Atheists cannot be Moral

III. The Atheist Morality Problem

This is the result of my own desire to try to better understand the process of mass deconversion and in what ways that can be improved. When I did this I found what looked to me like a gaping hole in the process; an intellectual liability that needed to be closed. It is a tangent. I don’t like tangents. But that is where we are. This liability has to do with what most people call “morals”. Regardless of its real importance to atheism, it is extremely important to adherents around the globe, independent of their theological beliefs or whims. For this reason, it appears to me that any rigorous program of reasonable and comprehensive means and methods for deconversion must address this problem; that is, we need a durable and sound “moral system” for application to atheism in order that we may counter the charge (and fact?) that atheism is devoid of it. It is my contention that no large scale deconversion effort is going to be effective without solving this problem.

And it is indeed a problem because, some have argued, atheism is intrinsically devoid of morality and it is not clear to me that anyone as yet has shown convincingly that atheism can be “moral”. And that is the salient point that needs to be made at the outset: it makes no difference, as a practical matter for deconversion, whether or not David Hume has destroyed any chance of morality for atheism, but rather, what matters is that we do not have a convincing argument that Hume’s logical dilemma can be overcome. There has been, in my view, a tendency to completely fail to comprehend the significance of the term “convincing” as just used previously. In fact, I would contend that for atheism to gain any significant ground globally the atheist “movement” must mature beyond this narrow womb in which it is dominated by scientists and Science. And that wouldn’t be hard to do in principle because I suspect from my own experience there are in fact more atheists outside science than within. I believe when this occurs it will represent a “break out” point where mass deconversion will rapidly accelerate. That is the hill I want to climb. But of those who are publicly open about their atheist beliefs, almost all are scientists. This must change for us to see any real deconversion progress.
Despite these appearances, I note for completeness that although religions exact a claim to objective morality, they do in fact face the same problem. Religious morality cannot be objective if it is based on the pronouncements of a god, since the god itself is not objective. This follows from the fact that one cannot arbitrarily restrict definitions of subjectivity to the homo sapiens sapiens. The proper restriction is determined by the nature of the thing, thought, and therefore subjectivity is correctly constrained to any entity capable of thought. Any entity to which the property of subjectivity can be assigned necessarily thinks. Having said that, this doesn’t remove the need for atheists engaged in deconversion to provide an objective morality for atheists, as explained supra.

I value the genius and good work of scientists and mean no ill will in saying these things. My point is that scientists need to retire the stage and go back to Science. They need to let the experts pick up the torch in matters of deconversion and public relations generally. To their defense, much of their involvement in this has been out of necessity since the “experts” have to this point refused to come “out” and offer their skills and talents for the cause. This also needs to change. I am saddened and disappointed by the seemingly ubiquitously disastrous public relations embarrassments some are unintentionally but routinely producing daily. And I believe this is due to the fact that professionals in this field are underrepresented.

Not surprisingly some people with a highly specialized profession outside public relations exhibit an understanding of it that is crude to the extreme and, as received by the general public, it is having an absolutely devastating impact on both Science and atheism as a movement which inherently requires the public’s support in order to succeed. It is both unintentional and understandable given the false choice they have been handed. It is time for the public facing professionals to step up to the plate and do their desperately needed part.

The problem having been framed sufficiently for my purposes, I’d like to outline a solution. As the reader may know, a philosopher of some considerable time past named David Hume proposed an interesting ethics problem that many today still debate, discuss and write about. I do not give much credence or significance to ideas formulated in an environment so lacking as compared to the modern one, but the point of bringing this up is that it has a direct bearing on the issue of how others understand the issue of morality.

Hume’s idea, in a crude paraphrase, was to say that the faculty of reason can only be descriptive of causality and fact, but it cannot ascribe value to anything. Value, he proffered, comes from so-called “passions and desires”. This has an interesting nexus in law, since the student of western law will recall that law, in its most fundamental description, is the subject that deals with how value is assigned in society. We shall see that this connection is not coincidental. In any case, Hume’s “passions and desires” would today be analogous to the visceral motivational mechanisms of human beings associated, to my understanding, with the hypothalamus; provided, we restrict our comparison to those “passions and desires” guaranteed common to all human beings. The reason for this restriction is that I am interested in what I can objectively say about these so-called “passions and desires”. If the reader can hold their breath, I will come full circle on this point momentarily.

Hume goes on to frame our understanding of the proper provenance of morality as a limiting condition whereby
1.) one may possess facts through the faculty of reason
2.) but that those facts are insufficient, by themselves, to provide sufficient definition of the act of assignment of value.
which seems to render that morality inaccessible in any objective sense. I have examined this argument carefully and have concluded that though I believe it is in fact fallacious – something to be engaged infra – what matters is it is sufficiently sophisticated to frustrate deconversion. And it does currently.

