Clark Bianco at Popehat put up a post Friday claiming that atheists are confused because they rely on the concept of rights. Although I disagree with him, I can see where the confusion comes from. He presents an interesting argument:
No, the reason that modern atheists have incoherent views is that they simultaneously
- assert that there is nothing beyond that which is visible (i.e. they are materialists)
- they believe in rights, and not merely in a legal or social descriptive way, but in an absolute and prescriptive way.
Let me explain what I mean by point number 2.
The English language muddies many discussions of “rights” because it uses one term to cover three very distinct meanings.
The three meanings are:
- the “rights” that society acknowledges a person has
- the “rights” that government acknowledges a person has
- the “rights” that a person actually has according to non-material abstract principles
I assert that almost everyone in the modern West, including “Brights” / “new atheists” / Ayn Rand followers / etc. acknowledges these three distinct things and acknowledges them as distinct. And it’s that final one, the acknowledgement of non-material abstract principles, that puts the contradiction in modern atheism.
He then goes on to give examples that do a very good job of demonstrating that there are indeed three distinct meanings of “rights”. That part of his argument is sound. So where does the whole thing fall down?
It falls down in the same place arguments like this usually fall down. It mistakes complexity that we don’t yet fully understand for a “non-material abstract”. If I were to define those three distinct meanings of “rights” that he uses, they would go like this:
- the “rights” that society (as defined by numbers or tastemakers) acknowledges a person has
- the “rights” that government acknowledges a person has
- the “rights” that a given observer will argue a person has for complex reasons that may not all be transparent to the observer or to those with whom the observer argues
Bianco’s reference to abstract principles isn’t enough to produce the range of opinions various observers will hold about any given situation. Look at the arguments over what it “truly” means to be pro-life. Even with reference to the same value (abstract principle), different observers come to different conclusions about who has what rights, both before and after viability or birth.
I will grant Bianco’s argument that certain previous attempts by atheists to concoct an “objective” morality (Rand’s objectivism, Dawkins’ and Dennet’s appeal to evolutionary psychology, Harris’s scientific morality) haven’t come close to explaining actual human ethics as practiced. It would have been a better argument had he referenced more rigorous and fewer popular philosophers, but I still don’t think that would have invalidated his argument. I don’t know of any philosophers whose work on ethics would reproduce the arguments about rights that people currently make.
I realize that last statement looks very much like an argument from ignorance, but I think it’s valid in this case. The philosophy of ethics is aimed at giving us schemas for thinking about ethics in a rigorous way, something we don’t do naturally. Philosophers whose work we aren’t exposed to have created tools we can’t use.
And that is why arguing that the present inability of atheists to devise an objective ethical framework that replicates the realities of ethical decision-making and argument is pointless. The purpose of philosophy is to produce better thinking than we manage on our own. (To what degree it succeeds is a separate question.) If philosophy were meant to describe how people think, it would be psychology.
When we look to psychology, we can understand a lot more about real-life decision-making. We see that we are both selfish and social creatures. We understand that various situations can sway us to be more inclined, for example, toward security than toward novelty, or vice versa, even as we value both. We understand that empathy is widespread but not universal and that it, too, is variable within an individual based on circumstances.
Anthropology gives us more answers. We see that visceral reactions, like disgust, can be broadly expected as a reaction to a behavior in one culture but entirely absent in another. We see that taboo behaviors, up to and including murder, are ritualized in ways that make them acceptable in limited circumstances and that those ways differ between groups of people.
Finally, to jump back to psychology briefly, we understand that complex decision-making that involves strong emotional components–such as ethical appeals to our various values–is sometimes most satisfyingly made not through a detailed analytical process but in a snap emotional judgment. When we stop to pursue the logic of a problem, we don’t always give appropriate weight to those emotional components.
Given all that, I can comfortably say two things. The first is that we generally expect a culture–which can but doesn’t have to share a religion–to have some degree of conformity in their moral/ethical judgments. When everyone is on more or less the same page, a society functions better. The majority of atheists in the parts of the world to which Bianco and his readers pay attention are culturally Christian. Seeing that they share much of cultural Christianity’s moral/ethical judgments is to be expected. Not only that, but those issues on which atheists don’t share the central moral/ethical judgments of cultural Christianity are issues that I would frequently expect drove the wedge between former Christians and their religion.
The other thing I can comfortably say is that Bianco overstates the degree of conformity present in his Hellenistic Christianity. This is a Christian culture that encompasses both fighting for the right of same-sex couples to marry and advocating for “kill the gays” bills in Africa, both based on “biblical principles”. It encompasses those who believe that God demands service and poverty as well as prosperity gospels. It celebrates the innocent “lambs” of childhood and finds virtue in refusing to “spare the rod”. It decries celebration as worldly and embraces gospel singing and dancing.
The ethics of the overwhelming majority of atheists are handed down, unexamined, developed through non-rigorous processes, based more in emotion than analysis. So are the ethics of the majority of believers. Competing values–social conformity among them–become more or less important in the moment, producing decisions we think we would always make. If called on to support those ethical decisions, we don’t say, “This just seemed right at the time.” It sounds weak, irrational. That is, we don’t say that until argued into a corner on why the abstractions we cite don’t apply. Then it becomes, “I don’t care what you say. It’s still just….”
Are atheists confused about rights and ethics? Yeah, most of the time. Just like Christians. So to talk about this as a problem of atheists is decidedly odd.