(Previous in the series: The Best and Worst in Human History, Science vs. Miracles, and The Gap in Religious Thought.)
In one of his debates with the “New Atheists,” Dinesh D’Souza talked about how religion demands that we move outside of ourselves and sacrifice, and alleged that atheists chafe under the moral rules of Christianity that hold them accountable. He went on to say atheism is a rebellion against that—that atheism is not really an intellectual revolt against unsubstantiated ideas, but a moral revolt against rules they simply don’t like being held to. While the New Atheists have a few sharp things to say to religionists on the moral front, their response has lacked the clarity and broad force of the fundamental response that needs to be delivered.
Values vs. Subjectivism
To begin with, D’Souza’s charges do have some merit because his opponents stumble badly with respect to the issue of values. Most secular thinkers subscribe to the idea that values are somehow arbitrary, relative, based in emotions like empathy or in “intuitions,” subject to a collective agreement of society or to the wishes or whims of the individual. In all its varieties, such subjectivism is open to criticism because there is, in fact, an objective basis for values: What makes something good or bad is that it furthers or frustrates the goals of some agent, and the most fundamental alternative any organism can face is life or death, existence or nonexistence as a living being. This is to say, life is the ultimate yardstick by which all subsidiary goals and alternatives are measured for their value-significance. Sunlight and water are valuable to the plant, which turns its leaves and grows its roots to gain those things and maintain its existence. Nuts and shelter are valuable to the squirrel, as is avoiding hungry predators. And the same is true of people: the good is that which ultimately furthers our lives.
This perspective makes it clear that values are a factual concern, not a matter of arbitrary opinion or feelings or loose “intuitions.” Merely hoping, feeling, or asserting something is good can’t make it stand in a positive relationship to a life, any more than declaring 2+2=5 would make that so. The true and the good are determined by the facts of reality, and we avoid grasping the facts and acting accordingly at our peril. This is why any inwardly-focused, subjectivistic conception of values is necessarily bankrupt, a threat to human life.
But for those accused of rebelling against the moral absolutes of God, there is a silver lining to be enjoyed in this lesson: the religionists are themselves guilty of the sin of moral subjectivism. The essence of subjectivism is acting on whim—wishing, assuming, feeling, or declaring that facts will align themselves with thoughts and lives. Of course, this gets it exactly backwards: thoughts and lives must align themselves with the facts because facts are absolutes to be discovered, not declared. Merely hoping or asserting something is good doesn’t make it so, and it doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about the whim of a lone subjectivist deciding what is good or bad, the whim of an entire civilization voting on it, or the whim of a “supernatural” mind decreeing it. So the religious who claim to have an absolute morality are really only subjectivists of a supernatural stripe. The trouble for them is that their sort of subjectivism is just as false as any other: God telling Abraham that it is good to slay his innocent son Isaac doesn’t make it good. His ordering the enslavement of entire peoples in the Old Testament doesn’t make that good. On and on—the bottom line is that calling poison “food” doesn’t make it nutritious, and pretending otherwise is to court destruction.
Determinism vs. Morality
Next, consider that we humans don’t automatically act in support of our lives like squirrels and plants do. We have the power to freely choose to harm ourselves, to do the wrong thing, to not pursue the values we know are required for our existence as living organisms. We don’t have instincts to tell us how to build shelter or to guide us in choosing food over poison—we have to learn those things, whether it means building a lean-to or erecting a skyscraper, and whether it means avoiding the wrong mushrooms or properly cooking a gourmet chicken dish to ensure it is not just tasty but safe. In fact, being the rational animal born without conceptual knowledge to act by, we have to learn everything we need to know about what furthers or harms our lives—and we have to choose to abide by that knowledge or perish.
This is especially important in the case of the most abstract, most fundamental knowledge that guides our choices and actions—the overarching principles which can help us to consistently pursue the values needed to maintain our existence and flourish over the span of an entire lifetime. These are moral principles like honesty, productiveness, justice, and integrity. Essentially, a proper morality consists of grasping these kinds of principles for the support of human life: i.e., recognize these basic facts and flourish, or evade them and suffer. Indeed, we need morality because we are conceptual animals. This is why moral codes have appeared wherever and whenever humans have appeared; the impact of moral values (both proper and improper) is tremendous precisely because of how fundamental they are to our existence, guiding us in myriad concrete circumstances great and small.
