Sunday, December 8, 2013

Reviewing Randal Rauser’s “The Swedish Atheist…” Chapter 26




Chapter 26: Playing Games with Morality
Sheridan opens the chapter by contending Randal’s views on morality, by informing us:

“Morality simply describes the rules by which individuals and the species flourish. And it can’t see any species flourishing if it acts the way you describe. Any species of raping Ramirez aliens and Mazi tyrants would die out pretty quickly.”

[Note: Mazi’s were hypothetical alien Nazi’s that Randal used in the previous chapter to illustrate that aliens who upheld Nazi values as the pinnacle of moral virtue would think things like genocide morally acceptable. I didn’t cover it because it was just a rehash of more of the same basic misunderstanding on Randal’s part.]

But the above quote is strange for a couple of reasons. First, it’s accurate. Second, it depicts the fact that Randal has misunderstood relative morality as held by consequentialists and others. Why this is strange should be obvious. Randal has basically raised the same objection one would criticizing his position but he doesn’t seem to get why the objection is made in the first place.

He merely responds:

“Well, don’t tell that to praying mantises…!”

Now Randal made the case in the previous two chapters that animals could not be considered “moral agents” but I debunked his claim by showing actual videos of animals acting, and behaving, exactly like one would expect moral agents to act and behave.

That said, it’s strange that Randal would use this as an example. There are of course evolutionary reasons why the female praying mantis eats the male. A quick read on Wiki helps to clarify:

Sexual cannibalism is common among most predatory species of mantids in captivity, and under some circumstances may also be observed in the field. 90% of the predatory species of mantid participate in sexual cannibalism. The female may begin feeding by biting off the male’s head (as they do with regular prey), and if mating has begun, the male’s movements may become even more vigorous in its delivery of sperm. Early researchers thought that because copulatory movement is controlled by a ganglion in the abdomen, not the head, removal of the male’s head was a reproductive strategy by females to enhance fertilization while obtaining sustenance.

If Randal doesn’t view animals as ‘moral agents’ then this example could only be raised to point out that in the Mantis world they have evolved to rely on sexual cannibalism, therefore in the mantis world sexual cannibalism is a moral virtue. But what does a mantid’s moral system have to say about a human’s moral system?

It’s either a bad analogy, or Randal simply hasn’t stated his point clearly enough. There was no reason to talk about mantises here, unless Randal's goal was simply to point out that an insect's morality is different than that of a human's. To hold them to the same 'absolute' moral system would be to not grasp the not so subtle differences between mantids and humans.

Next Randal asks:

“If ethics is like following the rules of a game, then what’s the goal of the game? Human flourishing and widespread happiness?”

Sheridan agrees with that depiction of modern ethics. Randal goes on to say:

“Okay, and so we call those behaviors that help us win the game ‘moral.’ Correct?”

Sheridan responds:

“That’s right. If I violate the rules of the game, I won’t flourish… We act morally because it’s the best way to ensure our own happiness.”

I would add, the happiness of others as well, and therefore our overall happiness as a species.

Randal doesn’t like it though. He laments:

“Personal happiness sounds like a pretty low, self-interested approach to morality, if you ask me…”

Why he thinks happiness would be a low standard he doesn’t say. His assumption that happiness is strictly a selfish endeavor is simply wrong. In other words, happiness is a consequence of acting ethically and therefore seeking happiness for selfish reasons needn't be the intended goal in order to achieve a greater happiness. In fact, many of the tenets of Buddhism are predicated on the belief that getting rid of selfish desires will bring greater happiness. It seems there are more ways of achieving happiness than Randal would have us believe.
Additionally, genuine happiness merely seems to be an outcome of diminished suffering. The less suffering there is, the happier we become. This of course holds true for all sentient animals, not just humans. 

One may object that if we ever obtained perfect contentment in all things, then happiness could no longer be achieved. Even it perfect contentment was reached, and suffering was all but eliminated, we could still find happiness in self-interested goals, knowing that suffering would no longer not be a consequence of our selfish actions. 

