Atheists: Our Moral and Intellectual Superiors

Atheists: Our Moral and Intellectual Superiors April 25, 2014

Here’s an atheist struggling with the perennial moral quandary: Dachau:  Good or evil?

Admittedly, it’s a really hard question to answer–“Mass murder: good or evil?”–but you’d think that somebody as devoted to the worship of the intellect as a New Atheist would be able to slog through the complexities of the problem and arrive at some kind of tentative conclusion.

Moral: When you deny the existence of the Logos, it’s just a matter of time before you lose the capacity to use the Reason you claim to worship. In layman’s terms: sin makes you stupid.

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  • Pete the Greek

    Here’s my question on that, and please correct me if I’m reading this wrong:

    From the hard core atheist perspective, isn’t “I don’t know” accurate, if you grant their assumptions?

    What I mean by that is, since in the eyes of Scientism (self refuting, I know, but still), there really is no way to have a scientific experiment of ‘is some act wrong’, all they can say is ‘I don’t know’. If we are just piles of chemicals, the how is substituting one chemical process (living) with another (incineration and/or decay) right or wrong? It would be like asking if it is right or wrong for a volcano to erupt.

    Leave the prison camp out of it, bring it even closer to home. How in this worldview could it even be said that right or wrong has anything to say about if someone were to empty a cylinder of .357 into Matt’s body? On a pure physical level, all that is happening is that the biological mound of chemicals arbitrarily called ‘Matt’ suddenly has a much higher concentration of copper and lead elements followed quickly by cessation of certain biological functions to be replaced with other biological functions (decay). How does right and wrong play into that, IN THAT WORLDVIEW?

    Please realize I am not arguing FOR that position. I am simply asking if, within their worldview, rightness or wrongness can apply at all. Thoughts?

    • Alexander S Anderson

      Depends on what sort of atheist, I suppose. There’s some forms where the answer is simply “no”, because wrong just isn’t a category. There’s others where the answer is “yes” because, well, morality is real and it’s wrong. In others, it would depend on your perspective. What I suspect, but which I hope isn’t true, is that this guy follows Dennett to a certain extent, and says “I don’t know” now because he thinks we’ll be able to find objective morality in the future with scientific methods. That view is, of course, completely inconsistent hogwash, but some people’s faith in “science” is irrational like that.

      • Pete the Greek

        I think the clip would have carried a lot more weight if terms had been defined first. Most atheists I know have a HUGE and arbitrarily varying definition of the terms ‘right and wrong’.

        But then we probably wouldn’t have a clip either, as in my experience most atheists resent having to define their terms more then they probably hate being drug to church on Christmas by their extended families.

        • Alexander S Anderson

          I’m sure most Christians hate defining their terms, too. But then again there’s a bunch of shared institutional vocabulary, which is either lacking or squishy for atheists. (not that it isn’t sometimes squishy for Christians.)

  • JM1001

    “Dachau is in conflict with the idea of well-being of both those individuals and society, is a fact. … And so what hurts us is merely a physical fact about the universe.”

    To Matt Dillahunty’s credit, he’s almost appealing to pieces of an old Aristotelian idea here, although he may not realize it. Or, to put it another way: there are things that are objectively good or bad for human beings in virtue of the nature or essence of a human being. A human being’s flourishing or well-being is that activity of a human being that is in accordance with its nature. Anything that frustrates that well-being is bad for us. Anything that promotes that well-being is good for us.

    You don’t need to make reference to God in order to reason to these conclusions, just like you don’t need to make reference to God in order to reason to conclusions in physics or chemistry.

    Where Dillahunty goes wrong is where he says that what hurts us is just “a physical fact,” and then seems to implicitly jump to the conclusion that what hurts us is wrong. But that’s just a naturalistic fallacy, unless you have some account of the nature/essence and telos of a human being (as Aristotle had).

  • Cypressclimber

    I’m not sure what that recording really demonstrates, because the discussion veered off into the relationship of faith and evidence, and ended, before I heard enough about the issue of good, evil and fact.

    What I take Russell’s quote to mean is that morality is not a provable fact in the way that gravity is; and I took Mr. Dilihunty’s response to mean that he wanted to think about the implications of that.

