Saturday, February 12, 2011

Lack of Objectivity = Lack of Morality?

This comes as a sort of footnote to my previous posting, but I wanted to keep them separate for easy reading.

There is a popular assertion amongst theistic "moral objectivists," basically that "atheists have no basis for morality." This is what I want to discuss.

In my previous post I mentioned Hitler. I mentioned the Christian argument that atheism, being a lack of faith (or evolution, being erroneously represented as a "tenet" of atheism), somehow inherently leads to immorality of the kind that allows genocide and racism. This is what most Christian moral objectivists will have you believe:

1) that Christian morality, being "objective," gives us a final judgmental standard that is above human influence (and thus cannot be changed by humans with an agenda), and so if we all play by the objective rules, then anytime someone does something wrong or tries to take power over others and deny them their objective rights, we can safely condemn them based on these rules;

2) that, because atheism does not have this "outside standard," it is thus subject to intersubjective human standards, which can be changed and manipulated to suit an agenda (and further, paradoxically, that this intersubjective standard somehow "becomes" the objective standard of morality). Therefore, based on this worldview, those who seek to "rise above" others by asserting their own beliefs violently will inherently take power, because those who are not violent are obligated to "respect the opinions" of those taking power, because they have no objective basis on which to oppose them.

To keep it simple....the fallacy of this argument is that it assumes the same dogmatic approach to subjectivity as the Christian approach assumes to objectivity.

Hitler's Nazi germany is often touted as an example of this: "if morality is subjective, then Hitler was right to abide by his own subjective opinion, and so if you don't believe in god as an objective moral standard, then you have no way of condemning him aside from your own personal opinion."

What proponents of "objective morality" (OM) fail to acknowledge is that the above statement is twofold:

1) that is an objective statement --- that "Hitler was right" to act on his beliefs. Subjectivity does not translate between individuals; in a world with no objective morality, nobody is "right or wrong" in an objective sense; there is only what people believe. And it's all equal; nobody "has more of a right" than anyone else, so if someone tries to act as if they have more rights than others, then it is only natural for others to take action and "restore the balance" by removing the offender who seeks to elevate himself above others. This is a realist statement as well, but the idea of subjective morality does not contradict a realist worldview; it simply asserts the nature of morality as realistically subjective, like perhaps the preference of a certain flavor of ice cream over another (although the importance of morality is generally venerated much more highly than the importance of ice cream preference; this is a testament to the prevalence of moral judgment as a realistic part of our daily lives. Ice cream preferences, by comparison, do not have that much of an impact on our societies and so come into play much less frequently and powerfully, and so naturally, you won't find too many people who value both judgments in the same).

2) that in a world driven by subjectivity, while it is true that there is no objective basis for condemnation, there is also no objective basis for action; Hitler "breaks the rules" when he rises to power and begins killing others based on a "higher standard" (the idea that Jews are an "inferior race"). In a subjective world, Hitler has no objective basis on which to make that statement, and thus no objective basis on which to act in the first place. Thus a response to his action is justified on that ground, the realistic ground that "we all have the same (zero) objective rights."

3) therefore, in a subjective world, there must be some standard other than "objectivity" which is used to make moral judgments.

In a way, it all "cancels out" --- since there is no "final objective law," nobody has any special rights that place them 'above' anyone else; we are all "equal" in that we have the same rights (or lack thereof). So when someone says, "In a subjective world, Hitler was right to act on his beliefs," what they're saying is, Hitler was right according to Hitler. According to you, he might be wrong. Hence, it "cancels out" in that you have just as much of a justification to respond as he does to act. If you have no objective basis on which to respond, then he has no objective basis on which to act. Yet, you both have your own subjective judgments, which you are acting on by carrying out this conflict.

In closing....I think the fundamental issue that OM and SM proponents have to work out is not that "there is no basis for morality in a secular, morally subjective worldview," but rather that there is a different basis. Just as it's easy for you to play the reductionalist and say, "If there's no objective morality, I can do whatever I want and you can't stop me," I can easily play the reductionalist right back at you and say, "If there's objective morality, I can do whatever I want and you can't stop me." That is ultimately a game of semantics; in order for any of our judgments about morality to have any value beyond said semantics, they have to accurately reflect the world around us as we experience it, and they have to accurately describe (and predict) moral actions and judgments. They can be "objective" in that sense, in that they have to be based on something, but they cannot be objective in the sense that they come from outside of our perceptions of the world. Because morality is prescriptive, it is, by definition, a statement of subjective judgment about the world --- as I have heard it said, "morality is your answer to the question, 'what should we do?'" It is subjective by nature.

As for the fear of crazy Hitler-esque worldviews becoming dominant for lack of an objective standard condemning them? A healthy dose of skepticism prevents views like that from ever rising to power; for as I explained in my previous post, such hierarchies are only possible because large amounts of people buy into them unskeptically. If every Christian/atheist/etc. in Nazi Germany had skeptically approached Hitler's doctrine of anti-Semitism, then things might have been very different, indeed. If I may be bold for a moment....I suspect this is why Christians in particular are so afraid of Hitler, and thus bring him up so often. They realize that the very system of taking "leaps of faith" and trusting in beliefs and doctrines with little or no real evidence, they fear that, if others are lead away from Christianity, the blind faith that they have been conditioned into by Christianity will lead them to want to blindly have faith in other things besides Christianity; they fear that people will choose to have blind faith (which is what Christians want), but in the "wrong" thing (which is what they fear). Ironically, it is their strongest weapon that is also their greatest weakness, and their greatest fear. Perhaps this is why they stress such a powerful, central focus on one ultimate god --- if your blind faith slips away ever so slightly from that god, it may accidentally stick to something else and become as inseparable from that as it formerly was from god. The answer to this dilemma, in my opinion? Stop stressing blind faith! There is no such risk from healthy skepticism, and skepticism applies even to itself. Always demand answers to the questions that hound you. And if there are none, don't be afraid to admit that. That is my prescription.

But I digress....ultimately, without his legions of followers unskeptically absorbing his every word, Hitler would have been no different than a demented preacher screaming on a street corner. So the important thing for me to stress is that atheism and skepticism are not necessarily the same thing. I don't think people should get a big head just because they've managed to apply skepticism to one area --- I know many atheists *coughBillMahercough* who are also conspiracy theorists and the sort, who seem to think that being an atheist automatically makes you smarter than everyone else. This is hypocrisy; what makes you more adept in the real world is to be skeptical of beliefs held without evidence, not one belief that you may hold that happens to be reasonable.

Just remember --- nobody has ever built a tyrannical regime with millions of followers based on "too much skepticism."

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