Is it Too Risky to Debate Morality’s Foundations in the Public Square?

Is it Too Risky to Debate Morality’s Foundations in the Public Square? February 28, 2011

Jean Kazez argues that the public square is not the place for atheists to be arguing that science and religion are incompatible. I strongly reject her position on this point because not only do I believe that ordinary people are quite capable of handling a vigorous, no-holds-barred debate about religion but because I believe the countless atheists and only weakly religiously affiliated people among the general public deserve to have expert representatives for their views in the public square.

And I believe that it is an abrogation of duty to the public for intellectuals to hide safely in the ivory tower and never challenge religions’ systematic efforts to inculcate bad habits of thought for the sake of social and political control. It is messy to get involved in the public domain and demand that the strict rigorous standards for pursuing knowledge and establishing just authority be consistently applied in social, ethical, spiritual, and political matters no less than in scientific and other academic matters, but it is our responsibility.  What else are philosophers here for if not this role of public education about vital philosophical issues?

But to illustrate her point that at least some issues should not be debated carelessly before an audience that cannot properly handle it, she explains the possible dangers of incautiously advocating that atheism leads to moral anti-realism. More specifically she explores what the consequences for atheism itself might be like if moral error theorists, such as Russell Blackford, with whom she is currently debating and who recently criticized Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape on error theorist grounds, were ever to become prominent cultural voices. (An introductory post to error theory by me can be read here.  The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s explanation is here.)

She gives a serious warning about an issue that has certainly weighed on me and influenced my own decisions often. Both personally and philosophically I care deeply about metaethics, atheism, and the causes of rationalism and liberalism. And I also spent years writing a dissertation on that self-confessedly polemical, rhetorically reckless, self-proclaimed “immoralist” and “antichristian” Friedrich Nietzsche, who says a lot of things that can be used against a lot of things I defend.

I think that in the end, when read carefully, Nietzsche is ultimately a naturalist and realist about value (in fact, in my case studying  him helped convince me of both positions).  He just calls for massive work psychologically analyzing, contextualizing, and reassessing the values of particular moral systems according to what he takes to be a truer naturalistic value standard than is often admitted.  But, nonetheless, his skeptical and iconoclastic rhetoric both tantalizes many readers into anti-realism and gives fodder to a great many religionists who see him as a confirmation of their fears (or hopes?) that atheism inevitably leads to moral nihilism.

But before I get into my views of how to respond to these problems, I want to give Kazez’s case against indiscriminately public debates on metaethics the full vent it deserves:

A  view Russell’s been promoting lately is not science/religion incompatibility but atheism/objective morality incompatibility. He argues that atheism leads to an “error theory” of morality like that defended by J. L. Mackie and Richard Joyce.  Take the sentence below–

Torturing babies just for fun is wrong.

Most people think it’s true.  The error theory disputes this.  Mackie says all moral statements are false, while Joyce just says they’re not true.  (There’s a difference–with different logical problems whichever way you go.)

Suppose Russell gets lots of fame and acclaim, and starts promoting the error theory all over the place.  So he starts influencing people to think that atheists must believe the sentence above is false, or at least not true.  I wouldn’t hesitate to say I thought that was a bad idea.  It wouldn’t be my place to address him in the second person and tell him what to talk about, but I’d be perfectly entitled to my opinion that spreading this view is unwise.

And it would be a perfectly cogent and respectable opinion.  This sort of meta-ethics would likely increase public distrust of atheism and discourage people from accepting atheism. I’d also make another sort of argument–that meta-ethics can’t be discussed coherently in the public square.  It’s a highly technical area of philosophy, where philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, metaphysics, and logic intersect. There is simply no way that the ordinary person, with little or no education in philosophy, can get a grip on the pertinent issues.

Furthermore, there’s just no point in the public worrying about meta-ethics.  All sane people are committed to not torturing babies just for fun and will do the very same things to stop would-be baby torturers.  For all intents and purposes, we may as well say the sentence above is true.   Everyone in philosophy converges on the idea that roughly speaking, anyway, it’s at least kind of like true. Nothing whatever is gained by associating atheism with an anti-realist view of morality.

