There are generally two types of philosophical discussions concerning morality. There are conversations about normative ethics, which concerns what we should do in various situations. These are the types of conversations about morality most people have. For example, if an angry mob is threatening to destroy a town if you don’t turn over a suspected criminal, but you know the suspect is actually innocent, what should you do—save the town or the one innocent man?
Then, there are conversations about metaethics. This was the topic of most of the panel discussion. Metaethics is an extremely broad, complex subject matter. You might see the following questions in a course on metaethics (from the SEP):
- Is morality more a matter of taste than truth?
- Are moral standards culturally relative?
- Are there moral facts?
- If there are moral facts, what is their origin?
- How is it that they set an appropriate standard for our behavior? How might moral facts be related to other facts (about psychology, happiness, human conventions…)?
- And how do we learn about the moral facts, if there are any?
Due to this difficult range of questions, I tend to avoid these discussions and, true to form, didn’t say much during this part of the Q&A. It’s just too hard to get everyone on the same page in a short amount of time. However, I would like to give some introductory thoughts on metaethics here as they relate to the claims made by apologists. In particular, I am going to attempt to show the advantage claimed by religious ethicists in this area is overstated.
In Part I, I will present the claims made by the Christian panelists and address the first claim—that secular ethics may lead to things like the Holocaust. In Part II, I will develop two ways of thinking about secular metaethics and compare them to Divine Command Theory, a popular Christian metaethical view.
Claims by the Christian Panelists
On the Christian side, I noted two claims. First, there was the claim that secularism (Darwinism) can lead to great tragedies, like the holocaust. Thus, it is less desirable because of its negative entailments. Second, it was claimed that atheists cannot account for a foundation for objective morality without God.
Just as I noted in the discussion of purpose, these are cost-based arguments. They aren’t providing an argument for the truth of the Christian view. Rather, they are hoping you will see something undesirable in the atheist view and be compelled to avoid it. As such, we could ignore them, but I actually find the claims very misleading so I’d like to address them.
Atheism and the Holocaust
I was honestly disappointed to hear this point brought up in the discussion. Hitler is used much too often when criticizing an opponent. I visited Dachau recently. I walked through the entrance to the camp where the wrought iron gate disingenuously proclaims, “ARBEIT MACHT FREI”. I walked into a room and suddenly realized I was standing in a gas chamber designed to look like a shower where many people probably died. And in the next room was a row of ovens. At no time during this depressing journey did I see anything that would be rationally entailed by my ethical views.
I think anyone who takes an honest look at the Holocaust and secular ethical theories will find the same thing. The actions of Hitler and his officers were many and varied and cannot be so easily distilled. Was part of Hitler’s plan to create artificial selection pressures to attempt to impact evolution? Sure. Does this have any implication on a discussion about the foundation of secular ethics? No. Put simply, recognizing a biological state of affairs, like evolution through natural selection, does not entail that we ought to emulate or attempt to emulate that state of affairs in society. On the contrary, ethical theories tend to argue strongly against such a selection pressure. This really should be obvious. It doesn’t require you to argue about who has killed more people and what their religious views may have been because the argument is just obviously invalid and simple to dismiss.
The only view that would rightly be a target of this Holocaust critique would be one that actively encourages trying to create artificial selection pressures to kill off the worst adaptations. I don’t know of any modern secular philosopher who suggests such a thing. So, at whom is this threat of a looming second Holocaust aimed? What view entails this? It isn’t at any secular ethical system with standing. No, I think this is clearly just a tactic to associate evolution with Hitler with no care given to the obvious equivocation between recognizing biological selection and promoting social selection.
Seeking a Secular Foundation for Morality
The second point was the more crucial point of the discussion. That will be my topic in Part II when I try to answer whether a secular approach is inferior to a religious approach at grounding morality. I think this discussion will show that God isn’t as superior of a source for grounding morality as people seem to assume and also that a secular framework can provide something roughly as good, if not better.
- Christian and Atheist Round Table Discussion and Q&A: Morality – Part 2
- The Lazy Person’s Guide to Dismantling the Moral Argument
- Free Will and Meaning