    In one sense, we Christians would agree with Russell: God himself is the source of all truth and morality; and his existence cannot be proved in the exact way that things like gravity and other natural forces are proved. Now, some people do seem to think God’s existence can be proved that way, but I think when people say that, they’re being way too casual about how they use the term “proof.”

    What I mean is in the sense of deductive proof, as in, 2 +2 = 4. That is a proof that the intellect must assent to. “There is a God, because ____” does not have this quality; and a priest I respect gave this reason for why God did it that way. Because if the proof of God’s existence worked exactly the same way, where would there be room for freedom — or faith?

    But what I wanted to hear more of was how Mr. Dilihunty grounds what I’m sure is his view that Dachau is evil. Why is it evil? How do you know what evil or good are? If his argument really is, “well being,” that is mighty curious. I wanted to hear more about that.

    But if someone took this to mean Mr. Dilihunty couldn’t say whether Dachau was evil, I think that’s unfair.

    • sez

      Seems to me that he refused to answer the question, because of the moral implications. No sane person can say that Dachau was anything but evil. But someone who is refusing to accept any morality will veer off the path before arriving at its obvious destination.

  • Ton_Chrysoprase

    Sorry, but the initial statement of this post is an equivocation. Neither Russell not Dillahunty dispute that Dachau is “evil” in the commonly understood way of being something that a well-adjusted person should object to. They debate what the nature of the statement that Dachau is evil is. A fact is “a thing that is “indisputably the case”, but the there is openness to interpretation as to why Dachau is indisputably evil. I’d go with some variation of the golden rule, but there are violations of the golden rule that are more of a grey area.

    This is actually a very interesting discussion to have with a Christian: why do you think it is a fact that Dachau is evil? Because god said so? If that’s the case, would Dachau be ok if god said it was right?

    • Because god said so? If that’s the case, would Dachau be ok if god said it was right?

      Catholic philosophy and theology dealt with this question a million years ago. God doesn’t command what is wrong because he can’t. He is Goodness itself. What he commands is good not because there’s some higher standard of goodness that he holds to, nor because he just happens to be the most powerful being of all, but because the Standard of Goodness and God are synonymous.

      If you have a standard of goodness, and you’re not mistaken about that goodness, then what you have is merely a description of what God is like.

      • Ton_Chrysoprase

        Am I correct in reading this as a longer version of “yes”?

        • Tom


        • What Tom said.

          That’s why I added that last paragraph. If God and The Good are not identical, then you could identify something that God has done as either conforming or not conforming to the true Standard of the Good.

          Let’s just say that something you called “God” declared Dachau to be okay. In such a case, you would – rightly – condemn “God” for making such a wicked declaration. In so doing, you would be holding “God” to a higher standard of what was truly good, and demanding that “God” live up to that standard. Christians have always said that in such a case, what you were calling “God” wasn’t really God, then, and that the Higher Standard that you were using to condemn him, that True Measure of what it meant to really be good, would actually be the real God that you should have been referring to all along.

          • Ton_Chrysoprase

            Thanks for taking the time to explain and for not taking my answer as snark, which it wasn’t intended to be.

            Still, I don’t see how this helps with the article. According to this view, how would you justify the statement that it’s a “fact” that Dachau is bad? The OT has a number of stories that seem hardly better than Dachau and I guess there are theological arguments for why they are not. Still, I read your argument as “god is good and if we find anything better than god, then that was god all along”, which to me is a circular argument that does not help establishing what “good” is in the first place.

            • According to this view, how would you justify the statement that it’s a “fact” that Dachau is bad?

              This is why the church has such respect for pre-Christian Greek moral traditions (and others like them): because they’re working with Natural Law. Natural Law is not an instrumentalist account of reason. It doesn’t say, “Here are certain outcomes which are good and therefore actions which accomplish them are good and actions which thwart them are bad.” (Hence in this account reason is just an “instrument” used to accomplish pre-rationally chosen ends.)

              Rather, Natural Law says that one of the fundamental abilities of reason itself (that is to say, the human rational faculty) is to recognize and distinguish good from bad, just as it is a fundamental ability of the human rational faculty to recognize true from false. No one who asks how to tell if a statement is true or false expects the rational faculty to be unable to recognize the truth once the problem has been worked through and clarified; rather, we know that all we have to do is keep working on the problem until it becomes clear to the intellect. That may take a long time, and there may be many incomplete and, occasionally, erroneous solutions, but we fully expect reason to be able to recognize the truth once that truth has been clearly set forth.