But ultimate contentment doesn't seem overly plausible, and I find it's rather hard to envision such a scenario. Being biological creatures, it seems, we will always be prone to a certain amount of suffering. Whether it is diminishing the suffering of oneself or others, or even the community or the race as a whole, is beside the point. Less suffering would ultimate lead to greater levels of happiness. 

It seems Randal has deliberately confused hedonism (the greed of self-pleasure) with happiness (joy and contentment, etc). Pleasure need not be linked with selfishness. Pleasure can be a passive experience as well. So I think it is a mistake to assume there is only one kind of pleasure in the same way I think it is a mistake to assume there is only one kind of happiness.

Continuing on, Randal informs there is another problem we need to be made aware of.

“I don’t think there’s any universally agreed-on concept of human flourishing.”

Really? So is there any universally agreed upon concept of not flourishing? 

In other words, is there a universal concept of human suffering? Because, if so, then wouldn’t the opposite of that be what we would consider a universally agreed upon concept of human flourishing?

Personally, I think that if you look at human suffering, regardless of the scale, it becomes clear what events and behaviors contribute to human suffering. Moreover, I think we can all agree on the basic aspects of what would constitute human suffering. Therefore human suffering, seems to me, is a universally acknowledge thing. 

If I’m right, and I don’t see any serious contention to this consideration, then it would go without saying that there must be an agreed upon concept of human flourishing—it would simply be the opposite of what constitutes human suffering. 

But Randal doesn't seem to think so. He goes on to assert:

“Perhaps if there were we could claim that morality is the set of practical wisdom necessary to achieve those goods that we all desire. But we don’t all desire the same things.”

Individual desires are, of course, dependent on the individual. But when you’re talking about *human flourishing you are talking about humanity as a whole, not the individual but the species. Randal makes the exact mistake we need to avoid. He is taking a general claim and then raising a specific case as an objection. This doesn’t make logical sense to do.

Generally speaking, we can safely assume that all people do not wish to suffer. At least, not for extended periods of time or to the point of that suffering becoming unbearable

A good workout might cause someone a bit of muscle ache and a little discomfort for a day or two, but that’s more of a temporary pain than a type of genuine suffering. A child with leukemia must endure genuine suffering. This is why it makes more sense to try and cure to cancer rather than put an end to all strenuous workouts. Curing cancer will, undeniably, increase the happiness quotient among all peoples, and maybe even all animals too. Ending exercise would seek to have the opposite effect. 

A safe generalization to make of everyone, based on a common shared experience with other human beings, would be to say that we know nearly most all people would avoid suffering if the suffering was gratuitous.

At the same time, most psychologically healthy individuals do not enjoy causing others to suffer either, so we could say that nearly most all healthy people would avoid inflicting undue suffering upon others. 

What one could not do is point to psychopaths and sociopaths as an exception to the rule, as they may actually desire to bring harm or suffering to others. The reason we cannot use them as an exception to the rule is that they’re not properly functioning people. You cannot point to a broken down four-wheeler and say that because two of the tires are popped, with only two remaining, that all fou-wheelers are basically motorcycles. That’s not how it works. The four-wheeler is simply broken. The same is true of those suffering social disorders.

Knowing now that we mean healthy people of sound mind, we can then assume that nearly all perfectly functioning people would not desire to bring suffer upon themselves or others.

This isn’t to say, however, that there aren’t certain unrelated desires which may indirectly cause undue suffering as an unfortunate consequence of a series of unfortunate events. For example, a new technology, such as automated factory lines, although a good thing unto itself may ultimately end in layoffs for outmoded human workers. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the corporate heads set out with the desire to cause their employees to suffer by firing them and essentially making them jobless and penniless. They goal of the corporation was probably to become more efficient, and the technology allowed them to accomplish that goal.

What we need to realize is that the suffering wrought in this example is an unrelated consequence, and it still goes without saying that suffering is generally a bad thing and that people would most likely hope to avoid it in the future. This is why unions were created in the first place, to better ensure fair treatment of workers and make sure their rights as employees weren’t trampled all over. But what a corporation desires is not necessarily the same thing as what an individual, apart from that corporation, would desire. So when we consider these examples of flourishing and suffering, we must look at the broader picture. 

