Thursday, December 5, 2013

Reviewing Randal Rauser’s “The Swedish Atheist…” Chapter 25




Chapter 25: Good Humans, Genocidal Aliens and Serial Killers Who Know What They Want in Life
We’re creeping up on the end of this book with approximately half a dozen chapters to go. So let’s get to it, shall we?

Randal opens by quoting the serial killer Richard Ramirez, whose infamous last words were:

“You don’t understand me. You are not expected to. You are not capable. I am beyond your experience. I am beyond good and evil.”

Lovely personality. Anyhoozit, Randal then asks whether Sheridan feels that Ramirez could have possibly been correct in his assessment. Sheridan simply informs, “Ramirez is evil and what he did is evil. It’s that simple…”

Randal then goes on to say that relative morality is inadequate to explain our moral intuitions.

I strongly disagree with him here, because I think this is a classification error. Biology and human experience are adequate to explain relative morality, so really, invoking objective absolute morality in the way theists does is inadequate, because it doesn’t appear to take these things into account. According to the theist, even if humans ceased to exist and life died a long time ago, and biology and human experience were no more, there’d still be this absolute morality floating off in the ether of whatever consciousness remained in the universe.

Come to think of it, that’s a pretty radical statement. So how does one prove it minus things like biology, experience, and consciousness? It doesn’t seem likely one could, therefore it doesn’t seem likely that such a model could represent morality as we know it. And the only way the theist can posit such a morality is to presuppose God. So, in reality, they have no way of demonstrating such a system of absolute morality apart from God, which makes their claim circular. The thing they posit, absolute morality, can only exist if they presuppose God. Thus presupposing God gets them to absolute morality; and absolute morality ergo God, and around and around we go on the logic merry-go-round.

Randal then says, hypothetically speaking, that it’s possible Ramirez could have possibly evolved beyond our current human understanding of morality. Personally, I don’t buy this line of reasoning. I think it mischaracterizes morality by making it person dependent and ignores the cultural, sociological and environmental contexts in which we perceive moral actions and events. Morals are extremely dependent on cultural norms, and therefore they are subject to change when these norms change. It was viewed as improper for a woman to wear slacks for a large portion of Western history. In Western societies a female wearing slacks was views as indecent, and the only way to claim this was to assume that there was some kind of moral stigma that went with wearing slacks.

In other parts of the world today, various cultures feel that women should cover their heads. In Japan, having a tattoo is seen as not merely a rebellious act in defiance of social cultural norms, but is viewed as criminal. And people with tattoos, even as quaint as little hearts or butterflies, are denied access into public places such as gyms, spas, and restaurants. These aren’t merely manners, but cultural norms that if breached cause a moral outrage among the citizens of that culture or society.

So really the question of Ramirez moral evolution, as Randal phrases it, is a malformed question. Rather, we should be asking whether Ramirez was capable of evolving beyond his culture, his environment, and then fallaciousness of the question itself is revealed. Anyone with an understanding of evolution realizes that natural selection guides evolution, it is the environment itself which evolution prepares us to adequately adapt to in order to have a better chance of survival. How could Ramirez evolve beyond what natural selection would allow for?

No, it seems we our as much a product as our environments as any other living thing.

But Randal’s not finished yet.

“Look, if mice can ‘morally’ eat their babies, then perhaps a creature more highly evolved than us can rape, torture and murder human beings in accord with their interests. And if this is possible, then it could be the case with Ramirez.”

Again, Randal is confused about the way evolution works. We simply cannot divorce ourselves from our environments and our dependence on or interaction with (or within) it. If anyone could do that they would be more than human. Besides Randal’s strange notion that if relative morality was true we’d all evolved into little Hellraisers, it doesn’t appear to me that Ramirez was anything other than a cold blooded murdering psychopath. Cenobite he was not.[1]

It seems that because Randal’s objection to moral relativism rests on a misunderstanding of evolutionary science (hey, at least he’s consistent) it seems we can dismiss his objection in whole.