Just like any other matter of fact, we can approach morality rationally and scientifically, working to discover, validate, and teach each other about the relevant fundamental principles. Such a project is just as feasible—and just as challenging—as discovering and sharing the fundamental principles of engineering or economics. But of course this kind of development is only possible if we recognize the nature of the field in the first place, and this is another terrible weakness in the New Atheists and their scientific friends that prevents their giving a robust answer to the likes of D’Souza. The fashionable but unnecessary materialism and mechanistic determinism that is prevalent among them leads to the denial of the very fact that gives rise to morality in the first place: that we have volitional minds and our choices have life-and-death consequences. This denial has hobbled the scientific study of morality, leaving them looking in the wrong place and for the wrong thing. Notice the categorical error in such prominent programs as “evolutionary morality,” where researchers look for moral behavior in the actions of nonvolitional, nonconceptual animals like mice and birds. And in how they search for the roots of morality in evolved behavior “modules” in brains, neglecting the basic fact that the moral is the learned and chosen—not the inbuilt and determined. A sound philosophical foundation would help them be more productive and less prone to these sorts of distractions and blind alleys.
Sacrifice vs. Life
Finally, there is the most disastrous error confusing the scientific study of morality and stopping the New Atheists from knocking D’Souza out of the intellectual ring: they may challenge the existence of God, but they uncritically accept the moral standard that Christianity has injected into Western culture. That is, they accept the moral standard of altruism, literally “other-ism,” a moral standard of sacrifice. This can be seen in various facets of their struggles to explain secular morality: they restrict the domain of morality to the social, they uphold sacrificial sentiments and principles of conduct, and they cite scientists who work to understand the biological basis for morality by searching for altruistic behavior in animals. (Though the scientists muddy the sacrificial core of the concept by also reflexively labeling life-serving, nonsacrificial social behaviors better characterized as cooperation, investment, and trade as “altruism.” Sacrifice means surrendering a higher value for a lower one or no value at all—not giving up a lesser value to gain a greater one.) Having assumed an altruistic standard of morality, the New Atheists and most secular thinkers are likewise led to the conclusion that determining the good merely comes down to determining who or what one has a duty to sacrifice to: neighbor, family, tribe, race, society, nation, leader, species, environment, god.
But sacrifice can’t be the proper standard of morality. In fact, it represents the inversion of a proper moral code because giving up values is inimical to life. Fully and consistently adhering to such a standard means a swift death, so anybody accepting the moral standard of sacrifice lives only through the inconsistency of compromising and diluting it, mixing in elements of its antithesis. But managing to survive poison by mixing it with food doesn’t render it part of a healthy diet, much less a central staple. Sacrifice per se is the opposite of the good, and seeking it is irrational, so the New Atheists will forever flail in trying to scientifically support or rationally justify such an approach to morality.
Genuine virtue consists in creating values, not in surrendering them—in focusing on reality and discovering a vaccine, in searching our spiritual nature and producing a play, in building a stadium, in raising a loving family, in digging a canal, writing a textbook, cooking a meal. This understanding drives the proper response to D’Souza’s charge of rebelliousness: Any healthy person armed with the correct perspective would reject the subjectivist moral code of Christianity and its enshrinement of sacrifice because it is fundamentally set against human life and happiness. Instead, we should seek a morality that is truly absolute, reality-based, scientific, and which rejects human sacrifice in its every form and degree as irrational. We should seek a genuine morality of life.
- Ayn Rand demonstrated this in her essay, “The Objectivist Ethics,” which is explored in depth in the book, Viable Values: A Study of Life as the Root and Reward of Morality by Dr. Tara Smith.
- This is certainly not to say that evolutionary biology should stand mute on morality—values are rooted in the phenomenon of life, after all. I am arguing that scientists must take care to recognize the difference between the slate and what is written on it. For example, they might profitably investigate the evolutionary basis of what gives rise to and enables morality: the phenomenon of volitional, conceptual minds.
- For further investigation of such a morality, I recommend the bite-sized introductory book, Loving Life by Craig Biddle and its scholarly yet accessible big brother from Cambridge University Press, Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist by Dr. Tara Smith.