it."
The movie also gives a glimpse into Pastor Wilson’s personal life. It shows him having dinner and praying with his family. It also shows why Pastor Wilson is actually a Christian. He says that while he believes the defenses of the Christian faith are sound, that’s not why he’s a Christian. He believes the reason he is a Christian is that it was a gift of God that his parents happened to raise him that way. I found it notable that Pastor Wilson did not say he thought the arguments for Christianity were sound, merely that the defenses of Christianity were sound. Even if it cannot be definitively disproven, that doesn’t mean that there are good reasons for believing in it.
While most of the movie was about morality, it also touches on the issue of truth. Pastor Wilson says that "We can't know anything apart from the revelation of God" and the fact that people can’t find God doesn’t mean that God can’t find them. Hitchens rightly points out that it’s a little contradictory to say that you can’t know God and also say that you know that he has revealed himself. If our reason is unreliable, then how can we know whether or not something is a revelation by God?
But Pastor Wilson also made an excellent point about the search for truth. He references G.K. Chesterton’s comment that the purpose of an open mind is to close on something. He sees it as self defeating to always have a mind that’s completely open. I agree with him, and this made me think about QualiaSoup’s excellent video on open-mindedness:
Hitchens made his usual arguments about the absurdity of biblical morality. Pastor Wilson responded by saying that it was indeed good for people to kill the Amalekites because God told them to do so. He then tries to turn this around by arguing that it doesn’t matter under atheism either because the universe doesn’t care what happens to Amalekites. But I don’t see why this matters. The universe is an inanimate object. I don’t care about what a rock thinks about murder, so why should I care what the universe thinks? It seems like morality had to be based, to some extent, on people. If there was no one else in the universe, what could you do that would be evil?
Pastor Wilson repeatedly criticizes Hitchens for critiquing Christianity by appealing to a shared moral sense without giving a firm grounding to his view of morality. While I think Pastor Wilson overreaches with some of his comments, I think his criticism is valid. Hitchens appeals to a shared moral intuition, but Pastor Wilson points out that sometimes our intuitions conflict. If we see it as good to conquer other tribes or countries, does that make it moral? Did the fact that people once thought slavery was a moral institution mean that it once was? Is there any reason to think that evolution would shape our moral sense to reflect any reality other than what would lead to the survival of our genes?
Hitchens responds by saying that humans have an innate sense of right and wrong and it seems silly to think that the Jews got all the way to Mt. Sinai thinking that murder and theft were fine until God told them otherwise. Like many atheists, Hitchens dodges the question. The issue is not how it is possible to believe in morality without God, for, as some religions demonstrate, it’s possibly to believe weird things without a good reason. The issue is whether there is a rational basis for believing that a given action is moral or immoral.
However, Hitchens correctly points out that things aren’t any better under religion. “Religious morality is just as relative, just as subject to evolution.” While religion used to say that sinners would burn in the fiery pits of hell, many of them have shifted to seeing hell as merely separation from God. Pastor Wilson defends Christian morality by saying that morality is grounded in the nature of God. However, as I pointed out in an earlier post, that doesn’t really help. If God's nature does not fit some external standard of morality, then his nature is good merely because it is God's. So then murder is wrong just because that's what God's nature happened to be, and you end up with an arbitrary basis for morality.
Overall, I enjoyed the movie and highly recommend seeing it if you get the chance. The full video isn't online, but here's a clip of the first 13 minutes of it:
Tuesday, November 10, 2009 | 2 Comments
Saturday night the House finally passed the health care bill by a vote of 220 to 215. There were 39 Democrats who ended up voting against the bill, and only one Republican who voted for it.
That Republican was Rep. Joseph Cao (pronounced Gow) of Louisiana who represents an extremely liberal district. His district is about as liberal as Missouri's 1st district. It's so liberal that the only reason a Republican won was that William Jefferson, the Democratic incumbent, was insanely corrupt. Sometimes politicians can pretend they made an innocent mistake, but this is a little hard when federal agents find almost $100,000 in cash in your freezer. The district was so liberal that despite all of this, Jefferson was heavily favored, and Cao only won because the election was held in December, leading to embarrassingly low turnout. While Republicans were able to force Cao to vote against the stimulus bill, voting against health care would have been political suicide for him.
Unfortunately, in order to win the support of Cao and a few moderate Democrats, Democratic leaders allowed the Stupak amendment to be voted on and passed. This amendment prevents the public option from covering abortion. It even prevents people who receive affordability credits from purchasing any private plan that covers abortion. It still allows people to buy additional "abortion plans", but how many people are actually going to get an additional plan that just covers abortion? How many people really expect to have an abortion sometime in the future and make plans accordingly? What will end up happening is that poor women who get their insurance through the health care exchange will be unable to get an abortion, even when one is desperately needed.