Randal still thinks we have a problem, however. He continues on to say:

“On the one hand, you have a strong moral intuition that certain actions are always, absolutely wrong. It seems to me that that intuition was driving your critique of biblical genocide and the doctrine of hell… However, when we turn to your view of what morality actually is, your account is too weak, too namby-pamby, to explain the strength of your intuitions.”

I suppose Randal is right. Only if, and I stress the only, you have believed your own mischaracterization of relative morality and leaped to unfounded conclusions because your premise is demonstrably flawed. But yeah, given all this, then Randal could be right, I suppose.

“It seems to me that you should let your moral intuitions take the lead here and concede that morality really does transcend the species…”

Randal’s statement gets to the heart of the matter. Once again he shows that he’s not interesting in honestly investigating these moral questions, but rather, he merely wants to force his preconceived conception of morality on us. He just said as much by asking us to concede and accept his position rather than, I dunno, maybe continuing on in search of other viable answers that don’t have to default to “Because God.”

Suddenly Randal starts talking about the science fiction movie District 9. He gives a brief synopsis of the film, since Sheridan hasn’t seen it (and presumably a large portion of Randal’s readership) and suggests:

“[T]hey (the aliens) clearly are moral agents. This raises some pretty interesting ethical issues.”

Randal explains how the humans are killing aliens by using them as target practice, shooting them down as if they were dumb animals. Randal wants to know whether Sheridan thinks non-human agents can evolve an independent morality different than ours. But in his pessimistic mind, the morality of the ‘other’ entails that they have “evolved in such a way that they can morally rape, torture and murder human beings for their pleasure and personal fulfillment.”

Much like a carnist eating a beef burger, Randal concludes. (Although I don’t know if Randal is a vegan or not; but I hear lots of vegans make this type of moral argument. And considering the amount of animal suffering that occurs due to our consumption of animals and animal products it’s well worth considering, at least I think so.)

Once again Randal comes back to his misconceptualization of moral evolution and, what’s more, I think he misses a much more interesting question. One worth asking. Could sentient beings of roughly the same intelligence realize a uniform morality, a common moral ground between them, despite their biological differences? I would assume yes, since the questions of one biological species who is subject to the same natural laws we are would, more often than not, have similar views on many things, due to a shared common experience of the world; I would assume.

That isn’t to say that if an alien species came down to Earth tomorrow there wouldn’t be cultural differences, to say the least, but it seems that given a little bit of time and cordial interaction we would come to realize their thinking and they ours. Of course, I could be wrong, but I don’t see why we couldn’t come to a mutual understanding.

But the way I see it, relative morality predicts there will be differences based on culture and social norms, perhaps even species specific norms, whereas Randal’s absolute morality predicts that the aliens would come down to Earth having the exact same moral precepts and intuitions as us. In my mind that’s sort of like assuming that although they evolved on another world, under extremely different conditions, the aliens would still arrive looking exactly like bipedal humans. Somehow that doesn’t seem likely.

(Update: several pages later Randal uses ‘convergent evolution’ to make this exact case. Informing that just as the marsupial squirrel glider bears a striking resemblance to the North American flying squirrel, aliens may come to Earth looking fully like human beings due to the limited set of evolutionary paths allotted them. But what Randal seems to be forgetting is that this only works if each species shares the same, or practically the same, environment. It’s possible, of course, but not likely.)

What I am willing to consider is that alternative moral standards and intuitions exist because I know alternative moralities and intuitions already exist and are dependent on environmental factors as well as culture and therefore appear to be relative in nature. But that doesn’t mean we don’t share specific moral intuitions and views, because the bottom line is, we all partake in the same overall experience. That’s why a Japanese person and myself (an American) can agree that murder is wrong, but disagree on whether or not getting a tattoo is wrong. I’d like to think it would be the same with sentient, highly intelligent, technologically advanced extraterrestrial beings from another planet.

