I’m certainly more than overdue to respond to Tom Clark here, and now finally there is opportunity to do so. It has been so long since the last post on this topic, and this answer will run so long, that I’m publishing it as a new blog post.
First, I want to state my agreement with what he wrote about non-Christians’ ability to “be moral in all the ways that Christians endorse,” though only partially. I think he and I would both agree that this applies strictly to moral norms such as found in the latter portions of the Ten Commandments and not to the earlier, where the topic has to do with relating to God. The first and greatest commandment, Jesus said, is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind” (Matthew 22:37). This is not something a non-Christian can do or would choose to do, unless she were at the same time deciding to follow God’s way. Somehow, strangely, I think even Christian believers have forgotten that this is a central ethical issue, though as the first and greatest commandment it certainly must be.
Nevertheless in terms of human relationships, atheists can and generally do indeed act morally, as do Christians, so that point is not in contention here. The question is whether naturalism presents a compelling and coherent explanation for morality, and as Tom said at the end of his comment, it was his goal, he said, to show that a naturalistic ethic could be stated and held coherently.
He may have met that goal, though I have serious questions about that. There is another important goal in moral discussion, which is to state an ethic compellingly. On this he ended up where (in my experience) non-theistic ethics always seem to end up, in a place that is not at all fruitful for moral thinking. I’ll explain as I go along.
First, my questions about the coherence of his description of morality.
Tom Clark says “values flow from human nature as modulated by human culture… we’re hard-wire to take our moral intuitions very seriously.” We agree that values may be discovered by observing human nature, and by reflecting on our own experiences; and we agree that these are things we take very seriously. To the not inconsiderable extent that this is an empirical fact, it is explained at least as well by theism as by naturalism. Christian and Judaic theism takes it that humans are created in God’s image, which includes having at least some grasp of what goodness is in God’s view.
Tom says then “there’s good empirical evidence for a robust natural motivational basis for the problem morality addresses.” If by that he means that this provides differential support for a natural motivational basis–i.e., that this is evidence for a natural more than for a supernatural basis–I would disagree, for supernaturalism accounts for the empirical evidence at least as well as naturalism does.
We come now to a further point Tom makes here, which raises several puzzling questions for someone like me.
How does a liberal-progressive Western naturalist like myself justify the proposition that all humans have equal claim to the same set of rights against the opposing conservative-regressive claim, advanced by some Eastern Muslim theocracies, that certain classes of humans (gays, women, minorities, non-Muslims) should not be granted equal rights? This is a quintessentially normative, not empirical question, but it is informed by empirical considerations. The basic argument, some of which you kindly quoted, is that all classes of human beings have, in empirical fact, more or less the same desire for self-preservation and actualization – for human flourishing – and there’s no empirical basis to deny any class the opportunity for such flourishing. So, absent any countervailing considerations, they should be granted such opportunities.
My first question with respect to this is how it can be, when Tom has set up empiricism as the only basis and test for knowledge, that another category, the normative, can find room to enter in. He seems on the one hand to have set the two in opposition to each other, but on the other hand to have given the normative some epistemic space anyway. I’m not at all sure how this can be done, given his epistemology (discussed earlier in this series).
Equality of Desire
Second, is it empirically true that all human beings (not classes of human beings as written here, but human beings themselves) have the same desire for self-preservation and actualization? How has this been measured? Is there not psychological/sociological evidence to the contrary? What about suicidal persons? The question is important because of a follow-up point found not much later:
The claim that all humans are of equal worth flows from the fact that each of us has more or less the same desire for flourishing, and the fact that there’s no basis to suppose some classes of humans should be thwarted in that desire. The value, the worth of each human being, is rooted in human nature itself, namely in each and every person’s strong innate desire to live and thrive.
If worth is derived from desire to flourish, then if I become depressed and suicidal, does my worth decrease? I assume Tom would answer no, but on what basis? This puzzles me.
My third and fourth questions from this passage requires me to quote part of it again:
There’s no empirical basis to deny any class the opportunity for such flourishing. So, absent any countervailing considerations, they should be granted such opportunities.
