Last week, I got to do an interview/argument with fellow Patheos blogger and Friendly Atheist Hemant Mehta on Justin Brierley’s podcast Unbelieveable! You can stream the podcast from Justin’s website or you can download it from iTunes. This is probably my favorite media thing I’ve done so far, since I find it easier to express myself in the context of an argument than I do in the scope of a conventional “How do you feel?” interview. It’s easier to realize when you’re not being clear when you have a sparring partner.
We cover a lot of ground and I’m much too lazy to transcribe or summarize, so I’m just going to give you a teaser by expanding on one part of our discussion. At some point during the show (kicking off around minute thirty), I was asking Hemant if he thought moral claims were more like aesthetic preferences (“I prefer Sondheim to Andrew Lloyd Webber”) or more like empirical facts about the world (“Greenland is out of scale on this map”). He pretty much ended up picking the latter, since, in the example we ended up on, he and I agreed that our claim that women and men were of equal moral worth was more correct than the claim of, say, a Taliban leader that women were worth less.
I wanted to go from there to talking about Hemant’s heuristic for judging that one moral claim was truer than another (Where did his yardstick come from? How does he check that his yardstick is accurate? What is the yardstick measuring? etc). On the way to that discussion, Hemant said something that I didn’t really have time to follow up on, but I want to highlight it here.
Me: Is there something that [the Taliban] is missing? Are they missing out on a fact that would tell them that’s not true [that women are worth less than men]? Is that an arbitrary distinction and you just don’t share that belief but there’s not a reason they should share yours?
Hemant: What’s the reason other than that some religious person told them otherwise or they interpreted some holy book as being right so they’re just following that step?
Justin: I suppose what Leah’s asking is what grounds your belief in the equality of human beings.Hemant: I didn’t realize that needed justification. To say that people ought to be treated equally, that we ought to live by that golden rule so we can live a better life, to me, none of that stuff requires justification. To say that anything deviated from that, you’ve got to have a really good reason to say that you’re superior to someone else, that someone else deserves the same rights you do. As soon as you start making claims like that, you’d better have a good reason for it.
From there we got onto a discussion of where the heuristic for ‘better’ life came from and what you do when people report high subjective satisfaction with a stable system that you believe to be wrong, so I didn’t get to follow up on the first thing Hemant said in response to me.
It sounded like he was saying that everyone starts out with the right beliefs (or a certain subset of right beliefs) and it is necessary that they be deceived (whether intentionally or unintentionally) in order to end up wrong. Based on what Hemant said, I would guess he thinks the default set of beliefs hews pretty closely to a lot of our shared beliefs.
What I’m really curious about is how he thinks you can check if you’re being deceived. Are the Taliban just supposed to notice because some of their morality is grounded in an appeal to authority? They probably think it’s borne out by their subjective lived experience as well. How should Hemant and I each notice our incorrect moral beliefs?
The other big question I have is why does Hemant think our default beliefs are so close to the ideal? As I’ve said before, I don’t expect that evolution is necessarily optimizing for ethics. So how is it that we’re getting so good at this? What kind of data is our reason responding to?
If Hemant has time to expand on this, I’d be delighted to continue the conversation. I’d also be especially interested in the perspectives of some of the atheists commenters.