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A popular anti-humanist argument

[bit of upcomoing OUP Humanism book - for comment]

Religious people sometimes present humanists with a challenge. Religion, they say, provides answers to some profound questions about the nature of morality and how knowledge of moral truths is possible. Where did morality come from? From God! How can we know what’s morally right and wrong? By turning to religion! Indeed, many religious people offer these answers as certainties.

But what, then, is the humanist’s answer to these questions? If no answer is forthcoming, many religionists conclude that this is an excellent reason for preferring their own religious position over humanism.

But this is poor reasoning. True, there are several thorny philosophical puzzles about both the nature of morality and how moral knowledge is possible.

However, on closer examination, appeals to God and religion do not provide satisfactory answers to these questions. Indeed, the religious solutions on offer typically provide little more than a convenient carpet under which such puzzles can be swept.

Many humanists, by contrast, honestly admit they don’t have all the answers. But of course, the admission that the humanist does not have all the answers is hardly a reason to favour a religious answer if the religious answers on offer are clearly inadequate.

Those who argue against humanism in this way are committing a version of the fallacy known as argument from ignorance: “You can’t answer this question? Then you should accept mine!” For example: “You can’t explain these exquisite crop circles? Then you should accept my answer that they were made by aliens!”


I wondered if it might be a good idea to explain briefly why the religious 'explanations' are not satisfactory, before talking about the argument from ignorance.

If a religious person is reading, they might not like to even start considering the (albeit simple) mechanics of the argument from ignorance if they've already been expected to accept the assertion that their argument is unsatisfactory.

Something abridged version of Sagan's Dragon might do it, or comparing the religious explanation to one by the FSM, which is exactly as plausible, given the complete lack of evidence behind both 'explanations'.

Maybe I'm bending over too far, as well, in suspecting that non-humanists might find the exclamation marks in the opening paragraphs somewhat patronising, marking them out as shrill and slightly mad, even if that's what we all secretly think...
Paul P. Mealing said…
The best book I've read on this topic is by Hugh Mackay, Right & Wrong; how to decide for yourself.

It's not written in the form of a philosophical treatise or a meta-philosophy; it's written for ordinary people - almost existentialist I would suggest. 'How to decide for yourself' pretty well encapsulates its thesis. I particularly liked the section on: The lies we tell ourselves.

There is a transcript of a brief panel discussion here, though it's more about the author than the book.

Regards, Paul.
Martin Cooke said…
Chris, religious people would probably want to add end-brackets after the exclamation marks, rather than remove them.

Stephen, Hi. At the end of the day, there are simply two basic answers to the first question, about the nature of morality. Either evolution led apes with certain social behaviours to dominate, leading to our various mores, and their reifications, or else some moral codes (e.g. do not torture children for pleasure) have a more objective value. The question of where that greater value comes from arises with the latter possibility. Your word 'morality' could equivocate between the objective value and the particular mores.

If so then the religious challenge is designed to get the humanist to admit that they do not believe there is so great a value to morality. So when the humanist then admits that the story of how particular mores evolved is complicated, and to a decreasing extent unknown, then the feeling is that the humanist has cheated, changed the subject, to her favourite one.

You are right about the poor reasoning, of course. There is a hell of a lot of that in theology, and the theologians are even proud of it (like common people being proud of not being logical, perhaps). Theologians avoid thorny puzzles as professionally as philosophers do, in my experience. Do humanists honestly admit that they cannot explain how molecules could possibly be so arranged (by evolution) that they have your feelings, your personality?
Stephen Law said…
PS this comes after I explain shortcoming of religious answers to these questions...

enigman - Humanists don't have to sign up to an evolutionary story. They are free to appeal to objective yardstick of right and wrong in just same way that some theists do (who are not divine command theorists).
wombat said…

re: "...some moral codes ... have a more objective value. "

There is surely a deal of evidence both historical, and increasingly mathematical, that certain items of morality are objectively justifiable. For example we a see from a historical context how societies which have a well established rule of law prosper over those that do not, those where people feel they can trust each other seem to do better economically than those where cheating is prevalent. Behavioral psychologists have shown us how people abused or neglected as children are more likely to have problems as adults to the consequent detriment of society.

Evolution of the mores of apes is at least in part an illustration of the optimality (for the species) of certain kinds of behavior. We evolved it because it is the best for us at least as much as the other way around.
anticant said…

In that case, how do you explain the regression into mistrust and anti-social behaviour which is currently happening at an ever-increasing rate of knots?
wombat said…
anticant -

Well an off the cuff response is that it is on a short timescale in evolutionary terms, just a little random noise in the grand sweep of things. Lets have a look in another couple of centuries. That at least postpones the possibility of that line of argument being shot down.

