Morality: Neither Scripture Nor Nihilism
Atheists are often accused of being moral nihilists. It’s one of the leading smear tactics believers and bigots use against us. Russian Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar, claims “militant atheism” has been responsible for fascism and genocide. Dinesh D’Souza and Doug Giles (previous article) tout “pelvic atheism” as libertinism. This false dichotomy of either scriptural morality or amorality is getting damn tiresome. It’s teetering on the edge of being an out-and-out slur. There’s been enough written and said about moral naturalism and objectivism that educated people can’t exactly claim ignorance. So for D’Souza especially, charges of “pelvic atheism” represent a disingenuous and calculated bigotry.
I’ve been involved in a couple of discussions on Daylight Atheism. One on the Singularity, the other on the morality of Jesus. In the latter post, Ebonmuse’ echoed a point that has been made many times in many places by Sam Harris, Julia Sweeney and others: It’s been proven ad nauseam that the Bible is contradictory and has no consistent morality. As a comprehensive resource on the subject, it’s hard to beat Skeptic’s Annotated Bible. Apologists often point to specific passages such as the Sermon on the Mount where the Jesus character has compassionate words and spoke the “Lord’s Prayer.” But if you analyze it, it also has despicable admonishments such as:
And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.
And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.
A combination of that passage and a reference to Revelation’s “mark of the beast” is apparently what caused a man just last month to cut off his own hand and microwave it, and that’s no joke. Regardless of whatever truths may be present even in the “favorable” passages of the Bible such as the SOM, the overall message of scripture is based on appeals to divine authority that are so circular and contradictory that they frustrate any attempt to set forth a consistent human ethics.
Every principle in common law goes back to some earlier natural evolutionary adaptation. One of the earliest natural moral laws is retributive justice, the right of a person or family to avenge a death by killing the perpetrator. It is the simplest means of deterring murder. Deuteronomy codifies this as “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” But the Jesus character of course contradicts the Old Testament, and subverts this long-established human tradition with his admonitions of forgiveness in the SOM:
Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away. Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.
It may sound good in theory, and it would be nice if it worked, but it doesn’t–never has. Any child on the playground knows this Bible passage is hogwash. Aggressors simply view such sentiments as weakness and are emboldened to their next rapacious act. Too bad the Jesus character never met Sun Tzu–he could have learned a thing or two. As a seven-year-old in Sunday school, I remember thinking that “turn the other cheek” was for sissies. It was funny watching the teacher trying to justify this nonsense as representing any form of fairness. I was a precocious and avid reader of the Rocky Mountain News, the Denver paper. So I knew people fought, hurt and sued each other, and took revenge all the time. This was 1971 when the Vietnam war was raging. Clearly, those rules did not apply in the adult world. If not workable for kids, and not workable for adults, who exactly was scriptural morality for?
Since the SOM’s false morality contradicted both my experience and hardwired genetic intuition, the first seeds of my doubt of the Bible had been planted at the age of seven. Something was wrong with that picture. I also remember the same teacher’s absurd attempts to explain to me how Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego managed to escape incineration–but that’s another story…
Whenever the subject of morality is raised, someone is also bound to bring up moral nihilism. Over the past few years, I’ve encountered many people who hold this viewpoint, which asserts that morality is simply a cultural construct and differs radically depending on the circumstance. Interestingly enough, a form of reactionary moral nihilism was advanced by Joseph Fletcher which he called situational ethics. Fletcher rejected the absolute authority of scripture, but replaced it with the even more dubious and unaccountable notion of ‘agape’ love as an ethical principle. Just wow. Talk about vague and ungrounded. How could anyone have even taken him seriously?
But since we are talking mainly about a pejorative leveled from religious quarters, moral nihilism usually refers to a presumed silence on moral issues due to a lack of adherence to scriptural codes, and more importantly a stance that there are no moral absolutes. Some atheists do in fact profess this view, which simply adds fuel to the fire of D’Souza or Rabbi Lazar, who think it’s just a hop, skip and a jump from Dawkins to Dachau.
