Put Your Moral Philosophical Hands Where We Can See Them, Dennett!

Put Your Moral Philosophical Hands Where We Can See Them, Dennett! November 5, 2012

This post is part of a series discussing Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell.

Very early on in the book, (page 17 in my edition), Dennett explains the title of his book:

The spell I say must be broken is the taboo against a forthright, scientific, no-holds-barred investigation of religion as one natural phenomenon among many.

I’ll have more to say about this endeavor (which comprises the vast majority of the text) tomorrow, but let me say briefly here that I have no particular objection to this goal of Dennett.  But now that he’s finished writing this book, I have a suggestion for a topic worthy of Breaking the Spell 2:

The spell I say must be broken is the taboo against a forthright, philosophical investigation of atheisms as one subset of metaphysics and ethics among many.

The book is not primarily about Dennett’s personal philosophy, and he may have written more about his beliefs elsewhere, but I was frustrated enough to dog-ear the page where he wrote:

In spite of the religious connotations of the term, even atheists and agnostics can have sacred values, values that are simple not up for reevaluation at all. I have sacred values–in the sense that I feel vaguely guilty even thinking about whether they are defensible and would never consider abandoning them (I like to think!) in the course of solving a moral dilemma. My sacred values are obvious and quite ecumenical: democracy, justice, life, love, and truth (in alphabetical order).

I have a great and abiding love for Alasdair MacIntyre’s Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, since you can get a pretty good sense of the thesis from the title.  If I start to cudgel someone with a copy, it’s much clearer why I’m upset than if I had used MacIntyre’s After Virtue instead.  The problem with Dennett’s comment is that, democracy excepted, almost everyone is in favor of the nouns he listed.  The disagreements come when people start to define them (or break one down into four definitions).

Breaking the Spell isn’t pitched an apologetic for Dennett’s worldview, but it gives me the heebie-jeebies when people bring up their ethics without making them specific enough to actually have something to defend.  I’m sure Dennett thinks something more detailed than this, but when this is the explanation he gives of his philosophy in his big book for lay audiences, he’s giving his readers license to be lazy.  Even though these are Dennett’s most important values, the way he’s talking about them doesn’t help me improve my predictions of his behavior over my prior estimate for anyone I happen to meet.

This is why I blog (both pre and post conversion) about weird things like old timey sin-eaters and Sondheim and whatnot.  They’re specifics (albeit uncommon specifics) that differentiate my philosophy from others.  They point to parts of my philosophy that, like Dennett, I’d be really surprised to have to give up.  But it’s cheating and unhelpful to say that your non-negotiable is The Good, which is essentially Dennett’s summation.  It’s unfair to your readers, because you’re not giving them a fair shot at you, and it’s bad for you, because, when push comes to shove, you’ll have an easier time clinging to your non-negotiables if they’re a little less diffuse.


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  • YES. Every time someone starts denigrating religion, I like to ask them about democracy, since in my opinion it’s one of the closest things we’ve got in the modern world to an atheistic religion. And I find that people are often equally as hard-pressed to defend democracy “rationally” as they are to defend religion…

    • Erik

      How is Democracy like the closest thing in the world to an atheistic religion in your opinion?

      • To many critics of religion, religion is a secondary compound of institutions built around certain primary moral ideas, societal structures, and spacial/temporal orderings. Democracy is very similar: it is, like religion, notoriously difficult to pin down with any specificity (just look at the numerous varieties of governments that have, to some degree or another, claimed the “democratic” label, from the parliamentary systems of Europe to the US government to 19th Century Utah’s “theo-democracy”), and the institutions that sprout up under the name “democracy” are all created with respect to underlying moral values like justice, equality, empathy, and so forth. Nevertheless, in many places around the world, an affront to democracy as an ideal is unspeakable – much like Dennett’s complaints about the supposed untouchable nature of religion.

