|Yeah, as I have indicated before, the line between metaphysics and BS is often quite thin and tawny.|
Uncommon Descent's resident philosopher, Vincent Torley, argues that Atheism cannot provide a sensible code of ethics because Atheism ain't metaphysical.
Let me say at the outset that I just might agree with Torley that Atheism "cannot provide a sensible code of ethics." Of course, I'm also not sure that theism, strictly speaking, can provide a sensible code of ethics either.
We are, after all, concerned only with the reasoned belief in, or the reasoned rejection of such belief, the existence of gods. By gods, I mean divine entities such as are named as objects of worship by believers in Western religious traditions.
I admit to being a hack philosopher, but it seems absurd to me to state that developing a sensible code of ethics has anything to do with the existence or non-existence of deities. I'll email Torley with a link to this post. Perhaps he'll explain.
On the other hand, "sensible" is, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder. For example, Christianity's fundamental principle of the inherent sin of human beings seems to me both absurd and baseless. Sensible or not, Christian ethics derive from the teaching of their holy books. Jewish ethics derive from their holy books. Ethics in Buddhism are based on the teachings of the Buddha. Secular ethics tend to be based on accepting social contracts. Thus, there are plenty of moral philosophies for either the Atheist or theist to draw upon.
But Torley apparently thinks that people cannot make sense of ethical principles without a theory of reality, that is, without metaphysics:
Moral atheists need an ethical code to live by (don’t we all?), and the Golden Rule sounds like a pretty good place to start. But “Do unto others” makes no sense unless you know who the “others” are. To figure out that, you need metaphysics. This is modern atheism’s Achilles’ heel. You need metaphysics to tell you why it is wrong to kill someone in a coma, or for that matter, someone who’s sleeping. You need metaphysics to tell you why baby killing is murder. You need metaphysics to tell you why a killer should still be punished, even if he is arrested 20 years after his murderous act. Notions like “capacity,” “entity” (or “substance”) and “personal identity” are unavoidable in these contexts.Unfortunately, I find Torley's argument above to be conceptually loose in some cases and just wrong in others. So much so, that it's hard to do anything more than shrug the shoulders and ask the philosopher to start again. But I'll give it a go now. Torley's statements are broken out and boldfaced.
The problem with these metaphysical notions for a modern atheist is that from a materialistic standpoint, they lack justification. These notions are not supplied to us by the senses, and they cannot be scientifically validated. If the scientific method is your ultimate way of deciding what’s true, then you will have to discard most of the language we commonly use when talking about human beings (especially in an ethical context) as so much metaphysical mumbo-jumbo. But doing that leaves you with a paper-thin concept of what it means to be human. In everyday situations, a modern atheist will probably manage fine, but outside the realm of the normal, his/her ethics will go astray very quickly.
Moral atheists need an ethical code to live by (don’t we all?).Yes, we all live by an ethical code. Our every action, choice, and thought has an ethical dimension. In other words, to live is do ethics. As far as I can tell, "needing" an ethical code has nothing to do with atheism or theism. Rather, it has to do with being a conscious human agent, and in this sense we actually don't "need" an ethical code because we already have one. What Torley means in his statement, I think, is that we also need an external, culturally or socially-based set of rules that define virtuous and prohibited behavior. I agree that this type of externally imposed ethical code is a practical necessity.
“Do unto others” makes no sense unless you know who the “others” are.This is patently false, but let's be clear about Torley's argument, which is that we have no reason to treat other people as we ourselves would like to be treated unless we know which beings on Earth qualify as other people. Thus, according to Torley's reasoning, if we know that women are not fully people, we have no obligation to treat them as we men would treat ourselves. If we think that black people or democrats are inferior to us, we have no reason to behave toward them as we would want to be treated ourselves.
So how is it that we learn who the “others” are? The same way learn what “do unto” means, by personal trial and error and by external social influences. I see no reason here not to follow the example of language acquisition: we are born hard-wired to acquire ethics, and we are taught the practice of ethical behavior through family and communal living.