Subsequently, this leads to engage in ethical thinking more, because we have to consider things that may impact us all that we wouldn't normally have to consider if we were simply looking at individuals.

The invention of new technologies to make our lives better and easier, perchance we might flourish, is a good thing. But that doesn’t mean that technology will always be good in and of itself. The atomic bomb was not a good nor necessary invention. It did not save lives, it took them. It was designed as an instrument of war, and therefore it was designed with suffering in mind. One question would be, why did we utilize such a weapon if we agree that human flourishing should be an ultimate moral goal?

Well, it's clear that those involved in the creation of such a weapon were not concerned with human suffering. They were concerned with how to develop the technology. And here is another danger with citing specific examples, maybe the individuals who helped invent the technology of the atomic bomb were not cruel men, but were simply doing a job and divorced themselves from any responsibility of those who would turn around and use that technology for evil. And that's why we have to be careful to step back and look at the broader picture.

Over time we have come to see that nuclear warheads do not add to our overall flourishing as a species, which is why most modern and civil nations have agreed to disarm their nuclear warheads. As long as we have in mind the flourishing of the whole species, we can universally agree that atomic bombs only compound suffering, and therefore should be gotten rid of.

Human suffering and human flourishing are two ends of a moral landscape that we can look to in order to help us generate models of morality based on the understanding of what these concepts entail in the grander scheme of things. As such, this allows us to establish flourishing as a baseline for human morality.

I’m sure Randal would likely disagree, but he'd have to think of better objections than simply saying “But we don’t all desire the same things.” As it is, that point is quite irrelevant.

Randal then brings up the infamous German Armin Meiwes who wanted to eat someone, and was answered to in an ad on a website called ‘Cannibal Café’ in which he found someone willing to be cannibalized—but only if he could be mutilated before being killed and eaten. They met up in 2001 and fulfilled each other’s twisted desires.

The question we need to ask is, does this represent the overall desires of the species or is it simply an example of two mentally ill people meeting up and doing something abominable? 

As I detailed above, mental illness cannot be considered an exception to the rule, because a broken psyche cannot be generalized in any way the applies to the working psyches of the overall species. If we went by Randal's logic, that broken down four-wheeler with two flat tires really would be considered a motorcycle. But that's clearly ridiculous. The same is true of considering a mentally broken down person representative of all mentally healthy people. It's simply a case of poor reasoning on Randal's behalf.

What we can say however, is that we should try to give adequate health care to individuals suffering from mental illness, as this would add to the flourishing of the species overall--by making sure one less insane person is liable to endanger themselves or others--and by making sure they can get the help they desperately need.

Randal continues on about Armin and his calculated, rational decisions to follow his own practical wisdom, but it seems that Randal is ignoring Armin's mental illness altogether. As I said, this is clearly a mistake. 

Raising specific examples to counter a broad generalization is simply bad reasoning. You can only apply specific examples to other specific examples. When you get enough of the same types of examples, then one can generalize by looking at trends and norms. Is Randal prepared to defend his objection by saying cannibalism is a norm or even a raging trend? I don’t think so, so it appears Randal is simply mistaken.

Randal explains to Sheridan that

“[Y]ou don’t have any objective reason to say Armin was mistaken.”

Well, actually, yes. He was mentally ill.[1] That’s about as objective as it gets.

Randal then goes into attack mode:

“Who says that the rules you and I hold are obligatory for all human beings? For you to adopt a subjective game view of morality and then deny that Armin’s end goals in the game can be legitimate is flawed reasoning. Who says you make the rules?”

Flawed reasoning is the correct way of stating it. Oddly enough, it’s Randal’s flawed reasoning on top of his own flawed reasoning. Nobody is saying that the arbitrary moral goals I may have for myself apply to everyone. Again, this is Randal’s confusion, not our own (and consequently he makes several propositional fallacies in the process).[2]

Honestly, Randal sounds like a guy who’s never watch a game of American football and is screaming at the TV, “Who made those rules?” demonstrating that he doesn’t quite understand what’s going on.

