Monday, 7 July 2014

With wandring steps and slow - morality without God

A couple of nights ago I started an argument in which I proposed that the success of American academia, and the failure of continental European academia (just look at the league tables), might be the result of Europe's banishment and eventual murder of its Jewish talent. The Jewish intellectual tradition took new root in the States, to the eternal impoverishment of us on this side of the Atlantic.

My argument inevitably boiled down to the claim that Jews are by and large smarter than other people. I'm happy enough with this as a philo-Semite, though the others seemed to find it somewhat offensive and off-colour, which gratified me greatly.

Later, after I had dried out a bit, I carried on the debate with my girlfriend Kate (who blogs here). After a few twists and turns, the issue became this: how could we defend a belief as morally necessary if we also knew it to be factually untrue?

(Incidentally the original racial argument is irrelevant to this - any area of human science that encroaches upon a moral question would do. But it was a recent topic of conversation, and I had earlier been set to thinking about it by a BBC article about the most controversial pages on Wikipedia, one of which is on 'race and intelligence').

Ok, to rewind. I'll assume we agree that belief in equality between races is morally necessary - i.e. it is not necessarily a proven truth, but we know since the Holocaust that unless a society adopts it as a basic principle it probably cannot be a decent or civil one.

I'll also assume we believe that scientific method, done well, is able to get at the truth of things.

Here's the test. Let's say some hypothetical scientist - a geneticist, whatever - discovered cast-iron proof that race A is 'better' than race B in ways that threaten our commitment to equality (better at doing certain tasks, more intelligent, stronger, better inter-personal skills, whatever fits the bill). How would we maintain our belief in equality as morally necessary when we knew it to be ungrounded in fact?

The religionist would be able to maintain her belief in the necessity of equality, because God says that equality is good. That makes it a revealed truth that can withstand any challenge from empirical truth. She has premises, and they remain unshaken foundations in this instance.

I, as a secularist, would reject this approach - 'God says so' is not good enough as a reason. But I'm not sure I have any way to maintain my belief in human equality without falling into the errors of the religionist. I still hold that society can only be decent and civil if it is structured, in its laws e.g., as if all humans are equal, but I now know I am making myself believe in a fiction. And then, how can I make myself believe in a fiction without resorting to some sort of arbitrary say-so (a God, perhaps) that overrules my misgivings about its falseness or even makes it magically true? 

One solution would be to censor the work of scientists, but then we would end up with a secular version of the Vatican's Index Librorum Prohibitorum. Moreover, who is the moral elite who gets to decide what we can see and what we can't - wouldn't this have to be based on their having an absolute notion of what is good for us, i.e. would they not basically be a priesthood?

Another solution would be to say that scientific research can go whatever it likes, but must avoid certain areas - i.e. taboos. But then this isn't this prejudice? We are saying that we know in advance what answers we want from science, have already decided what we want the truth to look like before it has been discovered - which is exactly what the religionist says.

Or we could just allow the scientists to keep on working unmolested, but shout them down or put our fingers in our ears whenever they tell us that our laws, policies, and morals are based on a fundamental misapprehension of how the world is. But then again, we would be just like the religionist, complacently cocooning ourselves from the harshness of reality by living a conscious, cynical lie.

So what would we do? How can we find grounds for moral necessities that are strong enough to sustain them even as counterfactuals? How can we find reasons that are, in a sense, purely moral reasons such that they could sustain our moral beliefs no matter what is factually true of ourselves or the world? Would we even want our morals to be like this, or should they be contingent, to be abandoned in a trice if proved false, like scientific theories?

I don't know have an answer to any of the above. It is likely that a moral philosopher does (likely too, unfortunately, that no moral philosopher does because it was an ill-founded question in the first place that didn't need an answer).

The problem is this - at least with religion we had grounds from which to hazard an answer, and argue for our moral beliefs in situations like this. They weren't good grounds, but surely better than none, which is what we have now. Isn't it bad that most educated, reasonably intelligent people would have no way of reasoning themselves towards a viable answer to this question? We have ditched religion, good, but not put in its place anything that will allow us to test if our moral beliefs are sound and well-grounded.

We should not assume that science, and the human sciences especially, will only ever give the good news about humanity. Someone once described Freud's theories as 'kakangelic' - delivering the bad news about human nature. We survived that assault, because the theories were proven unsound - by scientists. But what happens when the scientists are the ones we need to defend our moral beliefs against, when they don't disprove their own theories for us? What will we do with the bad news then?

Richard Dawkins - a clever sixth former who has just worked out not only that God doesn't exist, but that mater, pater, and his housemaster are frightfully thick for believing that He does - won't be much help. Scientism, the naive inability to see that the death of religion left a huge gaping hole - is part of the problem.

The only solution I can see, and one I am increasingly convinced of: teach philosophy to all schoolchildren. 


  1. I feel a bit apprehensive writing about this as I have no background whatever in philosophy, ethics, theology, etc. So much that I say will be banal at best, or plain wrong at worst. But with that disclaimer out of the way, it seems to me that our morality has very little relationship to reason. Both our instinct - however that has come about - and our cultural background dictate our moral code to a far greater extent than reason. At best, we use reason to justify where we already stand.

    The question of race as a factor in determining intelligence will always, I suspect, remain unanswered, simply because in order to measure something effectively, you need first to define it precisely. And “intelligence” has multiple attributes, none of which, I think, can be defined precisely, let alone measured. And even if we *could* define and objectively measure each of these attributes, we would have no idea how to combine these different measurements into a single metric that we could then use for the purposes of comparison. And even if we were to surmount all these difficulties, we would not be comparing single values against each other: we would be comparing distributions - and skewed distributions at that. While I do not have a background in philosophy, my background in statistics leads to me envisage all sorts of difficulties.

