March 20, 2002

GOD, ATHEISM, AND MORALITY (CONTINUED) :

OUR ANONYMOUS CORRESPONDENT REBUTS (see below for the earlier entries):

I'd be interested to know whether you think that humans'
visceral reactions to good and evil events are intrinisically rooted in the
Judeo-Christian tradition, or can they exist as natural human reactions
outside the realm of religion. When we saw those planes crashing into the
Twin Towers, were we revulsed because we had been schooled by the
Judeo-Christian tradition to abhor evil acts, or is there a visceral factor
at play here, that even without any specific religious knowledge, our hatred
of suffering led us to that reaction. If an agnostic watched these events
with horror, was his reaction a natural human reflex, or "free-riding" on
religious tenets of right and wrong? A good book on the natural human
tendency towards Good is James Q. Wilson's The Moral Sense.

In my opinion, the notion that atheists just "download" the Judeo-Christian
moral code is open to the counter-argument that we are just projecting our
natural moral tendencies onto a Biblical edict that is above humanity. I
don't think the debate here is whether God is or isn't responsible for
implanting morality into humans. The real question is how He does it. I
think it is more likely that a moral code is implanted in us at birth. The
"free-riding" elements of morality, the visceral negative reactions we
assign to actions universally accepted as immoral or evil, and the positive
reactions to good deeds, seems to be too deeply implanted to have come from
later learning about religion. That's just my sense of it, however. The
argument that we are naturally amoral, and that we come to be taught
otherwise by religious learning isn't something that completely washes with
me. This would be more of an error in perfect Design than the former option
would be.

And by the way, I don't deny evil. There is a distinct minority of
recidivists, perhaps 5 or 10 percent of the population -- who are evil. This
group includes everyone from Osama to the street thugs of the world. I don't
believe this to be a natural human condition, or how we would all be if we
weren't taught otherwise. These are deviants, and an extra "push" is
required to make them evil. How do we deal with them? Incredible force must
be brought to bear on them by the rest of society. At a minimum, our
rationale for acting this way should be as follows: you cannot have a
self-perpetuating human society unless such behavior is eliminated. The
secular impetus behind this is self-preservation. The debate about whether
humans themselves can set rules ensuring their continued survival and
progress is moot. Yes, we can -- as a bunch of people in Shar-i-Kot
mountains just found out.

Your point about the failure of Godless ideologies is well-taken, and may
well be a reason to revere the Judeo-Christian tradition. I can only suggest
that the main reason these ideologies failed was because of they were
programmatic. Even Randism, the classic Godless ideology of the Right, is
too damn programmatic. None of these ideologies would truly let people live
according to their nature, and that's why they collapsed. Communism blamed
the world's problems not on those who actually were evil, but on a bunch of
businessmen whose financial activities had nothing to do with good or evil.

Human nature doesn't strive for a selfless utopia, but is profoundly rooted
in enlightened self-interest, the great insight of Adam Smith. In most
cases, it is in our self-interest to cooperate with others. The only time I
have an interest in taking your stuff is if I know that you won't retaliate,
or if I disappear completely from human society. Because we have to continue
to live with the people whom we have done wrong against, it is not in our
interest to do wrong. "Love your neighbor like you'd like to be loved
yourself" isn't an abstract ideal, but very practical advice about how the
world is actually structured. I say this with the caveat that I'm excluding
that implacable of 5 or 10 percent group I described earlier.

Ultimately, I say all this because I *am* a conservative who is struck by
how well the world actually works on a day to day basis. I wouldn't change
a thing about how our self-interested economic system works. I wouldn't try
to manipulate nature by indiscriminate cloning. And I think that a good
moral life is pretty attainable by most people who try hard enough. What a
great system God has designed for us.


ORRIN ANSWERS :

Good points all, yet I believe they boil down to one essential question : is
Man naturally good? Obviously it would be nice to think so, to believe that
morality arises naturally, that evil is an aberration that afflicts the very
few and that at our core we are enlightened beings, who behave rationally
and selflessly self-interestedly. Unfortunately, it is the great insight of
Judaism and the very basis of Western Civilization that Man is instead
Fallen, is characterized by the propensity for evil (for our purposes
perhaps we can agree to define evil as : disregard for others?), and is but
a faint and imperfect reflection of the divine.