But that doesn’t stop him from being certain he’s right and you’re wrong.

Randal then declares that although examples like Armin and Ramirez may be few and far between, that they still present a serious challenge to the view of a moral landscape based on flourishing. But that’s assuming we’re idiots and we’ve mistook a couple of mentally ill psychopaths for everyone else. 

Randal then goes on to say that disagreement may coexist within societal norms. But then, this was my exact point in the previous chapter, that such disagreements signify different moral norms based on societal norms, and because of the divergence it proves that morality is relative and dependent on cultural and social views. Now Randal is using it as a defense to show that relative morality is wrong? This is what I mean when I say the book feels overly confused.

Randal tells Sheridan that

“You said a few minutes ago that we act morally because that’s the best way of securing our own happiness. That leaves you with little more, morally speaking, than ethical egoism… Ethical egoism says that we ought to act so as to maximize our own personal interests. But this isn’t only a counterintuitive notion of the ethical life—it could be used to justify truly heinous actions…”

Randal works a little sleight of hand here. Ethical egoism is, as he defines it, the view that people ought to be motivated by self-interests. But as we discussed above, there are different kinds of happiness, and happiness itself can even be a passive experience. 

Randal simply wants everyone to equate seeking happiness for happiness sake as a hedonistic choice. But this assumes that happiness is not a right we are allowed, therefore could only ever be viewed as a self-interest. I don’t think either of these assumptions get at the nuance of the types of happiness which exist, or the type of flourishing most ethicists mean when they talk about a moral landscape.

Additionally, it seems that Randal neglects the fact that people have an ability to think. He gives the example of finding a man passed out in the alley with a wallet full of money. According to Randal, the ethical egoist would be obliged to take the wallet and maximize his own happiness by stealing the money and using it for himself. In fact, we couldn’t blame him if he did. 

But this assumes that the ethical egoist would find more net benefit in stealing a wallet than helping out a fellow human being. Any smart ethical egoist would see that only selfish acts do not always equate to good self-interests, and would probably condition themselves to consider the bigger picture. Now, personally I agree that ethical egoism is self-defeating, but I find Randal’s depiction rather simplistic, and his equating it with happiness based flourishing is simply illicit.

Randal then raises the objection that given different relative moralities:

“God could have a completely different morality. If that’s the case, what basis do you have to use human morality as an argument against Yahweh being God?”

Randal likes to shoot himself in the foot, it seems. 

If we take this objection to it’s logical conclusion, if all morality was relative, and God’s morality was just one more type of morality on this scale of competing relative moralities. On that basis, God is falsified by contradicting his supposed nature. But if we had no contrast, then the falsification lies in the fact that God’s morality would be indistinguishable from a humans, and therefore, why call him God in the first place?

Actually, this is the precise objection many skeptics raise with regard to the biblical God of Christianity. They inform that if Christians would only read the Old Testament more closely, they’d see this exact problem—Yahweh abides by a capricious morality indistinguishable from any human form of morality of the time. This observation leads us to the logical conclusion that either men invented Yahweh or Yahweh’s morality is indistinguishable from man’s in such a way that considering him divine, based on this evidence alone, would be an illogicality.

Randal closes with a zinger, declaring:

“You know, the same problems arise when it comes to atheistic views of meaning.”

With this grandiose statement, we come to the end of chapter 26. Chapter 27 is entitled “God is Dead and You Have Killed Him, Et Cetera.” No doubt we will be in for a roller coaster ride of a discussion about meaning with all the ups and downs, twists and turns, and unavoidable dizziness that we have come to expect from Randal Rauser.





[1] It was due to Meiwes mental illness that there was a retrial. Originally convicted for manslaughter in 2004, due to the fact that Meiwes continued to “fantasize about eating the flesh of young people” psychologists prompted prosecuters to re-open the case. In 2005 Meiwes sentence was increased from manslaughter to murder. He has since become a vegetarian while in prison.


[2] Scroll down to learn about what a propositional fallacy is after following the link:


Once you’ve learned the gist you can head on over to the page on Propositional calculus to learn more about how it works.

Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist