googlef87758e9b6df9bec.html A Sure Word: Morals are Silly!

Friday, April 26, 2013

Morals are Silly!

Morals are silly! That's not my opinion, it's the title of a YouTube video posted by a girl calling herself “healthyaddict.” Healthyaddict is an atheist who posts videos where she usually bashes Christians and occasionally defends atheism. In this video, she's responding to another video by a person posting as “Jesusfreek777” and she attempts to explain where morals come from. As usual, I'm going to recommend you view the video before I begin discussing it. It's only 3:12 long. Go ahead. I'll wait. //RKBentley taps his foot patiently//

I didn't choose this video because healthyaddict is the most articulate defender of atheism. Frankly, I've heard other, more articulate atheists make these same points. I picked this video because healthyaddict is very brief and I believe she is more representative of the casual way people usually make this argument. By the way, I spend about as much time looking at material critical of Christians as I do examining material defending Christians. When I talk about the unbelievers' arguments, I want to fairly represent their views and not build a straw man of their position. In this case, you can hear healthyaddict's position in her own words. I can't be accused of misrepresenting her.

Are we all agreed? Then let's move on.

She opens her video with the comment that “morals are silly” but she never really addresses what she means by that. It's very strange. From there, she changes direction and begins explaining her theory on the origin of morals. It's to this point that I'm going to respond.

Healthyaddict says that morals come from natural selection. That's not a big surprise because that's all that atheists or evolutionists ever have as an explanation. She's a little vague, though, in that she doesn't explain how this mechanism works. Is she saying that morality is a conscious act where we choose behavior that offers the greatest survival advantage or is morality an evolved trait where we instinctively act in ways that offer the greatest chance for survival? Either way, I will show you why she's wrong.

For her first example, she says that if we go around killing people “then the species would die off.” I guess she's saying that if we killed people carte blanche, then eventually we'd kill everyone. That's a little overreaching, don't you think? Again, I don't want to put words into anyone's mouth but I'm going to try to help her out. What she might be trying to say is that if we go around killing people, we are more likely to be killed in revenge. Therefore, if we act peaceably toward our neighbors, we're more likely to be left alone by them and, so, are more likely to live longer, have more kids, and pass along the trait of being peaceable.

This sounds plausible at first but it fails under scrutiny. First, it's well known that animals often fight and kill each other – even members of the same species. Sometimes, they fight for reproductive rights where the victorious male is allowed to mate and the defeated male is dead. This actually strengthens the species as a whole by removing the weaker males from the gene pool. If survival of the fittest is the goal, why would it necessarily be morally wrong for humans to kill each other if it were for something like the love of a woman?

Furthermore, under the “don't kill and you won't be killed” theory, would imperialism be objectively immoral? In the US, under our Manifest Destiny mission, we militantly displaced whole nations of American Indians, killing many of them and forcing many more onto reservations. Since this allowed the invading, white men to prosper, it must be moral by healthyaddict's standard.

Healthyaddict also attempts to tackle the dilemma of altruism. Why do humans do things that are a cost to them and a benefit to others? It doesn't make any sense according to evolution where everything is measured only by its survival benefit. Healthyaddict suggests altruism is a sort of reverse to the “don't kill and you won't be killed” principle; altruism is a “do this and they'll do it back to you” strategy. She gives the example of chimps picking bugs off other chimps. They do it in the hope that later, some chimp will pick bugs off them. I think healthyaddict needs to look up the definition of altruism. If you are expecting something in return, then it isn't altruism by definition. When people give money to starving children in third world countries, they never expect the children to someday repay them. Neither does the giver imagine that someday he might find himself in a third world country and will need some, middle class Westerner to give him food.

About 2 minutes into the video, healthyaddict undoes her entire point. She says, “I do think some things are very core when it comes to altruism, not killing each other generally, not raping each other. I think that's kind of like a universal standard because of natural selection.” You can see that the idea of morality by natural selection is so vague as to be meaningless. It's far more subjective than objective. No behavior could really be called immoral if an argument could be made that it offers some survival value. Yet she uses words like “core” and “universal standard” when it comes to the immorality of things like murder or rape. Is there a “core,” “universal standard” of morality or isn't there?

Immediately after stating that some things are universally wrong, healthyaddict points out that some attitudes of morality change over time. She uses the example of homosexuality. Now, homosexuality does not convey any survival benefit. Evolution hinges on reproduction and attraction to the same sex guarantees there can be no offspring. If perpetuation of the species is the objective, then homosexuality should never be viewed as moral. So if attitudes toward the morality of homosexuality have changed, something other than natural selection must be the standard by which it is judged. I would ask healthyaddict, what is that standard? What makes murder and rape always wrong and homosexuality sometimes wrong?

