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All Ethics Are Secular Ethics

April 23rd, 2012 · 27 Comments

In an exchange at Slate with Will Saletan, Ross Douthat writes:

[T]he more purely secular liberalism has become, the more it has spent down its Christian inheritance—the more its ideals seem to hang from what Christopher Hitchens’ Calvinist sparring partner Douglas Wilson has called intellectual “skyhooks,” suspended halfway between our earth and the heaven on which many liberals have long since given up. Say what you will about the prosperity gospel and the cult of the God Within and the other theologies I criticize in Bad Religion, but at least they have a metaphysically coherent picture of the universe to justify their claims. Whereas much of today’s liberalism expects me to respect its moral fervor even as it denies the revelation that once justified that fervor in the first place. It insists that it is a purely secular and scientific enterprise even as it grounds its politics in metaphysical claims. (You will not find the principle of absolute human equality in evolutionary theory, or universal human rights anywhere in physics.) It complains that Christian teachings on homosexuality do violence to gay people’s equal dignity—but if the world is just matter in motion, whence comes this dignity? What justifies and sustains it? Why should I grant it such intense, almost supernatural respect?

Now, I know Ross has read his Euthyphro, but since he talks here as though he hasn’t, I’ll go ahead and make the obvious point: Invoking God doesn’t actually get you very far in ethics, because ascribing “goodness” to a deity or its laws is meaningless unless there’s some independent criterion for this. At best, God gets you two things: First, a plausible prudential internal motivation to behave “morally” (because God will punish you if you don’t), though of the same formal sort as the motivation you might have to obey a powerful state or a whimsical alien overlord. Second, a potential form of “expert validation” for independent moral truths we lack direct epistemic access to, as when we accept certain propositions on the grounds that mathematicians or scientists have confirmed them, even if most of us are incapable of comprehending the detailed proof.  But invoking God doesn’t solve any of the problems that secular moral philosophers grapple with—it’s essentially just a way of gesturing at a black box, wherein we’re assured the answer lies, and asserting that we needn’t worry our pretty little heads about it.

If divine commandments are not supposed to be mere arbitrary rules we obey out of fear, then every question Ross thinks confronts the secular moralist reappears within a theistic framework. Why does being made in the image of God, whatever that entails, imbue people with dignity? Why would it obligate us to treat them (or refrain from treating them) in certain ways? Why should we believe that supernatural properties can supply us with the appropriate sort of reasons if natural properties cannot? As with cosmological questions, appealing to God defers the questions rather than answering them. In the moral case, one might add, it seems to do so in a rather unattractive way: It turns out that the reasons we have to respect other persons are rather like the reasons we have to respect property—flowing not from anything intrinsic to the object, but from the consideration due some third party who is the real source of  value.

One way to highlight what’s wrong with this picture is by reflecting on the familiar but confused idea implicit in the observation: “You will not find the principle of absolute human equality in evolutionary theory, or universal human rights anywhere in physics.”  Nor an account of plate tectonics in calculus, a diagnosis of schizophrenia in game theory, or the concept of Turing completeness in astronomy. It is not some kind of contingent disappointment that physics and biology have not discovered dutyons mixed in somewhere with the bosons and protons, or failed to detect the Rights Field generated by the human body: The kinds of facts studied by the natural sciences are, more or less by definition, not normative facts. But the same goes for supernatural facts. If there is a God, we still need ethics to get us across the gap to ought. Facts about the divine, if we had any, would just join natural facts in the pool of data for secular moral philosophy. [Addendum: This graf is not meant to take a position on the more contentious question of whether any natural facts—including facts about mental states—could be normative facts.]

Ross is certainly correct that we owe a debt to thinkers in the Christian tradition—who in turn owe one to pagan thinkers of ancient Greece and Rome—but it’s far less clear that the value of their contributions rests crucially on their theistic metaphysical trappings. Aquinas thought that moral law could be derived by human reason from reflection on natural facts. John Locke may have peppered his political philosophy with a generous dose of theology, but it’s not at all obvious that what was always most interesting and compelling in his arguments requires supernatural support. For that matter, Newton was famously quite devout, and thought the physical laws he described ordained by God. But it turns out that F=MA even after you reject that premise: Physical law (like moral law?) does not require a lawgiver. None of which is to deny there’s plenty of hard problems left for modern moral philosophers to solve, but they’re mostly problems that were obscured rather than seriously addressed by theology.