        • Erik

          To just as many religion is a tool used to control other people be it through the best intentions or nefarious intentions or it could just as easily be viewed as a system of teachings relating to specific god or perhaps actions deemed necessary to appease any given god. I think you may be reaching a bit far to call Democracy an atheistic religion. I think the argument could be made that people’s feelings about politics are equal to their feelings about religion however. That, of course, is a different discussion. Also, a good example of an atheistic “religion” would be Secular Humanism. That said, atheism doesn’t necessarily have to be a prerequisite.

          Also, I wouldn’t be too quick to claim Democracy, or the critique of Democracy, as being some kind of horrific action people are unwilling to take. One of the first things that jumped to my mind when you mentioned Democracy was the concept of “tyranny of the majority”. I think that idea is perhaps a reason there so many forms of Democracy, or at least democracies in which there are other ideas included. Our Democratic Republic would be an easy example.

      • And I say “atheistic” in the strict sense: without a god. While there are people that root the primary moral values of democracy in a sort of God-given natural law (e.g., the Declaration of Independence), a divine being is not necessary to the foundation of those ideals

        • Alan

          Wouldn’t ‘agnostic’ be the better term – democracy may be indifferent to the existence of god but it can exits with said existence (you use the example of Utah above).

          • True, might be better. Maybe I should say “not necessarily theistic.”

          • Just go with “secular.”

  • staircaseghost

    Wait, in what sense is this comparison even remotely symmetrical, or even relevant?

    Why on earth would anyone demand a complete metaethical theory as a precondition to listening to their arguments about whether it is advisable to study some phenomenon scientifically?

    More importantly: sure, study atheism as a natural phenomenon. Since nonbelief seems to be an aberration rather than the norm for our species, the results should be fascinating. But it’s ludicrous to imply that the relative lack of such research is due to anything like the broad coalition of fundamentalists, moderate believers, and atheists who conspire to create a culture of taboo around the study of religion.

    • In what sense have religious people created a taboo around the study of religion? There are a ton of books on how to evangelize, how to structure a church, how to be moral, how to worship, etc. They are written by religious people and they study religion.

      • Ted Seeber

        Ok, I’ve GOT to play devil’s advocate on that one.

        How does the existence of propaganda encourage studying the subject of the propaganda?

        If you had said high theology, sure, but books on “how to evangelize”?

        The most superficial part of any religion is apologetics. It is specifically the “dumbed down” version designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

        • I don’t really buy your last paragraph, but I don’t think the bulk of what you’ve said is playing devil’s advocate; it’s pointing out a real distinction. Evangelism manuals and orthopraxis do not constitute a study of religion. Randy, you might do better to discuss Vico and other early scholars of religion who were motivated by their religious beliefs to study how religious beliefs work.

          • I mean, I agree that A LOT of apologetics is unsophisticated, yeah. Just not that it always is.

          • Do you ever read these guys? It is all about how different people groups react to different messages. Why would a post-modern person want to become Christian? What are the felt needs that are going to open them up to the faith. They also study false religions. Why are cults successful? Why do people become Muslim? They look at how to raise children, what causes children to embrace the faith and what causes them to walk away. There is endless stuff written. It is very rational and it is very brave in terms of asking hard questions of Christianity. So no, I don’t get your distinction. That somehow they are not analyzing how religious beliefs work.

  • Ted Seeber

    This is why I prefer the Franciscan values of Obedience, Poverty, and Chastity to the mortal sins of Pride, Greed, and Lust.

    The later 3 have become so ill defined in America that everybody is guilty of them.

    • Ted Seeber

      Including, and especially, myself.

    • Poverty, chastity, and obedience are not just Franciscan values; Francis picked them up from the Benedictines, who picked them up from the Desert Hermits and other early monastic communities, who picked them up from certain words of Jesus in the gospels. Today, they are the fundamental vows of all Catholic religious orders, and are strongly recommended (in some form or other) for all Catholics.

  • Adrian Ratnapala

    I have a suggestion for a topic worthy of Breaking the Spell 2:

    The spell I say must be broken is the taboo against a forthright, philosophical investigation of atheisms as one subset of metaphysics and ethics among many.