It might well be as a result of environmental pressures (overcrowding, competition for resources ?) pushing us into a position where paranoia and brutality are more readily expressed. This could go two ways (1) under the new conditions the nasty life is in fact at least locally optimal (2) we are now under greater pressure to evolve altruistic behavior even in the face of the new challenges. Eventually we will overcome the recent trend to unpleasantness.

In (1), assuming that people still did any philosophy or theoretical work at all rather than spending time fighting with spiked clubs, we might still end up finding from computer models that the altruistic society would work better but be unable to get there. If brutality and intolerance is in fact a global optimum at that point I suppose we could consider that morally justifiable and my evil alter ego would be taking the line that "Stoning people is moral because it is good for society not just because it's in the Bible"

Lets hope we are in (2) !
anticant said…
Don't you think that an integral component of the human problem is that most people with a grain of sense know perfectly well what would work better, but still don't do it?

Regardless of what percentage of climate change is the result of human actions - and I still have an open mind on that - we all know from past experience that the necessary degree of international, national, corporate, and individual co-operation will never be forthcoming to make a perceptible difference to the problem. The history of the twentieth century is littered with grandiose diplomatic agreements which are torn up within weeks of being signed.

Or am I too pessimistic?
Anonymous said…
"Religion, they say, provides answers to some profound questions about the nature of morality and how knowledge of moral truths is possible. Where did morality come from? From God! How can we know what’s morally right and wrong? By turning to religion!"
But to which religion?
Aztec and Christian religions have different views about the morality of human sacrifice. How does one decide which is the more moral?
Greg O said…
Stephen - this feels a bit grammatically clunky to me:

“You can’t answer this question? Then you should accept mine!”

How about: "You don't have an answer to this question? Then you should accept mine!"
You haven’t said why “appeals to God and religion do not provide satisfactory answers” to the question of the source of morality and moral knowledge.

If I were you, I would suggest an atheistic source of morality as a better explanation of our source than a theistic one, and explain why it is so. You could make the following argument: we evolved to be altruistic. Altruism is an innate tendency of human beings.

Or I would re-write your piece like this:

Theists say religion is the source of morality and of our moral knowledge. Humanists say it isn’t. Who is right? The humanists are, for the following reason: we may not know the source of morality or of moral knowledge, but we know what the source isn’t, and it isn’t religion.
J Wahler said…
Stephen, thanks for the look inside what may be in this newest addition to the Humanist literature. Was wondering where this excerpt was placed in the text concerning it seems you quickly move from the problems of DCT to the epistemic ignorance of a possible Humanist ethic without wholly specifying what makes a Humanist ethical system particular to itself and not for example a 'relativists' system of ethics. Great posts and great work.
Paul P. Mealing said…
Morality, at the end of the day, is about how we treat others. It's as much to do with social psychology as it is to do with philosophy.

I argue that empathy is the logical starting point. You have to override empathy in order to commit an atrocity. But at all levels of interaction, from sitting in traffic snarls to trying to broker a peace agreement, the key ability is to be able to put yourself in someone else's shoes. That's the starting point.

As for religion, the worst type of morality is that taken from God. Once you've convinced yourself that God has condoned your actions you can justify anything, as we have all witnessed throughout history, from burning witches to flying passenger aeroplanes into occupied buildings.

So there is an argument for a humanist moral philosophy and an argument against a religious moral philosophy.

Regards, Paul.
anticant said…
A large part of the problem is that lots of people simply don't HAVE empathy.
wombat said…
Anticant -

Too pessimistic? Time will tell.

There are some grounds for hope in the case of the environment. Theres a few successes - smokeless zones, cleaner rivers than 30 years ago (at least in the UK), lead free petrol, the CFC ban stabilizing the ozone layer, various pesticide bans, international shipping regulations for example encouraging double hulled oil tankers, control of international trade in ivory, certain hardwoods and even whalemeat.

To stretch an evolutionary parallel one might observe that it is also notoriously wasteful - most mutations are unfavourable and are quickly extinguished or simply unlucky and get eaten by something else - perhaps international treaties are like this. Just occasionally a decent one gets established and the world progresses a fraction.
wombat said…
Paul - "You have to override empathy in order to commit an atrocity."

This is not strictly true surely -

(1) ignorance will do nicely. Sure the culprit feels remorse with full empathic force when the outcome is revealed but the victims still suffer.

(2) someone may sincerely believe they are committing the lesser of two available atrocities in order to avert the greater. It may be the right thing to do and they would seek to minimize harm but overall it is not something they would choose under other circumstances. The justification does not override their empathy in this case - it is in accord with it.

