Does naturalism have a good basis for a moral theory? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.
We’re continuing with our look at Sense and Goodness Without God by Richard Carrier. Right now, we’re discussing moral theory. Again, I only wish to bring out a few highlights from the chapter of points that I find problematic.
On page 317, Carrier claims that homosexual sex on J.P. Moreland’s view is immoral when supposedly in reality, it harms no one and if you repress your desires, well that does lead to harm. (This would be news to several Christians I know who live happy lives despite having homosexual attractions they don’t act on. It would also be the same for those with heterosexual attractions they don’t act on.) Amusingly, on the same page he describes unsafe sex as risky behavior stating that immoral behavior is risky.
For the first part, I want to note immediately that Gatean Dugas is unavailable for comment. It is hard to have read a book like “And The Band Played On” about the spread of the AIDS epidemic in America (Note originaly it was called GRID, Gay-Related Immune Deficiency) and not see that the behavior is risky. In fact, it is inherently risky. Homosexuals like Larry Kramer wrote about the problems in the homosexual community and others realized that the bathhouse culture opened itself up for numerous risks as most people did not follow “safe” procedures. If you go to the CDC web site today and look up STD’s, you’ll even find specific statements about homosexual sex.
By the way, if anyone wants to think my source for “And The Band Played On” is a homophobic bigot, keep in mind that Randy Stilts who wrote the book was himself a homosexual who died of AIDS.
Yet I also can’t wonder if it’s possible for sex to be risky even if all the “safe” procedures were followed. Could it be that cheap casual sex is also just as risky? Could there not be several psychological reasons for thinking that? For those who are interested in hearing such reasons, I recommend listening to my interview with Freda Bush on the hook-up culture available here.
Now I do agree with Carrier of course that immorality is bad for you, yet it is interesting to hear him say about people who are bad will live with some debilitating factor such as chronic anger or depression. He writes of how they will try to replace the hole in their lives with luxuries, distractions, etc. It will never be enough. The pleasures will be fleeting and they will never know the genuine happiness Carrier speaks of.
At this point, I’m surprised there isn’t an altar call in the book.
Now I do think of course that God has made us for Him, but I would say do not come to God because He will make you happy, though He will in the long-run to be sure. Come to Him because He is true. If you want a religion to bring you comfort and joy, well Christianity offers that, but it definitely promises suffering as well. What Christianity will also say is it is rooted in a historical reality.
So how does a naturalist account for value? (A term I would prefer not to use.) Carrier says “We merely place the highest authority, not the sole authority, in the findings of science.”
This is like the problem I expressed earlier about having a metal detector on the beach and not being able to find paper. What if these questions are not answered by science? If they are not, then science might be able to supplant another field, but it cannot do the work of that other field.
We are told that one could demonstrate that something is a good value for humans and therefore all ought to seek it since all human beings desire happiness. Why yes they do, but I find Carrier seems to have great faith in humanity and after the 20th century, I don’t share that great faith.
It would be great to say that if we all knew the facts, then we would know that these are good and we would all seek one another’s happiness, but does anyone really think that we would? Why should we? We in fact each know that most of the time, if it comes to choosing happiness, we choose our own over everyone else’s.
One of the great lessons learned in marriage is how you have to consistently sacrifice your happiness for someone else. Both persons in a marriage are expected to put the other one first. A husband might want to save up to buy himself something really nice, but he knows he needs to take his wife out to dinner. He might want to stay home and watch the game on TV, but she wants an evening on the town, so off he goes. A wife meanwhile might want to just stay home and watch TV, but she knows she needs to do the housework for her husband. She might not be exactly “in the mood” that evening, but she knows her husband desires sexual intimacy with her and so gives it. Both learn to sacrifice their good for that of the other, but it takes work.
I would furthermore love to see how Carrier would plan on sharing this insight with people in the Muslim community for instance. What happens if he meets any people who do not accept the findings of science supposedly? What does he do then?
Please note also that in all of this, there has not yet been a definition given of “good.”
When it comes to human nature, on page 328 we are told “it is obvious that in order to be called a ‘human’ one must possess certain qualities, therefore a ‘human nature’ exists. Q.E.D.”
Well sure, if you want to be included in group X, you must possess all the qualities of group X. Lions, tigers, and our little pet Shiro are all quite different, but somehow, all belong in the category of cat.
And humans are quite different. We have different races to us. We have different sizes. We have different personalities. We have different shapes. We have different sexes. Yet all of us possess this human nature.
The problem with Carrier’s position is that he states that we all have to possess these qualities. What qualities are they?
Your guess is as good as mine. They’re never listed. I suppose we have to take their existence by faith.
Now as a Christian, I would point out that we all have the image of God. We are endowed with rationality and the ability to choose the good and reject the evil. We could try to point to physical characteristics to establish our common bond, but they’re vastly different. We can’t even point to the 46 chromosomes in DNA since some people actually have a minutely different number. Those who have the 46 all have them quite differently.
Yet here’s a problem then. If we have no clear idea in naturalism of what these traits are, how can we say that we are all human? Could some not say others are not human? (This was done in Nazi Germany and is done today in the abortion industry.) Could that not in fact give us an excuse to exterminate those that do not fit the bill?
And if we value equality so much, then how is it that we can have a basis for equality in our society if in fact there is nothing that is truly equal about us?
Oh. Speaking of abortions, perhaps some readers would like this quote on page 329.
“And a newborn baby, deserving even greater compassion and respect, has more value than any animal on Earth, with the possible exception of adult apes or dolphins (or, perhaps, elephants.)”
So this newborn baby would possess this human nature, but apparently their human nature is not as special as elephant or dolphin nature. What exactly makes it less special? Who knows! If you think I’m not representing this fairly, just look at what is on the next page when Carrier speaks about Koko, the gorilla who supposedly understands much sign language.