Ross closes with a pitch to modern liberals who wish to preserve ideals like human rights, suggesting that “for all its strange claims and confounding commandments, [Christianity] might still provide a better home for humankind than whatever destination our civilization is headed for.”  This gets us to the odd circularity that’s always at the heart of moralized defenses of religion. The notion seems to be that someone not (yet) convinced of Christian doctrine would have strong reasons—strong humanistic reasons—to hope for a world in which human dignity and individual rights are respected. But then why aren’t these reasons enough to do the job on their own? If Christian doctrine is true, then external considerations are irrelevant to the truth of whatever normative beliefs it supports. If it is false, and our moral beliefs are unsustainable without this false premise, then we should be glad to be rid of false and unjustifiable beliefs. If we think it would be awful to discard those beliefs, then that awfulness is sufficient reason to hang onto them without any religious scaffolding. The only coherent version of this argument is that people who don’t think about it very hard will more readily believe that  the religious version of this story provides reasons to respect rights, and comport themselves accordingly. If that were true, it might lead us to hope most people continue to hold the relevant false beliefs, but such pessimism seems premature.

Tags: Moral Philosophy · Religion


       

 

27 responses so far ↓

  • 1 RK // Apr 23, 2012 at 9:09 pm

    This post only seems to start responding to Douthat’s point around the last two sentences (as I read him, anyway). As far as I can see, Douthat doesn’t “invoke God” anywhere to justify morality; the closest he comes is where he mentions “the revelation that once justified that fervor in the first place,” but this sounds like he’s talking about a sociological justification, not a logical one.

    Douthat really seems to be making two points. The first one seems to be a criticism of liberalism’s (ostensibly) scientistic rhetorical style. While I don’t think the sort of reductive materialism Douthat describes is as common as he thinks it is, you do occasionally run into people who do believe all their beliefs can be reduced to synthetic a priori and sense data.

    The second point, which you partially addressed (“Ross is certainly correct that we owe a debt to thinkers in the Christian tradition”), is the deeper one. This post seems to be responding to the argument “liberal morality can only be justified by theism.” But Ross doesn’t mention God anywhere in this post (aside from his reference to what he calls the “God Within” types); he’s careful to use terms like “Christian inheritance” and “metaphysically coherent picture of the universe.” Though it certainly isn’t spelled out in this short piece, I take him to be making the Nietzschean — or MacIntyrean — point that Western liberal morality is really a secularized Christian morality that loses some of its coherence (MacIntyre) and staying power (Nietzsche) when the premodern concepts it depended on, like teleology, are knocked out. Whatever the merits of this position, it can’t be refuted by simply appealing to Euthyphro.

  • 2 Geoff // Apr 23, 2012 at 9:30 pm

    “It complains that Christian teachings on homosexuality do violence to gay people’s equal dignity—but if the world is just matter in motion, whence comes this dignity? ”

    If Douthat isn’t invoking God to justify morality, then what are statements like this supposed to mean? Surely this means he wouldn’t treat the question “if the world has a divine and benevolent Creator, whence comes this dignity?”
    the same way. But that means he doesn’t understand the Euthyphro, as Julian says. I guess Julian knows that Douthat has read his Euthyphro because he knows him personally, but it looks pretty dubious to me.

    What always amazes me is the fact that virtually every ody that has ever seriously thought about and tried to learn about ethics does know their Euthyphro and agrees with Plato. There are more logicians denying the law of excluded middle than ethicists supporting the ridiculous divine command theory. (At least there are enough logic cranks for there to be a name for them —intuitionists.) But almost everybody who knows nothing about it seems to believe that morality somehow “flows from God” or something. Even people who seem pretty intelligent otherwise, like Mr. Douthat, nod their heads at this mumbo-jumbo. Just another example of the truly strange behavior that religion inspires.

  • 3 Julian Sanchez // Apr 23, 2012 at 10:31 pm

    RK-
    If THAT was the point, then it was not worth responding to.

  • 4 Glen // Apr 23, 2012 at 11:09 pm

    I agree with RK, though he says it much better than i, that there are both philosophical and sociological points at stake here that Ross was raising in the orginal article. Your philosophical points are well made and will cause me to revise my own views somewhat. It’s fine if you’re uninterested in the sociological points, but they are important.

    The way you talk about people behaving morally simply because they fear God will punish them. That type of faith doesn’t last long and is a perversion of Christian faith. A recognisably Christian life involves a personal relationship that accepts the need for suffering and self-sacrifical love. Likewise accepting the dignity of other persons as they are made in the image of God. This may be half-baked philosphically, but it seems a powerful mover in the Chrisitan tradition which helped lead to liberal ideas.

    The pessimism about losing these elements of the Christian tradition is bound up with the idea that humans are sinful, or the secular observation that humans quickly become corrupt if they are not held accountable. If one subscribes to a blank slate or humans are naturally good idea, then that pessimism is probably unwarranted.

    When you jettison the original justification, is there a sufficient internal motivation for most people to act on these ideas of dignity and rights when it costs them something. I guess we’ll find out.

  • 5 TGGP // Apr 24, 2012 at 12:37 am

    I’m an atheist, and I think Douthat’s right. There is no basis for objective morality in the absence of a God that can define it as what is necessary to avoid hellfire.

  • 6 Julian Sanchez // Apr 24, 2012 at 12:44 am

    That’s not a morality either. That’s just “what is necessary to avoid hellfire.” If you want to call that “morality,” God seems like overkill; a powerful enough police state will do the trick.

  • 7 RK // Apr 24, 2012 at 1:53 am

    If Douthat isn’t invoking God to justify morality, then what are statements like this supposed to mean? Surely this means he wouldn’t treat the question “if the world has a divine and benevolent Creator, whence comes this dignity? ”the same way.

    Probably not — but I doubt he’d treat the question “if Mahavira was the last Tirthankara, whence comes this dignity?” the same way, either. He’s claiming that morality isn’t susceptible of a “purely secular and scientific” explanation, not that it’s only justifiable if God exists.

    Julian — ouch. Part of the reason I think this is what Douthat is getting at, incidentally, is that I think he made some similar points in a Bloggingheads a while back. (That, and the fact that he doesn’t actually make the claim everyone is attributing to him in this piece.) It would be interesting to see a discussion of the MacIntyrian viewpoint from someone who thinks he is worth responding to — Susan Moller Okin, f’rinstance, had some pretty incisive criticisms of it.

  • 8 prasad // Apr 24, 2012 at 4:14 am

    I’ll risk sounding like the poor man’s Edward Gibbon here. If Christianity is the source of all liberal values, it certainly does seem odd that the period of liberal flourishing is attended with a general criticism and decline of faith, and the recovery of pre-Christian thoughts and values. Odder still that the period of greatest flourishing of the supposed liberal faith is basically a period of rapid decline (no, I don’t think teh Christians caused the end of Rome) in social, cultural and economic conditions followed by eventual, slow recuperation.

    As a non-westerner, I can’t help thinking that if Athens, Rome and Jerusalem form the three foundations of western culture, then frankly, two of those are rather more remarkable in the sense of having things to teach the world than the third.

  • 9 Geoff Robinson // Apr 24, 2012 at 4:15 am

    Does religion add value to ethical work. For example WW I were costs of defeating Germany too great? Religion only provides answers to ethical questions where it’s easy (unprovoked killing a bad thing) or where it is directed against minority interests. Catholic church didn’t say war against Nazi Germany was a just war but it can denounce gay marriage.