I think it is not necessary - probably closer to being sufficient.
georgesdelatour said…
How about moving from the general to the particular? Look at how moral the teachings of the actually existing religions are?

In the Bible we have a God with all the moral discernment of a testosterone-fuelled soccer hooligan. He goes round chanting "you're gonna get your f***ing head kicked in" to all the non-Israelites - the poor Canaanites etc, whose only crime is that they are non-Israelites. Even if I believed such a vile and disgusting God existed I would feel it my moral duty to oppose him. I would rather suffer an afterlife of Promethean torment than be an accomplice to his evil plans for humanity.

Why does he give some people gay feelings, then tell straight people to kill them for acting on these feelings? How morally coherent is that?
Kyle Szklenski said…
Hi, sorry I'm late. Unfortunately, I think Wombat and Anticant's interesting discussion has missed a point that theists would bring up:

Wombat said, "There is surely a deal of evidence both historical, and increasingly mathematical, that certain items of morality are objectively justifiable. For example we a see from a historical context how societies which have a well established rule of law prosper over those that do not..."

It seems like this falls prey to the old, "Just because a society is prospering, that doesn't mean the mores they chose are objectively justifiable."

Put a different way, it seems like a slight inductive problem to say that because we've seen numerous societies succeed having such and such laws, then those laws are then "objectively justifiable." I don't know, maybe I'm just arguing semantics at this point, but you could take this even a little bit further, I think.

For example, even if you were to say that's what "objectively justifiable" means, then why are we defining morality in terms of what's best for a society? It's questions like these that make me wonder if it's even possible to define morality effectively.
wombat said…
Kyle - I don't think you can justify a type of society purely on its frequency. Otherwise we could look at the number of murderers compared to say the number of Nobel prizewinners!

No, what I was trying to suggest is that societies which adopt more altruistic etc approaches tend to be more successful (even if there are fewer of them) relative to their savage contemporaries in terms which can be assessed with some degree of objectivity. Economic prosperity is probably easiest but one could also look at stability. That is to say how long a culture persists through history or how well it survives in the face of challenges such as natural disaster.

I agree that in order to show that the set of mores is justifiable it must be shown to be a cause of or major contributor to the probability of success of a culture rather just something simply correlated with or even caused by success.

Thats the socio-economic-historic approach but there are others. Game theorists are making progress or showing why altruistic or co-operative tactics work in situations which are analogous to interactions between people. ( e.g. Article in NS )

You might also take a more biomedical route. It looks as if certain attitudes to life are at least strongly correlated with measurable health outcomes. Furthermore intervention which changes peoples outlook or behavior along these lines seems to have a causal influence.
Martin Cooke said…
Humanists don't have to sign up to an evolutionary story. They are free to appeal to objective yardstick of right and wrong in just same way that some theists do (who are not divine command theorists). (Dr Law)

Hmm... would a theist who was not inclined towards Divine Command metaethics say "Where did morality come from? From God!"? They might say that the most important Law came (via Moses) from God, but "morality"? And would many humanists not put forward a scientific explanation of our current behaviour, since one is available? If they do then they cannot pretend that they haven't when it gets inconvenient that they have!

Theists and humanists can indeed just say that there just are objective rights and wrongs, and that there is then just the epistemological problem of knowing what they are. The theists can point to consciences and laws given to us (arguably) from God, and the humanists can point to consciences and laws that have (arguably) arisen via natural selection. Even such a theist can still ask such a humanist why one should care what such evolved structures say when it is not convenient for one to listen to them. Of course, others will (and should) say that one should, but...
anticant said…
"Where did morality come from?" is a meaningless question (like "why is there something rather than nothing?"). Every human being, and every society, has an innate morality of sorts - even if only "When you are hungry, it's OK to kill and eat your Granny".

Can anyone imagine a totally amoral society? It wouldn't last a week.
Mike said…
Why is morality innate? I would agree that "Where does morality come from?" is an awkward way of putting it, but the inquiry into the origin of morality is like the inquiry into the origin of opposable thumbs -- anything but meaningless.
anticant said…

I cannot conceive of a human being who has no scintilla of a moral sense, however primitive, and who acts entirely on mindless impulse.
Mike said…
I didn't question whether morality was innate. I asked, Why is it innate?
anticant said…
Because evolution eliminates those individuals and societies who don't possess any moral concepts.

What we are witnessing and participating in now is the evolutionary conflict between different moral systems. This conflict could yet end in mutual mass destruction unless a more enlightened sense of justice permeates those (mostly religious) moralities which from a humanist point of view are dangerously backward.
Unknown said…
Funny... the argument from ignorance can also be applied to humanists:
"Can you prove God exists? No? You must accept is doesn't exist then!" Take a look at the British Humanist Association facebook page.

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