An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar - the review, part 4.1

Chapter 4 features one of the most critical topics in the discussion, and a major reason I am an atheist: moral facts, values, and obligations. Schieber takes the important step of noting that the view he defends, desirism, is but one of many options available to non-believers—and it's worth noting here that I do not think desirism in itself provides a satisfactory account of moral values and obligations. Rauser takes the view that our intuitions give us access to purely objective moral facts (though he concedes that our perception of said facts may be mistaken from time to time, as is the case with sensory perception). This will likely be my longest critique of any chapter in the book. I want to discuss what I see as the limitations of desirism, and flesh things out a bit with my own view of moral ontology. I want to talk about some of the strengths and limitations of Rauser's approach, particularly with regard to his implicit claim that acts themselves have an intrinsic moral dimension. And of course I want to talk about how this all involves God (or not), and its implications within the contexts of specific religious doctrines - most obviously the Christian religion to which Rauser subscribes. Accordingly, I'll divide the discussion of this chapter into two posts.


Schieber takes the lead here, outlining his view of desirism: that we deem certain things "good" or "bad" depending on whether the actions to which they lead are actions we have good reasons to either promote or discourage.

Rauser attempts to undermine Schieber's thesis by correctly noting that many actions to which we ascribe moral weight are pretheoretical, in that they do not find us reasoning from premise to conclusion. Conscious desires may well have little to do with moral actions. I'd actually go so far as to suggest that the overwhelming majority of our moral actions are pretheoretical, and that most moral reasoning acts as either rationalization or condemnation of our actions after the fact. For example, behaviors that reflect a mother's instinct to nurture and protect her newborn are generally viewed as good, though it's almost certain that most mothers do not have to consciously deliberate whether such actions are morally right and/or obligatory.

However, I think that the form of desirism Schieber outlines allows for subconscious desires to guide our actions. A theologian might suggest that a mother's empathy is a God-given trait; a biologist, like famed zoologist Frans Dr Waal, would say it's a trait that evolved through natural selection (notably, these views are not necessarily incompatible). But both would agree that the mother does not engage in such behaviors through any conscious deliberation. What's germane to the discussion is how we evaluate behaviors as good or bad, and the role desires actually play in such scenarios. I think Schieber is correct to argue that discussions of morality require us to examine the relationship between competing desires. But I also think Rauser is right to press him on the morality of behavior itself, simply because in my view, desires (whether conscious or not) can only be seen as good or bad to the extent that they manifest in actual interpersonal actions.

What I think is missing from Schieber's presentation of desirism is a broader social and evolutionary context. Humans are, as the aforementioned Frans Dr Waal described in his book Primates and Philosophers, obligatorily gregarious. For a litany of evolutionary reasons, species which foster inter-group cooperation are at a distinct survival advantage. Certain cooperative behaviors may be deeply instinctive, like a mother's nurture; others may be learned. What's important is that we recognize that humans possess the following traits:

· Self-interested - most humans have a desire to survive and avoid or minimize bodily harm, pain, and stress.
· Unequal - humans display a wide spectrum of physical and intellectual capabilities that renders some better suited than others for certain tasks. This biological inequality (not to be confused with civil inequality) is the foundation for our social hierarchy.
· Interdependent - the benefits of group living are so vast that it's inconceivable that all but a few could, or would desire to, live in complete isolation in nature. Every aspect of our emotional and physical health, our comfort, and our happiness is in some respect crucially dependent on our species' need to cooperate, specialize, and share.

Group living requires us to both be cognizant of others' needs and interests as well as willing to compromise some of our own interests. To give a trivial example, there's a strong biological part of me that wants to have sex with lots and lots of women. But I compromise that desire for the sake of a monogamous relationship with my wife, because the benefits of a supportive, monogamous companionship far outweigh (to me) casual intercourse with some arbitrary number of women (assuming I was actually suave enough for that to happen). My wife and I each have our own interests apart from one another, and our interdependent relationship allows us to better fulfill interests we both deem most important to us (such as committed companionship). It's generally considered wrong to cheat on one's spouse. That's because a monogamous relationship is a form of social contract, in which we agree to make certain sacrifices for a mutually beneficial good. One of those sacrifices is that we're not allowed to break the trust at the core of the companionship. The desire to have sex with other partners can present a clear conflict of interest and lead to behavior that could erode the companionship—possibly permanently and completely.

Private Killum

Let's try to see how these concept gel in the context of an example the authors use in the book. "Private Killum" has captured a Nazi soldier and, rather than letting him go or turning him in to command, Killum tortures and murders the officer. What foundation can we use to evaluate the morality of Killum's actions? Schieber suggests that since Killum's desire to kill and torture conflicts with desires that we as a society have "good reason to promote", he has done an impermissible act. Rauser suggests that the act itself is intrinsically wrong, and he can know this intuitively. I'm afraid I find both explanations wanting.

Rauser's account fails to consider circumstances in which the act might be construed as morally correct. Let's say that both Killum and the officer are in turn captured by a notorious Nazi General, whom I'll call Schwartz. General Schwartz is furious at the officer for failing his duty to the Reich and allowing himself to be captured. Schwartz wants to make an example of him. He takes the two to a school full of Jewish children. He says that unless Killum tortures and kills the officer, he will execute the children. Killum is aware of Scwartz's notoriety, having heard several stories about him mercilessly killing innocent people, even children. Killum does not desire to torture and kill the officer, but he is convinced that it is the only hope of sparing the children's lives. He doesn't know this with certainty; Schwartz may execute the children anyway. But he consents to torturing and murdering the officer in the hope that Schwartz will keep his word.

