‘Nuff Said Award Winner: An Andrew Sullivan Reader On A Darwinist Response To Evil

Just great stuff (from a very long e-mail you should read in full):

You want a secular account of evil?  Here it is.  Evil does exist, like most other phenomena granted a label by human culture.  It is what we’ve semantically converged on:  a universally-understood though fuzzily-bounded descriptor of that which goes against our current moral framework.  This framework contains some fairly absolute elements dictated by wiring in the brain that was selected for to maintain strong, cohesive communities (e.g., sharing is good, the golden rule), and some fairly relative elements developed through cultural evolution over time.  Too relativistic for you?  Consider this:  isn’t it better to arrive at an account of morality through social consensus (in evolving popular opinion informed by expert ethicists as well as the changing realities around us), rather than through religious fiat based on interpretation of just those parts of millennia-old writings that happen to still remain relevant in modern times?

The religious accounts of good and evil, your reader would be wise to recall, have frequently demanded the persecution of outsiders and gays and had nothing proscriptive to say about the systemic enslavement of women (or anybody else).  Throughout history, it’s been conservative, and usually more religious, forces that have clung to older notions of morality, while progressive, doubting voices have updated it, resulting in the First World formulation broadly agreed on today that prizes equality, compassion and individual liberty.  I dare any critics of “moral relativism” to explain how their own absolute values weren’t improved via moral drift from the pro-slavery, genocide-neutral, anti-women’s rights precedents of the past.  Where will it go from here?  Nearly impossible to say, though with global society so interconnected now, there’s less inter-society selective pressure/freedom to drive drastic changes.  But even abandoning that comfort of absolutism that enables us to imagine a distant future with morality totally like our own, I believe the humanist take on morality is enormously positive, wherein we as a society take responsibility to craft and maintain a consensus of good and evil that can feel right to each of us, is logically consistent, and allows us to make the best of our reality, rather than squabble over which antique scroll serves as an authoritative template for right actions.

But if you’re still looking for something that “redeems” evil by telling us that suffering isn’t really so bad because there’s some Grand Intentional Reason why it exists (though one which we can never know, and to which we can’t appeal for any measurable guidance), then I guess the secular account can’t really help you.  But it seems to me the real vacuum is in your unwillingness to grant humanity its personal responsibility, not in the secularists failing to provide you with a poetic enough ghost story.

‘Nuff Said.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • mikespeir

    “And so the contempt deepens. I am glad to post these responses but have no desire at this point to converse with people whose utter disrespect for the religious life and contempt for people of faith is fathomless.”

    Amazing! I didn’t see anything remotely contemptuous in those responses. It’s no wonder he doesn’t want to engage these correspondents. They make perfect sense!

  • Daniel Fincke

    Isn’t it amazing? I was going to highlight that part but felt like it would require a full response so I backed off.

    I usually admire Sullivan a lot but that kind of a baseless dismissal of really articulate, substantive, trenchant answering of his OWN gauntlet laid down to atheists is just Sullivan suffering from the classic last resort of the religious in the face of refutation: he accuses the atheists of “meanness.”

  • http://avertyoureye.blogspot.com/ Teleprompter

    That’s nice that there is a compelling secular account of the evolved consensus behind moral beliefs, but that still leaves me in the dark as far as a critical aspect of morality goes…

    …that is, *why* are our beliefs moral? Yes, the consensus favors them. But if the consensus favored enslavement of women and racial minorities, is that moral? Was it moral when the consensus stood for those things? Are there things currently agreed upon as moral conventions that are actually immoral?

    Yes, this person has answered *what makes something seem to be moral*, but there is no answer for *what makes something actually moral*. There is the main criticism of moral relativism: how does one know that it’s *better* that women are not enslaved or that slavery is abolished *if it’s all relative*?

    How can a person say that anything is morally *better* if everything is relative? How do we know it’s better? If it’s better because there’s a consensus, then that only says that if there were not a consensus, it wouldn’t be better at all. What does it all mean? How do we know that one state of affairs is actually better than another when it comes to morality and moral choice? Can it be determined objectively, and if so, how?

    Yes, that is a good explanation of why something appears moral, but not why something actually is or is not moral. On that matter I would like to see an explanation attempted.

  • Daniel Fincke

    Good questions all, Teleprompter, and ones I’ve addressed in some of my ethics posts to some extent but which deserve a specific post in this context. I hope to get to it soon. Thanks!