This language was inserted into the bill primarily to receive the blessing of the Conference of Catholic Bishops. Democratic leaders had been working for days trying to find something the church would accept because there was a group of Democrats who wouldn't vote for the bill unless it had the church's endorsement. I'm a little uncomfortable with important legislation needing the Catholic church's seal of approval in order to pass. And considering how much of the funding for the anti-gay marriage ads in Maine came from the Catholic church, it seems like the church has become very effective at getting their moral beliefs written into our laws.
Besides this, the bill appears to be pretty good. It contains a public option, and, according to the Congressional Budget Office, would cover 36 million additional people and would reduce the budget deficit by more than $100 billion dollars over 10 years. However, it still has a tough road ahead. It first has to pass the Senate, where it will need 60 Senators to prevent a filibuster and bring it to the floor. There are some means, such as reconciliation, that have previously been used to get bills passed with a bare majority, but Democrats seem unlikely to go this route. Then a group of members from the House and Senate will get together in a conference committee to hash out the differences between the House and Senate bills. The resulting bill then has to be voted on in both houses. This could be problematic because many Democrats have pledged to vote against a bill that does not have a public option, and the Senate bill may not have one. Also, some House members voted for the bill with hopes that the anti-abortion language would later be taken out and may vote against the bill if it’s in the final version. But if it's taken out, a group of moderates may vote against the bill. If the bill makes it through all of that, it finally reaches the President’s desk.
While we're still a long way from health care reform being signed into law, the vote last night was an important first step.
Sunday, November 08, 2009 | 1 Comments
On Tuesday, Maine voted to deprive people of the right to marry the one they love. Mainers struck down a law that was passed in May which gave gay couples the right to get married. It was expected to be a close vote, but many experts were expecting gay rights to squeak out a narrow victory. Instead, about 53% of voters decided that only straight people should have the right to marry.
This is depressing news. Despite many recent victories in the fight for equal rights, this vote makes clear that we still have a long way to go. This isn’t Oklahoma or Idaho; Barack Obama won Maine by 17% of the vote. If gay marriage can’t even win in liberal states like California and Maine, equal rights nation-wide look a long way off.
I see absolutely no reason that people should only be permitted to marry those of a certain gender. I’ve heard dozens of arguments for why only straight people should be able to get married, but they are all completely unconvincing. In the end, people do not oppose gay marriage because they have studied the evidence and found that it will have harmful consequences; they oppose it because it conflicts with their religious beliefs. I see no reason why I should respect these people’s beliefs any more than I respect the beliefs of those who used the Bible to support banning interracial marriage.
Of course, no matter how much I disagree with their views, everyone is entitled to a vote. What bothers me most about the situation in Maine is the amount of money that religious groups across the country gave in order to convince Maine voters to take away rights from gay people. In a recent article, Nate Silver examined where the money was actually coming from. While gay marriage supporters raised 43% of their money from within Maine, gay marriage opponents raised only 26% of their money within the state. While the pro-gay marriage side received contributions from 3,766 Mainers, only 422 contributed to the campaign against gay marriage. While the pro-gay marriage side got most of their money from small donors, much of the anti-gay marriage money came from religious groups. Over 80% of the in-state funding came from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, and almost all of the out-of-state funding came from the National Organization for Marriage, which has ties to the Mormon church.
And just as in California, this money was used to run ads playing to the fears of voters. These ads threatened that unless gays were prevented from marrying, there would be a flood of lawsuits, religions would lose their tax exemptions, and young children would be taught in school that it's okay to be gay.
The news might not be all bad though. It is looking like a referendum in Washington state which would increase domestic partner rights will probably pass, though the vote is much closer than people predicted. And even though change is coming much more slowly than I would like, it is coming. I hope that 50 years from now people will look back with shock that there was once a time when the government told you what sex your partner had to be, just like people growing up today are shocked that only 50 years ago, the government got to determine what race your partner had to be. I think that day will become a reality, but there is still a lot of work left.
I leave you with this touching gay marriage ad from Ireland:
Update: Just to be clear, I do not think that everyone who opposes gay marriage is a bigot. However, there are certainly some people who oppose gay marriage out of bigotry, though I don't claim to know how many. I have some regrets about titling this post as I did because it seems to imply that everyone who voted against gay marriage is a bigot.
Wednesday, November 04, 2009 | 1 Comments
I just joined the Atheist Blogroll, which you can see in my sidebar. It seems like a pretty good way of finding blogs to read, and maybe it will cause a few people to check out my blog. If you have a blog and would like to join, contact Mojoey at Deep Thoughts.
By the way, I'm working on a couple posts right now and should have something new up in the next couple days.
Tuesday, November 03, 2009 | 1 Comments