Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Reviewing Randal Rauser’s “The Swedish Atheist…” Chapter 24

Chapter 24: Three Types of Relativist and Two Types of Evil
It’s finally nice to get away from what basically amounted to two impractical chapters talking about hypothetical other dimensional realms as if they were in any way substantiated.

I have come to grow quite intolerant of delusional claims over the years, because the kettle logic they inevitably rely on is truly aggravating. If you’ve ever had the experience of discussing at length any conspiracy theory with a dyed in the wool conspiracy theorist, you will know exactly what I’m talking about. Religious conjecture is not so unlike wild conspiracy theories, except for the fact that because so many people believe it it’s taken seriously. After a while of listening to them prattle on, you have to politely stop them and inform them that you have better, more important, things to do.

But since it seems I don't have anything better to do, let’s get back to my examination of the book from my atheist perspective.

Randal opens the chapter by raising the issue of morality and how we come to it. Addressing Sheridan, but I assume atheists in general, he says:

“It seems to me that your moral criticisms of Christianity are rooted in a deep sense of justice, mercy and goodness… But where does the sense of absolute justice and goodness that drives your objections come from?”

Slow down there, buckaroo! Who said anything about absolute anything? We don’t need an absolute sense of justice to know if something action is wrong or not, all we need is a satisfactory sense of justice. The same is true for morality. We don’t need an absolute sense of morality to distinguish between right and wrong, we only need an adequate sense of morality.

The Scottish philosopher David Hume refered to this awareness of moral questions a moral sense. He believed our moral sense was intuitive, but ultimately stemmed from experience—not from some kind of metaphysical state. Kant went further positing the idea of sufficient reason could be enough to establish a basis for moral considerations, and showed that experience itself relates back to a question of metaphysics.

In fact, Kant was specifically concerned with addressing Hume’s objections to metaphysical categories, namely Hume’s inductive skepticism and subjectivity about causation, and thus wrote his three profound critiques to address them. Kant went as far to say it was Hume who forced him awake from his dogmatic slumber (the quote can be found in Kant’s Prologomena to any Future Metaphysics, 1783).

It’s funny to me how many Christian apologists tend to demonize and/or trivialize Hume when arguably one of the greatest philosophical minds of all time, Immanuel Kant, thought Hume’s position was of utmost importance in addressing.

It seems to go without saying that we probably won’t be getting such an enriching conversation here.

Sheridan then guesses that Randal is going to make the argument that ‘If there is no God then everything is permissible’ as suggested by the character Ivan in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

Randal goes on to inform:

“It’s extremely difficult to conceive of objective goodness and virtue existing without an absolute personal standard as their source. Since I find evidence that objective goodness and virtue exist overwhelming, I conclude that this provides strong evidence for God’s existence.”

This, of course, is the shoddy type of reasoning we have come to expect from Randal, and religious apologists in general.

One thing to observe is that the debate on morality and consciousness between Hume and Kant was nowhere near decisive. That is, it is still a topic philosophers of mind and morality continue to discuss to this day. Another thing to note is that, once again, there is no reason to assume morality deals in absolutes. It may turn out that there are relative scales of experience, where there are really good types of good and really wrong kinds of wrong, and our experience may fall anywhere within this moral landscape, to phrase it like the American neuroscientist Sam Harris has.

But it is nowhere clear that there is an absolute standard of morality. This is just an assumption that Randal makes because it supports his theory of God. In effect, he’s making a circular argument. It’s because God there is morality, and because there is morality we know God exists.

Even so, this argument is nowhere near sophisticated enough to address the complexity of real ethical questions concerning the whole range of human experience.

Even naturalism, and an understanding of animal behavior, can lead one to conclude that altruism arises naturally minus any absolute metaphysical standard. Moral law theory is nowhere near established, and there are many various avenues of consideration to investigate before coming to any fixed conclusion. I think the mistake most apologists make here is they simply run with the assumption that their one particular moral theory is right, and therefore dismiss everything that doesn’t fit their presuppositions.

What this reveals is that they aren’t so much considered with discovering the truth about morality, how it works, or how we come to know it. Rather, they just want to establish morality as a foundational proposition for which to build the claim that their concept of God exists.

But when you pause to consider questions of morality, the rabbit hole goes far deeper than you can possibly imagine. Which is why, I feel, it is a disservice to the reader to simply to raise questions concerning morality only to skirt around taking the responsibility of examining the questions thoroughly. Instead, Randal raises the questions then jumps to the conclusion he likes best. This is bad philosophy.

Randal continues:

“To put it another way, if there were no God, then the most powerful people would effectively become the most ‘righteous.’ So if there is no human being more powerful than Genghis Khan to call him to account, then Khan can do what he likes while on earth.”