Healthyaddict highlights the futility of the atheist's position. Atheists strive mightily to demonstrate that there is no transcendent, absolute standard of morality. They know to acknowledge the existence of immutable morality strongly suggests there must be a transcendent Judge of right and wrong. So they equivocate and change the meaning of morally “right” to mean “what is expedient.” Yet when it comes to things like rape and murder, atheists immediately label them as absolutely immoral.


Steven J. said...

Please forgive the length of this; it's hard to make all the points I want to more concisely.

Saying that morals come from natural selection does not mean that morals are based on natural selection. One point that the atheist evolutionist is presumably clear on is that natural selection is as devoid of goals as gravity; it no more wants "survival of the fittest" than a magnet wants to attract iron filings. Morality cannot be based on assisting natural selection to reach those nonexistent goals or conforming our society to natural selection's wishes.

Rather, natural selection shapes morals just as it shapes, e.g. a polar bear's camouflage. The bear doesn't choose to be white, nor is it trying to be the same color as snow. Rather, paler bears tended to leave more descendants so that over time, polar bears became whiter and whiter. By the same token, morals shaped by natural selection don't consist of asking, when faced with a moral choice, "what maximizes the chances of leaving copies of my genes in the next generation?" Rather, temperaments and predilections to choices that, more often than not, make one more likely to leave descendants become more common in populations over time until they become typical features of a species.

Hence Healthyaddict's declaration that there are "core, universal standards." It's not that "not raping people makes you more likely to pass on your genes, so you shouldn't do it." It's that "people for the most part are repulsed by violent exploitation of those in their tribe or clan, because, in fact, violent exploitation didn't pay off, in terms of descendants, as well as cooperation with and regard for others. Morals are based on human nature, on our capacity for reasoning and sympathy, not on the natural processes that shaped that nature.

I realize that from a creationist standpoint, where God is indifferently the Creator of human nature and the Instructor of morals, it may seem nit-picking to draw a distinction between natural selection as the shaper of our nature and the basis of our morals (again, it isn't and can't be the latter). On the other hand, even creationists understand (indeed, emphasize) the distinction between being made by God and trying to be God; Healthyaddict isn't claiming that morality consists of trying to be natural selection Again, she is not arguing that calculations of "survival benefit" are how we decide the morality of an action; rather, the actual survival benefit of sympathy, concern for others, and mutual assistance in our ancestors shaped the way we feel and decide now.

Steven J. said...

A few incidental notes:

First, "fitness" is relative to the environment; what is fitter in one environment may be less fit in another. So killing off "weaker" males doesn't make the species absolutely better; it shapes a species in which males are optimized for combat against each other.

Second, evolutionists have disputed whether true altruism exists. Perhaps all seeming altruism is based on either kin selection (as in Haldane's quip that he would not lay down his life for his brother, but he would for three brothers or nine cousins -- because that way he'd be saving more copies of his genes than he'd be sacrificing) or on the likelihood of eventual reciprocity. Again, please note that we are talking not about individual calculations but about what worked for one's ancestors regardless of their intentions or calculations: one can be generous without worrying about how one will benefit from it, if generosity was favored by natural selection because, in most cases, it did pay off eventually.

Third, a rapist or a murderer is an obvious danger to you and yours; a homosexual is not so obviously a menace. Again, the point is not calculations of how this affects your chances of leaving descendants (much less anyone else's chances); it's based on the fact that we dislike threats to ourselves and those of our group, but can be indifferent to non-threatening behaviors.

Fourth, most considerations of the evolution of morality (both the biologically evolved predispositions on which it is based and the socially evolved actual rules) deal with concentric circles of concern: we feel moral obligations most strongly to those of our band or family, and increasingly weaker bonds to those more socially and genetically distant from us. Hence, e.g. we find laws in the Bible against imposing lifelong or ruthless slavery on fellow Israelites, while permitting it towards non-Israelites. But because we can reason morally, we can expand these circles of concern to include (and extend moral obligations to) people outside our own family, tribe, or nation.

Fifth, I leave you with Niven's 16th law: "There is no cause so right that one cannot find a fool following it." It is not helpful to critique a position by finding its weakest, or even its "usual" or "casual" expression, and dissecting this rather than better and fuller expositions

RKBentley said...

Steven J,

Like I said in my post, I've heard these same points made more clearly by other skeptics. You've stated the points more clearly than healthyaddict. That's very well done, thank you. But they're still the same points.

If I follow your argument correctly (which I think I do), you are reducing “right” and “wrong” to mean what is “good” and “bad” from a strategic perspective rather than a moral perspective. You're using good or bad in the same way we would decide the moves in a chess game. An advantageous move that leads to a victory is “good”; a foolish move that leads to a loss is “bad.” Such an argument doesn't really explain morals. No one would call a bad move in chess “evil.”

You said, “people for the most part are repulsed by violent exploitation of those in their tribe or clan, because, in fact, violent exploitation didn't pay off, in terms of descendants, as well as cooperation with and regard for others.”

