Sunday, September 2, 2012

Atheist Morality: Ratcheting Forward

By Kristopher Hite 

As a person with no religion and no belief in any gods, it may come as a surprise that I spend considerable time thinking about the best source of moral guidance. Throughout history there have been people who maintain a good reputation, a high quality of life, and provide constant intellectual stimulation to their peers while actively questioning what is right and wrong. Who are these people in present day and what do they have to say?

Dr. Ken Miller is a cell biologist and professor at Brown University. He is famous for defending evolution as a fundamental subject in biology classrooms and has given testimony in several important court cases. The most recent being Kitzmiller v. Dover, PA.  By doing so he has elevated the quality of public education in the United States and helped ensure evolution be taught as a matter of fact.  Through his work he has upheld the establishment clause fo the US constitution and for this I applaud him.

As for moral thought, Dr. Miller has gone on record saying that "science can only take us so far." I was able to ask him to elaborate on this thought last week as part of a Google Hangout On Air moderated by the HuffPostLive host Josh Zepps. I asked him where atheists ought to get their morals and where he gets his. Here was his response.
If, in science, we found an absolute, testable, empirical source of morality then scientists everywhere would agree on all moral questions. The reality is I think our discussions of morality, in other words, what is right and wrong, have to be informed by science. I think we have to be literate in science, even people who are not scientists. But ultimately moral questions require a philosophical point of view in terms of what is the good life? How should we treat each other? What is the value of human life?  Now as a Catholic, I have to confess, I draw a lot of my moral sense from the religious teachings of my faith. But I also would argue that there is a moral sense that is present in everybody. Whether they are a person of faith, whether they are an agnostic, or whether they are an atheist. I completely agree with the idea that one can have an atheistic world-view. And informed by science, and by using logic, and by having a philosophical view on life, you can in fact, develop a moral code which is consistent and which provides the greatest good for the greatest number.
His answers only lead me to more questions. Which philosophical views help provide the greatest good? And what time-scale for good should we choose? If not from science then where do these ideas originate? And how are contemporary atheists doing on developing a moral code?

Fellow blogger, Cara Santa Maria chimed in via the Huffpost discussion informing me that she had recently recorded a pertinent episode of "the Point" a spin-off of the the Young Turks Network. The episode was essentially a panel discussion of exclusively atheists trying to answer the question "where does atheist morality come from?"

As part of the panel discussion, video comments were aired as food-for-thought. To me, the most striking guest was AJ Johnson, Development Director for the American Atheists organization. Here is her comment.


Physicist and blogger Sean Carroll responded to her comment with a plea to  atheists to heed her words and to try harder to actively participate in the process of developing an atheist morality. Here is Sean.
AJ Johnson brings up a really important point when she says secularists should "own" their superior morality. I think that we have been on the defensive for a very long time because traditionally the reason why things were "right and wrong" ultimately flowed from God. God was helping us explain what is good, and what is bad. Of course God does not exist. But we haven't, as secularists, really given a good explanation of where our morality comes from. And partly, it's because we don't know. Figuring out how to act in the world without guidance from outside anywhere is a very difficult problem. We say nice things about equality and liberty and things like that. But we don't agree on the underlying philosophy. We don't have the cheap out of saying "well, here's the holy book where its all been written down." We have to think about things. And I think we need to do a better job.
At this point you may say "we can look to evolution and neurobiology for our moral origins. We can see how justice plays out in animals. We can look to cognitive neuroscientists like Josh Greene who can tell us the average response to moral dilemmas in the fMRI scans of human brains. We can use this scientific data to rationalize a fair system for human society. Right?"  Wrong says Sean Carroll.
You do not want to commit the naturalistic fallacy. You do not want to say that because things happen in nature that they are the right things to have happen. We need explain the fundamental reason for saying that some behavior is good, some behavior is bad. I think that evolution helps us explain why we have the predilections we do. And evolution is certainly going to play a crucial role in an ultimate understanding of morality, but it does not GIVE it to us in any simple way. We should be able to do better than that.
If science can not tell us where morality comes from, then what can? As atheists shouldn't we be skeptical of any idea that can not be explained with the scientific method?  I'll give you my answer.  Yes we should be skeptical of pure moral philosophy but that does not mean we should shut our ears to it.  Much can be learned from living people as they have the highest probability of experiencing the same existential questions you have.  The very term "humanist" implies that we ought embrace our peers and draw our ethics from them.  There are currently very powerful  leaders in the atheist community, like it or not.  Though we do not hold these leaders as infallible vessels of an invisible sky-father there is a large collective of minds tuned-in to their thoughts via the internet. 

PZ Myers is one of these leaders. A professor of biology at the University of Minnesota at Morris PZ writes one of the most widely read blogs on the planet.  Being in the right place at the right time, PZ has the unique position of wielding a mighty horde or electronic followers numbering in the hundreds of thousands. When he asks them to do something, they do it en masse. This can be seen any time he asks them to crash some bogus internet poll which they do in throngs.  This kind of klout is not to be taken lightly. Though PZ has been dogged as being odious and even a "shepherd of internet trolls" by thinkers like Sam Harris, in my opinion PZ has made some excellent points lately. I think he has some moral guidance to offer in explaining secular morality more precisely as Sean Carroll has challenged us to do. The following passage penned by PZ  appears in the latest issue of Free Inquiry, titled Atheism’s Third Wave.

Professor and blogger PZ Myer
Science is neutral on moral concerns; it only describes what is, not how it ought to be. And this is true; science is a tool that can be used equally well for curing diseases or building bombs. But scientists are not and should not be morally neutral, nor should scientific organizations or culture be excluded from defining the appropriate uses of science. Science without humanist moral standards leads to Mengele or the Hiroshima bombing or the Tuskegee syphilis experiments.

Similarly, atheism may be value-neutral, but atheists and atheist organizations should not be. Atheism sensu stricto may be a specific assertion about a fact of the universe, but atheism as practiced is a defining idea in a mind and a powerful foundation for a human community. It has meanings and implications that we must heed and use for achieving our goals.

And what should those goals be? Because I’m an atheist and share common cause with every other human being on the planet in desiring to live my one life with equal opportunity, I suggest that atheists ought to fight for equality for all, economic security for all, and universally available health and education services. Peace is the only answer; extinguishing a precious human life ought to be unthinkable in all but the most dire situations of self-defense. Ours should be a movement that welcomes all sexes, races, ages, and abilities and encourages an appreciation of human richness. Atheism ought to be a progressive social movement in addition to being a philosophical and scientific position, because living in a godless universe means something to humanity.
I went to see President Obama speak in Colorado last week. During his speech he echoed this sentiment of equality and inclusiveness. He pointed out that the history of the United States has seen protection under the law and participation in government become more and more inclusive. He described that process as a ratchet in which progress only goes forward. It is my sincere hope that unprecedented personal connectivity can couple to decentralized information and push the ratchet of progress even further. Maybe even so far as to see an open-atheist as a viable candidate for major political office one day.

Thank you for reading. I hope that as a peer you will leave a comment below and tell me where you get your sense of right and wrong so I might share your wisdom.

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