Leah Libresco was an irreligious person with little interest in religious issues until as a Yale undergraduate she began dating a Catholic, reading Catholic theology and apologetics, and going to church with him. She wrote a blog about her process of weighing Catholicism against atheism. Recently, she converted to Catholicism.
I have previously analyzed some of her personal reasons for converting to Catholicism and tried to understand just what her atheism consisted of before she intensively immersed herself in Catholic thought, and what all that means for understanding her conversion. Then I criticized atheists who explicitly argued to Leah that moral objectivity and ethical teleology suited Catholicism well and were outright ruled out by atheism. And in that same post, I pointed out numerous ways Leah’s inference to the truth of Catholicism was hasty and irrational. I will write another post, fleshing out those latter objections a bit more.
In what follows, I am going to give counter-replies to her clearest recent statements explaining her views on metaethics and normative moral philosophy and on what she sees as the limits of atheism for answering moral philosophy questions. This is a long post because it attempts to counter her views with enough systematicity and thoroughness as to be a clear and useful aid for all atheists debating the fundamentals of moral philosophy. I also hope to persuade atheists and religious believers alike of the merits of my moral philosophy in this process.
Let’s start with atheistic teleology. Leah wrote to The Blaze about how she was convinced that her teleological understanding of ethics could not be made consistent with her de facto atheism.
But more and more, my atheist friends and sparring partners thought I’d gone wrong one step back, and objected to my holding to the idea of morality as human-independent and objective (i.e. we uncover it like archeologists, we don’t build or design it like architects). To top it off, I’d switched to thinking of morality in a virtue ethics framework (your moral imperative is to reform your character and try build up a habitual attraction to right action). The trouble is, virtue eithics kind of presupposes teleology (these is some particular form you are called to embody) and my atheist friends thought that was pretty far out of bounds.
Teleology should not be at all out of bounds for atheists. Teleologists do not need to posit that there is an intelligent goal-giver who gives natural beings purposes to fulfill, as many theists think. Just as we understand that natural “selection” can occur without an intelligent “selector(s)” so we can talk about the ways that natural beings function optimally according to their natures without their requiring any intelligence that gives them their functions deliberately. This is because every being, I would argue, is understandable precisely as something which is the functional result of its component beings. Water is what emerges when 2 hydrogens function together with an oxygen, for example.
Each reality which is composed of further parts can be understood to emerge from the interaction of those parts such that those parts function to create the more complex result. The parts are constitutive of the emergent whole. The emergent whole is a function of the parts. Each of these is a functionality relationship. Some parts of physical reality function together to make an emergent feature of physical reality, some complex object from not just the sum of the parts but the patterned way they behave. The patterns beings follow are regular, general, recurrent. They are “universals” or “forms”. They can emerge without any divine intelligence somehow having to intervene to create them. They evolve of their own under the pressures of natural selection with no intelligent guidance. They exist “eternally” not in some other realm as things but as eternal possibilities that always could emerge if the right conditions in the right universe were ever to be met. There are forms which are not actualized in reality but which some day will emerge under the right conditions or (possibly) never will emerge because the conditions will never be right.
Among those complex functional beings that do exist are us human beings. We are each composed of trillions of cells functioning together to create, and to be constitutive of, numerous complex organs which each function together to create, and constitute, the total human organism. For a being to be human is for it to be comprised of the right kinds of cells functioning as “human”. There need be no divine intelligence that created the goals of the human or said that humans must function in this way but not that. There just is this formal possibility for being and through an unguided natural selection process it (we) emerged. Taken together, we are just the general kind of being that emerges from our specific sets of sub-functional capabilities which function together in certain characteristic ways to make the complexly human capabilities possible.
We are what happens when the distinctive functional complex capabilities which constitute us function together. Take away those distinctive functional capabilities (or “powers”) and there is no human being. Our powers of reason, emotion, sociability, physical coordination, technological inventiveness, artistic creativity, sexuality, morality, and others, are foundational to our being because we exist through them. We cannot exist as human beings apart from all of these powers (or even without most of them). And except in those cases where there are serious neurological problems, we each have all of these powers to at least some minimal degrees. And taken together they constitute our very being.