That sums up my chess analogy nicely (BTW, it's not my analogy originally; I'm borrowing it). It's not that rape or murder are absolutely evil, they just don't pay off strategically. They're bad moves for the perpetuation of the tribe.

But what about my example of the victimizing of native Indians in the settlers' march to the Pacific? That did pay off for the aggressors so by what standard can an atheist say it was “evil”?

You concluded your comments saying, “It is not helpful to critique a position by finding its weakest, or even its "usual" or "casual" expression, and dissecting this rather than better and fuller expositions.”

Here's the way I see it: Through a dazzling array of mental gymnastics, atheists try to explain why morals exist without admitting that morals exists. It sounds crazy when I put it that way, doesn't it? Yet the problem is, most people, even atheists, believe deep down that absolute morals do exist.

There's a difference between bad and evil. I believe that evil exists and because evil exists, I know there is a transcendent (beyond nature) law by which we can judge good and evil. Therefore, I believe there is a transcendent (beyond nature) Law Giver. I'm using the existence of absolute morality as evidence for the existence of God.

Do you believe evil exists? If so, then how do you explain it in the framework of atheism? I'm not exactly saying that you're wrong because you can't explain why absolute morals exist. I'm saying that you're wrong in advance which is why you can't explain why absolute morals exist.

Thanks for your comments. God bless!!


Steven J. said...

I seem to have explained myself badly.

People feel that rape and murder are evil because they feel that such acts are evil. This has nothing to do with their personal judgments of whether such acts are good or bad for the tribe. But they feel that way because feeling that way led their ancestors to behave in ways that are good for the tribe. I'm not sure I can make this clearer: moral judgments are based on human nature and human feelings, not on asking "what would natural selection favor?" But human nature and human feelings were themselves shaped by natural selection.

Things are not "evil" because they are contrary to species survival; they are "evil" because they are contrary to human sympathy and reason. You can feel, and insist, that various actions are "absolutely" evil or good, quite apart from how human beings feel and reason, but how human beings feel and reason is the only actual data you have.

Side note: interestingly, "strategy" is a term that comes up often in evolutionary biology, but it's used metaphorically: talking of a species' "strategy," or about different "strategies" competing in a population, does not imply choice or planning. Rather, a "strategy," to an evolutionary biologist, is a set of behaviors that are followed by instinct or built-in predilections. Different genes program one for different instincts and predilections, and hence a different "strategy."

RKBentley said...

Steven J,

You said, “I seem to have explained myself badly.”

No, you explained yourself well. Your position is very like healthyaddict's but, as I've said, you stated it much better.

You said, “People feel that rape and murder are evil because they feel that such acts are evil. This has nothing to do with their personal judgments of whether such acts are good or bad for the tribe. But they feel that way because feeling that way led their ancestors to behave in ways that are good for the tribe. I'm not sure I can make this clearer: moral judgments are based on human nature and human feelings, not on asking "what would natural selection favor?" But human nature and human feelings were themselves shaped by natural selection.”

Yes, I get it. This is what healthyaddict failed to make clear. Like I said in my post, she didn't explain whether it was a conscious choice or an instinct. You argue that it is by instinct – or rather, that our feelings about right and wrong have been shaped by selecting those attitudes that helped our ancestors survive. But again like I said, either way, the net effect is the same.

As a matter of fact, you've stated your position so well that we have a much clearer distinction between my beliefs and your beliefs. According to you, there is no such thing as absolute evil. Evil is only what we “feel” it is. I say that right and wrong are immutable. Something that is evil has always been – and always will be – evil. How would you apply these different views in the following circumstance?

The Nazis killed six million Jews. I simply say that was absolutely wrong. You might say that it's wrong according to OUR sense of right and wrong but obviously the Nazis didn't think it was wrong. If they had won the war, you and I might be speaking German right now. We also might be much more sympathetic to their Final Solution. So if you were in the minority opinion, how could you still argue they were morally wrong?

You say that there is no transcendent standard of morality. I say there is. I hate to keep repeating myself but I believe most people, even most atheists, believe there is a such thing as absolute morality. If there is such a thing, it can only exist if there is a transcendent Law Giver.

I can see why atheists are so desperate to argue that absolute morality doesn't exist.

Thanks for your comments. God bless!!


Anonymous said...

I just love these types of post. So many atheists like her in Youtube. It's ridiculous.

God Bless

RKBentley said...

I've watched a few videos by healthyaddict. A lot of them are nothing more than rants and foul language.

In this video, she's a little more successful at attempting to be persuasive. She must have take a few moments and reflected on what she would say before posting it.

Thanks for your comments. God bless!!


Steven J. said...