    This is already covered in BtS #1 (or is that BS #1?). Dennet wants to know what common elements, if any, make religions tick as long term survival agents, but he wisely declines to define the word “religion”. It might turn out that other -isms, not usually called religions, use the same bag of tricks. Or they might use different tricks, if I am remembering right, Dennet was quite interested in the matter of other -isms.

    And this relates to Dennet’s talk of sacred values. Again from memory: he was not (directly) saying “look how much more noble and rational my sacred values are”. Rather, he was conceding that rationality was not the point, that if religions use sacredness as a “trick”, then his own beleif system is no better.

    Where he does flaunt his rationalism is precisely by chooing a list of “nouns” that almost everyone agrees with. He is claiming that once we drill down to the specifics, where the disagreements occur, he will be ready with a rational argument or three and wont expect you to accept any sacred principle that you don’t already hold. But this book is not about those questions, it’s a book about what makes certains -isms tick.

  • Noe

    Herman Dooyeweerd’s theory of Ground Motives, straight up. Another nice ‘universal acid’ to drop. Clouser’s “Myth of Religious Neutrality” is a nice intro; ANY theory worth its salt is fundamentally ‘religious’, by the most comprehensive definition of what is religion.

  • I haven’t even read a review of Dennet’s book but…is it possible that defending his personal philosophy is just not the object of his book and that it has no bearing on the book’s real object? Not every non-fiction book needs to contain a comprehensive defense of moral claims. There is value in doing things like providing standards for what sorts of belief claims we can argue for (and how to argue for them) or doing some sort of social psychology about how belief claims work. I agree entirely that there should be studies in the social psychology of atheisms as well as of religion–the anthropological tools we used in my Religious Studies classes would likely work on certain variations of atheism–but that would be a different object for a different book.

    This occurs to me because it seems like a repeat of the Snape problem: you want there to be particular kinds of book–which is fine! that makes sense!–and then you want existing books to be the ones you are hoping for instead of the perfectly fine and valid books that they already are. That’s the part that seems strange to me. And this isn’t to say that I don’t think we should critique books. Of course we should! But we should critique them for having things that are bad, like sexism or anti-environmentalism, not for omitting things that are good but aren’t necessary to their objects.

    • leahlibresco

      Yes, you’re right that Dennett didn’t write the book I would have preferred to read. I wouldn’t have dinged him for it if I were only writing one post, but since I had enough notes for a couple, I indulged myself. I think this section shouldn’t have ended up in the book at all (and neither should another brief section).

      I do think the “I have values! Very generally speaking!” tone is setting a bad example (you may remember me complaining about this kind of thing at the Reason Rally.

      • Emily

        I think most of the introduction shouldn’t have been in the book, because if it hadn’t been I wouldn’t have realized how little respect or understanding he has of actual religious people or good social science, and I would have read the rest of the book less suspiciously. I would have preferred to read a less polemical book that actually took social science into account instead of assuming a bizarre separation between that and natural science – in the studies of human evolution and religion, of all things! – but that is not the book Dennett wanted to write, I guess.

  • deiseach

    Life is one of his sacred values that he feels uncomfortable about even questioning why he holds it sacred? Oh, that’s just giving us a reason to ask the hard questions on a plate!

    What does he mean by “life”? Is he, for example, asserting the sacredness of all life in the womb-to-tomb set of values as espoused by, for example, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which means that abortion, foetal stem-cell research, and euthanasia are sinful, and the death penalty is discouraged (though that is a power of the state)?

    Or does he have a particular definition of “life” as to when it begins, when it can be ended, and what are the competing rights of two living beings? Is the life of the mother – where “life” can mean “economic, educational, or social” as well as literal physical and mental well-being – always more important and of more value, and thus weighted for in the selection between the rights of the foetus and the rights of the mother? What about wars – does he espouse the Quaker values of complete pacifism, or does he accept the choice to bear arms? How about if a man with a knife broke into his house – would he shoot an intruder, or not?

