Monday, June 12, 2006

Two confused individuals disagreeing on two false concepts makes Alleee cry: CS Lewis vs Austin Cline of Agnosticim/Atheism Blog

I have two choices here: either I bang my head on this very hard, sharp-edged desk, or I deal with it.

Austin Cline wrote this article on The Argument from Morality (for the existence of God) that gives me a bad headache.

A very popular argument with Christian apologists, including C.S. Lewis, is the argument from morality. According to Lewis, the only valid morality that can exist is an objective one — all subjective conceptions of morality lead to ruin
That's for sure.

Furthermore, an authentic objective morality must be grounded in a supernatural reality beyond our own world, thus he rejects all naturalistic conceptions of an objective morality as well. Does his argument succeed?

Well, of course it can't succeed. There is no such thing as a non-naturalistic conception of objective morality. It's an oxymoron, and so is CS Lewis. Morality is about the facts of cause and effect. There is necessarily no cause and effect that's supernatural (not natural), because cause-and-effect is basically what natural is.

According to the Moral Argument, there is a universal human “moral conscience” which suggests basic human similarities. Everyone experiences an internal sense of moral obligation to do the right thing; Lewis asserts that the existence of a universal “moral conscience,” consistent across time and cultures, can only be explained by the existence of a god who created us. Furthermore, Lewis insists that earlier generations had a better grasp of Moral Law on account of their greater agreement on what constitutes moral and immoral behavior.

Yikes! How many laws of logic does that break? There's no such thing as a big, giant, floaty-cloud moral conscience. People make decisions based on how their actions will effect them and their values. That doesn't entail a big floaty-cloud thing. It entails that doing things cause other things to happen.

It is not true, however, that all humans have a moral conscience — some are diagnosed without it and are labeled sociopaths or psychopaths. If we ignore them as an aberration, though, we still have vast differences in morality between different societies. C.S. Lewis claimed that different cultures had “only slightly different moralities,” but anthropologists and sociologists can only regard such a claim with derision. As a student of Greek and Roman history, Lewis himself surely knew that his claim was false.

Oh, Austin. Sigh. A culture can't have a morality whether it's slightly different or vastly different. People make decisions based on how they will affect them. If other people, such as those who can throw them in jail or shoot them, cause them to make decisions that will harm them, it has little to do with morality. Morality is the tool, the values are different. How decisions affect people, "morality," is no different for a fundamentalist Muslim than it is for a hippy in California. The values are different, and those values can be judged as rational or irrational. And in both cases, I tend to assume they're going to be irrational, but you never know.

What little agreement that can be identified is far too thin of a basis upon which he can found an argument such as this, but it can be explained in evolutionary terms. It can be argued, for example, that our moral conscience was evolutionarily selected for, especially in light of animal behavior which is suggestive of a rudimentary “moral conscience.” Chimpanzees exhibit what appears to be fear and shame when they do something that violates the rules of their group. Should we conclude that chimpanzees fear God? Or is it more likely that such feelings are natural in social animals?

If an individual violates the rules of his group, and is afraid, it's not shame. It's fear of being killed. That's not morality, although going along with the group is definitely a decision based on self-interest. Perhaps choosing to persecute others who don't go with your group is a protective mechanism. I can see this isn't a good argument for collectivist/relativist morality, though, just as the moral argument is not a good argument for God, because this behavior doesn't change in different societies.

Even if we grant all of Lewis’ false premises, though, they would not establish his conclusion that morality is objective. The uniformity of a belief does not prove it true or indicate that it has an external source. The fact that we desire to do things we know are wrong is given some weight by Lewis, but it’s not clear why because this, too, does not require that morality be objective.

Of course belief is not objective. But morality has nothing to do with belief. If one's values are based on belief, however, those values are irrational.

Lewis doesn’t seriously consider alternative theories of morality — he only examines a couple, and even then only the weakest formulations available. He studiously avoids direct engagement with more powerful and substantial arguments either against objective morality or in favor of objective morality which is unrelated to the supernatural. There are certainly legitimate questions to be asked about such theories, but Lewis acts as if the theories didn’t even exist.

I wish I could do that, but unfortunatly, dumb "theories" are everywhere. Is cause and effect a theory? Anyone? But I don't really see why someone evangelizing would be interested in any "theory of morality" other than "god." There are always legitimate questions to be asked. One such question is: if morality is based on belief, why should I have moralty? For example, there would be no earthly, naturalistic reason to not commit violence upon someone else. I can personally think of several naturalistic, sold, feet-on-the-ground reasons why I shouldn't punch you in the face, but no, they are just beliefs. I can only believe that you and other people would want to hurt me and make my life miserable as a result, but hey, that's just speculation, not observable fact.

Finally, Lewis argues that atheists contradict themselves when they act morally because they have no inherent basis for morality. Instead, he insists that they forget their ethical subjectivism and act like Christians — that they borrow from the morality of Christianity without acknowledging it.

