Hi All,

We had a discussion many moons ago about atheists and morality and a lot has happened since then. I reached some new conclusions (which I'll withhold for now so I don't poison the water) and at least one other poster here has some new ideas about it.

So, I was wondering what the prevailing opinion is out there on this topic. Do you believe that atheists can be "moral"? Is it impossible for an atheist to be truly moral? Is "morality" something to which adherents have a valid claim? The infamous Dawkins and Harris had a discussion at Oxford about this about a year or so ago that was very good and I would also be interested in what anyone thinks of what was discussed there.

Thanks and all are welcome.

- kk

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Morality (as distinguished from ethics) exists due to the scriptures of the religion, not because any deity exists.

This depends entirely on what you want to define morality as. Many theists Would define morality as doing what god wants of you, in which case then we probably can't be moral ... unless of course a god exists and  wants us to all be atheists(This is one thing i have always found hard to understand about the theist position .They often claim that we cannot understand god and that he is highly mysterious . Then they  claim they know exactly what god wants of us ,but if their first two points are correct then we cannot logically  make any coherent claims about what god wants from us) Though if we define  morality as a set of rules on how we should interact with one another then of course atheists can be moral. I would even say that we can easily have an objective morality without god by saying that if we where perfectly rational beings behind a veil of ignorance(you dont know whether you will be a prince or pauper so rationally you will be objective about these rules )what rules governing social interaction should we come up with

Hey Jason,

This depends entirely on what you want to define morality as

I agree.

Though if we define  morality as a set of rules on how we should interact with one another then of course atheists can be moral.

That is exactly how I would do it, but I'll save that talk for a little later.

I'm guessing you are familiar with Hume? Anyway, to frame the discussion at Oxford, our poster child Harris made a valiant effort to define a morality "for" atheists. It kind of started with Hume.

Hume is well-known as the one who framed our understanding of the proper provenance of morality as a limiting condition whereby

1.)   one may possess facts through the faculty of reason

2.)   but that those facts are insufficient, by themselves, to provide sufficient definition of the act of assignment of value.

which seems to render that morality inaccessible in any objective sense. I have examined this argument carefully and have concluded that though I believe it is in fact fallacious – something to be engaged infra - what matters is it is sufficiently sophisticated to frustrate deconversion. And it does currently (that's a tangent, moving on for now).

The first order of business, however, is to substantiate the claim that it is fallacious. Harris attempts to do this with a noble effort that I believe ultimately fails. He essentially argues that this is just a “trick of language”. But the problem with this approach is that it relies on an analysis of Hume’s logical argument using the informal English used by others to describe it. And since his argument is one regarding language, this objection is material. The language often used is a substitution of “is” for “fact” and “ought” for “value”. At once it is clear how this muddies the water. What Hume is saying is that whatever facts we may “know” it is not possible, from those facts alone, to assign value to any … thing. What Hume is doing is to put the burden on the one claiming to have established an objective provenance for morality to show that value can be assigned from knowable facts alone. Harris’ argument does not accomplish this, to my understanding.

Harris’ argument for establishing the “bridge” to connect fact and value is to start by saying that fact and value are in fact “tricks of language”; i.e. a linguistic artifact. And he goes on to say that in reality fact and value are one and the same.

A friend of mine had considerable difficulty accepting this fact. These statements were made by Harris at a talk he held with Dawkins at Oxford in 2011. The video was released on youtube and I will reference the run times here.

My friend stated that, “i didn't see at any point where he said that facts and values are one in the same.”

But it is there. At 7:14 Sam Harris: “… It is thought that there are two quantities in this world, there are facts on the one hand and there are values on the other. And it is imagined that these two are discrete entities that can’t be understood in monistic terms and it is imagined that science can’t say anything about value …”

At 10:10 Sam Harris: “I am going to argue that this split between facts and values is an illusion. And my claim is that values are a certain kind of fact …”

No, they are not.