Now, nothing could be more fruitless than to speculate about what Man must
have been like in the state of Nature, before the rise of religion and
government, but surely the fact that they did rise suggests that they were
needed. If Man truly was a placid and cooperative creature then why would
he have needed moral systems and police powers to control his behaviors?
Does it not seem more likely that life was insufferable when each was left
to his own devices?

So now we arrive at the question of whether the morality that rose grew out
of human nature or was imposed from above. You mention the horror that we
all felt on 9-11. I tend to believe that such horror may be fairly innate.
But the reaction of horror is much different than the sense that something
is evil. We've seen this difference play out around the world and in pockets
of our own Left, where people have been incapable of describing the attacks
as evil, have even treated them as legitimate responses to American
arrogance or Middle East meddling or whatever. Though it appears that the
intentional slaughter of innocents provokes a general revulsion, it does not
seem to provoke a similarly generalized moral response. May we take this as
some evidence that morality is learned, rather than biological?

In fact, we may have stumbled into one of the keys to morality here, the
process by which mere repugnance becomes moral judgment. Consider some of
the hot button moral issues of the day : abortion, infanticide,
homosexuality, cloning, euthanasia... (Note that all are cases where we
objectify fellow humans, treat them as objects rather than fellow beings
given full human dignity by God, and dispose of them for our own purposes).
Each repulses us, by which I mean that we would not discuss the details of
each in polite company or ever a meal, yet our moral responses to them
depend on our moral conditioning. Leon Kass has written of the "wisdom of
repugnance", of how we should listen to that repugnance and use it to shape
our ethical regime, yet this is exceedingly rare.

In actuality it is typically only believers who combine their repugnance
with the moral judgment that these things are wrong, or are at least
troublesome, and mostly only Judeo-Christian believers at that. Aboriginal
beliefs, Eastern philosophies, and the like tend to be quite fatalistic
about such things--accepting them as fate. Modern liberalism, atheism
broadly understood, requires that we not judge such things. It seems to be
only the monotheistic, biblical, decalogue-based religions that take the
step from being repulsed to forbidding these behaviors and holding people
morally cuplable for engaging in them. We've added the vital notion that
these behaviors are not just unfortunate but are sinful.

Here it is important to note that Judeo-Christianity teaches us that we are
all sinners, are all sinful and sin-filled, and acknowledges that sin is
paradoxically attractive. In the Garden after all the serpent does not need
to trick Man into disobeying God, he tells Adam and Eve the truth, that they
can become gods themselves by eating of the two trees, and this, of course,
appeals to them. You suggest that while evil does exist but that it is
contained within a tiny fraction of the population. To the contrary, the
Bible teaches us that evil resides within each of us, that sin appeals to
all of us, and that in the end none of us can resist this dark side of our
nature entirely. We all succumb at various times and to various degrees to
the desire to place our own concerns, needs, and desires above our
consideration for our fellow men, and so we sin.

And yet, we in the West had by the late 18th Century achieved relatively
decent and free societies, which improved steadily into the late 20th
Century and which may well still have their best days in front of them.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world, absent the improvements they borrowed from
us or had forced upon them, has either been stagnant or has even declined.
If we look for what has separated us from the pack it seems difficult to
ignore our religious-moral system and the political system (democracy) and
economic system (capitalism) to which it gave birth. You seem to assume
that capitalism would have sprung full-blown from Zeus's head even without
Judeo-Christian morality, but we face the stubborn fact that it exists only
in the West. You suggest that it is a kind of self-regulating system, yet
it exists only where a universal and absolute morality makes people's
behavior fairly predictable and where liberal-democratic governments are in
place to lightly enforce certain basic business rules. It is perhaps even
fair to say that capitalism itself freeloads on the back of
Judeo-Christianity.

At the end of the day, we are left with the stubborn fact that the world is
dominated today by its most decent societies, those of the Judeo-Christian
West. Perhaps you are right and we could remove the religious foundation
upon which our progress has been based and would suffer few adverse
consequences. I do not believe that it is true and I'm certainly not
willing to gamble on the proposition. But I also wish to point out that I
do not feel like we have to do anything to the unbelievers. The foundations
are more than sturdy enough to bear a few freeloaders. A few...

Thank you for your provocative thoughts,
OJ

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 20, 2002 8:51 PM
Comments for this post are closed.