Friday, August 01, 2008


Feeling Moral

I have noted before that the "New Atheists" exhibit an interesting inconsistency when they deny objective morality but still call God a monster and religion evil. Exhibiting what can only be called "righteous indignation" at religious practices and believers cannot help but raise the question of what the source of the moral certitude necessary to sustain such indignation can be.

Certainly, it does not derive from nature. That would run afoul of the "is/ought problem", sometimes called the Naturalistic Fallacy. Propounded by David Hume, the is/ought argument holds that it is not justifiable to call something "good" simply because it is a fact of nature.

Larry Arnhart at Darwinian Conservatism has an interesting post about one possible answer, also arising out of David Hume by the unlikely pathway of Leon Kass.

But now in the July-August 2008 issue of The Hastings Center Report, Gregory Kaebnick has an excellent article--"Reasons of the Heart: Emotion, Rationality, and the 'Wisdom of Repugnance'"--that develops an interpretation of Kass's article as implicitly grounded in the same view of moral judgment as that defended by David Hume. ...

In defense of Kass's appeal to natural moral emotions, Kaebnick says: "I am interested only in the thought that there might be aspects of human nature that we do, in fact, value without being able to prove that we should. My goal will be to show that considering emotions integral to moral judgments is philosophically respectable." He does this by defending Hume's account of moral judgments as expressions of a natural moral sense. "Hume's point," Kaebnick rightly explains, "is not that morality is silly or unimportant, but only that logic and empirical investigation alone cannot generate moral judgments. In effect, morality is itself, for Hume, a matter of human nature."
Of course, the thought of being necessarily subject to emotions not fully amenable to logic and empiricism may not be any more palatable to some than the thought of some divine lawgiver.

I don't understand. Do you claim that one can only exhibit righteous indignation if one believes in absolute morality?

That does not seem like a trivial conclusion to me?
Do you feel righteous indignation when a lion eats a zebra?

Justified "righteous indignation" requires the existence of "good" and "evil," not merely the utile and non-utile, the advantageous and disadvantageous. The issue is on what basis do you support the claim of the existence of "evil" if you have a naturalistic view of the world?
Hmm I would disagree but perhaps this is because I am not a native English speaker, or because we just have different definitions for the words?

Not that I want to appeal to wikipedia, but my perception of the concept is not far from that entry, namely:

"Righteous indignation is an emotion one feels when one becomes angry over perceived mistreatment, insult, or malice. It is akin to what is called the sense of injustice"

Can we agree that this does not require the belief that there exists an objective morality?

Few people, in my experience, deny that human as a rule has a sense of morality, or a sense of injustice if you will.

And where did the word "justified" come from? As I read your reply it looks to me as if you are claiming that you need absolute morality to justify "righteous indigntaion?

That would hinge on what your perception of what justifies morality?

Furthermore it is begging the question since your original claim did not include the justification part. Take a hypothetical "new atheist" and poke him until he is "righteously indignated".

Are you sure he will claim that this indignation is justified by more than his own moral sensabilites?

Might it not be possible to argue - the idea that heathens burn forever in hell disgusts me, And in a utilitarian light it is suboptimal since (here follows a utilitarian argument).
Okay, "justified" is simply saying that, if New Atheists want to be viewed as rational people (as they do), then any perceived "monsterousness" and "evil" (their terms, not mine) must be rooted in a rational assessment of religion's moral status. If it isn't and they want to confess to being hysterical exagerators, that's fine by me but then the inconsistency comes with their claim to be rationalists.

Are you sure he will claim that this indignation is justified by more than his own moral sensabilites?

Again, they claim to be rationalists and regularly denounce theists as anti-rationalists. If they can give no better reason for calling religion "evil" than that's how they "feel," there is more than a little irony involved.

Might it not be possible to argue - the idea that heathens burn forever in hell disgusts me, And in a utilitarian light it is suboptimal ...

But a rationalist would not confuse the two. If PZ wants to say "religion makes me feel ickey" he's free to (and take the consequences to his reputation for reason). Or he can make an argument as to the evolutionary (what else?) disutility of religion, which is a hard one to make but which, in any event, does not involve "evil.".

I'm not saying that morality is impossible without standards imposed from without, anymore than Haught did in my original post on the subject. I'm saying that the New Atheists are having trouble keeping all their claims straight.
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