    So many, many questions that pop up to be considered. I think that Dennett should be challenged on this because, as you say, it’s lazy and it’s like asking “Who doesn’t love Mom and apple pie?”

  • ARM

    I find the “alphabetical order” of his sacred values very strange. Personally, I would think they belong in the opposite order “truth, love, life, justice, democracy” (if democracy should really be on there as an absolute good at all, which I would question). Or does he mean his order is merely alphabetical, not hierarchical and accidentally alphabetical.

    • I think he is avoiding the question of what order to put them in. That is how I interpreted that phrase.

    • deiseach

      By putting them in alphabetical order, he’s probably trying to avoid privileging one over another, and permitting us to infer that he cherishes all these values equally (or at least, he’s not going to tell us his favourite or the one he holds most important).

      Of course, then you can set the trick question of “So you hold both truth and life of equal weight, Daniel? Suppose a man runs up to you, tells you he is being chased by a maniac with a gun who wants to kill him, and asks you to let him hide in your house. Then, sure enough, the madman comes up and asks you have you seen So-and-So or do you know where he went. Do you lie or tell the truth?” If he says he would lie, then he holds life to be a more foundational value or one of greater importance than truth. If he says he holds both truth and life to be of equal value, what would he do?

      For those interested, that’s an example straight out of the early persecutions of Christians. For an opinion from an early Church Father, St. Augustine from a work dating around 395 A.D.:

      “They add also a case with which to urge not only those who are devoted to the Divine Books, but all men and common sense, saying, Suppose a man should take refuge with you, who by your lie might be saved from death, would you not tell it? If a sick man should ask a question which it is not expedient that he should know, and might be more grievously afflicted even by your returning him no answer, will you venture either to tell the truth to the destruction of the man’s life, or rather to hold your peace, than by a virtuous and merciful lie to be serviceable to his weak health? By these and such like arguments they think they most plentifully prove, that if occasion of doing good require, we may sometimes tell a lie.

      …Since then by lying eternal life is lost, never for any man’s temporal life must a lie be told. And as to those who take it ill and are indignant that one should refuse to tell a lie, and thereby slay his own soul in order that another may grow old in the flesh; what if by our committing theft, what if by committing adultery, a person might be delivered from death: are we therefore to steal, to commit whoredom? They cannot prevail with themselves in a case of this kind: namely, if a person should bring a halter and demand that one should yield to his carnal lust, declaring that he will hang himself unless his request be granted: they cannot prevail with themselves to comply for the sake of, as they say, saving a life. If this is absurd and wicked, why should a man corrupt his own soul with a lie in order that another may live in the body, when, if he were to give his body to be corrupted with such an object, he would in the judgment of all men be held guilty of nefarious turpitude? Therefore the only point to be attended to in this question is, whether a lie be iniquity. And since this is asserted by the texts above rehearsed, we must see that to ask, whether a man ought to tell a lie for the safety of another, is just the same as asking whether for another’s safety a man ought to commit iniquity. But if the salvation of the soul rejects this, seeing it cannot be secured but by equity, and would have us prefer it not only to another’s, but even to our own temporal safety: what remains, say they, that should make us doubt that a lie ought not to be told under any circumstances whatsoever? For it cannot be said that there is anything among temporal goods greater or dearer than the safety and life of the body. Wherefore if not even that is to be preferred to truth, what can be put in our way for the sake of which they who think it is sometimes right to lie, can urge that a lie ought to be told?”

      • Darren

        Nice quote, thank you. This would be very much in line with what comes to mind when I hear “Virtue Ethics”.

  • Nolan

    “I have a suggestion for a topic worthy of Breaking the Spell 2:

    The spell I say must be broken is the taboo against a forthright, philosophical investigation of atheisms as one subset of metaphysics and ethics among many.”