Moral nihilism is not well supported either philosophically or by the empirical evidence of history. Morality is indeed a social construct, but it is one that is strongly grounded in human nature. It does vary from culture to culture, but there are still a broad range of human universals. Take humans out of the equation of course, and there is no morality. Stars and planets are born and are destroyed. Countless species evolve on countless worlds by killing and consuming lesser specimens. Nature itself is amoral.
Allow time to pass, and evolve self-reflective and empathetic organisms into the picture however, and morality emerges. It has rudimentary elements in many mammals who exhibit empathy and herd behavior. Then primates took it to another level, chimpanzees going one direction (more conflict-oriented) and bonobos evolving a more cooperative and empathetic structure. Early human tool use shaped social interactions more precisely and began to define what are now called the human universals, many of which concern morality. Later, a further moral evolution took place as tribes gave way to cities, states, and nations. Nations are defined more by their laws than their people, proving that highly nuanced morality is the end product of both memetic and genetic evolution. That laws and ethics often differ is evidence of the divergence of political systems from a firm grounding in human nature.
Moral nihilists ignore the history of civilization, common law, and tradition. On the right, moral nihilists assert variants of “might makes right,” on the left it’s cultural relativism–ignoring all evidence of a core human nature. Religionists with their codes and scriptures, and moral nihilists with their sociopathic cynicism both miss the point: Self-interest is the guiding principle of every organism, and hence every moral act.
This is hotly disputed by utilitarians and religious idealists alike. But it’s axiomatic. Once a cell membrane developed to protect its proto-genetic material from being gobbled up by other free floating molecules, self-interest was born. A cell membrane surrounding internal metabolism involves the consumption of resources and the excretion of waste to the environment. These are the basic features of life. Life also involves differentiation and specialization. As genetic material advanced and became more purposeful, each life form eked out an ecological niche and tried to destroy competitors. This is the basic premise of Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, and it has never been effectively refuted. Aside from discredited arguments about group-selection, there is no alternative to describe the competitive nature of evolution.
When we move to discussions of human morality, inevitably people point to the clear evidence of human cooperation and altruism. But all is not what it seems…
Two forms of altruism exists, Robert Trivers’ and Richard Dawkins’ reciprocal altruism, and a form based on the existence of mirror neurons. Mirror neurons deliver a pain signal to the brain when viewing other’s suffering, giving an immediate brain-based reward for helping reduce the suffering. I’m hoping to discuss these twin approaches to altruistic behavior and their political implications in a future article. But today I’d like to concentrate on this question: Regardless of whether altruism exists or can be sufficiently well defined, is it necessary for a comprehensive moral system?
My answer is no. Altruism is a component of self-interest. To discuss it separately is to miss the point. The key distinctions which delineate petty self-interest from broad self-interest are: 1) short-term vs. long-term, and 2) how wide is your circle of concern? Humanitarians are characterized by a gigantic circle of concern. So they work tirelessly for larger goals with the same devotion as if they were working for themselves. But the impulse is no different. Often the enabling factor for humanitarians is a large financial windfall (as with Bill Gates), or tremendous communication skills (as with Bono). Both these men developed the skills needed to launch their altruistic careers in a burst of feverish self-interest. I would guess that neither had any clue in the beginning how altruistic they would eventually become. Self-interest and altruism are two inseparable sides of the same coin.
Here are the relevant clips from the Daylight Atheism discussion. While not as comprehensive a case as I’d like to make, at least you can see how the arguments hold up in a debate setting:
“I’ve also heard this belief advanced as a counter to the argument from religious confusion, claiming that we should consider Christianity to stand out from all other religions because of the obvious superiority of its founder’s moral teachings.”
And on what grounds should the “moral” teachings of one value system be judged superior to ANY other? Is not the act of finding one value system superior to another a “moral” judgement in and of itself? Ultimately, this is a circular argument: value system X is superior to others because value system X says so.
This statement alone could have replaced this entire article and carried the same overall message.
As it happens, I’m a moral Nihilist: I don’t think there’s an objective “right” or “wrong” of any kind – only behaviors that accomplish what they intend to accomplish and behaviors that don’t accomplish said ends. Thus “morality” plays no role in my decision making.