Torley overvalues metaphysics, a subject that is poorly defined and may be impossible in any case. We can see this over-valuation by looking at two example statements:
Do unto flowers as you would have them do unto you.These are perhaps strange statements, yet they drive the point that in “Do unto others,” the operative consideration is how we ourselves wish to be treated. Thus, “Do unto others” can make functional sense even if one doesn’t know who the “others” are or what a flower or a cat is.
Do unto cats as you would have them do unto you.
You need metaphysics to tell you why it is wrong to kill someone in a coma, or for that matter, someone who’s sleeping. You need metaphysics to tell you why baby killing is murder. You need metaphysics to tell you why a killer should still be punished, even if he is arrested 20 years after his murderous act. Notions like “capacity,” “entity” (or “substance”) and “personal identity” are unavoidable in these contexts.In my understanding, metaphysics (whatever it is) is not so prescriptive as Torley seems to suggest. For example, why not murder someone in an coma? Because someone in a coma is still a person and people have intrinsic value (metaphysics), which therefore makes it wrong to kill that person and so dismiss their value (ethics). Rather, as a theory of reality metaphysics does not itself prescribe ethics but is used as a basis supporting for ethical arguments.
In addition, we need more than just metaphysics to understand why behavior X is wrong or right in a particular situation. We need epistemology, semantics, and psychology too. If we want to delve into arguments for why or why not kill entity Z--if that's the debate of the moment--many factors will come into play on all sides of the debate.
I am not denying that people and philosophers use or even need metaphysics, but I think we need to talk about metaphysics in context.
The problem with these metaphysical notions for a modern atheist is that from a materialistic standpoint, they lack justification. These notions are not supplied to us by the senses, and they cannot be scientifically validated.Let's assume Torley is correct. Notions like "capacity" and "personal identity" cannot be scientifically validated. Why would this be a problem? Why would rejecting the idea that gods exist preclude accepting terms of evaluation and distinction?
What Torley doesn't seem to understand is that Atheists by and large are comfortable with concepts that lack scientific validation. We can talk about, say, the "worth of a human life" without embarrassment. Yet, we're also unafraid to recognize that we're dealing with subjective terms and levels of personal comfort. We're not dealing with absolutes--subjective terms, in my understanding, are by definition not absolute--and we're not dealing with dogma.
My point is that Atheists have metaphysics, just like everyone else. We all have, like it or not, a theory of reality. Like with ethics, to live as a sentient being is to develop a theory of reality.
But notice above that Torley shifts his argument to be not so much anti-Atheist as contra-materialism. I don't think it's true that from the materialist standpoint, abstract terms such as "personal identity" lack justification. Rather, a sense of "personal identity" receives justification from whatever human attributes or properties one associates with an individual human being. It's a category that eventually ties down to the material.
The materialist caution on an idea such as personal identity is very simple: don't mystify it. Don't make personal identity mysterious and "undefinable," willy-nilly. Simply throwing one's hands up and saying "I am more than just my body and more than my body and mind!"--well, this is unjustified unless we can formulate a reasonable definition of "more."
If the scientific method is your ultimate way of deciding what’s true, then you will have to discard most of the language we commonly use when talking about human beings (especially in an ethical context) as so much metaphysical mumbo-jumbo. But doing that leaves you with a paper-thin concept of what it means to be human.See my comment to the bit just above.
In everyday situations, a modern atheist will probably manage fine, but outside the realm of the normal, his/her ethics will go astray very quickly.Uh, okay.
- 1997 letter to Ireland’s bishops from the late Archbishop Luciano Storero, described as “Pope John Paul II’s diplomat to Ireland."
- Creationist Kent Hovind's legal problems.
- A rabbi's sex for conversion scam.
- The ugly story of American evangelical Christians and Uganda's anti-gay push; the murder of Daniel Kato.
I realize that the links above do not serve to counter Torley's point, which is that "outside the realm of the normal," the ethics of the Atheist will "go astray." But I don't think Torley has much of a point to which to respond! I mean, what exactly is "the realm of the normal"? What is "astray"?
Through these links, I am making the only real point that can be made: even religious authorities, people who should definitely be in firm possession of the "sensible code of ethics" that Atheists must lack (according to Torley), go "astray" all the time. I'd wager that Atheist and theist populations "go astray," whatever that means, with fairly equivalent frequency. If so, then what are we really talking about here?