The first order of business, however, is to substantiate the claim that it is fallacious. Harris attempts to do this with a noble effort that I believe ultimately fails. He essentially argues that this is just a “trick of language”. But the problem with this approach is that it relies on an analysis of Hume’s logical argument using the informal English used by others to describe it. And since his argument is one regarding language, this objection is material. The language often used is a substitution of “is” for “fact” and “ought” for “value”. At once it is clear how this muddies the water. What Hume is saying is that whatever facts we may “know” it is not possible, from those facts alone, to assign value to any … thing. What Hume is doing is to put the burden on the one claiming to have established an objective provenance for morality to show that value can be assigned from knowable facts alone. Harris’ argument does not accomplish this, to my understanding.

Harris’ argument for establishing the “bridge” to connect fact and value is to start by saying that fact and value are in fact “tricks of language”; i.e. a linguistic artifact. And he goes on to say that in reality fact and value are one and the same. This is a clever attempt to bridge these two things. And we shall see in what follows that the correct formulation of Harris’ argument is in fact quite similar, but we have here, it is hoped, refined it to make it more durable and resistant to public challenge. Pragmatically speaking, there is no need to waste our time trying to prove or disprove whether fact and value are in fact one and the same. Rather, we would be better served by inquiring as to whether we can strengthen Harris’ argument since any atheist moral system will obviously depend on bridging fact and value somehow. We shall show, as suggested, that we can. But first, Harris contends that the two serve identically by use of a thought experiment:

Consider the worst possible form of “bad”. Here he is trying to obtain an objective understanding of “good” and “bad”, thus showing that from fact we can indeed obtain value. The crux of this argument is that this works only because the extreme manifestation of the quality of being “bad” makes manifest (thus objective) the value intrinsically contained within that fact; or, intrinsically identical to it. This is a classic “if I add enough numbers together in a finite sequence I’ll get infinity” argument; which is fallacious. This reminds one of those limit laws we all learned about in school. It is actually pretty elegant. I gathered that Harris sees “well being” as a consequence of epistemologically prior causal events that can be subjected to empiricism. And Harris believes all this settles the issue. I demur.

I will explain my position by first attempting to show that though Harris almost certainly didn’t intend to invoke limit laws or any analogue to it, that is in fact what he must do in order for his argument to work with logical certainty. And the problem this presents for deconversion is that it presents an intellectual vulnerability if it is merely accepted as an uncertain but “reasonable” conclusion. But Harris’ argument when pressed in this manner, we can see, quickly comes apart. It is not meaningful to “pass a limit” on something that is not discrete or subject to algebraic manipulation.

This is a clumsy way of saying that there is no objective concept of what the worst (analogous to infinity) thing one can experience is in the first place. Thus, Harris cannot establish the most extreme example, and thus guarantee that all observers will agree that it is the worst of all possible instances, which is what he implicitly requires as predicate in this thought experiment (and that follows from the fact that for every bad score x there is a corresponding worse bad score y such that y > x). This step is, by definition, necessary to move from a subjective to an objective statement.

Any clever creationist or anyone else wishing to attack this can do so with effectiveness sufficient to place a comprehensive set of means and methods for deconversion at risk of failure.

Therefore, I reject it.

For this reason, before progressing to the specifics of deconversion we’re hopefully going to tighten up Harris’ logic and render it durable. But in saying this I do not mean to suggest we are going to merely come up with an answer no one can refute, but one that also has the quality of being logically sound.

First, Harris is trying to bite off more than he can chew. All he needs to do is show that at least some overlap exists between fact and value.
To explain this we rely informally on Set Theory. Let one set A be the set of all facts accessible to reason, which we shall go ahead and promote to modern terminology if the reader does not mind:

Let one set A be the set of all facts accessible to empiricism and
Let one set B be the set of all discrete valuations knowable to any set of observers C.

Then we are asking if there is any union A ∪ B not empty.

But just as Harris should have been restrained, we are restrained to the consideration of only those valuations that are common to all human beings, which is how we escape Harris’ folly. A quick conversation with a biologist will hopefully make short work of this list. The list we are building is precisely those facts knowable to us (through Biology in this case) that are guaranteed to stand simultaneously as valuations for any arbitrarily chosen human being. The list, along with what biologists currently consider the quintessential traits of each, is as follows:

Sex – ways we seek mates (allowing and enabling all the ways one might want to mate or simulate the act through sex – promoting sex basically)
Nutrition – affects our career choices (allowing for and promoting a productive career)
Control of one’s space – control of one’s environment (allowing space, sovereignty of abode, an abode)
Aversion to Conflict – protection from each other (supporting individual safety and boundaries)
fact [reason] vs. value [hypothalamus]
 fact [reason] vs. value [Sex, Nutrition, Control, Aversion]