    The best measure of intelligence we have so far is IQ, and I believe its validity is hotly disputed.

    When we find some practice morally objectionable, we tend to say it is “unreasonable”. I wonder whether we are using the right word here. Let us, without being too specific, consider certain people carrying out something because their religious code instructs them to, which we consider to be cruel. Are these people being “unreasonable”? Reason cannot, after all, exist in a vacuum: it needs axioms to work upon. In Euclidean geometry, axioms are fairly self-evident: the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and so on. Reason is then applied to these axioms. But what is our axiomatic base when it comes to morals? For me, “It is wrong to cause gratuitous injury to anyone” is axiomatic (leaving aside for the moment such fraught questions as what I mean by “wrong”, “gratuitous” or “injury”). But someone else may consider as axiomatic “The instructions contained in these scriptures must at all costs be observed”. If so, the cruelties they may practise in the name of their religion, far from being unreasonable, follow on very *reasonably* from their axiomatic base. Now, I strongly believe that, in this instance, my axiomatic base is superior to theirs, but what *reasonable* grounds can I have to maintain this? By definition, one cannot apply reason to axioms.

    No doubt I have said much that someone with training in moral philosophy will find banal or silly. But speaking as a layman (a layman who is happy to be corrected), I doubt very much that reason has much to do with our moral codes. And when we disagree on what is morally correct, it seems to me that it is not the case that that one side is being reasonable and the other isn’t: we are both proceeding from our very different axiomatic bases, which, in turn, seem to me dictated by our very different instincts.

  2. After all that, I think the points I have tried to make are but tangentially related to yours. Your point, as I understand it, is this (please correct me if I'm wrong):

    Given that we have rejected the possibility of absolute truth; or, at least, that we have rejected the idea that we can have access to absolute truth (should it exist); we have no option but to use our reason, and reason alone, to derive our moral code. But what happens when reason leads us to a morality that we instinctively feel is immoral? (In your hypothetical example, reason may lead us to treating people differently on grounds of race.)

    My very tentative answer is that the moral codes we live by have very little to do with reason in the first place. If I may offer a hypothetical scenario of my own:

    Suppose that it can be proven beyond all doubt that the use of torture on suspected terrorists helps prevent terrorist activities, and that this results in far more lives being saved than are endangered by the torture; and in far fewer people being injured than are injured by the torture. By any utilitarian measure, torture would then be morally justified. But I think many people who may be considered “reasonable” would, even in possession of these facts, oppose the use of torture. Because, after all, those of us who oppose torture do so on more than merely utilitarian grounds.

    Our moral response, in short, has little to do with reason, or with scientific fact.

    1. Sorry for taking so long Himadri - you certainly gave me a lot to think about. More, in fact, than I could possibly do justice to. Like you, I've no real background in philosophy or theology (a very little in the former, none in the latter) - so let's stumble together.

      The main intuitive stumbling block I encounter in saying that morals have no reasons, is that moral decision-making is always a form of reasoning. Even if we cannot find out the original (evolutionary) cause for our having morals, or even if we find it impossible to think and logic-chop our way back to the founding reason *for* our morals, we still have no choice but to reason *within* them.

      The case of “The instructions contained in these scriptures must at all costs be observed” is interesting, and having disclaimed any real philosophical knowledge I’m going to show off and quote one of the few arguments of Socrates I can remember. In the “Euthyphro” he comes up with a pretty tough poser for the religionist – if you say that God is the supreme good, the very highest good, how then do you explain why God’s actions are good? No religionist would want to say that whatever God does is, because it is God doing it, good, because this means God’s goodness is arbitrary and reasonless – and these qualities are not attributes a supremely good thing would have.

      Instead, it must be there is some *higher* quality of goodness that God partakes is and is an instance of. Therefore any concept of God that does not offend our sense of native reasoning and logic must admit that God is not the supreme good, and that there are qualities above and beyond God.

      I think this is the argument anyhow. But it is one answer for why “The instructions contained in these scriptures must at all costs be observed” can be rejected – because it begs the question ‘why’ and so doesn’t really get at any first cause or axiom.

      Incidentally, this reminds me of a rather interesting game I was made to play the time I volunteered for a very odd medical experiment (the details of which are best shared over an alcoholic beverage). It’s a neat bit of applied philosophy, and I’ve always wanted to try it out. Basically I give you a starting statement (e.g. ‘being from Surrey is good’) and then ask you to give me a reason why the statement is true – if you say ‘because it is close to London’, I then ask you why *that* is good. I then ask ‘why is that good’ to each further reason you give, until you feel you don’t know the answer.

      Here’s the interesting thing. We played it four times (of which two games were ‘why is it *bad* to do x’) and *every* time it ended with me saying ‘because it makes me happy/unhappy’. Why is that good? Because it just is. It is the atomic level of goodness. Ok, you can keep on giving causes (‘because happiness is proven to be good for the heart’ e.g.) but I bet these would be the fact that something is good, rather than the knowing experience of a good thing.

      Incidentally, I think you’re spot on re. the fallibility of intelligence tests. Always controvertible, because a measure of the internal capability of the brain is meaningless, given that brains are only important inasmuch as they allow us to act in the external world. Any employer would reject IQ evidence if proven to contradict the facts – ‘Mr Parker, you may well have an IQ of 160, but this is third time this week you have crashed my car while parking it, and I’m afraid you are fired.’ etc.