Question from C.L.H.:
I copied the following excerpt from a reader comments section of an online column titled “Is Atheism Livable?”
I was curious if you could respond concerning the the moral scenario described below…
So the actual question is “do moral statements constitute propositions that can be true or false”. The naturalists answer is that they do not, but rather codify behaviors which increase our ability to survive. For example, the statement “it is wrong to kill innocent people” is not an objectively moral statement, but rather stems from the scientific fact that human society crumbles when people can murder others at will, thus making it difficult for us to survive. Morality, to the naturalist, is redefined to mean nothing more than “what we do to survive”. So to use a less ambiguous language, the naturalist is actually saying that “it is a fact that we won’t survive if we allow murder, and because we have an impulse to survive, we should all agree not to murder”. This type of thought cannot be legitimately be called “morality” because it doesn’t contain within itself any actual standard of what is “good” or “right” – just what is preferred by most of us. Typically the naturalist is okay with this.
The theist, on the other hand, is more of a realist about morality – he maintains that the moral statement “it is wrong to kill innocent people” not only has the propositional/scientific factual content the naturalist maintains, but also that it stems from a deeper, transcendent law that is tied into the nature of the universe itself. In other words, killing innocent people is not wrong *merely* because society will collapse otherwise, but because killing people is simply *wrong*.
This type of moral realism is the default. The other completely flies in the face of our intuition about morality. For example, the statement “it is wrong to rape and murder young children” is wrong in all cases (I hope we all agree on that). The naturalist would argue that if we allow people to rape and murder young children at will, society will collapse and we won’t survive.
But one can certainly make up a situation in which this isn’t the case. Put the adult and the child on an island with no hope of rescue, the child is in a vegetative state with no sensation and no hope of waking up, and the adult will simply live out his days until he dies. Obviously should the adult rape and murder the child in this context, no society is damaged, and ultimately his action will have no negative consequence.
The naturalist is then forced to acknowledge that there is nothing immoral (by his definition) about the adults action in this situation. I have met one naturalist in my life who will concede this and affirm that nothing immoral has been done in this situation, and that one person is not something who I would say manages to function well on a day to day basis.
In any case, are any of the naturalists here willing to either
1) acknowledge that such an action is not immoral (if so I apologize but you are sick), or
2) explain why it is immoral using a naturalistic definition of morality (without resorting to something silly like “well he may be rescued later” – the situation is defined as described above)?
As I said, moral realism is the default position based on intuition and the obviousness of our collective everyday human experience. The burden of proof lies heavily on the one who claims that moral propositions don’t constitute true or false propositions. And the fact that a biological/evolutionary basis for moral behavior does not accomplish this task. All this does is affirm that the universe is such that moral behavior promotes life, and therefore affirms that life is good.
Answer by SmartLX:
Atheists have already answered below the comment itself, but here goes.
In answer to (1), the action he describes is not immoral in the absolute sense he’s looking for, according to the usual non-supernatural view, but then nothing is. It’s immoral according to almost any objective basis you care to apply to it, but none of those count in his reckoning.
Thing is, if you go around saying that such a deed is wrong, the only people who would bother to contradict you are those who object to the absolutism in the statement, not people who actually think the deed is right. It doesn’t actually matter in a practical sense whether or not the universe has an inbuilt moral code which says it’s wrong.
Which is good, because even if it did we’ve got no way of knowing what that code is. Holy texts and philosophical works set rules and guidelines we all seem to agree on, but is that necessarily because they’re deliberately and explicitly instilled in all of us before birth? No, it’s probably just because we’re all human, we were all brought up in roughly the same society and we have many of the same values instilled in us by other people. Not all, of course, because we differ widely on thorny issues like abortion. Intuition only takes us so far.
The commenter succeeds in ruling out an absolutism in non-theistic morality which doesn’t rely on absolutism anyway. That’s not a huge achievement.
“The commenter succeeds in ruling out an absolutism in non-theistic morality which shouldn’t be there anyway. That’s not a huge achievement.”
Question from C.L.H.: