The Separability Of Metaethics From Questions Of Theism

Earlier today, I argued that atheists cannot duck metaethics challenges from theists (or anyone else) and that we should not respond to such challenges with the knee jerk response that we are being bigotedly assumed to be incapable of moral behavior.  I wrote:

it is not mere prejudice for theists to demand atheists give an account of their metaethical positions. By this I mean that it is totally justifiable for theists to ask atheists to explain to them what morality is, where it comes from, and why anyone must obey its dictates.

And David E replied to that specific remark as follows:

Yes, but the atheist need feel no obligation to provide a detailed description of their metaethical views when the theist questioning them, as is so often the case, merely assumes, without support or argument, that if God exists the existence of moral truths necessarily follows.

My own views on metaethics, by the way, center around the idea of “intrinsic goods” and ideal observer theory.

I decided to reply to this remark with a full post because it reminded me immediately of a night, 7 years ago now, when I spent literally hours patiently answering a virtual cross examination from a theistic law student who was vigorously, rigorously, and patiently scrutinizing my every point about metaethics.  After hours of this, I finally turned the tables and started to interrogate his views and he retreated to such simplistic sophistries, so far beneath his own exacting standards and clear thinking which he employed in querying me, that I just lost all my patience with him and finally stormed off.

He followed me back to my bedroom and some how or another it came about that he accused me of really leaving Christianity for emotional reasons and I lost my temper badly, in the way I do usually just two or three times a year.  This was one of those really rare times where I totally lose it in a philosophical argument.  I am a passionate person who gets excited easily by a good debate but I am almost always civil.

But the combination of my patient, good faith attempts to explain myself and justify myself with his trite replies to my questions and his ignorant and morally insulting trivialization of my intellectual, spiritual, moral, and emotional life really made me exasperated.

None of this is to say I should have lost my cool as I did—or that I would have lost it had he left me alone when I had had enough and not trailed me to my room, for which he later apologized.  I apologized afterwards too.

I bring this up to stress I sure know how frustrating arguing with someone you take to be dealing with you in bad faith is.

But, nonetheless, it is up to the atheist to explain why the theist’s belief in God is insufficient to answer the fundamental problems of metaethics.  If we do not, who will?  Even many theists who recognize they are separable issues are not eager to disabuse their fellow theists from conflating them.  And not everyone takes a philosophy course where they learn the Euthyphro and not everyone who takes such a class internalizes the lesson of that dialogue.

But, I also realize, now that David E. mentions it, that it is probably shrewd that we atheists begin highlighting from the start that we think that the theist has as much of a burden to give a metaethical account as atheists do and that this is not a special problem that only arises when one abandons theism as many are falsely led to believe.

We should redefine the terms of the debate more properly as a common philosophical problem, with possible solutions which could actually be as amenable to theists as to atheists and which can (and, actually, must) be solved without any reference to dogmatic religious assertions or, even, the appeal to the existence of a divine being by itself.  Just the way theists and atheists can study chemistry or history or sociology in ways that are indifferent to the question of God.  It absolutely possible (and common among philosophers) for theists and atheists to investigate the nature, origins, and justification for morality without ever broaching specifically theistic or atheistic premises.

Of course it is still possible (though I think unlikely) that the theist can successfully defend a position that metaethics is capable of foundation and that that foundation necessarily requires a divine being for one demonstrable reason or another.  It may even be possible (though probably also unlikely) that an atheist could argue that there was a conceptual incompability between the existence of a divine being and a sound metaethics.

Alternatively it is also quite conceivable that there are both defensible, workable accounts of metaethics that employ a God hypothesis, on the one hand and, on the other hand, comparably defensible, workable accounts of metaethics which make no use of a God hypothesis.

And I often think and have argued passionately elsewhere, that many religious apologists, if they truly believe in moral truth and hope for moral behavior even from atheists, should stop trying to convince us atheists that we have either no practical or no philosophical reasons to be moral, but instead explore ways to prove to us, or with us, that morality can be grounded apart from religion as well.

I suspect many such apologists are not “just convinced” that nothing but a God hypothesis can either ground or motivate morality but, more questionably, they want there to be no god-independent grounds for rational moral beliefs and motives so that they can hold morality hostage and compel atheists to convert.  To some of these apologists, rather than being an honest conclusion, the idea that there could be morality without God is a threat that would make God superfluous for ethics and lose one of their best lures to the faith.

Thankfully, many a theist has at least tried to ground morality independent of their religious beliefs and belief in God.  They have tried to make moral arguments on grounds accessible and persuasive to all people.  And they have refused to work against morality’s interests for the sake of their faith’s interests.  Would that all theists thought this way.

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.

  • David E

    “But, I also realize, now that David E. mentions it, that it is probably shrewd that we atheists begin highlighting from the start that we think that the theist has as much of a burden to give a metaethical account as atheists do and that this is not a special problem that only arises when one abandons theism as many are falsely led to believe.”

    Precisely. I’ve too many times seen theists attempt to shirk any burden to support their own metaethical views (or, when they do, doing it in just the trite terms you described). It is, in so many cases, their belief that if we cannot fully solve all the thorny philosophical problems in metaethics then theism wins by default.

    Generally, I present a thumbnail description of my own views and ask that they do the same. If they won’t (and this is often the case) then it’s clear they aren’t willing to discuss the issue in good faith and there’s no need for me to waste any further time.

  • http://outofthegdwaye.wordpress.com George W.

    The description you present of your encounter with the theistic law student is a pretty good parallel to how my “conversation” with Peter has proceeded thus far. He asks loads of questions trying to catch me contradicting myself, asking me to comment on unfair propositions, and as I methodically answer each in turn he in the same breath refuses to answer my questions without changing the nature of the question or avoiding it altogether.
    I have done what I can. I have avoided contradicting myself, I have spelled out the answers to his examinations, I have pointed out his fallacies.
    He has retreated to his blog to claim victory, deleted several of my comments that do not comport with his pet theory, and possibly now prevented me from commenting altogether. (Although he is on Blogger, and I have to give the benefit of the doubt that Google might be culpable.)
    I used to be more emotional about debating, maybe in some ways I still am. I just harness it differently then I used to. Where I might have lost control before, I have used my emotion to harness empathy. To my discredit, I have also been guilty of using empathy to my advantage, carefully placing emotionally charged language to illicit the response I want.
    I have to judge this exchange with Peter as beneficial, I have been forced to test my beliefs against some really difficult questions(though, and I mean this as no insult, most of the difficult questions were self-imposed) and my beliefs are less complacent then they were when I started.

    By this metric I “won”, if Peter cannot say the same thing then he is the worse for it.


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