Saturday, December 10, 2011

David Marshall and a Foundation for Ethics

In Chapter 11 of The Truth Behind the New Atheism, “Can Atheism Make the World Better?”, David Marshall asks the following on page 190: “What have atheism and Darwinian ethics done for the human race in general? Are there signs that, once freed from the ‘delusions’ our ancestors suffered under, the human race will breathe a big sigh of relief and finally make progress? Or does the ‘death of God’ mean, as Dostoevsky warned, that ‘everything [including Gulags] is lawful?” Marshall in this chapter opts for the latter alternative, and he discusses such topics as the Unabomber, communism, the significance of evolution in Nazi thought, and the sexual revolution.

Marshall on pages 196-197 discusses a point that he has raised before in this book: the question of whether or not evolution by itself can provide a basis for morality. He states:

“…Dawkins and Harris putter around evolutionary theory as if they’d lost their glasses. ‘Is there a moral basis here? That’s not it. Oh, over there! No?’ They grope for a postreligious basis for morality. If not God, who? If not evolution, what? But their answers are strangely muddled. Dawkins suggests that what makes abortion immoral is the suffering of the fetus. ‘At what age does any developing embryo, of any species, become capable of suffering?’ Does that mean killing is okay if it doesn’t hurt? All right, asks Harris, how about if we use intelligence, language use, or moral sentiments as criteria? ‘If people are more important to us than orangutans because they can articulate their interests, why aren’t moral articulate people more important still?’ But that lands us back in Social Darwinism and ‘one or two degrees on the cephalic index’. [W]hy is it ‘insane,’ from an evolutionary point of view, to kill people outside your genetic or community line? Male tigers do it all the time…”

I think that these are good questions. I myself am not sure if evolution can provide a firm foundation for ethics. One could legitimately suggest, perhaps, that ethics work, in that people can thrive in a society that is cooperative and that respects the dignity of others. That may not be the firmest foundation for morality, but, heck, what’s the alternative to that? Is simply saying “Because God says so” a solid foundation for ethics? So do right and wrong hinge on the whims of a divine super-cop? I tend to agree with Socrates, who said that things are not right because God commands them, but God commands them because they are right. And what if God commands wrong? In my opinion, the weakness of “Because God said so” is evident in the fact that so many things that God says and does in the Bible contradict what many of us today (even conservative evangelicals) view as moral, and so Christian apologists try to show that such things are actually consistent with our morality, or they appeal to progressive revelation, or whatever.

I’m not suggesting that Marshall believes right and wrong are totally dependent on the divine command, or that he thinks that one has to be a Christian to be moral. Earlier in this book, he talks about natural law, of which people of many cultures are aware. To be honest, though, I’m not sure how accurate that is. Granted, we see morality across cultures, but we also see things that strike some people today as immoral. Marshall points to practices that Christianity challenged, such as the practice in India of widows immolating themselves. If everyone is aware of a universal natural law, why doesn’t it dawn on some cultures that certain practices are just plain wrong? Richard Dawkins says that we advance morally, and Marshall counters that claim with examples of moral degeneration over the years. I agree with Marshall that we can’t simply say that “newer is better” when seeking a foundation for morality. I doubt that Dawkins himself really believes that principles are better just because they are new, but he thinks they are better because they are better—-they are more humane, for example.

So I guess that what I settle with is the notion that ethics work. Even if they don’t appear to work on a short-term basis, everyone is better off in the long-term if people practice them. I think that all sorts of people—-theists and atheists—-can agree on that point, even if they don’t concur on the foundation for those ethics.


  1. This is a delightful topic. I have yet to see an atheist discuss how it is that they can embrace "all men are created equal", when it is quite certain that they could not have evolved equal.

    Your comment on Socrates reminded me that there was one argument that Socrates lost. That was in The Republic where he tried to give an evolutionary explanation for the formation of civil society based on mutual self interest. His friends insisted that there was far too much advantage in corruption, while we make decisions as individuals, not as collectives.

    I was just reading Immanuel Kant's discussion of a universal moral law implanted in all humans. You have me wondering where the discussions have gone regarding that concept.

  2. I'm not sure where they have gone, but I was thinking some about Kant when I wrote that post, since he did have a practical explanation for ethics: if I can hurt someone else, that could open the door for someone to hurt me.


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