Would Killum be right to kill the officer? I think that while there may be some disagreement ("you can never trust a Nazi!"), most rational individuals could see how the act could be viewed as justifiable. This undermines Rauser's claim in a crucial way: the act does not possess any intrinsic moral property—rather, our moral judgment of the act is contextual.

Before moving on, allow me to use a much simpler scenario. In the beginning of the chapter, the authors agree that the very concept of "murder" entails an unjustified killing. This is, ironically, an important concession on Rauser's part. The act in question is "taking the life of another person against their will". There are contexts in which we can imagine this act is justified — self defense or war, for example. But there are other scenarios in which we feel the act is not justified, and we deem it "murder". The inescapable implication is that it is not the act that is intrinsically right or wrong; rather, we judge the morality of the act contextually. Once we've established this important obvservation, much of Rauser's defense unravels.

It's tempting to view certain acts as intrinsically right or wrong simply because we often have a tough time imagining a context in which it was right. Intuitively it seems prima facie obvious that certain atrocities are morally wrong. We have to be pretty creative, for example, to imagine a scenario in which child rape could be considered right. I'd suggest another scenario in which General Schwartz demands that Killum rape one child, or Schwartz will execute all of them. Suddenly an act that often seems black and white can be seen as contextually justifiable.

Rauser here could argue that such scenarios are simply a case of a "lesser of two evils". Both outcomes are morally wrong, but forcing one child (or one man) to suffer is preferable to the murder of many children. But a secular view of morality does not require us to attach any such properties to acts in any intrinsic way; we can rationally detest the torture or rape as an act that brings undue harm to another—the type of acts which are incompatible with a cooperative, interdependent social hierarchy—while still acknowledging that the alternative outcome is even worse. And importantly, Rauser would nonetheless be conceding that an acts evilness, as he might describe it, is not fixed or absolute but must be evaluated contextually. On page 106, Rauser says, "In my view it is clear that it is always wrong to torture, kill, and mutilate the the POW. For all the difficult cases one encounters in the moral life, there are nonetheless many other cases in which an ethical judgement is clear and unqualified, and to my mind this is one of them." This view seems clearly incompatible with the argument I've presented—that there are plausible circumstances in which the act could be morally justified, and arguably even obligatory.

"Good reasons"

Unfortunately I don't find Schieber's position convincing, either. He says we must weigh desires based upon what he says are "good reasons" society has to promote or condemn them. He also suggests that some desires have a "tendency to thwart other desires", while other desires have a "tendency to fulfill other desires", and that the moral content of desires must be evaluated based upon their relationship to other desires. He says, as an example, that "we can still say the desire to rape is a bad desire—a desire that a good person would not have—because it tends to thwart other desires. 

Schieber leaves a lot of questions unanswered here. First, it's not entirely clear why "thwarting/fulfilling desires" is intrinsically a good or bad thing. For example, he might say that the desire for a mutually respectful, lifelong, monogamous companionship thwarts desires to rape, or even treat others callously or indifferently. Conversely, companionship may fulfill desires for intimacy, trust, and financial stability (among other things). Indeed it seems that all desires exist in some state of competition. It may be that examining a desire's relationship to other desires is necessary to determine whether it is good or bad, but it's certainly not sufficient

But the bigger elephant in the room is that desires can only relate to moral concerns to the extent that they manifest in behavior. Desires are passive, and often subconscious—forming with little or no awareness from our conscious minds. Further, we can and often do hold conflicting desires. A part of me may want to beat up someone who is rude to me; but I may desire more strongly to avoid bodily risk to myself, lose the respect of my peers, and stay out of court (or jail). I'm afraid Schieber is oversimplifying when he states that "good people" will not have x desires. Good people may have lots of violence or cruel desires, but they may not act on them because those desires are outweighed by other considerations. The infamous Stanford Prison Experiment showed that even "good people" can be conditioned to act with unapologetic callousness and cruelty given the right considerations. It's my view that the very idea of characterizing people as "good" or "bad" is a naive oversimplification of the complex interacting factors that motivate people's behavior. 

Worst of all, though, are his vague statements about values or behaviors that "society has good reason to promote/condemn". Now, fundamentally, I agree with this. I believe in objective moral values, but in Sam Harris' sense of moral good being objectively in the better interests of us and/or society at large—I absolutely reject Rauser's characterization of moral objectivity as some kind of purely objective truth that would exist with or without group-living conscious creatures. It's not clear to me at all what statements of moral value or obligation can even mean when separated from the intersecting issues of self-interest, interdependence, and biological inequality. Like the God of classical theism, my beef with Rauser over moral objectivity is conceptual. However, Schieber doesn't give us much to go on regarding what might constitute society's "good reasons"—or, more specifically, why we ought to consider some reasons "good" and others "bad". Is he endorsing utilitarianism? Consequentialism? I feel that it's hard to get away from such schools of meta-ethics, and that desirism is, on its own at least, a bit too shallow to provide a satisfactory account of moral values and obligations.

An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar — review index


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