  • 10 Adrian Ratnapala // Apr 24, 2012 at 4:40 am

    Hmm, it seems hard to pin down what Douhat was getting at in his piece, and yet on a casual reading it seemed clear to me. Anyway, what I took from it might be the very opposite of what he wanted to say. I read:


    Whereas much of today’s liberalism expects me to respect its moral fervor even as it denies the revelation that once justified that fervor in the first place.

    as and admonition to be humble about moral claims, at least when they are very abstract. Any chain of moral justifications leads as to metaphysics, and that is contested, murky stuff.

  • 11 religion | Pearltrees // Apr 24, 2012 at 5:18 am

    […] [T]he more purely secular liberalism has become, the more it has spent down its Christian inheritance—the more its ideals seem to hang from what Christopher Hitchens’ Calvinist sparring partner Douglas Wilson has called intellectual “skyhooks,” suspended halfway between our earth and the heaven on which many liberals have long since given up. Say what you will about the prosperity gospel and the cult of the God Within and the other theologies I criticize in Bad Religion , but at least they have a metaphysically coherent picture of the universe to justify their claims. Whereas much of today’s liberalism expects me to respect its moral fervor even as it denies the revelation that once justified that fervor in the first place. It insists that it is a purely secular and scientific enterprise even as it grounds its politics in metaphysical claims. All Ethics Are Secular Ethics […]

  • 12 Julian Sanchez // Apr 24, 2012 at 9:29 am

    RK-
    Well, say this, if it’s *just* a sociological or psychological argument, then “coherence” seems beside the point. You just need people to be disposed to stop at “human rights” without asking why in the same way they used to be mostly happy to stop at “God” without asking why. In the religious and secular cases alike, that’s mostly a matter of socialization into a community and its norms, and I don’t see any reason to think religious communities are somehow unique here.

  • 13 John Thacker // Apr 24, 2012 at 10:02 am

    I took the following argument for Douhat:

    Argument: Many of the more aggressive type of rational secular atheist, in their fervor to attack religion, use rhetoric and logic that is equally appropriate against all normative claims, not just supernatural ones.

    I’d say that this does apply to some people, though not to the (I think) much larger group of people that simply don’t have belief in the supernatural. However, I think that this does to some extent explain some of the special hostility people have to the “aggressive atheist.” Someone in too much of a hurry to explain that morals are simply about back-scratching, sharing DNA, game theory, and collective ability to punish just seems like the kind of person who would cheat or betray you if he knew that he couldn’t get caught.

    Regarding your last point, I think that given human history there is some reason to suspect that religious belief and communities are somehow unique. Some amount of skepticism about the ability to transform functioning of a society is warranted.

  • 14 RK // Apr 24, 2012 at 2:10 pm

    Well, I’m sure there’s actual literature on this (which, as usual, I’m not aware of), but like John Thacker, it seems superficially plausible to me that religious belief is a sturdier metaphysical belief than “human rights,” in the same way monotheism seems to be more durable than polytheism historically. (Despite the fact that people have gone to amazing lengths to defend and promote human rights, you don’t hear people refer to “the most heavenly ecstasies of human rights fervor.”) At the very least, you can see why a conservative like Douthat might be dubious about heading out into such uncharted waters. What was it Nietzsche said about the history of the next two centuries?

    (Anyway, as I said, I don’t think it was *just* a psychological or sociological argument. Sorry to keep harping on this, but one of those Christian-cum-Aristotelian inheritances we’ve abandoned is the teleological notion of ethics. To the extent one of the teloi of human beings was to know and serve God, dropping some of the factual beliefs of Christianity becomes morally relevant. For details, see chapter 5 of After Virtue.)