Ah, yes. It’s true there are no moral absolutes. Nature just is. We happen to exist on this planet, and some other species could have overtaken and destroyed humans. Or a meteor wiped out civilization entirely. That would be a morally neutral outcome in the absolute sense.
But this is a philosophical trap. By having consciousness and identity, we necessarily take on a value system relative to our own interests. I wonder how long you would remain a “moral nihilist” if I strapped you down and began to torture you with a red-hot iron?
Human ethics are all relative to human subjectivity. But since our awareness as human beings can be scientifically defined and our basic needs and desires quantified, then moral “good” can be objectively derived: It is that which fulfills human needs, maximizes human freedom, dignity and happiness, and minimizes human suffering and pain. Moral “bad” does the opposite. Animals and other life on earth figure into our moral universe only insofar as their well-being affects the interests of humans.
It is this human-centric objective morality on which the Bible is entirely silent. It is a book of arbitrary and capricious authority having no basis in the interests of human beings. I think that is Ebonmuse’ point, and I think it was well made.
BlackSun,“Ah, yes. It’s true there are no moral absolutes. Nature just is. We happen to exist on this planet, and some other species could have overtaken and destroyed humans. Or a meteor wiped out civilization entirely. That would be a morally neutral outcome in the absolute sense.”I’m with you so far…
1. You would never succeed: I’m always armed to the teeth and on the lookout for those who mean me harm – any attept to preform said action may carry a lethal consequense. And as I said earliier – I only see actions that are effective at accomplishing an aim and those that aren’t, so no punches would be pulled in this scenario.
2. In the (highly unlikely) event that you did succeed and I was placed in this position, I still wouldn’t recognize your act as being “right” or “wrong” – but I would treat this situation as a threat to me and frustrate your efforts in any way that I can. Not because I’m convinced of my “right-ness” or your “wrong-ness,” but because my interests run opposite to yours – thus it’s in my best interests to fight against you through any capacity availible to me.
“Human ethics are all relative to human subjectivity. But since our awareness as human beings can be scientifically defined and our basic needs and desires quantified, then moral “good” can be objectively derived: It is that which fulfills human needs, maximizes human freedom, dignity and happiness, and minimizes human suffering and pain.”
But what if things that bring one man “happiness” bring another man pain? Why should we care about human “happiness” overall and not merely the “happiness” of certain individuals within the human species? On what basis should I accept the “good” of humanity over anything else (say, the “good” of Africa’s elephant population for example)?
In the end, this moral system is based on the a priori assumption that the well-being of the human species is the end-all-be-all to our existence. I, on the other hand, will without a second thought put my own interests ahead of the interests of the rest of the human species should (hypothetically) I have to make a choice between the two.
Comment by: Christopher | January 30, 2008, 3:37 pm
We non-relativists call said behaviors and ideologies you claim to hold “sociopathic” and/or “pyschopathic.” Society could not exist without a basic sense of right and wrong–it’s the details that our disperate cultures have been parsing out over the last few thousand years.
Comment by: nfpendleton | January 30, 2008, 6:05 pm
Christopher, I’m with you in the torture scenario. It would never happen. Not just because of the threat of lethal force which I have no doubt you would carry out, but also because I would consider the act immoral and would never attempt it. But my sense of morality takes into account your response. Even if I was to accomplish it, you or your family could come after me later and do worse. I recognize instinctively that such actions are unprofitable and therefore wrong. This is what I was getting at. We do have a sense of ethics, and it’s based on our survival and that’s our objective value system. You have it just as well as the next person.
This is why we need society. Because there are people who think this way. Natural competition is healthy, and leads to improved efficiencies–hence the free market. But when people try to hide their externalities (costs and benefits which accrue outside an economic transaction) they create great harm to the ecosystem and indirectly themselves.
So a human-centric value system is based on our own desire to survive and propagate. If we do things at others expense that benefit us in the short term, we ultimately will hurt ourselves or our offspring.