If you are objecting because this is not exactly the same thing as “one in the same” then I think you are nitpicking and not seeing the point. The point is that he is using this statement “values are a certain kind of fact” to bridge those concepts, which is precisely what Hume was saying you cannot do; that is, you cannot derive an ought from an is. So, this statement of Harris’ is fallacious. Values are not fact … at all. He either does not understand the difference or is being dishonest.

At 11:25 he does use this “worst possible misery” argument, but I’ve also disproved that (infra).

So, between these two statements, first about values and facts and then about misery, he never is able to form a basis for deriving value, which is my point, and which is the presenting challenge.

- kk

Well i do not exactly subscribe completely to Harris's view , or atleast to the way he has portrayed it. I would also take hes statement that the worst possible evil for everyone is bad as not really answering the question of why  it is bad.

Instead the way that i would tackle it is by first noting that morality only makes any sense in a social setting. If i was the only being alive then i would consider any actions that i could take as having nothing to do with morality as non of my actions could benefit nor harm anything besides myself. (That does then leave us with the question of whether causing harm to myself  is immoral if i am the only one to suffer from doing so.Which i do not think is the case) So if morality is then only applicable for actions that effect more than just myself then we can have a basis n which morality can function. This does not yet give us a basis to say whether action X is moral or immoral but it does tell us in which circumstances action X can be considered a moral question.

Now i do admit that i have to make one assumption to get to the next step and that is , as a social animal, social cohesion , peace and stability etc are good things. I do not think this is an unwarranted assumption as these things are vital to keep any social group  functioning. Now from this point it can be said that things like murder, rape, theft etc etc are bad as they all break down social cohesion. This is also the point at which science can get its teeth into the matter as science can then tell us the facts of whether action X would be good to promote social matters or not.

Now there are two main problems i can see with this. firstly how can i say that promoting a stable society is a good thing or that everybody should follow this. And my answer is simply that i cant ,but if you want to partake in the benefits society provides that you should keep up your part of the social contract. If you do not see this as a good thing then you should go live alone  in a cave somewhere and so this objection becomes moot.

Secondly is the question of who should we include in our social contract. Keeping slaves was beneficial for the roman society but not so beneficial for the tribes they conquered and made slaves( it could be argued that in the long run keeping slaves was not a good idea as it caused massive unrest. But this is not something i will focus further on here) and to answer that i would say we should consider these rules of our social contract as if we where perfectly rational beings( you would not want irrational being coming up with the rules) behind a veil of ignorance . If you do not know if you will be a slave holder or slave it is only rational to say keeping slaves is bad. This also serves to make the moral rules objective as they will not be influenced by personal feelings nor prejudices and are based on facts.

Hey Jason,

Thanks. Good stuff.

Well i do not exactly subscribe completely to Harris's view , or atleast to the way he has portrayed it. I would also take hes statement that the worst possible evil for everyone is bad as not really answering the question of why  it is bad.

Exactly. And this is the hole you can drive a Mack truck through. It can and will be exploited.

Instead the way that i would tackle it is by first noting that morality only makes any sense in a social setting. If i was the only being alive then i would consider any actions that i could take as having nothing to do with morality as non of my actions could benefit nor harm anything besides myself. (That does then leave us with the question of whether causing harm to myself  is immoral if i am the only one to suffer from doing so.Which i do not think is the case) So if morality is then only applicable for actions that effect more than just myself then we can have a basis n which morality can function. This does not yet give us a basis to say whether action X is moral or immoral but it does tell us in which circumstances action X can be considered a moral question.

Nice, I like this. I hadn't thought about it this way ... until now.

Now i do admit that i have to make one assumption to get to the next step and that is , as a social animal, social cohesion , peace and stability etc are good things. I do not think this is an unwarranted assumption as these things are vital to keep any social group  functioning. Now from this point it can be said that things like murder, rape, theft etc etc are bad as they all break down social cohesion. This is also the point at which science can get its teeth into the matter as science can then tell us the facts of whether action X would be good to promote social matters or not.

You're skirting very closely to where I started. Cool.

Now there are two main problems i can see with this. firstly how can i say that promoting a stable society is a good thing or that everybody should follow this. And my answer is simply that i cant ,but if you want to partake in the benefits society provides that you should keep up your part of the social contract. If you do not see this as a good thing then you should go live alone  in a cave somewhere and so this objection becomes moot.

Yes, the consideration is more pragmatic than lofty. This is why I agree that the term ethics is better than morals, but I'm going to save my opinion on that for a little bit.

i would say we should consider these rules of our social contract as if we where perfectly rational beings( you would not want irrational being coming up with the rules) behind a veil of ignorance . If you do not know if you will be a slave holder or slave it is only rational to say keeping slaves is bad.

Wow, that's interesting. Is this akin to defining the very process of virtuous decision-making? It sounds quite similar. I like it.

In examining Harris' theory I like to consider his worst possible form of “bad”. Here he is trying to obtain an objective understanding of “good” and “bad”, thus showing that from fact we can indeed obtain value. The crux of this argument is that this works only because the extreme manifestation of the quality of being “bad” makes manifest (thus objective) the value intrinsically contained within that fact; or, intrinsically identical to it. This is a classic “if I add enough numbers together in a finite sequence I’ll get infinity” argument; which is fallacious. This reminds one of those limit laws we all learned about in school. It is actually pretty elegant. I gathered that Harris sees "well being" as a consequence of epistemologically prior causal events that can be subjected to empiricism. And Harris believes all this settles the issue. I demur.

I will explain my position by first attempting to show that though Harris almost certainly didn’t intend to invoke limit laws or any analogue to it, that is in fact what he must do in order for his argument to work with logical certainty. And the problem this presents for deconversion is that it presents an intellectual vulnerability if it is merely accepted as an uncertain but “reasonable” conclusion. But Harris’ argument when pressed in this manner, we can see, quickly comes apart. It is not meaningful to “pass a limit” on something that is not discrete or subject to algebraic manipulation.

This is a clumsy way of saying that there is no objective concept of what the worst (analogous to infinity) thing one can experience is in the first place. Thus, Harris cannot establish the most extreme example, and thus guarantee that all observers will agree that it is the worst of all possible instances, which is what he implicitly requires as predicate in this thought experiment (and that follows from the fact that for every bad score x there is a corresponding worse bad score y such that y > x). This step is, by definition, necessary to move from a subjective to an objective statement.

Harris tries to insulate his thought experiment from scrutiny by suggesting at 11:58 that:

“ … if you think that the worst possible misery for everyone isn’t bad, or that it might have a silver lining, or it … there might be something worse, I don’t know what you’re talking about … and what is more, I’m reasonably sure you don’t know what you’re talking about either.” This is a clever attempt to conceal intellectual bankruptcy, but it won’t wash. The problem isn’t that anything he says there is “wrong”. The problem is that his statement is undefined. To see this point, we can turn his comment around and ask it of him: “could there not be something worse?” If so, how do you know that? You don’t. It may seem pedantic, but a rigorous foundation for morality will require that every angle is solid. Harris’ argument is not.

But more importantly, any clever creationist or anyone else wishing to attack this can do so with effectiveness sufficient to place a comprehensive set of means and methods for deconversion at risk of failure. Therefore, I reject it.

- kk

I think we take fact and through our individual emotional self apply value to fact from an emotional standpoint... No human can be truly unemotional to the core. Deep down even in the sub-conscious our core emotional self is at work forming our conscious self/reality so we are able to make the leap from "is" to "ought" because of these feelings...

that being said I am obviously not a university grad student so... wtf do I know? But never the less I feel this is how we as atheists assign value to fact...

Hey Nikos,

The capacity for, and presence of, emotion in human thought is not a bad thing. Indeed, it is a key component of a healthy human being. The question is in what do we use it for? Most people, I agree, do rely on their emotional understanding of the world to derive value from fact, or an "ought" from an "is". However, I don't think this is a durable and sound method for determining morality. And that is the key dilemma, and the key condition by which the religious leadership has exploited the adherent over the centuries. What is needed is a way to arrive at "oughts" that can be systematically and reliably reproduced by the application of a logical process that, at least to a plurality of observers, can be seen as sound. This is what I meant earlier by an "approximation" of objectivity sufficient for the presenting question. And Harris' logic is not reliable or repeatable because it does not eliminate every possible logical contradiction. And this kind of reasoning is scary because I'm a realist who knows what unscrupulous people with flabby framewords and foundations for governing human behavior can do when given that license.

In the purest sense one's formal education doesn't help much by itself. And I believe you are correct that most atheists simply continue this flawed approach to morality due ironically to the posioning of the intellectual well caused by religious thinking over the last several hundred years: atheists might be quite surprised to discover how much their thinking is still grounded in myth and fantasy, imo.

- kk

excellent point kir I to believe that it will be a long time before we atheists do not have our thoughts and beliefs affected by religious dogma. It has been a major part of human conditioning...

I also think that to approach morality by logic alone is a dangerous path. Logic needs to be tempered by human emotion or comapssion lest we open a new pandora's box... I say this because it is completely logical that the good of the many outweighs the good of the few. Now doesn't that little statement open up avenues of thought that could bring about a moral depravity that is justified by logic??

I myself "feel" that if killing one person or child would save a hundred lives, that I would be the stupid bastard standing over that individual trying to protect them to the bitter end, hundreds be damned! This is how my moral code tells me to be and I believe that it is the right way to be.

Who gets to decide which majority we need to protect? how do we justify those actions/consequences? My thought is that we are to corruptable in nature to be trusted with this burden. it has to be a sum total of all rational free thinking individuals deciding morality. I wouldn't trust any government with it, we all know that ultimately the government looks after the rich and powerful, and the poor are always the ones with the pointed end of the stick in their face.

RE: "I myself 'feel' that if killing one person or child would save a hundred lives, that I would be the stupid bastard standing over that individual trying to protect them to the bitter end, hundreds be damned!"

I would have to agree Mikos - there are too many variables for even the logical to make such a decision. None of us can predict the future, only possibilities and probabilities - what if you killed the child, and the threat never materialized? Or only one person was saved? Or all died anyway?

And what responsibilities do the 100 have to save themselves, vs your responsibility for taking the life of an innocent child?

Too many variables --

Hey Nikos,

@Nikos and @Archaeopteryx

I also think that to approach morality by logic alone is a dangerous path. Logic needs to be tempered by human emotion or comapssion lest we open a new pandora's box... I say this because it is completely logical that the good of the many outweighs the good of the few. Now doesn't that little statement open up avenues of thought that could bring about a moral depravity that is justified by logic??

This is probably where I part company with most people and enter my little heterodox world. I don't think that logic and emotion are as incompatible as most people think. Having said that, I do think that flabby logic and emotion are at odds with each other.

Your point about the needs of the many and the few is exactly what I was discussing regarding Sam Harris' logic. He used the example of a "fat man" and a train car. And it was precisely Harris' flabby logic, if I may call it that, that resulted in the kind of response you are lamenting. In other words, I argued, sometimes moral decisions made on what appears to be emotional grounds are the better decisions. Harris' moral system would not admit of this. But in reality, one can reach that conclusion logically just as well. And I tried to show that in the excerpt I posted.

Harris' logic could and would lead to "cold" logical decisions most people would find repugnant.

... ultimately the government looks after the rich and powerful

This is what Bill Clinton's college professor called "responsible government". Its a long story but some believe that a responsible government must reflect the views, opinions and desires of the organic power structure within a society; i.e. the rich and powerful, the oligarchy. To do otherwise would be irresponsible. I don't agree.

- kk

Kir -

"I don't think that logic and emotion are as incompatible as most people think. Having said that, I do think that flabby logic and emotion are at odds with each other."

100%. In fact, I definitely think that emotions and morality, which are two separate things, have their own very straightforward logics. Morality has a currency but emotions probably aren't like that.

As for flabby logic - kill it with fire.

Hey Jessica,

So, where do you think morals for an atheist would "come from"? I mean, is there a common referent that atheists can turn to as a source for moral conduct? Presumably Christians refer to scripture and tradition, but without that, what does one use?

- kk

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