              To doubt the ability of the human rational faculty to be able to do this in the case of true vs false, and to ask for an outside criterion which we could apply to a potentially true statement to determine if it was really true, is to get yourself involved in a hopelessly absurd infinite regress. (Because then your recognition of the applicability of the test would itself need a test, and so on and so on.)

              There’s a parallel situation with regard to good and bad. Once the problem becomes clear, the human rational faculty doesn’t have to apply some sort of test by asking whether the action accomplishes some good state of affairs, since you then have no way of judging why that state of affairs is itself “good”. (For example, you can’t argue that “murder is wrong because it would lead to a breakdown in society which would then threaten the survival of the human race”, since there’s no reason outside the human rational faculty’s power of discerning good and bad to prefer the survival of the human race over its extinction.)

              Rather, for a clear moral problem, the human rational faculty has the natural ability to recognize what the good and bad is. Now, no one is denying that moral problems are often difficult, sometimes more difficult than advanced mathematics. Furthermore, just as the mind has to be carefully trained in order to be able to follow a complex piece of purely intellectual reasoning, so the mind has to be carefully trained – Aristotle would say through the cultivation of good habits – in order to follow some of the more difficult pieces of moral reasoning. So many people make habitual mistakes in moral reasoning or else don’t even bother to try to figure out what the right thing to do is, just like people who have weak intellects don’t bother to even try to figure out a difficult physics problem.

              And the way to know moral problems is very similar to the way to know intellectual problems. Start with the simple, the easy to recognize, and build up from there, all the while interacting with people smarter (better) than you are who can correct your reasoning as you go. Eventually, you get so good at it that you can solve quite a few difficult problems all by yourself without help and be pretty confident that you’re right.

              • JM1001

                Good and bad can be thought of as features of the world itself. Or, to put it another way, there are certain ends towards which things are directed in virtue of their essential nature. To the extent that a thing X realizes those ends, it is called a good X. To the extent that a thing X fails to realize those ends, it is called a bad X.

                A thing realizing its ends is said to constitute that thing’s flourishing or well-being.

                For rational animals (like human beings), choices that we make that help us to realize the ends to which we are directed in virtue of our essential nature are called morally good (or right) choices. Choices that frustrate our ability to realize those ends are called morally bad (or wrong) choices.

                • A couple more people chime in and we can have ourselves a complete moral philosophy course right here.

                  • Ton_Chrysoprase

                    Thanks for your patience. I think I see the point, and for all practical purposes we seem to be on the same page (ie living life as if there was a right way but having the humility not to make absolute statement about it other than what is generally covered in human rights).

                    Still, as a lapsed catholic who has lived in a number of places, I can’t help noticing that views of what is obviously right and wrong differs a lot even within an institution with a central doctrine. The only thing that seems to work consistently is the Golden Rule and you can justify that on a utilitarian basis.

                    In any case, seems to agree with Russell that Dachau was bad, but that the badness is not fall into the category of “facts”, that is, things that can be intersubjectively established as true in the sense that they are observable and replicable. There is room for disagreement about whether good and bad are properties of the world, but it seems hard to imagine that somebody would dispute the practical usefulness of the scientific method.

                    • you can justify [the Golden Rule] on a utilitarian basis

                      I’m curious as to what the utilitarian justification for the Golden Rule is. (And that’s not snark. I’m actually interested.)

                      “facts” [are] things that can be intersubjectively established as true in the sense that they are observable and replicable

                      I would think the judgment “murder is wrong” is just as intersubjectively observable and replicable as “Barack Obama is President of the United States”. What is the difference, there?

                    • Ton_Chrysoprase

                      The standard utilitarian defense of the Golden Rule would be that reciprocation protects us from unwanted outcomes. There are a number of game theory experiments that support the notion (although I have to admit that I can’t cite them from the top of my head). The benefits of reciprocation are also borne out by evolutionary biology.

                      Murder is wrong is a tautological statement. The term murder already denotes wrongful killing. Looking at less clear-cut examples like the death penalty you will find opposing camps arguing with equal fervor that their’s is the right position. How would you argue from observational evidence which of the two is right?