We cannot exist in the long-term without including the whole of humanity in our moral universe. Or it will eventually come back to bite us in the ass. Plenty of people have thought otherwise and tried to maximize their short-term gains at any cost. That’s what gives us warfare and environmental devastation.
nfpendleton, “We non-relativists call said behaviors and ideologies you claim to hold “sociopathic” and/or “pyschopathic.” Society could not exist without a basic sense of right and wrong–it’s the details that our disperate cultures have been parsing out over the last few thousand years.”
I’m aware that the herd animals of the social order would think like that: condemn anyone who doesn’t follow the path they establish (i.e. their system of “morality”) as being “sociopathic” due to the thefact that it’s people like us that threaten their little dream world. As far as I’m concerned, the opinions of these herd animals means nothing to me…
Damage to the ecosystem? This world has survived countless celestial impacts, ice ages, episodes of volcanism and much, much more over the course of the last 4.5 billion years than what even the most powerful weapons ever built by man can ever hope to do! This world was around long before us and will be around long after, so any “damage to the ecosystem” we cause cause will be so minor by comparison that it’s not even worth thinking about…
Damage to ourselves? We may not be as resiliant as the cockroach, but I have no trouble finding the human species capable of overcoming its immediate troubles (provided those “moral” barriers come down first) – as with any other species, the strong will adapt and evolve and the weak shall perish.
As John Menard Keyenes once said: “in the long run, we’re all dead.” Barring some advance that would cause us to possess eternal life, our species is going to die someday – so why shouldn’t I focus on improving my life and my values in the here and now instead of preparing the lives of a generation that may not even come into being?
Comment by: Christopher | January 31, 2008, 10:13 am
Christopher, Imagine a scenario where you had 100 slaves who worked to support your every whim. They kept you living in the utmost comfort while they lived on the edge of starvation and your guards kept them from leaving or helping themselves.
Re: the environment. The earth is in absolutely no danger. It will survive for billions of years no matter what happens to us. But our future is in question and the ability of the natural systems to continue to provide us what we need to live. This is a fact. Taming externalities and living within our means as dictated by natural capital is the only ethical long-term policy.
“According to moral nihilism, there is no difference between the two scenarios. Because both ways you benefit equally. But I doubt you’d agree the scenarios are equal.” This is where you’d be wrong: it would actually be in my best interests to use the hired labor as they significant advantages over the slaves – there’s less chance of an all out revolt (see Sparticus and the slave riots in the Deep South), they are more motivated to work than slaves and they can contribute in ways that slaves either can’t or won’t (such as introduce new ideas to their field of work).
Slavery was ultimately eliminated from this nation because it was inefficient, not because it was “immoral” – I know that many of those historical revisionists say otherwise, but that’s all slavery ultimately boiled down to; a question of economics.
Comment by: Christopher | January 31, 2008, 1:24 pm
it would actually be in my best interests to use the hired labor as they significant advantages over the slaves – there’s less chance of an all out revolt (see Sparticus and the slave riots in the Deep South), they are more motivated to work than slaves and they can contribute in ways that slaves either can’t or won’t (such as introduce new ideas to their field of work).
OK, Christopher, so what I’m hearing you say is that treating people with dignity is to your advantage. In your last few comments I think you have just laid out the basis for a moral system. Self-interest drives morality in almost every case. You and I agree on the basic premise. I just draw the circle of what constitutes my self-interest a little wider, and the time-frame a little longer than you do.
But what’s clear is that morality is a practical human construct based on desires and needs, and this is far from a nihilist perspective. It is also far from the arbitrary authority-based “morality” of scripture.
Christopher: Are you the same Christopher from the Roots of Morality series of posts?
“In your last few comments I think you have just laid out the basis for a moral system. Self-interest drives morality in almost every case. You and I agree on the basic premise. I just draw the circle of what constitutes my self-interest a little wider, and the time-frame a little longer than you do.”