In other words, I do not believe objective morality exists in the sense that most theists do. I believe we can find objective moral reasons for preferring one relative model of morality vs. another one. What would constitute a moral reason? Well, I would point toward consequentialism as a good example. We have to consider the overall moral outcome, i.e. the consequences, of any given action in order to determine its overall moral value. If the moral outcome is deemed likely good, then that would become a moral reason to choose that outcome over one which leads to a lesser good. Instead of settling for the lesser of two evils, we would essentially be choosing the greater of two goods. Then it’s a matter of classifying various moral reasons as either high moral risk or low moral risk, finding out where the line is between them, and using statistical analysis to aid us in determining the probability of any given choice and what the plausible cost of that choice will be.

Granted, this is a much more complex form of morality, because it is one which requires a lot more effort than simply affirming “Because God.” It requires an overarching view of competing moral norms, it requires an understanding of statistics, it requires a familiarity with basic psychology. Collecting the relevant data from all these fields would be enough to lead to successful predictive modeling, something which has proven to work but which is difficult to do so if often overlooked.[2]

Throughout the rest of the chapter, which we’ll skip, Randal keeps going back to the evolution thing instead of discussing other plausible models of morality, like consequentialism, utilitarianism or basic virtue ethics and systems of meta-ethics. It makes one wonder if Randal has really looked into questions of morality at all or if he’s just selected the naturalistic variety of relative morality that he thinks is easiest to poke holes in (never mind his grievous misunderstanding of the way evolution works). Randal doesn’t even address the idea of objective morality arising naturally, so it’s really hard to buy into his moral conceptualization because it seems like he merely takes it for granted that his concept of morality is right and everyone else is wrong; and then wants us to go along with it.

The only problem is, I cannot simply go along with it. You see, I have this crippling tendency to have these things called … thoughts. They won’t allow me to simply go along with things willy-nilly. Especially the lack luster appeals of the apologist who merely proclaims “Because God!”

Randal goes into an even lengthier hypothetical scenario about aliens that have evolved to find genocide praiseworthy. He says this is the ultimate consequence of Sheridan’s (and presumably atheists) relative morality. He balks:

“Not only are your views implausible as descriptions of morality, but they also wreak havoc with our sense of moral progress.”

Wow, big words coming from a guy who has not taken the time to investigate moral relativity to any serious degree. At least, not enough to back up this claim. But Randal continues on nonetheless:

“Right now we humans strive—in word if not always in deed—to achieve certain ends like courage, justice, patience and kindness.”

All human beings? Even sociopaths and psychopaths like Ramirez?

“You view entails that depending on the way our evolutionary trajectory progresses, there may come a point where we have to rethink and even abandon these virtues.”

Well, if they turned out not to be virtues, then how exactly would ratifying and/or improving them be such a bad thing? I don’t think you could have moral progress without the ability to correct and update one’s moral outlook. But since Randal rejects it all anyway, I can see why he is confused about how improving something would lend to that something functioning better.

“More to the point, there may come a time when they are no longer virtues for us. Perhaps in the future it will become morally praiseworthy for a more fully evolved humanoid descendant of ours to rape and torture other creatures.”

Two things. First of all, why does relative morality always devolve into rape and torture? Secondly, so what? Based on what Randal just outlined, this future humanoid descendants would also evolve a morality that doesn’t involve rape and torture, since assuming it didn’t work for them (and it doesn’t take a genius to see why it wouldn’t work) then they would no longer be virtues and there would come a time when they would rethink and even abandon this view of morality.

That would be progress. Looking at human history, maybe it has even happened? Kings are no longer allowed to rape virgin brides on their wedding night. I’d call this progress. Are we perfect? No, human beings are flawed. But it seems that over the course of time we are refining our moral standards in a direction that allows for more freedoms, equality and rights among all genders and races. So if relative morality works, and progress is possible in which the greater good is achieved, how does Randal account for it? He can’t. Which is why he dismisses if off hand, suggesting that only rape and genocide are the only possible consequences, and then he wants us to jump on the bandwagon of objective, absolute morality as he defines it.