    If this is suggested for certain sub groups of atheists, it may be a fair topic (maybe not- I’ve never experienced such a taboo), but in the United States, and even more so globally, there is no “spell” that needs to be broken concerning atheism. It is religion that gets a spot conveniently safe from criticism. It is religion that it is considered rude, and frequently illegal, to criticize. Atheism, even among atheist groups, does not have this convenient shield to protect it, which is why I think Dennett’s recurring focus is fair and important.

  • Benjamin

    Isn’t is better to say that Dennet is just appealing to the fact that not all of our beliefs are subject to empirical investigation?

    Since Dennet’s not doing moral philosophy, I would think he wouldn’t have to describe the content of a term like ‘Justice.’ It’s enough to say ‘we have conceptions of Justice that are not fully determined by scientific considerations.’ You don’t have to give a specific ethical theory to point that out.

    If Dennet was doing moral philosophy, okay, this would be a problem. But all he’s doing is arguing for a scientific investigation into religious phenomenon.

  • Emily

    The funny thing about naming values everyone agrees with generally but might disagree with in the details is that he does exactly the opposite with religion! Before I picked up the book, I thought, “gee, this seems like a pretty inflammatory approach, but his book on consciousness was fascinating so I’ll give it a try.” And then he wrote that the only religions that really count are monotheistic ones with an anthropomorphic God, since other ones aren’t really religion in a “serious” sense of the term. And that plenty of “modern liberal” religious people would perhaps argue that his characterization of thier God was oversimplified, but they are all just pantheists or atheists masquerading as Christians because it sounds nice.

    Never have I been SO ANGRY with a book before I even finished the introduction, which is clearly intended as a 50 page long argument trying to convince religious people to read the rest! First off, it was incredibly patronizing toward western monotheistic religious people, while writing off the sincerity of tons of deeply faithful people because they are, say, Buddhists. Second, and this is something that bothers me about evolutionary psychology frequently, it ignores around 150 years of work in anthropology is directly pertinent to the question. Generally, based on empirical research anthropology a) identifies religion as a universal feature of human life, b) does not define it in Dennett’s narrowly ethnocentric terms, and c) explores its actual diverse variations and functions in different kinds of societies. And then goes on to make an argument about the evolution of humanity that doesn’t apply to much of humanity or human history.

    Oh also, he really seems to have something against social scientists writing about the work of “real scientists” without knowing what they are talking about. I can’t believe it is possible to shoot yourself in the foot in so many ironic ways in such a short book, especially for someone whose previous work I really admired. It made it very difficult for this social scientist with a background in anthropology (which, by the way, includes the study of human evolution and prehistoric archaeology) and non-cartoonish religious beliefs to take it at all seriously. Please correct me if my memory is wrong or my reading far too harsh, though, I read it a few years ago.

    • Emily

      Missing an important pronoun. “And then HE (i.e. Dennett, not the field of anthropology) goes on to make an argument about the evolution of humanity that doesn’t apply to much of humanity or human history.”

  • Darren

    ” In spite of the religious connotations of the term, even atheists and agnostics can have sacred values, values that are simple not up for reevaluation at all. I have sacred values–in the sense that I feel vaguely guilty even thinking about whether they are defensible and would never consider abandoning them (I like to think!) in the course of solving a moral dilemma. My sacred values are obvious and quite ecumenical: democracy, justice, life, love, and truth (in alphabetical order).”

    This is one of the areas where Dennett and I diverge. In my efforts to become a better Rationalist, I desire to eliminate sacred values, insofar as a sacred value is one that I would hesitate to question, or if need be, abandon.

    I will confess confusion as to why Dennett, or any New Atheist, would suggest that holding on to such a thing is a Good, save either personal squeamishness or fear of being labeled “amoral”. As horrifying as it may be, should we not be prepared to ‘Eat the Baby’ if presented with a suitably convincing argument? (Thanks, Leah, for the great link. It is Less Wrong that is at the heart of my desire to be a better Rationalist)