I frankly don’t know how to apply morality to a class. This is an abstraction beyond practical application. I can treat a person morally or immorally, and I can treat members of a class morally or immorally, but I can only do so by the way I treat them as individual persons. Maybe my decisions on how to treat them are based on the class to which they belong (in reality or in my perception). But even in that case it is not the class I’m treating well or ill, it is the person. Even if another member of that class feels well-treated or put off because I made my decision on the basis of class membership, that is a person, not a class, that is being affected by my action.
This point matters in this discussion because Tom Clark seems to think equality of worth comes from each class having equal desires for life, self-actualization, and flourishing. Statistical leveling of large groups tends to make this the case, but morality is not about statistically-defined groups, but about persons. I would like to know if he can take this to the level of individuals.
What is a Class?
Further, even if treating the matter according to classes could be defended as legitimate, I wonder if there’s some smuggled-in set of assumptions about what constitutes a class. I think there may be a class of suicidal persons who do not have the same desire for flourishing as others have. Does being a member of that class make one’s worth less than others? Or, there may be a class of suicidal persons and their spouses. Why can we not define a class in that way? This class’s overall desire for self-actualization and self-preservation is, on average, less than the rest of the population. Does that mean that even the non-suicidal spouse, as a member of that class, has a lower worth than someone who is not associated with a suicidal person?
In other words, if there is a coherent basis for regarding each person as equal in Tom Clark’s ethic, I have yet to understand it.
has to do with a to the question, “why should I follow moral system M?” Without this compellingness, there is no reason to follow an ethic, and the person is free to make up his own or to follow an ethic of personal impulse and immediate unmoderated desire. Compellingness (and here for now I will switch to the more common “oughtness”) may be either internal or external. There is the inward oughtness of human nature, discussed above, and there is also that which is learned from outside oneself through family and culture, which often becomes internalized as an inward sense of oughtness.
I suppose I made up that word “compellingness.” It has to do with answering to the question, “why should I follow moral system M?” Without this compellingness, there is no reason to follow an ethic, and the person is free to make up his own or to follow an ethic of personal impulse and immediate unmoderated desire. Compellingness (and here for now I will switch to the more common “oughtness”) may be either internal or external. There is the inward oughtness of human nature, discussed above, and there is also that which is learned from outside oneself through family and culture, which often becomes internalized as an inward sense of oughtness.
But as Tom Clark has astutely pointed out, these norms are not all universally shared. The naturalist has two options to revert to at that point: persuasion and power. He states it clearly enough here:
Because there’s no value-neutral criterion (such as God’s authority) by which to decide between competing moral principles, arguments for them necessarily involve appeals to pre-existing values. So, progressive naturalists appeal to the innate moral sense… and they cite the virtues of existing cultural traditions and political arrangements based in progressive values…. However, given sharp differences in cultures and worldviews, there is no guarantee such arguments will cut any ice with the opposition, and sometimes we are forced to use force in defending our principles. This point gets elaborated here.
In the ellipsis I left out part of the way in which he would attempt to persuade those who disagree, but the point is that there is either persuasion or force. What bothers one like me most about this is that quite clearly, morality is a matter of who wins. I don’t see a universal law in naturalism that decrees liberal equality will be the winner. In fact, I suspect there may even be some chronological/cultural chauvinism involved in supposing that our culture, alone among all cultures and all periods of history, has figured it out in a way that will last. The door is wide open for a different winner, one that Tom Clark will argue (unless he changes his mind) fails to meet the standards of empiricism. The new winner may well say, “we see it differently,” and that will be that. The word “compellingness” comes back, with a decidedly less friendly feel to it than in the first way I employed it here; and who knows where “oughtness” goes?
Christian theism’s ethic is based on a much firmer foundation. Standards of morality are part of the furniture of reality, as it were, which is why we have a basic apprehension of them in our consciences. Their oughtness is inherent within them, and not derived from some other non-moral principle. Their compellingness is fitting to them, inherent and appropriate to their own basic nature, and our experience of their compellingness may be internalized or external. Either way, it fits.