I think you still miss my point; I don't know whether that is due to my clumsiness at self-expression or your determination not to understand me. Not all atheists argue for moral relativism. Sam Harris, at least, has argued that objectively true moral facts can exist even without being divinely enacted, and has essayed to explain how such moral facts could be derived.

Absolute morals are a trickier concept; "absolute" implies that they are not contingent in any way on the details of human nature, but, e.g. our sexual morals would obviously be different if we were simultaneous hermaphrodites (like snails or earthworms) or sequential hermaphrodites (like clownfish).

But the Nazis shared the same human nature as their enemies and their victims. Arguments that natural selection shaped human nature and the human moral sense are implicitly arguments that the Nazis were wrong, because what they did went against human reason and sympathy (and for that matter, the Nazis themselves tried to hide the Holocaust, even as they advertised much of their barbarism).

RKBentley said...

Steven J,

Believe me, I share your frustration of sometimes being unable to express myself. In the case of your reply, I assure you that I get it. I understand what you're saying. I really do.

You're saying that our morality is instinctive. It has been shaped via natural selection and now is as instinctive in us as a baby's instinct to nurse. Now that our morals have been ingrained in us, we can judge (with at least some objectivity) whether something is “right” or “wrong” according to how it comports with our natural tendencies toward right or wrong.

Does that about sum up your argument? Like I said, I always want to fairly represent my opponent's views. By the way, it was actually while referring to Harris' book that I heard William Lane Craig use the chess analogy.

Perhaps it's my failure to explain myself that has led to your thinking that I don't understand you. Do you remember when I said that atheists want to argue that morals exists without admitting that morals exist? It arguments like yours (actually, it's arguments like Sam Harris') that I'm referring to when I said that. Since people seem to believe that absolute morality exists, you are trying to explain why they feel that way while at the same time explaining that a transcendent standard of morality really doesn't exist.

Maybe it's the examples that I've been using that have muddied the water. After all, the examples of the Nazis and Native Americans have been way overused. Let me try something different:

By any standard, atheists are the minority in the US. Are we agreed? The overwhelming majority of Americans identify themselves as Christians. Still agreed? So, if we can (semi) objectively identify what is moral and what is immoral according to our natural instinct, then on what grounds can someone like Richard Dawkins say that any religious belief is immoral since the majority of people in the US are religious? You know that he's said this. Since he represents the minority, the majority of people could objectively call his unbelief a sin.

What also of gay marriage? Since a majority of people in several states have already voted against allowing gay marriage, then on what grounds can gays argue that it's “not fair” that we don't allow them to marry? To what, immutable standard of fairness can they appeal? If we objectively know what is moral, then I say the majority of objective, moral judges have already spoken.

Like I've already said, I'll say again: the difference between you and me is the idea that morality is transcendent. You say it's not and I say it is. We've drawn the lines and set up our camps in the arena of ideas. We'll see whose argument is the most persuasive.

Thanks for your comments. God bless!!


Steven J. said...

I don't know that Dawkins has said that religious belief is immoral; I think he has said that religious indoctrination of children is immoral. I don't think I agree (I'd certainly fear a government intrusive enough to prevent it, anyway), but those are not the same point. And you can argue Dawkins' point on grounds that most Christians would accept (at least in matters not touching on their religious beliefs): it's not nice to take advantage of children's naivety and poor reasoning and investigation skills to indoctrinate them in your own prejudices, teaching them not even to acknowledge or consider contrary data and arguments.

Side note: you must, surely, be wondering how I can reconcile that position with my disgust at teaching "the weaknesses of evolution." It's really simple: the "weaknesses of evolution" are misrepresentations and logical fallacies, not actual data supporting a contrary theory.

Anyway, it seems to me that one can hold that morals are objective facts and still hold that people have come to wrong conclusions about some moral questions (by analogy, holding in the 17th century that the majority was wrong to suppose the sun orbited the Earth was not denying the existence of objective astronomical reality. Just as the majority of that time was not stupid, but was still wrong, I think you could hold that a majority could be mistaken about a moral judgment without, themselves, being morally monstrous.

One could even hold that objective moral facts required one set of behaviors under one set of circumstances, and justified a contrary set of behaviors under altered circumstances.

You could find more enthusiastic defenders of same-sex marriage than myself to argue with. It has occurred to me that in point of fact the analogy between bans on interracial marriage and bans on gay marriage miss some important points (e.g. there have been numerous bans on "interracial marriage, every one of them an exception to the general rule that any single man could marry any single woman with relevant consent, but there was not a general tradition that you could marry a person of your own sex that was altered by some statute or new custom).

But obviously, appeals to "standards of fairness" are precisely what comparisons to bans on miscegenation are about: it is an argument that you cannot deny to others what you wish to claim for yourself -- the right to marry someone you love and who loves you back. Again, you yourself hold that moral judges can be wrong, and I think you hold that even when the moral judges on a particular issue hold a majority.