If we have learned anything from this chapter, it is simply that Randal knows too little about ethics to make such pronouncements. I myself cannot say either way, although I am inclined to think morality is relative. Of course, I have changed my mind back and forth on the issue quite a bit, as the question is open for debate, regardless of what Randal Rauser may think

But I do want to raise one final hypothetical scenario that Randal seemingly missed. Assuming we go along with his misconception about how evolution works, and we grant him the leeway to say that other entities could evolve to have drastically different systems of morality in which a Hellraiser-like-Ramirez-styled-existence is the outcome, then something that has been bothering me is, what if Randal is mistaken and God isn’t a genuine deity but a supreme entity that evolved from humble beginnings?

What if God is that alien whose morality Randal fears? But then, if Randal claims God’s morality is absolute, under his own logic, anything the God-alien commands, even rape of babies and cannibalism of one’s family, would be moral because God could simply claim:

“You don’t understand me. You are not expected to. You are not capable. I am beyond your experience. I am beyond good and evil.”

Now, what if we do away with the implausible idea that God is a highly evolved alien, but just a regular supreme being. How does this change the subjectivity, and relativity, of God’s moral commands? Of course, many before me have raised strong objections to Divine Command theory, but if you’re going to posit God both as the source and absolute standard of morality, then it seems the problem which arises is exactly the same thing which Randal has been arguing against.

Many theologians have posited that because God is love he could not go against his loving nature to command any evil, as all evil is a trespass of his moral code, and he would not breach this code himself because being a perfect being he’d demand perfect justice always. But this posits additional assumptions as givens, such as God being a loving and just being, and that is not at all clear. Although, one feels it should be at least this clear if we are going to assume it in the first place. As it is, it seems more like the conjecture of the theist simply to get around the objections raised instead of an accurate description of God’s loving or just nature.

Randal finishes the chapter by claiming:

“[I]n my view, that fluid notion of moral progress is falsified by our very absolute moral intuitions… if that means you ought to consider becoming a theist, then so be it.”

Um… no. Just… no.

I mean, surely that’s all one needs to say in order to answer Randal’s baseless assertion—a simple yet resounding “No.”

Like I have said from the beginning, if Randal wanted to prove his morality the legitimate version of morality we all follow, he’d have to give a much more thorough shake of all the other versions of morality. Instead he simply takes a stripped down straw-man version, and a badly misconstrued one at that, of relative morality and holds it up to his unsupported claim and then merely jumps to the conclusion he likes best, claiming our views falsified and his worthy of converting us to theism. That simply has not been demonstrated. Not even close. Only the apologist could ever consider mere assertions logical proofs.

In the end, mere assertions just aren’t enough to be compelling. And since nothing has been demonstrated, all I can say is that Randal is suffering from a severe case of wishful thinking. I hope my reasons as to why Randal’s position was adequately demonstrated were clear. If not, I’d be glad to clarify my points further. But seeing as how this response has already grown quite long, and I’ve said all that I feel needs to be said here, we’ll move on.

Chapter 26 is called “Playing Games with Morality.”



[1] In Clive Barker’s 1987 horror film Hellraiser, a girl opens a doorway to a demonic realm ruled by monstrous figures called Cenobites that thrive on the torture and misery of others. The iconic image of the lead Cenobite was named Pinhead for the fact that he had needles sticking out of his face.

[2] See: Michael Bishop and J.D. Trout’s paper “50 Years of Successful Predictive Modeling Should Be Enough: Lessons for Philosophy of Science,” in Philosophy of Science: PSA 2000 Symposium Papers, 2002 69 (supplement): s197-s208.

Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist