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Further case against Ibrahim's position

Here's one more reason to encourage people as early as possible to start thinking independently about morality/religion... (again, from my book The War For Children's Minds.)

When it’s sensible to trust an authority

Deferring to authority isn’t always a bad idea. We do it all the time. No doubt you go to a doctor for a medical opinion, to a plumber for expertise on central heating, to a lawyer for legal advice, and so on. It’s pretty reasonable to take the authority’s word for it in these cases.

In fact, modern life demands that we trust the expertise of others. The world is now so complex that any one of us can only properly understand how a tiny bit of it works. We can’t all be experts on plumbing, science, the law, car mechanics, psychology, and so on. We have to seek out others upon whose expertise we inevitably have to rely.

So what if you go to an authority on some matter, and they give you bad advice? Who’s to blame, then, if things then go awry? Suppose, for example, that a student new to chemistry wants to know whether it’s safe to dispose of a large lump of potassium by flushing it down the sink. They ask their chemistry professor, who tells them it will be perfectly safe. So the student drops the potassium in the sink. There’s a huge explosion that kills another student. Is the student who was given the wrong advice to blame? Can she excuse herself by pointing out that her authority told her to do it?

Yes she can. It was entirely reasonable for the student to trust the advice of their chemistry professor. She had every reason to accept the professor’s advice. Generally speaking, if we go to the acknowledged experts for advice, and those experts assure us that something is a good idea when in fact it’s a very bad idea, we’re not morally culpable when things go wrong as a result.

Why moral authorities are different

But if it’s sensible to trust the word of medical, legal and plumbing experts – if we are justified in simply taking their word for it – then why not the word of moral experts?

Suppose someone wants to know what sort of attitude she should have towards those who don’t share the same religion as her. She goes to her community’s religious and moral Authority for the answer, the Authority to which she has always deferred in the past. Suppose this Authority tells her that it is her moral duty to kill those who don’t share the same religious beliefs as her. In fact, suppose this Authority tells her to go out, wire herself to some explosives, wander into a supermarket full of unbelievers, and blow herself up. She takes her moral Authority’s word for it (as she always has) and goes out and kills several hundred people. Is this person also blameless?

Intuitively not. Someone who goes out and kills on the instruction of a religious or some other moral Authority does not thereby avoid moral responsibility for what they have done. “I was only following the instructions of my expert” is not an excuse.

Of course, in the case of the suicide bomber, there may be mitigating factors. If we feel this individual did not really make a free decision – if she had been heavily psychologically manipulated, perhaps even brainwashed – then we might be slightly more forgiving. She might, for that reason, be less blameworthy. The point remains that she can’t absolve herself from responsibility simply by saying, “My moral expert told me it was okay” in the same way that the chemistry student can absolve herself of responsibility by saying “My chemistry expert told me it was okay”.

Taking advice from moral experts and authorities

None of this is to say that we shouldn’t seek moral advice, particularly when it comes to complex moral dilemmas. The advice we receive might be valuable. It might lead us to recognize that we were mistaken in holding a particular moral belief. No doubt some people really are better judges about what’s right and what’s wrong than are the rest of us. They’re ‘moral experts’ in that sense. Arguably, these moral experts include some priests, imams and rabbis. If so, we might learn by listening to them. They may, in this sense, be “authoritative”.

However, to accept that some people may be “authorities” in this sense is not to say that we should more-or-less uncritically defer to them on moral matters. It’s not yet to say that anyone should be considered an Authority with a capital “A”.

Many will reject this of course. Some may point an accusatory finger and say, “You believe you should make your own mind up about what’s right and what’s wrong? The arrogance! You are playing God!”

But actually, like it or not, playing God is unavoidable. For how am I to know which religious book, which religion, which religious sect and which interpreter of the book I am supposed to listen? Those who defer to religious Authority can pretend these judgements don’t have to be made. But they are unavoidable. Even just sticking with the religious authority with which I was raised requires that I make them. And they are moral judgements. They involve the question, “Ought I to follow the moral advice I’m being given?” However we’re raised, we inevitably have to rely on our own moral compass – our own sense of right and wrong – in weighing up to whom we should listen and whether or not to accept the moral advice we are given. Like it or not, we have to “play God”.