But unlike you, I don’t count this as a constant in all circumstances: in relation to a modern society the aforementioned behavior would be to my best interests, but let’s just say that our circumstances were suddenly altered – that I found myself in a society of weak-willed individuals that lack any significant level of creativity. In this scenario, it would be to my best interests to enslave them and make them do my bidding. Their weakness of will would make them ideal for obeying commands, thier lack of creativity points to an inferior intellect and such a society would likely be wiped out if left to its own devices (assuming that a society of such being evolved in the first place) thus elevating me, the greatest intellect in that society of half-witts, to the position of a protector in their eyes.
However, at it stands this is not the case: humans tend to be much better equipped for handling life than these hypothetical beings, thus are more difficult to enslave – which just makes it easier to employ them normally if one wants their services over the long run.
Comment by: Christopher | January 31, 2008, 6:52 pm
Even if I was to accomplish it, you or your family could come after me later and do worse. I recognize instinctively that such actions are unprofitable and therefore wrong.
I’m not sure that it makes sense to privilege self-interest as a motive for morality. Whilst I realise that self-interest has the advantage of being near-universal, I’d like to point out that care for others is actually nearly universal, too. It tends to be more focused on the people we can actually see, and we’re perfectly capable of blocking others from our circle of awareness, but if our subjective (though nearly universal) desire to survive can be part of what makes up and drives our morality, would you agree that our subjective (though nearly universal) care for others can also play a part?
It’s all very nice to condemn the herd animals and say there is no right and wrong when nothing is on the line. It makes one feel very superior, looking down on the peons who think things matter. Look at them scrambling around, as if their feelings matter. How laughable! (I think Nietzsche had some things to say about that, actually.) I do find it quite enjoyable to read Nietzsche, and he is often quite right, and there are some very compelling arguments for moral nihilism (e.g. Mackie’s error-theory argument.) But it is quite another thing to espouse moral nihilism when people’s lives are on the line. Tell me, what would you do if you were suddenly transported back to 1939 Germany, knowing what you do about the Holocaust? Would you simply sit back and say, “Ah well, it’s not really wrong. There is no right and wrong. Such terms are meaningless”?
What if an illegal war was started by your country, and your government started torturing and holding prisoners without cause or charge? Would you shrug your shoulders and say it doesn’t matter since everyone dies anyway?
Perhaps you might, if you were being true to your beliefs. I question whether anyone can live that way, or at least be happy living that way. Certainly all of the very best humans I know (and in fact, Nietzsche himself, I would fancy) would speak out against government sanctioned anti-Semitism, or persecution of any kind.
There might be no way to convince a moral nihilist that he is wrong, since moral nihilists cannot even see that being logical should matter, for there are no “shoulds” for moral nihilists. In which case, they are free to be as illogical as they please. In the end, it comes down to whether you are a heartless fucking bastard or not. I think most people aren’t, and I’m glad, for my sake and the sake of my family and friends. I try my best not to be a HFB myself, and to help others not to be (if not through rational argument, through the arts and through friendship, which can allow you to see things you might have otherwise missed).
It pisses me off when religious people assume all atheists are nihilists, but to a true nihilist, I really do have to ask, why not just kill yourself if that is what you believe? Why bother with anything at all, if none of it matters?
Response to Mathew Wilder, 1. In the examples you proposed, my response would vary depending upon my position within the society in question and what I saw as being in my best interests – I can’t give you a more specific response than that as I would need more detail to answer.
2. There’s no such thing as an “illegal war” as war presupposes the absence of law in the first place (thus the reason two or more factions fight to assert their own law): whoever wins the aforementioned war is the one to declare that which is legal or not…
3. Now that you mentioned him, Nietzsche was one of my primary philosophical influences. That said, I consider myself to be an unfaithful disciple of his works (see “Thus Spake Zarathustra” for more on that) and thus have mixed his ideas (the eternal return, the Ubermensch, the master and slave moralities, etc…) with my own interpretations of reality. In short, even though I respect his works I don’t use them as a Bible for life (I think of them more as guidelines).
4. As for suicide – why should I commit this act? The way I see it, my life has as much value as I ascribe to it and I’ve made it my own standard for existence. I created my own value for life and can unmake it at a future date if circumstances caused me to will it, so I don’t see what the big deal is.