Now, that doesn’t mean the error theory should never be discussed. Of course it should.   In philosophy books and philosophy seminar rooms, and by anyone who’s willing to spend a couple of years gaining the expertise required to discuss these things proficiently.  If you get yourself into that milieu, you’ll find out there are big problems with the error theory, and there are many, many impressive competitors in logical space.  In fact, there’s a very close competitor that [on some versions…] makes the sentence above true (moral fictionalism, which compares it to “Harry Potter is a wizard”).  There is no reason at all to foist the error theory on the public (at the price of atheists seeming bizarre), and not one of these competitors, given the total lack of consensus even among meta-ethics experts.

In any event–the point is that there’s nothing remotely scandalous about saying that the public square is the wrong place to promote atheism/objective morality incompatibility*.

My response:

Even as a (somewhat unconventional) moral realist and (Aristotelian/Nietzschean/existentialist) moral naturalist, I do not fear the metaethics debate being brought into the public eye because I think that error theory (and fictionalism, which improves little on error theory as far as I am concerned) is false and can be shown to be false.  But I also admit that proving that point takes serious work.

And we live in a culture that tends to think simplistically and dualistically.  A good many people assume that our only options in ethics are the extremes of total absolutism on the one hand or total subjectivist relativism on the other.  The same problem occurs in popular epistemology too as people constantly talk as if anything short of absolutely incontrovertible certitude in knowledge is formally no different than the wildest, most religiously baseless, leap of faith.

So, in this context, there is a prejudice towards anti-realism as soon as one starts dismantling absolutism.  And even if there are better arguments in favor of both moral naturalism and an objective moral pluralism that can rationally and systematically account for the real relativities and subjectivities in ethics without descending into moral nihilism, a good many people would be seduced by the extreme of absolute moral anti-realism and a good many others would be scared back into the comforting arms of the opposite, equally familiar extreme, moral absolutism.

In fact, a previous great public wave of ascendant atheistic philosophy, namely atheistic existentialism, already influenced a pervasive ethos of nihilism among many atheists and gave ample stories for theologians and pastors to tell their flocks at the bedtime of their reason to make sure they would never want to wake up to a secular reality.

The New Atheists though, as far as I have seen, have had little interest in repeating the existentialists’ sabotage of atheism in the public mind.  By contrast they have tended to give full-throated endorsements of Enlightenment values.  They are more likely to brush aside questions about an atheist metaethics either (a) as easily and quickly solved, (b) as irrelevant, (c) as just a chance to rightly point out secularism’s vindicating record in practice of creating values progress, or (d)  as a personal, prejudicial assumption about the depravity of actual atheists and, as such, a cause for offense rather than refutation.  Of the New Atheists only Sam Harris has made a serious book length attempt (yet a somewhat wrong-footed one if I understand his argument in his reply to critics properly, though I have not read the actual book) to treat metaethics head on.

My view on this is simply that the man on the street will not be scandalized by becoming acquainted with the views of moral anti-realists.  They already share them. Even those who cling to moral absolutism by faith cite epistemological relativism when it suits them as a justification for faith, saying some variation of “no one can be certain so we all hold an absolute by faith, so I am entitled to my dogmatic belief which at least makes coherent sense of ethics so I have something to teach my kids, gives me meaning, and promises me eternal life”.

When being philosophical and weighing options metaethically, they see an abyss of moral nihilism outside of their bald faith assertions.  They do not want to dive into that abyss and so instead they stick with beliefs that a good many of them will frankly admit are rationally unjustified.

When Sarah Palin insidiously assumes that the godless liberals would judge her Down’s Syndrome afflicted son or the “useless elderly” unworthy to live, she is logically inferring that unless God imputes value to such a life, it has little by the objective standards of full human power and excellence.  She and many other religious people are absolutely convinced that but for the fiat of God, Social Darwinism and brutal amoral selfishness would be the only options for humanity.

So this fear keeps many people penned up in false institutions out of sheer will to believe there can be meaning in the teeth of their cynical, hardheaded philosophical realism (which in metaethical terms is moral anti-realism).  And some (though definitely not all) of those who simply cannot believe the necessary religious fictions become truly metaethically disoriented, nihilistic atheists (as I did for a long time before I could painstakingly prove a realist position to myself through studying primarily Nietzsche and teaching numerous ethics classes while in graduate school).