This is at least part of the explanation for unavoidability of the responsibility for making a moral judgement. The judgement whether someone can be trusted to be competent in some technical area like chemistry or plumbing or car maintenance need not itself be a technical judgement. But the judgement whether someone is a moral expert whose advice ought to be followed is itself a moral judgement. Hence the responsibility for making a moral judgement cannot be avoided.

But then those who say, “The arrogance! You’re playing God!” deceive themselves if they suppose they’re not playing God themselves. Moral responsibility is indeed like a boomerang. Try and throw it to someone else if you like – but you’ll find that, in the end, it always comes back to you.

That’s precisely why you can’t absolve yourself of responsibility for having committed some atrocity wrong by pointing out that the moral Authority to which you defer told you to do it. If Stalin, the Pope, an Ayatollah or even the voice of ‘God’ in your head tells you to go out and kill the unbelievers, and you obey, you’re still culpable.

The truth is it would come as something of a relief to me if I could hand over to someone else responsibility for making moral decisions. That kind of responsibility weighs heavily on my shoulders. How convenient it would be if, whenever I was faced with a moral choice, I could transfer responsibility for making it to someone else. Unfortunately, I can’t.


Larry Hamelin said…
We can tighten up the case considerably.

For the sake of precision, I think it makes sense to differentiate between expertise and authority.

A lawyer is an expert on Constitutional Law, but the judges on the U.S. Supreme Court are authorities on Constitutional Law.

We are justified in going to experts about matters of fact and provable truth. We are justified in doing so because we have a reliable way of knowing whether someone really is an expert: it is logically and physically possible an expert can be proven right or wrong by natural means, therefore an expert is someone who has been proven right often enough and proven wrong seldom enough.

Indeed one reason we can trust experts in matters of fact and truth is that any number of people are critically examining their work.

So long as it means something definite and in-principle knowable for an expert to be proven right or wrong, we can build several layers of abstraction around expertise, reliability and reputation, because all the layers reduce to statements about having been proven right or wrong.

But I cannot even in principle evaluate someone who claims to be a moral expert. It doesn't mean anything for a moral expert to have been proven right or proven wrong. It's vacuous to apply the standard that they have given answers that are compatible with my own moral intuition; were that the case, I would by definition find their expertise unnecessary; I could just consult my own moral intuition directly.

To call religion moral expertise is to misuse the word expertise.

An authority in this sense is someone who defines something; it would be contradictory to ever say the could be mistaken; one could say only that they disagree. The majority of the Supreme Court cannot be mistaken about what the Constitution means, since, in a legal sense, the Constitution by definition means what the Supreme Court says it means. Not even the minority can even be said to be mistaken: they simply dissent from the majority and fail only to be authoritative.

It is noteworthy that intuitively, we take anyone who assumes personal moral authority as a tyrant. But how are we to evaluate someone who assumes moral authority supposedly on behalf of a god? How are we to evaluate such a claim? And why would an omnipotent, omniscient god do its moral work through the agency of a fallible, corruptible human being?

Since we have no way to distinguish between a person who "truly" or "falsely" claims to be speaking for a god, we cannot draw any distinction between a person who claims to speak for god and a person who assumes personal moral authority. Therefore we are entitle to call both tyrants.

With regard to Islam, we are doubly in the dark: We have no way to evaluate whether Muhammad was truly speaking (through the agency of the Angel Gabriel) to Allah, and we have no way to distinguish between correct and mistaken interpretations of the Koran or the Hadith. (Worse yet, there is considerable controversy even within Islam over the historical accuracy of the Hadith.)
Ibrahim Lawson said…
Stephen, while I work on a reply to the main thrust of your argument, may I offer the following comments on this particular posting, entitled ‘Further case against Ibrahim’s position’?

I was struck by the apparent fact that in your section on why moral authorities are different, I was hard put to find any actual argument, as distinct from mere assertion.

