Last week’s ABC QandA debate between uber-atheist Richard Dawkins and Catholic archbishop George Pell generated quite a lot of blogosphere debate, not least here at Troppo. However some might not have realised that the trigger for this existential gabfest was an even bigger one, namely the 2012 Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne (it winds up today). Keynote speakers were the three surviving members of the so-called “Four Horsemen of the Anti-Apocalypse” namely Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris (Christopher Hitchens may or may not be otherwise occupied on an extended stint of Eternal Damnation).
Other prominent speakers included British celebrity philosopher AC Grayling and expat Oz celebrity QC Geoffrey Robertson. However it was among the second-string speakers that a tittle of tension arose. Disability activist Stella Young tweeted in relation to fellow speaker and Oz philosopher Peter Singer:
I don’t know whether to question Singer on whether or not he thinks I should be alive, or just eat some meat in his direction.
What did she mean? It didn’t take long to find out by some quick Googling. This article by Dinesh D’Souza (on an avowedly Catholic website I should note) explains:
Singer is a mild-mannered fellow who speaks calmly and lucidly. Yet you wouldn’t have to read his work too long to find his extreme positions. He cheerfully advocates infanticide and euthanasia and, in almost the same breath, favors animal rights. Even most liberals would have qualms about third-trimester abortions; Singer does not hesitate to advocate what may be termed fourth-trimester abortions, i.e., the killing of infants after they are born. …
Singer resolutely takes up a Nietzschean call for a “transvaluation of values,” with a full awareness of the radical implications. He argues that we are not creations of God but rather mere Darwinian primates. We exist on an unbroken continuum with animals. Christianity, he says, arbitrarily separated man and animal, placing human life on a pedestal and consigning the animals to the status of tools for human well-being. Now, Singer says, we must remove Homo sapiens from this privileged position and restore the natural order. This translates into more rights for animals and less special treatment for human beings. There is a grim consistency in Singer’s call to extend rights to the apes while removing traditional protections for unwanted children, people with mental disabilities, and the noncontributing elderly. …
However the Catholics have skin in this game, as D’Souza’s argument proceeds to reveal:
Why haven’t the atheists embraced Peter Singer? I suspect it is because they fear that his unpalatable views will discredit the cause of atheism. What they haven’t considered, however, is whether Singer, virtually alone among their numbers, is uncompromisingly working out the implications of living in a truly secular society, one completely purged of Christian and transcendental foundations. In Singer, we may be witnessing someone both horrifying and yet somehow refreshing: an intellectually honest atheist.
But why would anyone but a committed Christian accept the implicit premise that only it offers salvation from the moral abyss of expedient human sacrifice? As someone at an atheist site observed:
How do we determine what the Christian and “transcendental” foundations of society are? Just because it says “thou shalt not kill” in the Bible doesn’t mean the concept that killing is wrong originated with Judeo-Christian principles. In fact, all of the Ten Commandments, with the exceptions of the first four, which pertain to God, can be found in the Code of Hammurabi, which predates the Old Testament. I’d challenge D’Souza to name anything deriving from Christianity that is almost universally accepted as a good idea that couldn’t have been brought about by secular means.
Moreover, the Old Testament injunction “thou shalt not kill” was always subject to a raft of exceptions e.g. the just war doctrine which originated with St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430). Then there’s the Spanish and other Inquisitions which you can’t really justify by any sane moral theory. In more modern times, how does one forget that the Christian churches of the Axis and Allied nations in World War II prayed and barracked for their respective sides? Pope Pius XII’s rather equivocal responses to Nazism and Fascism are merely the best known examples. Then there’s Prosperity Gospel, which bears very little relationship to the Christian moral teachings I learned as a kid but is enthusiastically embraced by multitudes of modern fundie happy clappers who are disproportionately represented among Internet spivs and hucksters. The concept of Christianity as the last bastion against a secular atheistic hell, where life is cheap and all manner of chicanery permissible in a world of post-modern flexible morality, is just a bit implausible. I’m not denying that Christian organisations do a great deal of good in the world, but so do secular institutions staffed by agnostic or even atheist workers imbued with equally solid, worthy moral and ethical convictions.
Indeed, non-Christian moral systems like Kant’s Categorical Imperative or Rule Utilitarianism provide at least as durable a protection against the imagined horrors of forced euthanasia and the like, as this article analysing the arguments for and against euthanasia from a Rule Utilitarian perspective demonstrates. Moreover, if psychologist Jonathan Haidt is correct and most of our moral convictions are founded on ingrained “hard-wired” moral intuitons mediated only marginally by social factors, then Kantian or Rule Utilitarian approaches may well offer a greater prospect that our moral decisions will be carefully considered, thoughtful and appropriate than if such decisions flow from prejudices enforced by hierarchical religious institutions and are founded on argument from authority. On the other hand, Haidt argues that even then our moral “reasoning” will often be mere post hoc justification for decisions reached intuitively.
Haidt’s observation on his website succinctly encapsulates the entire vibe of QandA and the 2012 Global Atheist Convention:
Morality, by its very nature, makes it hard to study morality. It binds people together into teams that seek victory, not truth. It closes hearts and minds to opponents even as it makes cooperation and decency possible within groups.
Update – Legal ethicist Neil Watt (in discussion about this post at Twitter) touts virtue ethics as a preferable approach. While I’m not sure it necessarily results in a very different reasoning process than rule utilitarianism in practice, it’s certainly always been an approach that has appealed to me. Robert Pirsig’s cult book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was essentially a mix of buddhism and virtue ethics, while John Fowles’ The Aristos (a book of moral propositions he wrote in the early 1960s) is explicitly based on virtue ethics. I especially like this rather intimidating adjectival list of behaviours to be avoided, found in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on virtue ethics:
Much invaluable action guidance comes from avoiding courses of action that would be irresponsible, feckless, lazy, inconsiderate, uncooperative, harsh, intolerant, selfish, mercenary, indiscreet, tactless, arrogant, unsympathetic, cold, incautious, unenterprising, pusillanimous, feeble, presumptuous, rude, hypocritical, self-indulgent, materialistic, grasping, short-sighted, vindictive, calculating, ungrateful, grudging, brutal, profligate, disloyal, and on and on.
I think I might grab a beer and put my feet up and watch the footie. It’s made me tired just thinking about how to avoid unvirtue. I have a poster up in my office which may well exemplify the antithesis of virtue ethics. It displays a saying by William Gibson:
“Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self-esteem, first make sure that you are not, in fact, just surrounded by assholes.” — William Gibson