Done. But what does this mean? It demonstrates that there is an objective morality that can be obtained from fact alone. It is morally “good” when human sexuality is as liberalized as possible and people are free in their sexual lives and affections, when nutrition is a need well addressed and no one starves or is malnourished, when one has a right to some kind of sovereignty of abode and ability to control their personal – access to housing itself being part of that – and physical space, and when persons have the tools and means to establish and maintain their safety and reasonable boundaries that others cannot cross. The latter “good” constitutes a rabbit hole in that it drags in all sorts of human rights concepts. I will expound.
First, I’d try to identify in what way this “good” thing limits human rights so that we know what to include in this discussion. Individual safety and boundaries is a “good” restricted essentially to those human rights (as we have come to call them) which serve to give deference to an individual’s safety and the personal boundaries that ensure or work to guarantee that safety. I have created a list of those rights as Article 7 of my fundamental law for a general federation and I reference the reader to that (see Appendix). In any case, what we have found is a set of axiomatic moral goods that are not all too different from what Harris and Dawkins also speak of. More on how it differs will be discussed later.

But, one other deficiency in Harris’ formulation has to do with group versus individual “rights” or “good”. Oddly, Harris and Dawkins both seem to be acutely aware of this problem but only in the most camouflaged sense. Harris has written numerous oblique references to this problem and we need to examine it here (these are observations from a recorded discussion at Oxford in April 2011).

1.) hospital organ donors being murdered to save more lives is posed but never engaged.
2.) There is a trolley just below a cliff and you stand above. The trolley is certain to impact and kill 4 people, but a nice large fat man is beside you and if he fell on the tracks he would stop the trolley. Do you push him off for a net rescue of 4 people? How does this compare when the act of pushing him off is abstracted from you (say, by being able to drop someone on the track by some distant remote control scheme)?
3.) Harris vaguely appealed to something like reciprocal altruism as the solution to the hospital and trolley problem
4.) Did Harris actually argue in favor of human misery without meaning to do so? It sounded like it when he argued against the use of certain psychiatric drugs.
5.) Harris stated that free will is illusory and I was oddly comfortable with that, intellectually speaking, until I began to ponder the problem of non-deterministic *and* non-algorithmic mental processes. I would argue that Harris’ argument did not sustain.
6.) Harris spoke of the difference between justice (he uses this term not in the legal sense but in the popular sense of “fairness”) and “well being”; without realizing it was really just a distinction between individual and group. His argument about “well being” was basically, as I think I’ve learned tonight, his formation and assertion of archetype in consequentialism.
Perhaps the biggest public relations liability comes from the apparent views of both Harris and Dawkins which is the massive and blatant avoidance of any meaningful discussion of group versus individual rights; as evidenced from above. And “apparent” is a deliberate word choice since that is really what concerns us here; that is, appearances generally. We shall engage it here.

Group versus Individual Good

Harris speaks of zero sum scenarios when dealing with the question of group or individual. His final solution to the dilemma, unfortunately, is to just dismiss it as “not important” because he thinks that something akin to reciprocal altruism will “solve it”. In other words, he thinks people will “just be compassionate” in those difficult moral moments. This is completely unacceptable and is a recipe not only for serious challenge but serious disgust and disdain from adherents. Let’s be clear, my purpose is to spread atheism everywhere.

Harris does seem to acknowledge the problem of the zero sum game by saying that zero sum situations in which the individual’s utility increases with no utility increase for the group, or vice versa, is a reality. So, in order to better understand the discussion and frame it properly, we will go back to the statements supra that have been attributed to Harris and/or Dawkins.

In the case of the hospital and trolley example, the logic is similar but not exactly the same. In Harris’ trolley example the point of this that I gathered is to illustrate the difference between a rational decision versus the impulses of reciprocal altruism which may not be rational, at least within the limitations of the example. How is this? When a human being has to make a decision about who shall live or die based solely on number (the remote control example), the decision will revert to reason alone as there is nothing confounding the thought process. But when the presumptively purely rational decision is contaminated with an emotional component (the “fat man”) the outcome may not be rational. What we mean by emotion is essentially identical to Hume’s “passions”. And it is the introduction of abstraction into this example that finally explains this. When the “fat man” is standing directly next to you, the reality of that person’s existence is less abstract than the reality of the existence of the people on the trolley. And this is normal and good. It is a trait that helps protect us from deception.