We hear this refrain from Christian apologists even today, but it’s a false argument. It simply will not do to claim that someone doesn’t “really” believe what they say for no other reason than that it contradicts one’s preconceived notions about what it is and is not plausible. Lewis refuses to engage or consider the possibility that atheists’ behavior is actually a sign that his own conceptions of morality are mistaken.

According to Lewis, “A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.” This is polemic, not an argument, because Lewis does not establish that his sort of dogmatism is a prerequisite for a free society — if, indeed, any dogmatism necessary.

He's right. As a matter of fact, Christians use secular morality, because that's where it comes from--people observing facts of nature. Christian morality is not morality at all, and can only be totally subjective, based on the whim of a giant governor. As far as dogmatic beliefs, well, if the value were objective, then not only would you not need dogmatism, you sure as hell don't need to believe in it. It would be fact.

C.S. Lewis’ argument that the existence of morality points to the existence of his god fails. First, it has not been shown that ethical statements can only be objective if you presume theism. There have been a number of efforts to create naturalistic theories of ethics which in no way rely upon gods. Second, it has not been shown that moral laws or ethical properties are absolute and objective. Maybe they are, but this cannot simply be assumed without argument.

It is true that laws are not absolute. But objective (what a loaded and awful word that makes everyone hate me, so I try and refrain from using it) is not the same as "absolute." As for the last statement, well, that's why we have the War on Relativism, so that we can provide argument after argument for moral realism.

Third, what if morals aren’t absolute and objective? This would not automatically mean we will or should descend into moral anarchy as a result. At best, we have perhaps a practical reason to believe in a god regardless of the actual truth value of theism. This doesn’t rationally establish the existence of a god, which is Lewis’ goal.
This is where I get a stomache ache. I don't know what it means. There aren't "morals" in the way he's saying it, I suspect. Otherwise, he's saying that there is no truth or knowledge, and he hasn't "descended" into dirty, dirty anarchy, he's descended into subjective reality. And we can't have that, because I would be forced to believe he doesn't exist, and I would have no earthly reason to try to convince any one of my self-created entities of anything. But I can tell you right now that morality, the way we look at cause and effect, is objective. I saw the article, it made me say, "I must counter this argument, for the good of my fellow man." I know that it is better for me to write this response than to not. That's because it's based on my values. Perhaps the value of self-expression, exchange of ideas, and me being correct are not totally rational. And you know what? You are welcome to judge that value based on your own observation. If someone were to say, "but a christian wouldn't agree with that," then we could very quickly refute the genuiness and rationality of that claim as well. As individuals. Because a culture can't do things like that. Cultures can't reason.


D. T. Devareaux said...


Bacon Eating Atheist Jew has a topic going based on your post. I think you may have hit upon something when you said: “Perhaps the value of self-expression, exchange of ideas, and me being correct are not totally rational.” Not only do you need to be perfectly rational, but to attack this argument in a rational way is to completely, in my mind, invalid ALL sides. Religion (or one’s moral authority) cannot be the ultimate source of that morality (because religion is bunk) but nor can evolution. The example I proposed was rape. BEAJ said man does not go about randomly raping and I believe he is right. It’s not random at all. Were rape an evolutionary disadvantage, it would have been selected out of the species. So it must confer some type of benefit. And so if it is a natural part of our genetic makeup, as all things are if you subscribe to a purely reductionistic, scientific view of the universe void of any transcendent authority, and hence NO judgments of good, bad, better, worse, etc. being truly applicable, then you’re left with some rather unfortunate conclusions. To paraphrase Leszek Kolakowski, perfect rationality kills; and so it does.

We ask these questions and prepare these answers based on the conceit that questions are valid ones and that the perfectly rational answers to those questions can be deduced. Maybe they’re not. Cockroaches, I doubt, have time and inclination to ponder such things and they’ve been getting on just smashingly for a long time. It’s perhaps a defect of the human species that we even bother to ask these questions at all and that we could every hope of answering them. Our brains are problem-solving brains. Perhaps ‘what is moral?’ or ‘what is the meaning of life?’ aren’t problems to be solved.

Hellbound Alleee said...

When you talk about evolution and randomness, who are you talking to? I'm pretty sure you couldn't possibly be talking to me, because I don't agree that morality "comes from" wither of those things.

Cockroaches? What do bugs have to do with morality? Morality pertains to humans almost exclusively.

If perfect rationality kills, then someone must be defending himself or someone else.

I wish you hadn't hit upon that particular sentence, because it confused you. My point was that values must be judged for their rationality. And apparently Bacon Eater. If he is judging my argument based on its rationality: TA DAH!! He is conceding moral realism. I say, FINALLY.

It's not that complicated. When you make decisions, you try your best to act based on cause and effect, and the best outcome. This is why morality is not "rules of right and wrong." Morality -- AGAIN -- is the study of causality in human action. I am not deviating from that definition, because it's the definition that I am defending.

Aaron Kinney said...

Great post. Well said. I give this post two thumbs up!