Humans are particularly fascinating emergent beings because we can function more or less according to our characteristic patterns. The patterns that constitute a human being at our most complex, ordered, and externally effective level are our rational capabilities, our emotional capabilities, our social capabilities, our artistic capabilities, our technological inventiveness, our athletic and physical coordination abilities, and our moral capabilities. There may be some other basic powers I did not enumerate. This is not meant to necessarily be an exhaustive list.
These capabilities also mutually constitute each other in that our rational capabilities, for example, play a role in our effective realization of our social, moral, emotional, technological, artistic, and athletic powers. Similarly other of our basic powers can (and do) combine with each other in a myriad of complex ways to can create greater and greater powers.
These powers are what constitute being human. Without all or most of these powers, we fail to maximally effectively realize the basic nature of what we are as humans. When all these powers terminate completely, we are gone—even if our lower powers of basic organic function can be kept going artificially, the “human being” in the robust psychological and social senses, and not just in the minimally biological sense, is effectively dead.
So, we have these powers, they constitute our very being. It is irrational for us to try to destroy these powers (all things being equal) since they are us ourselves and they are the precondition of every conceivable good we could achieve.
So, in this context, I am an atheistic virtue ethicist requiring no divine agency for the teleological dimensions of my ethics to make minimal sense and have minimal coherence. I am just describing purely naturalistically occurring patterns as universals or forms. I am saying that since humans’ very natures are constituted by a specific set of powers, fulfilling them is incumbent on humans as the beings that we are. It is irrational and a practical contradiction to destroy the very precondition of our own being (all things being equal). We have a rational imperative instead to flourish maximally powerfully according to the powers which constitute us ourselves.
In the same piece, Leah moves on from describing her concern for teleology:
But I was as sure of the reality of moral law as I was of the reality of the physical world. Both of which can’t be proven since I can’t step outside them to examine them. And the more I thought about the metaphysics that were necessary to undergird this moral system, the more I thought morality seemed less like an distant rulebook and more like an animating spirit.
Here Leah makes an unwarranted leap. Universals, including moral ones, are imminent in reality. They do not exist is in some mysterious other realm. It only takes reading Aristotle (as I would expect a Catholic philosopher to do) to see the good reasons for this. And it is pure anthropomorphism to start to humanize morality by making it an “animating spirit” (presumably comparable to the ways that dualists imagine humans to have an “animating spirit”). She gives no justification that it was right that it should seem to her like morality was an animating spirit. It sounds like by the time she was thinking this, she was already simply internalizing Catholic prejudices (which in turn exploit and exacerbate the human brain’s natural prejudice for overactive agency detection).
In her conversion narrative she writes,
After the debate, I buttonholed a Christian friend for another argument. During the discussion, he prodded me on where I thought moral law came from in my metaphysics. I talked about morality as though it were some kind of Platonic form, remote from the plane that humans existed on. He wanted to know where the connection was.
I could hypothesize how a Forms-material world link would work in the case of mathematics (a little long and off topic for this post, but pretty much the canonical idea of recognizing Two-ness as the quality that’s shared by two chairs and two houses, etc. Once you get the natural numbers, the rest of mathematics is in your grasp). But I didn’t have an analogue for how humans got bootstrap up to get even a partial understanding of objective moral law.
Morality does not exist on “another plane”. She is committing here the fallacy of misplaced concreteness by over-reifying morality and mathematical concepts. Mathematical concepts likely do track mathematical properties and possibilities in reality but these do not exist in some quasi-material way on another “plane” as this language implies. They are truths about the properties and possibilities within universes but that does not mean their existence is somewhere else.