This is just a horribly bad argument. So bad that I don’t even know where to begin. What does power have to do with moral awareness? Just because Genghis Khan is strong, doesn’t mean his acts are dependent on his strength. Maybe Genghis Kahn was just an asshole? Did Randal ever pause to consider that?

Just because Arnold Shwarzenegger had the biggest and strongest biceps in the 80s doesn’t mean that because he was the strongest body builder at one time that during the 80s all of our morality was dependent on what Arnold Shwarzenegger said or did.

This argument is simply stupid. Or as Arnold might say, “Dah’ argument iz WEAK!”

If you pictured Gene Wilder’s purple clad Willy Wonka leaning forward with his widening eyes and saying, “Oh, you don't say? Tell me again how Arnold's biceps make me immoral again...” then you read my mind.

Randal says the winners write history, which I agree with to a degree, but he loses me when he says that because they write history they also write the moral code.

America won World War II, does that mean dropping atomic bombs of innocent civilians is a moral thing to do? 

However, this may be Randal’s ploy. You see, he will then go on to ask us how we know it couldn't be moral if we had no objective, absolute, source for morality? Which, in his mind, gives him the leeway to proclaim:

“[W]e need God as the objective source of the moral goodness and justice that we all recognize.”

All I will say to this is, good luck proving it.

Randal then asks what Sheridan’s account of morality and value is.

Sheridan says it arises from our evolutionary history. Randal calls him a moral relativist, but Sheridan says he doesn’t believe that morality is relative to culture. He goes on to add that he doesn’t accept an individualistic relativism either. Sheridan affirms:

“It’s simply part of our evolutionary history. Had we evolved in a different way we’d have a different morality. But this is the way we evolved.”

Randal follows up with making the distinction between Moral evil and Natural evil. Stating:

“Moral evil involve an intentional action by a moral agent to commit an evil action. Natural evil is evil that does not result from the intentional action of an agent.”

It doesn’t appear that Randal is at all familiar with the trolley problem.[1] But that’s the least of our worries, since really this isn’t about our discussing the finer nuances behind moral agency but rather is simply an act of an apologist drumming on the old worn drum about how God is the source for all our morality.

Continuing on with his discussion about Moral evil and Natural evil, Randal defines what he thinks a moral agent is.

“A moral agent is an individual who is capable of distinguishing the moral value of actions and choosing to perform or refrain from other actions based on that moral knowledge.”

Randal then claims that animals are not capable of performing a higher form of moral reasoning in the same way people are, although if he was more familiar with animal behavior he might not be so quick to jump to conclusions.[2]

I can’t help but recall earlier Randal’s confusion regarding physics and causality. It seems a lot of Randal’s objections evolve out of a genuine scientific illiteracy. I do not intend this comment as an ad hominem, but rather an observation. One I’d make of most religious apologists. Certainly, religious apologists always make the same type of arguments, only to frame them differently, but like other apologists I have come across it seems many of their arguments and positions would simply dissolve and evaporate if they ever took the time to read up on current scientific studies and trends. 

I am often curious as to how many scientific websites, journals, and books most apologists read each week? I, for one, have a daily news feed of twenty odd some websites and eighteen of them are science based. It’s one thing to try to stay informed, it’s another thing to presume you can speak on these matters with authority when you are obviously ill-informed.

Randal’s assumption, for example, that animals don’t exhibit moral behavior is, frankly, not one he is qualified to make, not because he's not a professional zoologist but because anyone who is informed will instantly recognize how ill-informed the assumption is. Worse still, it seems that, like with his aforementioned trouble with physics, Randal has a hard time understanding scientific matters because he’s not well versed in any of the relevant information.

Do not mistake me. I am not saying Randal shouldn’t be allowed to speculate on these things, but it would help his case if he was at least partially aware of the relevant information, which he doesn’t seem to be. After all, if Randal was right, well, then a layman like me shouldn’t be able to find three videos (yes, actual videos!) which disprove his point before he has even finished making it. What’s more, Randal shouldn’t have made such a statement in the first place, since the information is more than readily available for anyone who cares to look.

After some back and forth between the two, Randal and Sheridan finally come to an agreement that Sheridan is essentially a moral relativist. Then the chapter suddenly ends.

You’ll notice that I tend to say “suddenly” or “abruptly” at the end of each of these chapters because they sort of sneak up on you. This mainly has to do with the fact that Randal raises so many topics but rarely discusses any of them to any satisfying conclusion. Most of the time he leaves the questions he raises open, and doesn’t usually segue into his next topic as he is often mid-thought by the time the next chapter comes along. In fact, having chapters at all may amount to simply inserting chapter breaks for the convenience of the reader, as a novel length block of meandering text would be too much to take in without a much needed intermission once in a while.