  • 15 The Claptrap Behind Religious Morality « Progenies of a Dark Apocalypse // Apr 24, 2012 at 2:27 pm

    […] mirrors DeLong’s sentiments that Karl Smith and Ross Douthat should read their Euthyphro here. Daniel Kuehn responds here, and, finally (or at least, so far), Karl Smith responds to Kuehn […]

  • 16 All Ethics Are Secular EthicsTightWind | TightWind // Apr 24, 2012 at 2:54 pm

    […] Ethics Are Secular Ethics April 24th, 2012 In response to an article by Ross Douthat, Julian Sanchez argues that invoking a creator, as Christianity does, doesn’t actually solve issues related to […]

  • 17 prasad // Apr 24, 2012 at 3:38 pm

    “monotheism seems to be more durable than polytheism historically”

    Off topic, but this is closer to being false than true. Operationally Catholicism, Hinduism and Buddhism are all polytheistic. Wonky geek-types like codifying theology, and for some reason there’s a tendency among them to find monotheisms more plausible than polytheisms, but the rank and file like their local deities, occupational patrons, nature spirits, ancestors, saints, talismans, fetishes and idols just fine. The wonky gods are not very emotionally compelling by themselves…

  • 18 Ross Douthat promotes myth about religious basis of morality | The Uncredible Hallq // Apr 25, 2012 at 10:47 am

    […] with William Saletan at Salon that looks to be full ‘o all kinds of fail, but this entry (HT: Julian Sanchez) especially caught my eye: Indeed, it’s completely obvious that absent the Christian faith, there […]

  • 19 Andrew Sepielli // Apr 28, 2012 at 8:46 pm

    Julian — Of course this is all correct and well said, but it saddens me that it needed to be said. How does a guy like Douthat, who, judging by his first book, didn’t get within 50 feet of the philosophy department during his time at Harvard, get the stones to just summarily dismiss the meta-ethical view held by 99% of the secular and religious philosophers who’d considered the question? Does he do blow first? Does he avail himself of that ol’ debate trick, the cocktap? I’m dying to know.

  • 20 DvisionByZero // May 13, 2012 at 7:43 pm

    Julian –

    I thought Andrew Sepielli’s comment was probably a bit harsh until I read Douthat’s letter. I have to agree with him. Douthat’s hopelessly confused. For better or worse philosophy in many cases replaced god with reason or some other natural quality of human being. Whether that’s sufficient or appropriate is another question but to claim liberalism implicitly depends on a Christian metaphysics that it explicitly disavows is just plain wrong. I realize that since his views were published someone takes him seriously and that likewise someone will take him seriously since he was published but his Cliff’s Notes version of the history of philosophy is as laughable as it is mistaken. I guess you are doing a public service by calling him out but that doing so is required is kind of sad.

  • 21 DvisionByZero // May 13, 2012 at 8:13 pm

    I suppose he could be making a more subtle argument that a liberal ethics requires something like a Christian god but he provides no arguments or evidence to support such a claim.

  • 22 What Has Jerusalem To Do With Athens? - NYTimes.com // May 22, 2012 at 8:14 am

    […] to Smith’s bracing (or terrifying?) perspective, here’s Julian Sanchez with a sharply worded retort to my argument:Now, I know Ross has read his Euthyphro, but since he talks here as though he […]

  • 23 Is Religious Morality Possible? // May 22, 2012 at 4:47 pm

    […] Douthat thinks so. Responding to my previous post on this, he writes: I have indeed read my Euthyphro, and my response is basically the conventional […]

  • 24 Lazy Sunday Links « Spatial Orientation // May 27, 2012 at 9:24 am

    […] Sanchez on secular ethics and religious […]

  • 25 Sanchez v Douhat on Religious Ethics | Dispatches from the Culture Wars // May 30, 2012 at 10:07 am

    […] which Sanchez responded: Now, I know Ross has read his Euthyphro, but since he talks here as though he hasn’t, I’ll go […]

  • 26 All Ethics Are Secular Ethics | Bookmarks // Jun 25, 2012 at 10:38 am

    […] $(function(){ $("#startbox").html("In response to an article by Ross Douthat, Julian Sanchez argues that invoking a creator, as Christianity does, doesn’t actually solve issues related to […]

  • 27 Euthyphro Dilemma – A False Dichotomy « Meanderings of a Christian Mind // Sep 23, 2012 at 6:54 am

    […] Julian Sanchez, “All Ethics Are Secular Ethics”, April 23rd, 2012, http://www.juliansanchez.com/2012/04/23/all-ethics-are-secular-ethics/ […]

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