With respect to true moralities, they are just certain patterns of norms that can always emerge as good wherever certain kinds of beings (namely rational ones with interests) emerge and face certain kinds of conditions which create certain kinds of inherent needs for cooperation. The number 2 is real in the sense that in many places there are 2 things and that they are related in a way of 2. And also even were there no 2 objects they are still a possibility. 2 exists as always possibly instantiatable in 2 things somewhere, should there be a somewhere for them to be. Similarly every possible moral truth (and every other possible truth) always exists as a possibility even when not instantiated. But that is very different than being a self-subsisting concrete thing existing somewhere worth calling another “plane of existence”.
But as for the question of how to bootstrap from the realm of experience to the concept of morality, it is really not very hard. There are several distinct ways that we can get an analogue for the process of grasping morality from observing the quality of 2-ness shared by things to grasping the formal concept of 2 and getting mathematics. But it depends on what sense of forming a concept of morality Leah means.
Does she mean, “psychologically where do moral concepts come from?”, or “how do we discover that moral concepts are true?”, or “how do we justify moral judgments as true?”
Psychologically, it makes sense that we would evolve the basic frameworks software for developing moralities. These things include basic emotional capabilities for trust, empathy, and certain kinds of self-sacrifice. We also have developed an a priori grasp of a basic concept of fairness that seems to me universal, even as robust conceptions of what fairness requires in practice varies wildly with differing beliefs, values, and cultural practices. Our minds have also evolved to understand things within two basic categories of judgment “things to embrace/seek” and “things to repel/avoid”. Our judgments of the things to embrace/seek take the form of what we can call a “pro valence” and our judgments of the things to repel/avoid take the form of what we can call a “con valence”.
These basic yes/no judgments are I think our natural psychological access to the concepts of good and bad on the most rudimentary level, shared even with species that have much less sophisticated and developed conceptual capabilities than ours. From the amoeba to the lizard to the monkey to the human, each organism says (or does) yes to some things and no to others.
And because humans depend so much both on the cooperation and the non-interference of other humans, it makes perfect sense that our brains would develop both emotions and cognitive categories to make mutual coordination with each other natural and inevitable to us. From Hobbesian social contract theory to game theory to kinship altruism, we understand numerous of the mathematical ways that success among interdependent rational agents depends on their developing behaviors which forego short term personal gains over each other for the long term benefits of mutual coordination. That natural selection would favor the brain developing emotional and cognitive mechanisms that make us inclined towards these things is not at all a counter-intuitive or unlikely thing to infer.
Of course that is not all there is to our brains. We also are inclined to strategize for immoral advantages when we can get them. We have not evolved to be morally perfect, but we have evolved to have the emotional/cognitive equipment for developing the affiliations and basic concepts through which we can now start to understand the logical structures of moralities and determine their objectively best formulations.
As part of this, we innately have an inherent knack for grasping that there is something illogical and unfair about at least certain kinds of practical contradictions. Practical contradictions are ones actions which undermine their own preconditions, such that if everyone did them illogically the actions themselves would be impossible. If every rational agent calculated it was best to lie, then the presumption of honesty which underpins communication would be eradicated and so no one would be fooled by lies. If every public official took bribes and thus used their offices for their own private benefit rather than the public good, then the system of having offices with power of administering the public’s will would not be serving that goal at all but just giving over power to individuals to exploit the public. And in that case there are no true “public offices” in the true sense of the phrase and the public would stop voluntarily handing over its power to those who would use to the public’s detriment, in which case there would be no one with the power of public office to take bribes in the first place. We get it that if students were allowed to take tests with answer keys provided by their teachers, then no real “tests” would occur. We get it that if you score the highest in a game only by breaking the rules of the game, then you have not really won at the game.
There are numerous examples we could multiply of formal kinds of actions where if everyone were to perform them in a self-serving way rather than according to the purpose the action is ostensibly supposed to serve, then the purpose the action is sanctioned for serving would never get fulfilled and all the advantages which the cheater is trying to accrue would be impossible to attain too.