        • entonces_99

          No, you aren’t. Any more than Dachau would be OK if God divided Dachau by zero. Your question, from an orthodox Christian point of view, is nonsense. (From an orthodox Muslim point of view, on the other hand, it makes perfect sense. The orthodox Muslim believes that nothing, not even the law of non-contradiction, binds God. Therefore, God could order us to blaspheme him, to worship idols, to commit adultery, and to vote for Sarah Palin, and we would be morally obligated to do so.)

    • JM1001

      But it seems to me that the statement “Dachau [or, more generally, murder] is wrong is not a fact” simply presupposes a Humean fact-value distinction, doesn’t it? If one has a conception of “wrong” that necessarily relies upon certain facts about what a human being just is, then that distinction disappears. Once again, to his credit, Dillahunty seems to realize this when he says that “the trouble word here is ‘wrong.’ ”

      Trouble words are only trouble when they aren’t properly or coherently defined.

      So, saying “Murder is wrong” can be rephrased as “Murder is contrary to what is good for us (conducive to our flourishing and well-being), which is determined by our nature or essence.”

      But without an account of the essential nature of a human being, and what is good for us in virtue of that essential nature, then the word “wrong” will be completely detached from anything in objective reality, and will therefore fall prey to Russell’s statement.

      • Ton_Chrysoprase

        Well, the entire conversation starts with Russell being quotet at Dillahunty while Russell is explaining some important concepts if critical rationalism, so yes, fact is considered a positive concept with no normative implications.

        With the Dachau example Russell is obviously referring to the most extreme case where a great majority of people agrees that the action was wrong. The case becomes more obvious with the death penalty which I was brought up to believe is morally reprehensible and I have up to this day not seen any halfway decent civilized defense of it. But that wouldn’t lead me to say that it is objective, factually wrong. I don’t see that the degree of consensus makes a distinction in principle.

  • Matt Dillahunty

    The question I was asked was whether or not I agreed with what Bertrand Russell said. That’s not “Do you agree that Dachau was wrong”, it was “Do you agree with Bertrand Russell’s classification of ‘Dachu was wrong’ as not being a fact”… and, as I pointed out, I’d need more context on what Russell was actually discussing. There’s a little bit to unpack in that question. Perhaps David should work on asking the actual question he wants an answer to, instead of an obfuscated version.

    When someone asks you if you agree with this prominent philosopher’s characterization and classification of a statement, saying you don’t know and asking for more context and time for thought….while also pointing out that your *moral* assessment of the subject is that is wrong…is a legitimate way to respond.

    If it’s then spun, as this has been, as though I was confused about the moral evaluation of Dachau…then he’s either stupid or dishonest. Especially as I actually give my moral assessment in this clip.

    Tagging this with “Sin makes you stupid”, is incredibly ironic. And just about as loving as David was. Jesus would be proud, I’m sure.

    • JM1001

      and, as I pointed out, I’d need more context on what Russell was actually discussing.

      Someone could correct me if I’m wrong, but if I had to guess, I would assume that Russell’s “context” would have been an emotivist one. In other words, Russell is making the argument that all our moral statements are not statements of fact, but rather are simply expressions of our feelings or sentiments about the matter.

      So, for example, if I say “Stealing is wrong,” an emotivist would say that I am not actually stating a fact; I am merely expressing my personal disapproval of stealing. The implications of this doctrine, however, is that the truth between differing moral judgments can never be rationally determined, since there is nothing which constitutes an objectively good life for a human being qua human being, and therefore nothing which constitutes objectively right action.

      That would be my guess as to Russell’s context, Matt. But, again, someone could correct me if I’m wrong.

    • Tagging this with “Sin makes you stupid”, is incredibly ironic.

      Heh. Good point. Mark Shea would, I suspect, be the first to admit that his own sin occasionally makes him stupid, too. In general, though, Mark’s not really into having long and intellectually involved conversations on this blog. He’s got about a dozen rhetorical grenades in his arsenal that he lobs at the slightest provocation – sometimes accurately, sometimes less so.

      The real fun in this blog are the arguments that take place in the aftermath.

  • entonces_99

    “Admittedly, it’s a really hard question to answer–’Mass murder: good or evil?'” That wasn’t the question. The question was whether “Dachau was wrong” is a fact or not. (It might, for example, be something else. Like an opinion. Even a true opinion.)