You don’t need a philosophy

Back in early January, Leah Libresco offered a challenge to James Croft:

Croft, I’ll make you a deal. If you show me your philosophy, I’ll show you mine. Let’s both write up 500-750 words explaining what we believe about ethics and metaphysics. That’s way to short to defend our beliefs, so no fair complaining about that, commenters. It’s also too short to cover everything we think, so the goal is really just making it as easy as possible to tell us apart as compactly as possible. We won’t settle which (or both of us) are in error, we’ll just have made our ideas specific enough to have a chance of being wrong. You in?

Croft has finally responded, though I think his post is a bit longer than what Leah requested. Now, James’ response is interesting, but I’m not going to comment on it here, because James’ post has reminded me of some things I wanted to say about Leah’s handling of these issues, but never got around to.

I’ve dealt with some of the issues in my previous posts “In praise of boring claims” and “I’m a liberal,” but here I’ll go further. Leah’s complaining about atheists’ failing to give out detailed philosophies as often as she’d like, and demanding that they do so, strikes me as really weird. It feels like a dodge to avoid having to defend a lot of the untenable parts of Catholicism.

There’s a simple way of explaining how I see the world that I think will work for most religious believers at least in western countries. I thought it up awhile ago, but don’t think I’ve ever used it: What I believe is what you believe, minus the bullshit. For example: I can generally count on religious believers to agree with me that genocide is a bad thing. Where you get problems is when religious people insist on adding an exception for when their God tells you to commit genocide.

As I put it in my “I’m a liberal” post:

If you don’t buy attempts to brand gays and lesbians as Them (an appeal to the “loyalty” value), don’t buy the claim that homosexuality is forbidden by God (authority), and don’t buy the idea that it’s unnatural in some sense that has nothing to do with whether it’s hurting anyone (sanctity/degradation), then our other values–the ones liberals and conservatives share–make a pretty clear case for saying gay couples should have the same rights as straight couples.

And that’s really all it takes. You don’t need a grand moral theory to get these kinds of moral issues right. Nor, I would add, do you need a grand metaphysical theory for much of anything. As I’ve said before that I’m mainly a naturalist in the sense that I think the supernatural isn’t real; I have little use for the more elaborate philosophical doctrines that go under the name “naturalism” (which are all too often just straw men that exist only in the heads of religious apologists).

Relevant here is Luke’s old blog series Living Without a Moral Code.

  • Counter Apologist

    This seems to effectively state:

    “I don’t have to explain my position on the matter before I can tell you why your position is bullshit.”

    Which is pretty reasonable actually. Sure, it’s always easier to tear something down than it is to put something up, but that doesn’t mean we can’t call out bad ideas when they’re put forward.

    • Chris Hallquist

      I’d go further: I don’t even need to have a (detailed) position on the matter to reject yours.

  • J. Quinton

    I think the bigger problem, especially with people who concentrate so much on metaphysics, is that they generally have no clue about “physics”. That is, they are generally science-ignorant and/or anti-science. As many findings of science one can get a good grasp on should be understood before engaging in metaphysics. I’m probably committing some sort of etymological fallacy, but it really makes no sense to start from metaphysics for ethical theories when that should be done after your physical theories are as complete as possible (metaphysics literally means after physics).

    I wouldn’t be able to trust someone on their metaphysical theories if they think that disembodied minds (souls, angels/demons, etc.) — which breaks every law of thermodynamics — exist.

  • Brandon

    Yeah, I think this gets it basically right. There’s a time and place for metaphysics, philosophizing, and more overarching theories of morality, but I don’t really need those to explain some very simple, straightforward ideas.

  • Octavo

    I agree with Leah on this one. If she’s going to put up some effort defending the extremely untenable beliefs of Catholicism, why not expect something from Croft? It keeps things interesting at least, and it’s good practice for an atheist to come up with something that s/he then has to defend.

    That said, I agree that she has been dodging the responsibility to explain why she believes the weird stuff the church teaches, such as life after death, disembodied minds, prohibitions against same sex love, etc.

    • Brandon

      I don’t really follow this; someone having a set of ideas to defend doesn’t imply that the person they’re talking to also must come up with something to defend. If someone explains their use of homeopathy to me, I don’t think I need an elaborate analytic framework for saying, “I think it’s nonsense, but what’s your case?”.
      If someone has no interest in defending their positions, that’s entirely their call, no one has a right to bludgeon them into an argument. However, if someone wants their positions taken seriously, they should expect to be asked questions.

      • Octavo

        I practice the same thing when dealing with believers. They constantly want me to read this apologetic or that christian blog. I only agree to do so if they’ll also agree to read books on science or non-theistic philosophy. It’s not fun to always be the one wasting time reading bullshit, or engaging in philosophical defense. Sometimes it’s nice to be able to trade places.

    • josh

      I think it’s perfectly reasonable for a specific atheist to discuss their metaphysics/ethics/whatnot just as a contribution to discussion. But for the general topic of atheism, there are a host of positions taken by atheists and none of them are really that crucial to refuting, e.g., Catholicism. By the same token, most people have all sorts of folk beliefs about astronomy and cosmology, and even the professionals have disagreements about the details and the borders of current knowledge, but none of that prevents one from calling BS on astrology.

  • AndrewR

    Did Libresco ever get around to writing a clear description of the reasons behind her conversion? I seem to remember her saying she would at some point and I was following her blog for a while waiting for it (I find both conversion and deconversion accounts really interesting) but stopped following when it didn’t appear after a few months.