Metaethics is not some irrelevant puzzle only of purely academic interest and of such interest only to philosophers.  Though the ordinary person has never heard the word, to many of them believing in the truth of moral statements is essential to believing in their authority at all.  They are not naive about what hangs in the balance on questions of moral foundations. To many people this is what keeps them within the irrationalism of faith.  And to many, like me 12 years ago, it is a personal and existential crisis to leave their faith and feel the need to build their own moral compasses for themselves since few prominent people or institutions, if any, seem to offer ones that seem to be truthful.

I think making the metaethics debate public can only make objective, context-sensitive moral realism get a voice in the discussion, to make arguments against the prevailing presumption to extremism—whether it be relativistic or absolutistic.  And from the activist atheists I see, I think many have a serious hunger to prove morality can have an objective footing without religion.  Many atheists want nothing to do with Sartrean nihilism.  They want to prove that their worldview has a place for moral truth so that religion can no longer hold morality hostage with the threat of meaninglessness and anarchy for all who become atheists.

I say, let’s have some confidence that the truth will win out.  I say let’s put our money where our mouths are as supposed believers in the educability of the average person and his or her fitness for self-rule in an open society and a participatory democracy.  I am a moral realist predominantly because our visceral opposition to torture is rooted in true things.  There are really good reasons that we are passionate about Western liberalism, about mutual cooperation, and about feats of moral heroism.

There are of course, some legitimate Nietzschean challenges to these things that honesty requires tackling head on.  But, in general, these values are pragmatically borne out in facts about human flourishing and where they may not be they deserve to be interrogated.  There are reasons we believe in these things and we should not shy away from a public fight for their respectability.

Publicly avoiding these most difficult questions for fear of what the masses would think if they heard question marks put behind moral statements is to signal to those very masses that we have nothing to say on behalf of moral truth that we think could stand up to public scrutiny.  This confirms their existing suspicions and prejudices.

If we believe in our values for good reasons (and I sure think we do), then we should be able to prove that our value judgments are rational beliefs and we should find ways to do it that require no special technical ability to sift out every detail of a complicated proof.  If we cannot do even this much then philosophers will continue to prove by our silence the irrelevance that the public assumes of us.

And meanwhile those looking for a positive, constructive account of how they can find meaning and values and moral truth in the world will continue to see those signs only in the windows of religious houses of worship.  And there they will be radicalized politically in favor of regressive, authoritarian, nativist politics and social values, while liberals will offer strong assertions of progressive political values that are unmoored from any philosophical grounding and never adequately stated in coherent moral terms as part of coherent moral worldviews that advocate anything more than tolerance as an ideal.

If the truly qualified authorities on philosophy do not frankly address the public, we leave them to the pretenders to authority.  And that, to me, is a dereliction of duty.

In the West (at least), the gods are dying.  This is an unstoppable process.  We cannot tell the people coming out of the houses of worship just go back in unless they are ready to become philosophy majors and we should not by our silence abandon to nihilism all those serious, thoughtful people who cannot bring themselves to go back to faith and yet have internalized recent Christianity’s false dichotomy that moral confidence can only be found within the faith and only moral arbitrariness or crude selfishness can be found outside of it.

If I am Kantian in any way at all it is in my view that true, valuable morality must be autonomous.  People must be able to understand the true justifications for their duties and act only on these and reject all claims upon them that cannot prove themselves to reason. Kant takes the risk of allowing people to think for themselves in confidence that reason will lead them to the right answers.  Kant’s moral courage is to trust so radically in reason and to eschew all that relativism, paternalism, and authoritarianism that fears the average man would just botch things up if allowed to think for himself.

I am with Kant and against claiming there are esoteric philosophical truths about the real foundations of morality which are inaccessible to the ordinary person.

Finally, the ordinary person can understand hypothetical philosophical reasoning that considers outlandish or immoral scenarios for the sake of philosophical clarity without finding the exercise itself immediately threatening, corrupting, or bizarre, as proved by this NSFW South Park clip:

Your Thoughts?

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