Thursday, 25 August 2011

A Big Problem for Militant Atheists

I don’t like calling myself an atheist these days, not because I’ve found God or anything (although the idea of an Old Testament God appearing and smiting the human race for its horrors is deeply appealing), but because I find the activities of the Militant Atheists to be deeply off-putting and repugnant. In particular, I have in mind the so-called “Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse” (a title that tells you everything you need to know about the egotism of its members): Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. I generally find the pronouncements, arrogance and shallow philosophising of these individuals to be deeply irritating. My favourite philosopher John Gray is of a like mind, and he recommends that anyone similarly afflicted calls themselves a “sceptic” rather than an “atheist”.

Anyway, to the matter at hand. Sam Harris’s latest book is entitled The Moral Landscape. I confess that I haven’t read it, but I have read and heard a few interviews with Harris and have a few observations to make. Basically, Harris’s book presents the thesis that science will help furnish us with an objective set of ethics, all designed to help minimise human suffering and maximise human well-being. Nothing wrong with the latter in theory (although one wonders if Harris has heard of John Stuart Mill and Utilitarianism; given the general philosophical illiteracy of the “Four Horsemen” I wouldn’t be surprised if he hasn’t) apart from the fact that all such attempts have failed in both theory and practice and will doubtless continue to so for all the usual reasons. As for science furnishing “objective” ethics, again, this idea is so pedestrian and discredited, it boggles the mind that people still float it.

More directly damning for Harris’s project of coupling the maximisation of human well-being with the elimination of religion is the fact that numerous scientific studies have established that people with religious belief are happier than those without. Now before anyone says that that’s because belonging to any old group makes people happier, it’s also necessary to include the fact that believing in a transcendental deity, a teleological purpose for humanity and something better than the current mess awaiting us on the other side of the curtain all play a massive part. In short, you’re not going to get the same thing from following your local football team than you are from attending church. Now given this to be the case, how can people like Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens et al. claim that the world will be improved by the end of religion when science itself (their god) conclusively proves the opposite? Dare these people show consistency? In fact, if Harris and co. are true to their aims they should be out promoting religion rather than attacking it. Can’t see it happening somehow.

Friday, 5 August 2011

The Absence of A Shared Moral Vocabulary

I’ve always found something deeply and intuitively repugnant about contemporary moral discourse. People are no longer human beings, instead they are individuals with rights and entitlements and rational agents with first and second order preferences.

Although some may say that such language is merely a useful functioning vocabulary, it’s not unreasonable to assume that the continual usage of such terminology will gradually take over our entire conception of humanity. The idea of the solitary, atomised individual alone in the universe with no connection to others, no history, and no roots to a home or sense of participation in shared values is, amongst the so-called intellectual class at least, a commonplace beyond question. This can surely only lead to an ever increasing sense of anomie and general despair as people are encouraged to regard themselves as porcupines: keep your distance from everyone and shields up as soon as anyone gets too close.

Of course it will also be argued that such vocabulary is merely the reflection of the historical times we live in, where global capitalism has undermined every sense of particularity, tradition, community of values and so on. In a world where money is king, the only role a person can play that is understandable to all is as a conduit for the acquisition and transfer of wealth. It’s no coincidence that Liberalism and Capitalism rose together hand in hand.

Moral philosophers have responded to this in a variety of ways, but every attempt at countering the mercantile takeover of the world by establishing a rational, objective moral philosophy has failed. From Kant to Hegel to Mill, Marx and beyond, all such attempts have foundered on various rocks. Today the field of moral philosophy is still dominated by the rights-based, liberal individualistic approach. This has lead to an ever-increasing tendency toward conflict and the increase in private litigation. This can hardly be surprising when the individual is king.

In most western universities debate about ethics invariably swings back to discussion of John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice and Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia. Personally I’ve always had a deep aversion to Nozick’s philosophy. Again, we have the atomised individual with supposedly inalienable rights presented to us as an a priori datum. The core of his philosophy lies in protecting at all costs an individual’s right to non-interference from anything outside of his or her self. And like all contemporary moral systems his account is completely ahistorical and for this reason founders. To build his house of cards, Nozick blithely assumes a platform of just acquisition. In essence, this is the assumption that as long as I have acquired my goods, wealth or property through “just acquisition” it is mine to do with as I please. Unfortunately there is no suggestion as to how we are to decide if something has been acquired justly or not. How convenient a way of evaporating long-standing historical moral disputes! We start in medias res and take it from there. No discussion of how property and wealth may have been acquired through exploitation, robbery and violence. Time somehow legitimises everything. All that matters is you and your bank balance.

As some of you may have guessed, this gripe has been inspired by Alasdair McIntyre’s After Virtue. I recently finished reading this volume and can only heartily encourage others to do the same as it is a genuine philosophical masterpiece. The book is a devastating account of how it came to be that our moral vocabulary no longer functions adequately and explains why our ethical debates are so fractious and divisive. If you want to know how we got where we are, check it out.