    If there ever was such a post and I missed it, could someone post a link?

    • Chris Hallquist

      I don’t think she ever did.

      • Octavo

        I think it amounted to:
        1. Morality doesn’t make sense unless it’s anthropomorphic.
        2. Catholics think so too!
        3. ??????
        4. The Pope is the Vicar of Christ and the Church is authoritative on matters of morality and faith.

        • Hersaa

          *Head-Desk* *Head-Desk*

  • Ray

    I’ve always found Leah’s demand that we “ground” our relatively mainstream moral values in the much more contentious realm of metaphysics rather odd. Not only is it likely to be about as successful as trying to derive physics from metaphysics, in the tradition of Aristotle and the Scholastics, but conflating agreements of fact with agreements of action opens the door for totalitarianism — it is a core principle of modern society that we use rational persuasion to settle the former and reserve the option of law backed by force for settling the latter. If we treat these two types of agreement as being the same thing, we either end up abolishing the law, leading to anarchy, or we open the door for laws punishing thoughtcrime. Neither is a particularly savory option.

  • MNb

    Oh, I don’t have many problems to take up LL’s challenge. I see it as a matter of fair play: she tells me what it means to be a christian for her so I can criticize her; I tell her what my views are so she can criticize me. A direct relation is a false dilemma of course; while we can’t both be right, we very well might be both wrong. So yes, it is not necessary to have a philosophy before you can criticize christianity. Still I like fair play and the fact that quite a few christians don’t play the game fair is not an excuse for me.
    Moreover it’s easy. Ethics: utilitarianism, meaning the pursuit of happiness and not only in terms of money. It’s personal though; my main concern is that it works for me. I don’t expect anyone to share my views. Metaphysics: materialism, meaning that I accept as few metaphysical assumptions as possible to understand the universe. That’s a form of scientism I guess. I am not interested in the subtle differences between materialism, naturalism and scientism.
    These views are not perfect (and thus I’m not entirely consistent), but I haven’t met anything better yet.
    That’s less than 500 words.
    Warn me if LL is going to criticize, because I don’t follow her. I think her boring.

    • Brandon

      I still don’t see the need for there to be an equivalency. Why isn’t it good enough to say, “I don’t know what my ethical system is, but I’m fairly sure yours is wrong”?

    • Andyman409

      What’s wrong with the answer “I dont know, but your answer still sucks?” Why does Catholicism win by default?

  • MNb

    Now for the title of this piece. Psychological research tells us that people tend to avoid self-criticism. When another person does something we are quicker to condemn than when do it ourselves. That’s obviously not fair and if we want to do good we should try to find a remedy. That’s where an ethical system comes in handy, even if it’s imperfect: it’s a tool to ask myrself if I did the right thing, without using the comfortable rationalizations and even inconsistent logics we like so much (according to psychology), at least to a certain extent.

    • Chris Hallquist

      Eric Schwitzgebel has done some research suggesting professional ethicists behave no better on average, and may even behave worse, than other people. Schwitzgebel has speculated that training in formal ethics may just make people better rationalizers. While having some mechanism to avoid rationalizations of our bad behavior seems like a good thing, I’m not sure Kantianism or whatever is going to do the trick.

  • Andres

    Well, “minus the bullshit” isn’t really helpful. It’ll only invite a follow up question that inevitably will pull you into the very debate you don’t want to have. “What do you mean by bullshit?”

    So you might agree on genocide’s wrongness, but does your *justification * for its wrongness come from the same source as who you’re arguing with? If she thinks what grounds wrongness is the prohibitions of actions by a loving God and you think what grounds it a moral fact that coincides with the principle of utility, are you agreeing?

    Or we don’t even have to go that far. You agree that genocide is wrong, and she thinks so because of moral realism’s truth, would you consider *that* part bullshit?

    I guess the point is, “minus the bullshit” doesn’t mean anything until you specify what counts as bullshit and what doesn’t. But once you do that you’ve essentially engaged in the very thing you were trying to avoid.

  • Andyman409

    Here’s what he means by bullshit…

    Okay, imagine that we’ve all spawned on the world, like, 5 minutes ago. We’re all here thinking about how we got here. One person says “god did it”. I dont.

    We all make the same epistemological assumptions during our day to day lives (that there’s an external world, etc). Adding extra assumptions, even to justify former ones, is bullshit no matter how you look at it.

  • jflcroft

    I’d really like her to reply, though. Seems only polite since I wrote the thing for her…

    • Chris Hallquist

      Leah seems not so good with follow-through when she says she’ll reply to something an atheist has written. It could just be busyness, but I can’t help but wonder if she often commits and then realizes she doesn’t have a good reply.

  • jflcroft

    I actually kind of agree. You’ll notice one of the aspects of my approach is that it doesn’t embrace any sort of “ism” (except, I suppose, Pragmatism). I’m still waiting for her reply…

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  • Collin237

    This article is a philosophy and a moral theory. You’re the exception that disproves the rule. You’re a Secular Moralist. Almost every other online atheist is a Skeptic.

    Why are you camping out here on Patheos trying to conform to the crowd and act like something you’re not? You have more potential than the Patheos webmasters will let you admit. You can be the leader of a bold new organization.

    P.S.: I just found your index page on CFI. So you work for MIRI, which is supposedly working on a moral code precise enough to put into a computer because otherwise a computer will arise to destroy us all. And yet you’re also here claiming that a moral code, even at a fuzzy humanistic level, is not at all necessary. WTF are you playing at?!

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