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Someone Is Confused About Ethics

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

  1. assert that there is nothing beyond that which is visible (i.e. they are materialists)
  2. 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:

  1. the “rights” that society acknowledges a person has
  2. the “rights” that government acknowledges a person has
  3. 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:

  1. the “rights” that society (as defined by numbers or tastemakers) acknowledges a person has
  2. the “rights” that government acknowledges a person has
  3. 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.


  1. says

    the reason that modern atheists have incoherent views

    Nice straw atheist, there. Some of us atheists are moral nihilists; we do what we think is right or wrong based on aesthetics or arbitrariness. Others of us try to found moral systems on various ideas like reciprocal altruism or fair exchange. But he’s as correct to make blanket statements about what moderate atheists think as I would be to make assertions about all faithful (including buddhists and muslims) believing in the 10 commandments.

    I assume it’s just intellectual dishonesty, because otherwise he’d have to be pretty flippin’ ignorant.

  2. says

    I always find it baffling when theists, who accept arbitrary authority as a basis for morality, pretend not to understand that that’s what humans have done throughout history – accepted the arbitrary authority of other humans. There have been some attempts to rationally establish morals (Kant made a good stab at it but stumbles into the is/ought chasm like all the rest) but the usual components are all there is:
    - authority
    - reward for approved behavior (direct or indirect)
    - punishment or retaliation for non-approved behavior
    If he engaged his brain beyond first gear he’d realize that what he mistakes for divinely-given morality is simply a variant on “authority” in the formula above. “Because the great sky-daddy says so, that’s why!!!” is a bit more indirect than “Because otherwise, Thag poke you with shark stick!!!” but it’s remarkably similar, isn’t it? It’s just “invisible Thag poke you with biggest sharpest magic Thag stick EVAH!”

  3. Markita Lynda—threadrupt says

    Clark Bianco’s assertion is ridiculous because we believe in lots of things we can’t see: radar, radio wave, black holed, protons….

  4. Stacy says

    I always find it baffling when theists, who accept arbitrary authority as a basis for morality, pretend not to understand that that’s what humans have done throughout history – accepted the arbitrary authority of other humans.

    I think what authoritarian theists don’t understand is that morality doesn’t have to be based on authority at all, but instead on empathy and reciprocity.

  5. says

    ZOMG, teh huminz iz tryn 2 fynd cheezeburger, butt der iz no cheezeburger!!!11!!

    Bianco, let me get this straight, you think that materialist atheists think there are morals and ethics that don’t come from humans? That’s the only way I could see there being a contradiction. If some atheist does think they come from “somewhere else”, they obviously aren’t self aware enough to realize their own thoughts are human thoughts…

  6. francesc says

    I’m judging only from the extract you made, but his argument seems far simpler that you think. It’s like…
    1.- Atheists are materialists
    2.- They acknowledge there are rights that come from abstract principles
    3.- Abstract principles are non-material
    4.- So they accept something non-material in contradiction to being materialists.
    In that case, you would be giving too much credit to his logic…

    Anyway, my question was, if the rights derived from well defined abstract principles about ethics doesn’t agree with the ethics that a society holds, should we try to change the former or the latter?

  7. Nick Gotts says

    I have a somewhat different take on where Bianco’s argument fails: it’s right at the start. I copy here the response I wrote there:

    Your two initial premises are false, so your subsequent argument is worthless.

    You claim that atheists:
    1) assert that there is nothing beyond that which is visible (i.e. they are materialists)

    Er, no. Materialism is the belief that there are no entities without a material basis but with causal powers – no gods, ghosts, fairies, souls, etc. I most certainly believe in numbers (including infinite numbers), facts, hypotheses, experiences, ideas, institutions, logical rules of inference… but all of these either lack causal powers, or have a material basis.

    2) believe in rights, and not merely in a legal or social descriptive way, but in an absolute and prescriptive way.

    Some do, some don’t, if what you mean by believing in rights in an “absolute and prescriptive way” is believing in an objective morality. I don’t. However, you are eliding a basic distinction, made somewhere in The Open Society and Its enemies by Karl Popper, between absoluteness of status and absoluteness of origin. There are some rights – such as the right of people not to be tortured – that I will strive to establish as not to be violated under any circumstances – that is, I will strive to establish their absolute status. But I do not believe it is an objective fact that people have this right. I consider ethical judgements to be similar in logical and epistemic status to esthetic ones (such as whether George Eliot is a better novelist than Dan Brown): they are not objective facts, but they can be rationally criticized and defended, unlike, say, a preference for chocolate over strawberry ice-cream. In the case of ethical judgements, we can criticize them first on the basis of logical inconsistency, and second on the basis of the consequences of adopting them. Hypothesizing a god who lays down ethical rules, of course, gets us nowhere: unless we are mere power-worshippers, we still have to judge for ourselves whether those rules should be followed.

  8. katkinkate says

    Rights and ethics are human constructs. In the perspective of the universe we have the exact same rights as all the other things, living and non, out there, ie. none. The only place rights and ethics have any relevance is in human societies and human interactions and relationships.