Comment by: Christopher | February 1, 2008, 11:54 am
Christopher, What are your objections to conceiving of morality as pertaining to what we have most reason to do? As Richard argues in many posts, morality is deeply connected to rationality. Presumably you value rationality, else you wouldn’t bother posting in discussion threads on atheist blogs, in all likelihood.
If that is true, it is open for us non-nihilists to convince you by argument that you are mistaken about the existence of moral truths. Why should we want to be rational? Well, it seems to me there is no way out of rationality. If you argue against the importance of rationality, you are engaging in a rational discussion, and so undermining yourself. Perhaps you can live with that, but you certainly won’t convince anyone!
Those are probably the core arguments that you should read. Here are some others that might be of interest:
That is a lot to read, but if you are really serious about holding a position, it behooves you read the best objections to your position, in order to make sure you are justified in holding that position. (Or maybe it doesn’t behoove you, since there is are no “shoulds”?)
Re: Mr. Johnston’s post,
Thinking About God Leads To Generosity, Study Suggests:from sciencedaily.com…
This is not surprising given society’s a priori assumption that religion = good. Since we are inculcated with that from an early age, it would be surprising if people thought about god and didn’t want to do good things. This doesn’t make religion good in itself because it doesn’t take a lot of issues into consideration, nor does it mean that we can’t attain the same results without religion.
I find nihilism to be short-sighted and ill thought out. One may think that (s)he is the top dog and therefore can withstand any and all challenges, but there’s always someone bigger and badder. It also ignores the evolutionary contributions to morality and our selfish genes. I wonder if Christopher has children. If so, why? Also, does Christopher love his children? Again, why? If he does love his children, then it is incompatible for him to hold that the ecosystem doesn’t matter and ideas of that nature.
Comment by: OMGF | February 1, 2008, 5:48 pm
‘Animals and other life on earth figure into our moral universe only insofar as their well-being affects the interests of humans’, that’s why its fine to set fire to kittens while eating foie gras at the local dogfights, and why it’s fine to stone the less-than-human infidels to death.
Replace ‘human’ with ‘Christian’ in Blacksun’s post, and you have a nice synopsis of the fundy worldview. His ‘objective morality’ is just as arbitrary, capricious and self-serving a sham as theirs, and it’s odd no one has called him on it. Does this mean you guys agree with that?
Comment by: Lyssad | February 2, 2008, 3:53 pm
Replace ‘human’ with ‘Christian’ in Blacksun’s post, and you have a nice synopsis of the fundy worldview.
Whatever your view of animal rights might be, I don’t consider it a pertinent criticism of a moral system that you can change it into a different, worse one by substituting words at whim.
…but for the sake of the interests of myself and of my own…
Your own Christopher? Huh?
You are guilty of a non sequitor. It simply does not follow that what Blacksun said leads to setting fire to kittens while eating foie gras at a local dogfight, or stoning non-human animals to death. Nice try.
His ‘objective morality’ is just as arbitrary, capricious and self-serving a sham as theirs, and it’s odd no one has called him on it. Does this mean you guys agree with that?
Do I agree with your strawman argument? No, I do not.
Comment by: OMGF | February 2, 2008, 4:42 pm
Lyssad, Since many people value and feel connected to animals, it is in humans interest to offer them protection. For most of human history, human economy has been based on exploitation of animal labor and products. To this end, proper ecosystem management allows animals to live as well as possible and therefore maximizes human benefit.
Animals have no inherent rights. They slaughter each other at will. They overconsume their resources and starve themselves out. They are subject to the complete whims of nature. Humans are the only organisms with enough self-reflection, empathy, and power to protect them. So any rights granted to animals are based on human desires.
Having said that, one of many human desires (driven by empathy) is to prevent needless suffering. The suffering imposed by animal torture, foie gras and veal production, and dog-fighting are something we can very easily prohibit under a human-centric self-interested moral system. Basically, we protect animals because we don’t want the discomfort of having to think about them suffering.
Another reason to discourage animal cruelty might be a growing awareness of links between cruelty to animals and cruelty to humans:
Comment by: Friday | February 2, 2008, 7:53 pm