You say that the suicide bomber who takes her moral authorities word for it is “intuitively not” blameless.

You offer support for this claim by saying: “Someone who goes out and kills on the instruction of a religious or some other moral Authority does not thereby avoid moral responsibility for what they have done. “I was only following the instructions of my expert” is not an excuse.”

You do not appear, however, to supply any reasons for this conclusion which would confirm your ‘intuition’.

Your next paragraph implies that ‘freedom’ has something to do with it (perhaps that we are free to make moral choices, must therefore (?) exercise that freedom and are therefore responsible for those choices?) but this is not explicitly claimed or argued for. It might be helpful to enlarge on that idea. You then go on to simply re-assert your position that moral responsibility cannot be abdicated.

You next introduce two senses of the word ‘authority’: the authority of (empirical) knowledge, and the Authority of power. (Can we say that the first depends on reason, the second on something more? I would like to return to this later.)

You go on to assert that we are required to be our own Authority (our own God) - “ we inevitably have to rely on our own moral compass” – without offering any justification for this claim, although you continue, “This is at least a part of the explanation…” and conclude that “the responsibility for making a moral judgement cannot be avoided”.

Next, on the basis of the assertion that “Moral responsibility is indeed like a boomerang” you conclude “This is precisely why “You cannot absolve yourself of responsibility for having committed some atrocity”.

You finish by saying that you can’t, “unfortunately”, transfer responsibility for making a moral choice to someone else.

Perhaps I have missed something. I am not saying that I disagree; only that I am not sure why you think this as you have not apparently offered any explanation.

Since I suspect that the issue of ‘Authority’ is what is central to this phase of our dialogue, I think it is worth being clear what we understand about how this works.
Elentar said…
I think the Stephen's argument is fairly clear. We choose our moral authorities, and we must do so based upon our own moral judgement. Why choose one religion over another? One interpretation over another? Why choose religious judgements over secular or legal judgements? This choice is always, ultimately, made by the person who accepts that authority.

And yet, I have observed in discussions with believers a recurring theme; they deny their own role in making this choice, and any and all attempts to point this out seem to be incomprehensible to them. Your comment, Ibrahim, fits perfectly into this mold. In fact, I would go so far as to posit this denial as a universal trait amongst believers who hold their chosen moral authority to be absolute. This systematic blind spot is necessary to protect the claim to divine authority of their system of beliefs, because the moment that personal choice becomes involved, the authority is no longer divine, but personal. The claim to absolute authority always hinges upon the authority of the claimant, and his or her own decision to affirm the authority of those who support this claim. Only by denying the very possibility of that personal choice can the believer defend the absolutism of his or her moral system. The result is that arguments like Stephen's become incomprehensible.

And yet, the fact remains that it is we who must decide, out of all possible available views, which one we shall accept. No matter which belief one holds, one could have chosen a different set of beliefs. There is simply no way to sidestep this. So cloaked in the guise of divine authority is the claim to personal authority, and indeed, the divine authority of one's own opinions. Bluntly stated, it is the believer in an absolute authority who transcendentalizes his own opinion to the status of the divine. It is the believer who is playing God.

To claim, as you have, that it is God who decides who will believe correctly or not, alleviates everyone of responsibility, and makes divine punishment a matter of pure malevolent caprice. If God decides what I shall believe and do, then it is God who is responsible, and God who should be punished. So, either God himself is evil, or your choice to believe as you do is a personal choice, and therefore as susceptible to human error and frailty as you are. This means, ultimately, that any religious system of ethics is also subject to human error, and must be questioned no less critically than any other system of ethics.
Anonymous said…
"You offer support for this claim by saying: “Someone who goes out and kills on the instruction of a religious or some other moral Authority does not thereby avoid moral responsibility for what they have done. “I was only following the instructions of my expert” is not an excuse.”

You do not appear, however, to supply any reasons for this conclusion which would confirm your ‘intuition’."

Is this reason enough? Suppose I authorize Mr. X to go out and kill you and he does so, Is Mr.X absolved of all responsibility of his crime just because he did it on my authority? Does his being hired/authorized by me give him an excuse?

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