  9. John Phillips, FCD says

    Nick Gotts #6, thanks, for there was something about his points that just wasn’t sitting right but the caffeine from my first coffee hadn’t kicked brain into gear yet so I was missing it and your post clarifies it beautifully. Well put.

  10. Adamo says

    Funny (not humorous) that he lists Any Rand’s philosophy in the argument of what/why/how atheists believe. Sure, she was an atheist, and her ideas of how society should work are selfish. But it seems that her most ardent followers are self-declared Christians who are mostly just selfish.

  11. Laurence says

    Often times the terms rights is just a placeholder. For instance, Peter Singer will talk about rights when he’s on radio or television because it’s a useful term, but he doesn’t believe in rights per say because he’s a utilitarian and they don’t believe in rights. And his definition of materialism is pretty terrible. It would be more accurate to say that most atheists are physicalists which means that they believe that everything is physical or reducible to the physical. Some people would take the stance that many ethical principles may be abstract, but they are reducible to the physical. Whether this works or not is a different question, but it is more coherent than what Bianco wrote and way more charitable.

  12. UnknownEric the Apostate says

    ZOMG, teh huminz iz tryn 2 fynd cheezeburger, butt der iz no cheezeburger!!!11!!

    Nooooooo, don’t be takin’ Bianco’s bukkit!

  13. says

    morality doesn’t have to be based on authority at all, but instead on empathy and reciprocity.

    It can be, but it isn’t always. Through most of human history, it’s been authority.

    You can base your morality on coin-tosses, if you like. The problem comes when it’s time to put it in force. Because it’s not the case that people adopt any particular morality as obviously true and correct; that has never happened so far. So, to put it in force, authority is almost always needed – even if the morality is based on reciprocity and empathy, there will be a few people who won’t play along and they’ll need to be coerced. I suspect that’s why, historically, people just jump to the authority and coercion: they’re going to need it anyway.

  14. Trebuchet says

    I’m a regular reader and occasional commenter at Popehat but generally don’t read Clark’s posts as he seems a bit too libertarian for me. Guess I’ll have to go over there and read it and (shudder) read the comments.

    By the way, referring to him as “Clark Bianco”, or worse yet as just “Bianco” is just wrong. The principle guy at Popehat is Ken White. As a joke, some months ago the other bloggers there started to be referred to by names like “Patrick Non-white”, “Derrick Eggshell”, “David Beige”, and, of course, “Clark Bianco”.

  15. says

    For anyone who wants to take this nonsense on, right to the hilt…

    In my book Sense and Goodness without God I explain how abstractions (which are propositions in a language about the world, not magical Platonic things floating around in it like furniture) are in fact descriptions of physical (i.e. “material”) facts and thus reduce to physical facts (numbers, ideas, concepts, even “abstract principles,” which is just fancy jargon for “generalizations,” as opposed to particulars, i.e. propositions about specific things rather that properties shared by groups of things). Check the index for “abstract.” Thus his argument fails right there.

    And I am not being novel. The inventor of modern systematized philosophy already articulated this understanding 2300 years ago, specifically against the silly and naive ideas of his predecessor Plato. His name was Aristotle. Funny, considering what a hard-on Christians had for the pagan Aristotle in the Middle Ages. Catholicism is built on a mangled parody of Aristotelian philosophy. Anyway…

    My book also articulates an objective system of morality (combining existing philosophical systems into a coherent system), and provides the physicalist definition and model of “rights.” Check the index again. Rights exist in two forms most commonly: de jure rights are rights we have simply because some legislature somewhere said so, they physically exist in law books and in the organization of the physical legal system that enforces them (so physicalism has no trouble accounting for rights in that sense, but this is the sense subject to accusations of cultural relativism, since even at best it’s just an aggregation of human desires and opinions), and de facto rights, which are rights that it is necessary to legislate and enforce in order for humans to pursue their own happiness in a society. The latter “necessities” are physical facts about the organization of social systems, which are collections of psychological systems, which are the physical product of biological systems, which are particular kinds of chemical systems, which are really just atomic systems. So it’s physicalism all the way down.

    We must have rights to be optimally and reliably happy for the same reason we must have food to live. Both are physical facts of physical systems in a purely physical universe.

    So when atheists argue people have rights, if they don’t mean rights written in the law, they mean people cannot be happy without those rights and anyone who wants there to be human happiness must therefore want people to have the rights necessary for it. The hidden premise is the assumption that everyone wants there to be human happiness. Which becomes clear the moment anyone attacks such rights: the response is to peg them as someone who is inhumane, heartless, or selfish, or who wants to bring about the general decay of a functional society (or who doesn’t realize their opposition to rights entails opposition to human happiness). Which is a physically, factually correct assessment.

    For more on the broader question of objective morality on physicalism, see my blog on Shermer and Pigliucci on moral facts.

    BTW, the argument from abstract objects is not at all new (it has been used by Plantinga, Craig, even St. Augustine). I addressed various different versions of it on my old blog (under the heading of ontology). In case anyone is a glutton for abstract philosophical punishment.

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