But what does this story, as well as most of the similar stories Harris and Dawkins offer, ultimately tell us? It demonstrates that the interests of the individual may, in many circumstances, be more likely defended by an advocate acting out of passions rather than reason. To understand this, one only needs to see that the Trolley example is an extreme. Consider what would happen if we change the Trolley example to a scenario where there is one person on the trolley and the “fat man” standing next to you. You know one must die by the circumstances given. But let’s add a caveat. Say you don’t know the man next to you but the person on the trolley is a friend or acquaintance. Now it gets murky. If you don’t know the person that well you might well leave the “fat man” right where he is and let your “friend” die. In fact, this kind of oxymoronic behavior is all too common in human society. It is the physical proximity of the “fat man”, hence his reification to the actor, that forces the “passions” to override reason. And it was this “passion” that allowed the “fat man” to gain favor. We could come up with better examples for sure, but the point is that we can sustain this argument with Harris’ example alone; to wit, our example illustrates our point but need not serve as proof of it.

So, what Harris is actually dancing around here is the problem of the individual versus the group. He appears ill-equipped to respond to it apparently due to a lack of sufficient background in matters of civil society, contracts, economics and law. In other words, Harris needs to introduce the concept of equity in law to make progress in this discussion. He can be forgiven for this, but not if he then uses this to begin making statements regarding morality in human society. Thus we identify the second failure of the Harris proposition. And it is a failure as far as I’m concerned only inasmuch as it leaves Harris’ morality vulnerable to negative public relations. Often an advocate’s insecurities – of whatever stripe but in this case of the intellectual kind – are exposed by what they focus on the most and it is uncanny how reliable this is. So much time and discussion spent on these stories and examples belie what I think is an uncertainty about the completeness of the proposition. This uncertainty would be correctly founded.

How do we fix this? That becomes the subject of law and economics and is a lengthy answer beyond the scope of this work. But the point is that Harris and Dawkins are vastly oversimplifying their true capacity to speak authoritatively on moral issues in society precisely because of their incompetence in law and economics, their refusal to engage it, or their mistake of not engaging it. Harris’ decision to suggest that something akin to reciprocal altruism or compassion would just “take care of itself” is a disastrous mistake and will be handily dispatched should his social ideas ever result in consideration in law, which it ultimately would if successful. All of Harris’ examples of this type suffer from the same problem. This will not work aid to atheism.

I have provided a lengthy proposition regarding the matter of law and economics as it relates both to the social contract generally and to atheist morality in the form of the fundamental law for a general federation supra. That should be taken as a companion to this work and we shall proceed with the topic at hand.

Consequentialism is not a word

That whether something would be adjudged “good” or not should rely on empirically measurable outcomes is, for this author, the proverbial no-brainer and does not require a two-cent word. This is not intended to be facetious: it may be that this term has academic merit but we do not want to put this in front of the public for several reasons we do not need to engage here. And on this larger point there seems to be fairly wide agreement amongst atheists and to some imperfect fidelity, adherents.
We will now attempt to apply reason to establish value from fact in law and equity to generate a more complete picture of that which has already been discussed.

An executor of the social contract acting in combination of rule of law and equity in law, and presuming general equity as described in general federalism, renders the following objects as fundamental human rights that are inalienable and cannot be granted by any government, but merely exist stare decisis:

1.) Allowing for/guaranteeing and enabling all the ways one might want to mate or simulate the act through sexual relations, regardless of kind, scope, extent or type (qualified against 4 in fl). A natural person cannot be made to suffer an infringement of their human sexuality, regardless of kind.

2.) Allowing for/guaranteeing and promoting one’s capacity to be a “financially productive” (this phrase has a specific statutory meaning in fl) entity. A natural person cannot be made to suffer an infringement of their capacity for livelihood, regardless of kind.

3.) Allowing for/guaranteeing space, sovereignty of abode, and a viable guarantee of housing for all with no homelessness. A natural person cannot be made to suffer an infringement of their right to be secure in shelter whose space they control, regardless of kind.

4.) Supporting/guaranteeing individual safety and the personal boundaries that speak to it; even if to some degree if by perception only (to be expounded upon). A natural person cannot be made to suffer an infringement of their general safety and reasonable sense thereof, regardless of kind. Numerous human rights come out of this – see Article 7.

The fundamental requirement to meet this goal is that we must be able to advance by applying reason to fact from the so-called 4 F’s to the 4 statements above. The actual identity between fact and value occurs at the level of Biology as previously described. But we have here assumed this extended understanding of the four F’s because it seems reasonable and reflects what appears to be the interpretation of the “4 F’s” by most biologists who study it. However, this set of steps needs to be tightened up by someone competent in that field. I would point out to the reader that these four F’s emerge more or less fully in human beings at approximately puberty, a foreshadowing of the human rights of youth and something that is often overlooked.

To advance this discussion the reader will need to divert from here to the fundamental law already mentioned. This represents the interface between what are fairly basic sciences and law and economics (the plan is to write an “interface” document to connect the provisions of Article 7 formally). We now proceed to the main topic.

Excerpted from “On the Means and Methods of Mass Deconversion Version 0.4

by Kir Komrik

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