Can’t go wrong with little theological disputation on a Saturday morning: Michael Gerson offers up the old saw that morality without Theism is vacuous or unjustifiable. Christopher Hitchens replies by arguing that theism is not a necessary condition of morality.
>So the dilemma is this: How do we choose between good and bad instincts? Theism, for several millennia, has given one answer: We should cultivate the better angels of our nature because the God we love and respect requires it. While many of us fall tragically short, the ideal remains.
>Atheism provides no answer to this dilemma. It cannot reply: “Obey your evolutionary instincts” because those instincts are conflicted. “Respect your brain chemistry” or “follow your mental wiring” don’t seem very compelling either. It would be perfectly rational for someone to respond: “To hell with my wiring and your socialization, I’m going to do whatever I please.” C.S. Lewis put the argument this way: “When all that says ‘it is good’ has been debunked, what says ‘I want’ remains.”
>Some argue that a careful determination of our long-term interests — a fear of bad consequences — will constrain our selfishness. But this is particularly absurd. Some people are very good at the self-centered exploitation of others. Many get away with it their whole lives. By exercising the will to power, they are maximizing one element of their human nature. In a purely material universe, what possible moral basis could exist to condemn them? Atheists can be good people; they just have no objective way to judge the conduct of those who are not.
1. Human beings have good and bad instincts.
2. Morality requires choosing the good instincts over the bad instincts.
3. Moral choice requires an objective standard for judging desires.
4. Atheists have no objective standard for judging desires.
5. Therefore, Atheists cannot be moral.
That’s one construal of the argument. Gerson seems, however, to vacillate between this and something like
\6. Therefore, Atheists have no reason to be moral.
and something like
\7. Therefore, Atheists have no objective moral standards.
Probably part of the problem lies with the slippery notion of what it means to be “moral.” But, setting that aside, 4 is the crucial claim in any version of the argument. And here, I think, Gerson gets a little simplistic.
>In a purely material universe, what possible moral basis could exist to condemn them?
I’m not sure whether Atheists are committed to a “purely material universe.” Seems as though they could hold to the existence of the mental as well. And whether or not they hold that, there are plenty of plausible accounts of morality that ground moral judgment in the nature of reason. If the evolutionary account of ethics explains the origin of reason in evolution need it thereby undermine its authority? If an evolutionary account of mathematical reasoning were developed, would it remove the authority of mathematical proof?
This is, of course, a superficial response, but this argument and the earlier one from Stanley Fish seem to rest on the either deliberate or ignorant disregard of recent moral philosophy. Both blithely dismiss the possibility of a non-theistic justification of morality with several straw man arguments (“purely material universes”) ignoring great bookshelves full of candidate justifications for morality.
It may turn out that there isn’t a coherent non-theistic justification of morality. But to claim that there isn’t, at this point in time, requires some serious response to numerous alternative positions. Until that happens, there seems little reason to me to accept Gerson’s argument. Nonetheless, it would be desirable if the proponents of this argument in the popular press would spend a little more time justifying the controversial premise.
Second, Hitchens. When we strip his characteristic verve from his column we get essentially.
1. Some theists are not moral.
2. Some moral people are not theists.
3. Therefore, it is not the case that theism is a necessary condition of being moral.
As Hitchens points out, Gerson waffles a bit on his conclusion. Sometimes he suggests that theism is necessary for morality, sometimes that it encourages it, sometimes he even seems to grant Hitchen’s argument, but then hold that theism makes sense of the morality that both theists and non-theists can possess.