This is a complicated idea to explicate and to think of abstractly. But we all get it. Numerous jokes and complaints about laws hinge on our understanding the absurdity of making oneself the exception to the rule or of making laws which absurdly thwart their ostensive ends through their actual mechanisms for enforcement, etc. We all understand intuitively the wrongness of hypocrisy and the nature of corruption, whereby a person or institution starts in practice serving the opposite ends that it in principle is claiming to stand for. We innately grasp that making something function to destroy the good it properly is meant to create is bad and irrational.
Given our innate emotional dispositions and our capacities for calculative and formal reasoning, moral concepts are completely explicable. Then through careful attention to experience and philosophical clarity we can assess what sorts of moral rules in what sorts of contexts guide us towards our ultimate goods of flourishing according to our inherent possibilities for maximal excellent human functioning with respect to our constitutive powers and their cumulative total power.
In reply to the claim that morality and math are not really true but just useful, she writes:
I would ask, useful by what metric? To say that some human-constructed thing (whether math or morals) is useful kinda presupposes some goal or purpose that is human-independent that you think this constructed thing serves. In the case of math, you might say that the equations are a constructed thing that are useful as a reference to the objective natural world, but I think, when it comes to morality, the definition gets recursive really fast. What is morality useful for except being good?
Morality is useful for helping us be overall excellent. Our overall excellence has to do with our maximal overall flourishing in the functional powers through which we have and inherently aim to realize our very being itself. Good moralities are good and justified by the ways they contribute to their maximal power realization for societies and individuals. They do this by training us to coordinate with each other even when it is inconvenient to do so or leads us to a short term loss of benefit. Moralities serve as rules to stick too when we would otherwise be tempted to be shortsighted about what maximally benefits us in the big picture.
Contrarian recommended her the work of Frans de Waal which talks about how the “phenomenon of moral behavior” is present in other primates. Leah replied:
I read some excerpts of his in the same college evopsych class where we read selections from Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence which suggested to me that horrendously immoral behaviors were evolutionarily stable strategies.
Whether or not “horrendously immoral behaviors” are evolutionarily stable does not mean that they are optimal for human flourishing, all things considered. There may be times and places at which actions we would be horrified by are genuinely in the best interest of humanity itself or a culture to flourish and so worth being moral. It could even be that the winding unguided road of natural and social evolution required at various times all sorts of brutalities which proved the most efficient route to overall long term progress. Those might be harsh truths.
But it is also the case that cultures can be wrong about what leads to their own optimal flourishing in power in objective terms. And many strategies which may have been minimally stabilizing could have been (and have been elsewhere) replaced with far more optimal arrangements. With people of the past, we can forgive them more than we can our contemporaries (both individuals and whole cultures) for their ignorance and bad calculations as to what would lead to maximal flourishing.
Unfortunately, since she only assumed evolution could contribute to morality only by making morality necessary for minimal survival and not as developing the tools for our flourishing beyond minimal reproductive capacities, she threw up her hands and instead went into wildly speculative anthropomorphic territory about Morality being a person that loved her. And she judged mysteriously that this meant that this meant Catholicism, in all its bizarre particular beliefs, simply was true.
I will talk more about the inadequacies of her reasons for selecting to be a Catholic tomorrow.
In the meantime here are more posts developing key ideas in these Leah Libresco posts on ethics and on Catholicism.
Basic overview of goodness as occurring as a natural phenomenon:
An explicit defense of teleology in naturalistic, god-free terms:
An account of how normativity arises in nature with rational beings:
An account of how some moralities can be objectively better for some peoples while other moralities are objectively better for others, without sinking into subjectivistic moral relativism:
How I make sense of our sense of duty and the value of self-sacrifice within a power-based ethics:
How I think our own good extends into motivation to seek others’ flourishing:
A trio of posts demonstrating my virtue theory in applied terms:
Here is a polemic against nihilism (one of a few) which overviews my views and talks about the deep connection between values realism and rational thought:
Here are two critiques of the attempt to ground goodness in God:
Here is a dialectical consideration of the problems with the traditional attributes of God:
And, here is my critical exposition of Aquinas on goodness and God: