Re: [asa] Re: good atheists?

From: Cogan, Susan L. <>
Date: Tue Sep 08 2009 - 17:35:08 EDT

On 9/8/09 2:26 PM, "Murray Hogg" <> wrote:

> Cogan, Susan L. wrote:
>>> Your argument seems to be that if a society is at peace and law-abiding,
>>> it's
>>> therefore moral.
>> The proposition was that if the society is atheist then it could not be
>> moral (having no moral standard to abide by) and would descend into chaos. A
>> society that is utterly enslaved by an evil government isn't a good
>> comparison to a free society that makes good moral choices in spite of
>> having a very large atheist population.
> Hi all,
> I'd offer the suggestion that any claim of the sort "Atheists are necessarily
> immoral" (or even the weaker "Atheists are necessarily amoral") is actually
> relatively easy to counter - even from the perspective of Christian theology
> which teaches that a moral sense (conscience) is a fundamental aspect of human
> nature.
> Because of this, I don't know of any sophisticated thinker who argues such a
> thing.
> So, for example, C.S.Lewis' argument in Mere Christianity is not that atheists
> (or non-Christians) lack a moral sense, but rather that all people do possess
> a moral sense and that this sense is roughly equivalent across religious and
> cultural divides.

Good (I've never read the book). That means the Lewis was capable of
observing the reality around him.

> What atheism doesn't do, in my opinion, is offer any cogent argument as to why
> this moral sense should be considered to have any sort primacy over one's
> other senses or why it should be ascribed a position of binding authority over
> human behaviour.

Why not? Everybody has shins that will hurt if you kick them (or stuff they
don't want you to steal or family they don't want you to kill, etc.). We
bind each other. If you steal my stuff you will go to jail. If you kick me
you will be charged with battery. You are bound by those moral rules. Can
you break them? Of course!

> One way of explaining my point is to ask what, on the assumption of a
> materialistic evolutionary origin for human morality, is the difference
> between the desire to help Granny across the road and the desire to push her
> under a bus?

Either love for Granny or BEING Granny makes that difference. Even a
sociopath who intellectually can tell you that pushing Granny under the bus
is neither good nor bad will balk at being pushed under the bus themselves.
That's an objective evil. Mature human beings (not children to a great
extent or emotionally immature adults or sociopaths) can generalize from
Granny to themselves.

>On the assumption of a materialistic evolutionary origin for
> human morality both would seem to be simply the outworking of the survival
> instinct.

It is, to a large extent. As humans, though, we have a tendency to overthink

>And I cannot for the life of me see why we should therefore consider
> the first of these two to be "higher" or "more moral" than the second.

"higher" and "lower" don't register in this conversation. In fact I don't
have any idea what you mean by that.

> If the argument is simply that atheists "feel" that pushing Granny under the
> bus is "bad" whilst helping granny is "good" then, fair enough. But if the
> argument is that the atheist can offer some cogent reason why I should act in
> one manner rather than the other, then I would like to see such cogent reasons
> articulated. My suspicion is that all the atheist can ever do is simply to
> re-articulate the moral imperative in alternate terms: "Why *should* I not
> push Granny under a bus?" - "Because you *should* do no harm to Granny?" -
> "But WHY *should* I do no harm to Granny?" - "Well, because you *should* do no
> harm to other people?"; "But WHY *should* I do no harm to other people?"
> ...and so on.

No, it's because you SHOULD do no harm to ME. Granny gets generalized from

> If, ultimately, the argument gets around to some pragmatic offering such as
> "Well, if we all went around randomly pushing people under buses, where would
> that leave us?" then there is an obvious rejoinder: "It would leave YOU under
> a bus" - which is based on the purely pragmatic reasoning that one OUGHT to
> get in first when dealing with pragmatists (unless, of course, your pragmatist
> dialogue partner is of more use to you alive than dead - only don't then stand
> too close to the curb).

Of course, you are ignoring the strong urge to compassion and identification
that is basic to all (nearly all) human beings. Otherwise this IS the
argument I'm making. Of course people act badly and in all kinds of
circumstances. You shouldn't stand too close to the curb if you are of the
wrong religious sect. Someone might decide to do God's work.

> After all, on a materialistic evolutionary understanding the species "Homo
> Sapiens" is a historical curiosity whose moral sense is not only a matter of
> evolutionary flux, but has no more claim to significance than the instinctive
> impulses which drive of any of a million other species. If it is not "wrong"
> for a pack of Canis lupus (Gray Wolf) to rip Granny limb from limb, then why
> is it "wrong" for me to do the same? If Canis lupus is not bound by the maxim
> "do no harm", then why should I be?

A pack of Canis lupis do not rip EACH OTHER to shreds because they are a
social species with bonds of affection as strong as ours. Of course other
species do not fall into the moral equation for wolves or humans. Visit the
meat aisle in the grocery store some time. Wolves will rip Granny to shreds
and we'll shoot wolves from helicopters.

> And if the answer to THAT question makes some appeal to human rationality -
> then my response is simply that the atheist hasn't shown why human rationality
> should be considered "higher" (or more binding) than human irrationality -
> particularly my irrational desire to dispatch Granny in whatever way takes my
> fancy.

Such an urge would, indeed, be irrational.
> Those laws may have endued us with the notion, at this particular point in our
> evolutionary development, that pushing helpless old ladies to a grisly death
> is, all things considered, a bad thing. But there is no reason to consider
> such a notion "moral" in any traditional sense of the term, nor any reason why
> I "should" be bound by it.

Doing or not doing something because some 3rd party told you to do it and
said they'd smash (or reward) you if you didn't isn't morality either. Quite
the contrary.

> So I agree with the trivially obvious claim that atheists DO have a moral
> sense, what I DON'T see is any way of grounding that moral sense in any way
> which would compel me to take it seriously.

That's because you have a lifetime habit of accepting morality from an
outside source. You don't trust your own morality or your ability to judge
good from bad. You don't trust yourself to do good without fear of
punishment or hope of reward. You don't understand that morality is a basic
requirement to a happy life and you don't need to be forced to do it.


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Received on Tue Sep 8 17:35:56 2009

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