“If in a dire circumstance I had to choose between saving Koko and saving a newborn human baby, it would be hard to justify saving the baby–only the baby’s value to someone else, and it’s potential to develop into a fully-effective human being, would weigh against Koko.”
Here we see where the problem will come from. How will Carrier determine what a fully-effective human being is? Recently, Boghossian has written about faith being seen as a contagion and how it needs to be listed as a mental condition. What would stop Carrier from seeing people of faith the same way as people carrying a disease and thus not being “fully-effective human beings.”?
We have a position similar to that of Animal Farm. All humans are equal, but some are more equal than others!
Carrier goes on to say that “The loss of a human being is a truly profound loss to the entire universe, and the development of a human mind is the greatest, most marvelous thing the universe may ever realize. But more importantly, each human shares our awareness of being, our understanding, our capacity for perceiving happiness and agreeing to help each other achieve it.”
Keep in mind that on page 259, Carrier said
“it is theism that often encourages arrogance, making man the center of the universe, exaggerating his importance in the grand scheme of things.”
Looks to me like atheism is doing a good job of it as well.
So which is it? Is it that theism is wrong when it does this but atheism is not when it does the exact same thing?
Carrier’s great faith however in humanity comes out even more on page 336.
“We tell the Nazis that his beliefs, like that Jews are not human beings and that they are plotting to take over the world, are factually false, and therefore his morals regarding Jews are in error. We also tell the Nazi that even if his belief that Jews are not human beings were true, it does not logically follow that their lives have no value, since nonhumans (even nonliving things) can have value and the special value assigned to human beings is not based on their species but on qualities they can in principle share with other species and that, as a matter of fact, Nazis clearly share with Jews, even if Jews really were a distinct species.”
Geez. I wonder why we didn’t try that! It’s all so simple! Just sit down and explain to Hitler the error of his ways and before too long, the Nazis will be out there turning their guns and tanks into plowshares and attending Bar Mitzvahs with their new friends!
Next we come to the topic of defining good and evil! It’s about time! So I got to this section eagerly looking forward to what was to be said.
I was disappointed. I was told that evil is a word used to refer to anything causing injury or harm. The good is the opposite.
This kind of definition would require much qualification.
The police officer no doubt harms the criminal when he puts a bullet through his skull, but many of us would recognize situations where this is justifiable, save for the most staunch pacifist out there.
The refrigeration industry in American history brought great harm to the ice industry. Several people in that business lost their jobs. We could say the same about what the automobile industry did to the horse industry. This caused harm. A surgeon will cause harm to his patient. (As one who went through Scoliosis surgery, I can assure you it does not feel pleasant!)
Further, some things we can think are beneficial are not. The example that springs readily to mind is the boy who decides to help a butterfly escape from its container by poking a hole in it with a pencil. The boy doesn’t know that the butterfly needing to break out assures it gets the strength this way to survive. By helping it, the boy has killed it. We can also picture giving a lollipop to a small child, an otherwise benign act (Except perhaps to a dentist), not realizing that the child is a diabetic.
And we could ask about helping people, helping them to what and to what end? What is the ultimate one good at the end? Is it happiness? If so, does this not imply a teleology, the very thing that Carrier’s system goes against since that is a principle of intelligent design from the outside? (Note by intelligent design, I do not mean in the mechanistic sense as in the modern ID movement).
Carrier also says that something would be good or evil regardless of what a society says, but that good and evil are defined by human convention. How could this work? What happens if two societies disagree? Who decides which one is right? How is this decided? We can say “We use science to determine this!” Let’s suppose the other society does not think science is the way to determine this. Why should the society that thinks otherwise automatically have to give in to the position that most Westerners hold to?
Finally, I wish to comment on the views of Jesus that Carrier presents. Carrier says that Jesus would have people rob and beat us. (Matthew 5:38-42). This is a common view of the turning of the other cheek, but it is false. The position described is a slap of the face which would not be a brutal attack, but would be an insult. It would also take place privately. Jesus is telling us then that in the private sphere, don’t try to outdo someone on insults and one-up them. Instead, leave the vengeance to God. Trying to outdo them only increases the cycle of evil. Of course, this does not apply in the public sphere where one’s honor would be at stake and it does not apply in the case of an actual attack.
He also says that we should forgive a criminal 539 times. (I have never read that number in the Gospels in the parable of the unforgiving servant.) To this we ask, why shouldn’t we? If someone comes and asks forgiveness, release them from the debt. This does not mean there are never any consequences, but it means you do not hold a grudge.
Finally, he points to Jesus telling the rich young man to sell all he has and give to the poor. Indeed, he did, because this rich young man placed all his joy in his riches. It was what was separating him from eternal life. For several of us, it could be something else entirely.
Carrier says Jesus holds these to be moral positions and says “But we hold that these are at best supermoral, and that it is immoral to expect such behavior from anyone.” Earlier he says “Evangelical Christians like Moreland would have us believe that early-term abortion or homosexual sex are immoral. But we hold they are not.”
So again we have the problem. Carrier’s view will say “We hold this and we are the enlightened ones.” Again, why should I agree with him? I already see that he can determine degrees of value for human beings so why think that more and more he will not choose to value those who are more like him than anyone else?
In fact, it’s human nature for us to tend to do that as I dare say we all to some extent do that. Carrier seems to have great faith in the goodness of humanity. I don’t see that on the evening news. I instead have great evidence that humanity has great potential to do evil and we willingly use that potential every day. I do not see our problem as simple ignorance of facts. Our problem is as Scripture says, our hearts. They are wicked.
Perhaps the prophets are right. What we need is not just new knowledge, which is good, but new hearts.
And somehow, I think you need God for that.