“Good Humans, Genocidal Aliens and Serial Killers Who Know What They Want in Life” is the title of chapter 25. It appears like we’ll be talking more about morality and perhaps delving into the meaning of life.

In the meantime, feel free to leave your comments in the comments section below. What do you think, does objective morality exist?

[1] The Trolley problem posits a hypothetical scenario where you are standing on a bridge looking at a group of five people who have fallen down on the tracks in front of an oncoming trolley. In the first scenario you are given a lever, which if pulled, will divert the trolley thereby effectively saving the five lives below. In the second scenario there is no lever to pull, but rather a rotund man standing next to you. This man is so larger that if you pushed him over the railing of the bridge he would effectively stop the trolley thereby saving all five lives.

One problem which arises from the thought experiment is that most people feel that deliberately pushing the fat man into the path of the trolley would constitute a morally wrong act. As such, the Trolley problem points to how we view the act of deliberately taking any life as morally reprehensible. At first glance this would seem to be compatible with a theory of absolute morality.

Where the Trolley problem hangs us up though is when reveals that we have to make the conscious choice to let five people die even though we have the ability to save them. It shows that the way in which we value life, and so too right and wrong, changes when our context changes. On the surface, this suggests all morality is relative and observer dependent, which throws a kink into the theory that there is an absolute form of morality.

In an essay I wrote, I relay the problem another way by showing that a morally color blind person, such as a sociopath who cannot distinguish right from wrong, would be justified taking either action. But applying logic our sociopath would see (via consequentialism) there would be a benefit to sacrificing the one for the many--not only because there is a greater statistical chance of his gaining something in return, but also because sociopaths understand the concept of right and wrong even though they cannot sense it for psychological reasons. Therefore we would assume the morally color blind person who abides by logic would push the fat man in front of the trolley every time, albeit for selfish reasons, thereby saving the five people.

On the other hand, the truly righteous person would not push the fat man into the way of the trolley, because it would be viewed as an immoral act every time, regardless of what he benefited from it, and therefore effectively would allow all five lives to perish every time. Thus the question becomes, should not the righteous man value the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few? If not, then he couldn't truly be a righteous person, because he would willingly let five people die, which no truly righteous person could do if they had the power to prevent it. This catch-22 creates a big problem for those who believe in absolute morality, because it means that in both cases, no matter the ultimate choice of the righteous person, the righteous person will always choose the immoral option. But this should not be the case if there truly is a morality which conforms to an absolute moral standard. With absolute morality, there must always be a right action and a wrong action, but the Trolley problem steamrolls right over any such perception.

Furthermore, in a paradigm that posits an absolute morality it doesn't make sense to say that the morally color blind sociopath values life above that of a righteous man, although that’s the outcome we are given by the Trolley problem. Even if we know for a fact that the morally color blind person isn't actually making moral judgements either way, their behavior and end results end up as if they were. This seems to suggest that complex moral considerations might have a logical component that hasn’t been fully outlined and detailed yet. 

Likewise, consequentialism often gets posited as a work around for the Trolley problem, because it maintains that we must consider the consequences of saving each person independently apart from the event itself. In other words, we have to weigh the consequences of killing the fat man vs. any single one of the others on a case by case basis.

For example, what are the odds one of the five people who are stuck on the tracks being a doctor? Additionally, what if this doctor held the cure for cancer? Saving him would effectively save everyone on the planet who has cancer, and to stand in the way of that would be a greater moral evil than killing the fat man. But in order to realize this answer, one has to admit that their sense of absolute morality is probably misguided and that consequentialism is able to address moral issues much more effectively. This then allows us to build more complex moral models, such as utilitarianism. 

I’ve written on the Trolley problem and the questions it raises before. You can read my article online at:

[2] There are numerous cases documented where animals exhibit a higher moral awareness. Water buffalo coming back to rescue one of their own from a hungry pack of lions and crocodiles in what has become known at the famous Battle at Kruger, a cat warning people that are not their masters that there is a fire, a wild elephant refusing to step on a mouse, not out of fear of mice mind you, but from a conscious acknowledgement that the mouse small in size and therefore vulnerable to the elephant’s crushing mass. Then there is the famous case of monkeys going bananas over unfair payment, meaning they have a basic sense of fairness, which entails having a moral sense.

Battle at Kruger can be watched here in its entirety:

The popular show Myth Busters ran an experiment with a mouse and elephants in the wild, and there findings may surprise you.

Emory University primatologist Frans de Waal and his colleague, Sarah Brosnan, showed via experiment that animals react to unfairness by becoming agitated by unfair payment, which they perceive as a form of social injustice and inequality. The scientists said the study has been repeated with dogs, birds and chimpanzees. They published their findings in the journal Nature in 2003. The video of the monkeys reacting has since gone viral.

Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist