Thursday, August 23, 2007

The partly necessary God

Andrew Koppelman

Michael Perry’s claim, that belief in human rights depends logically on belief in God, has now been attacked from two sides. Brian Tamanaha has shown, repeatedly, that religion isn’t necessary to human rights. Jack Balkin has shown that it isn’t sufficient, either; belief in God has sometimes produced massive human rights violations.

This gives rise to a puzzle. Perry is one of our smartest thinkers about human rights. If he has gone so far wrong, this itself demands explanation. I’d like to suggest that he has started with a valid and important thought – that belief in human rights is inseparable from religion, for him and many others – and carried it in the wrong direction.

For many people, religion is pervasive in the narrative they tell themselves about their lives in the world; life just wouldn’t make sense without that religious narrative. Questioning God means questioning the basis of their belief in human rights and much else. Of course, the certainty thus generated need not support human rights; it is equally consistent with genocide. See, e.g., Numbers 31; Joshua 6:21; 1 Samuel 15. (I’ve argued that conscientious belief, without more, is entitled to no respect whatsoever.) But Perry has accurately described his own psychology, and he may have accurately described the psychology of the majority of persons who believe in human rights. For most people, the Bible offers a more accessible moral narrative than the forbidding prose of Kant.

Tamanaha has shown that the foundation of this view is a commitment to theism that itself is a kind of existential leap, not different in kind from the leap of the agnostic for whom human dignity is itself foundational and not dependent on anything else. Perry’s charge against nontheistic believers in rights, that their belief lacks metaphysical guarantees, is applicable to everyone, on all sides of this debate. Perry’s theism provides comfort to his view, but it also generates problems of its own, such as the intractable difficulties of theodicy. Can there be belief in rights without God? As in the old gag about believing in adult baptism, all I can say is that I’ve seen it done. Maybe it wouldn’t work for Perry. But that’s not his claim. His argument resembles the following fallacy: I love my mother and being deprived of her would be terrible for me; your mother isn’t my mother; therefore you have a bad mother.

Tamanaha’s response to Perry has implications for agnostics, though. If (some!) agnostics take human rights to be foundational, they often lack much of a vocabulary to describe the basis of their commitment. Here theists do have a comparative advantage. The sense of moral bedrock, of that which can’t be denied, is common ground to both. This suggests to me – and I happen to be an agnostic believer in human rights – that agnostics should be charitable toward the beliefs and language of theists. We all perceive a kind of moral imperative whose basis is hard for us to articulate. Atheists just stop; theists offer inspiring but murky metaphors. Any language we come up with is going to be fraught with difficulties. The foundational respect for human dignity that Tamanaha describes, and which I happen to share, is a poor basis for smug superiority to those who couch the same respect in theistic terms. This is the mirror image of Perry’s fallacy. We ought to be cautious about beating up on each other’s moral narratives. Believers in human rights represent one faction on the planet. The other faction is potent and effective. We should be grateful for allies, instead of complaining that my foundation is better than yours.


"The other faction" being non-believers in human rights? Like Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Gonzales, Bart DePalma, and me?

"Perry is one of our smartest thinkers about human rights. If he has gone so far wrong, this itself demands explanation."

Theism is a notion that gets it's hooks planted into you, courtesy of people you trust, must trust, during early childhood. By the time you have any sort of mental defenses erected, it's already moved in and made itself at home. It's like having your computer infected by a virus before you install the anti-viral software. Running a quad-core processor at 4 Ghz doesn't help you oust it.

Being smart, thus, has very little to do with it, and the fact that somebody who's really smart thinks this really implies very little.


Tell us how you REALLY feel about your parents . . .

Without having read all the arguments and counterarguments referenced in your post, I'd like to offer one atheist's perspective, (that is to say, my own):

A belief in human rights, in one respect, is simply a belief in fair play. We all want to be treated fairly, and we resent it when we see others enjoying unfair advantages denied to us. In order to insure WE are treated fairly, we have to commit ourselves to treating others fairly, even if we lack an innate "altruistic" basis for that committment.

I believe chimpanzees have demonstrated the capacity to treat others in their group fairly or unfairly. Chimps who treat others of their group unfairly have been seen to reap violent consequences, or shunning, from their fellows. One would not argue chimps behave thus due to any beliefs they might have of a creator larger than themselves.

On a larger scale, I think a committment to "rights," or, more broadly still, to the "good," is a matter of pure evolution: in order to insure survival of our species, we evolve innate behaviors that tend to promote group cohesion and survival, and which tend to mitigate the dissolution or destruction of the group.

Violent or deceitful behavior destroys the trust necessary for group cohesion and, thus, survival. Behaviors that promote trust among group members, or that promote survival of the group against the depredations of man, beast and nature are thus "good."

Even behavior that might seem irrationally self-sacrificing--the soldier who throws himself on the grenade to save his comrades--makes sense; the individual cannot survive without the group, so the group's survival is paramount. We thus evolve behaviors that will insure group survival even when that requires the death of the individual.

This seems self-evident to me, and any talk of "god" unutterably silly, and baffling, when offered by seemingly rational folks.

Our behaviors evolved prior to and independently of our higher thinking, and thus the reasons we invent to explain good and evil, (i.e., "god" or other supernatural explanations), are fantasies we invent after the fact to help us understand that which is resistant to rational understanding: behaviors that are apparent from the perspective of evolutionary science and time, but which are invisible from the perspective of the individual trapped in a finite lifespan.

It is only science which reveals this invisible reality to us.

I'm still curious about my analogy between the Brown-and-originalism argument and this closing point:

"We ought to be cautious about beating up on each other’s moral narratives. Believers in human rights represent one faction on the planet. The other faction is potent and effective. We should be grateful for allies, instead of complaining that my foundation is better than yours."

Why isn't this also an objection to beating up on originalist justifications for Brown? (See here for my parallel argument on Tamanaha's similar point, though it might require some searching to find it.) I don't see why competing arguments about the foundations for human rights are any less worthy of discussion than competing arguments about the foundations for decisions of the Supreme Court. There might be better things to talk about lots of the time, of course, and we shouldn't "complain" too grumpily about anything, I suppose, but arguing about foundations is a big part of what academics do, isn't it?

(I happen to know that Prof. Koppelman is partial to Brown-based criticisms of originalism--and I trust I'm not betraying a confidence here!--because he has made them to me. I included a (huge) section on Brown in this in response to his suggestion.)

I think the Enlightenment had more to do with establishing modern human rights than any religion.

Robert Cook,

I think your explanation is perfectly coherent.

I think the admission that moral behavior is a matter of pure evolution may be disturbing to some theists, and not be in the spirit of Andrew Koppelman's plea that we try and not compete with one another's moral foundations, (by, for example, saying that the invention of good and evil or God is a "fantasy") but hey, if you're right you're right...I'm merely pointing out that it's not the kind of thing Koppelman seemed to be hoping for. But that might not be important to you, and if not, then that's OK with me.

Anyway, what I'm really interested in saying is that a 3rd person explanation of morality is a..."postive" exercise, and doesn't actually do any justifying.

We may need moral behavior to evolve as a species, but evolution has no discern-able goals right?

So if nature herself doesn't care, where does that leave us?

Also, if there are really notable exceptions to the rule of behaving morally as a survival strategy, like, say people who commit genocide and make tons and tons of money and gain power by exploiting people.

They have existed, and they have survived, and they have replicated their DNA.

All I'm getting at is, evolutionary explanations are fine at understanding that we DO have moral (and immoral) sentiments.

But this type of explanation doesn't do the job of justifying one sentiment over another.

If all you meant to do was provide that 3rd person explanation without attempting to justify anything, then never mind and, have a good day.

I think Mr. Cook is on the right path. Let me go a bit further down his path.

From a pragmatic perspective, one should always start with a (typically unconscious) cost-benefit trade. From a purely selfish standpoint, one should go down the path that prospectively maximizes the benefit for a given cost. That involves an estimate of what the prospective benefit attendant to a particular behavior will be conditioned on one's capabilities. And that involves a measurement of one's self-confidence and motivation.

If I believe that I am unusually skillful and aggressive and that I will be able to benefit disproportionately in a social system in which the more skillful and/or aggressive can tilt the balance in their favor, then from a purely selfish perspective I should support such a social system. But if I either doubt my relative skills, aggressiveness, or motivation, then I should support a system in which everyone is likely to benefit modestly, though less than in the alternative "winner -take-all" system.

This view seems to resolve the paradox of how someone who doesn't believe in a judgmental god can nonetheless be "moral". It is just a matter of maximizing one's prospects for a comfortable - though not exceptionally so - existence.

This is consistent with my own observations. I have numerous friends who profess no allegiance to a supreme "judge" but who nevertheless behave in accordance with the "moral law" expressed in the beatitudes. And in every instance they aspire only to a comfortable life, not to an life of exceptional privilege. Ie, they are willing to support the concept of widespread human rights which will almost certainly benefit them in lieu of special rights for a select group of which they may or may not turn out to be a member.


I certainly don't want to deny that your system is pragmatic, it certainly appears to be.

I've tried to get several from the atheist position to bite but haven't been successful yet.

Anyway, the position advanced in the several entries by bloggers on this site, Tahamana, Andrew Koppelman, etc, is that the atheist and theist are in equally difficult positions for justifying the foundations of morality. I think that's a good position, meaning, I agree with it.

Whether or not atheists are actually good is a related, but distinct issue.

The central issue is, which system or collection of ideas, atheism or theism, broadly conceived, better justifies the normative foundations of morality?

I think the options are these:

1) Atheism and theism both have a very hard time justifying the normative foundations of morality.

2) Atheism and theism are both very good at justifying the normative foundations of morality.

3)Atheism is better than theism at justifying the normative foundations of morality.

4) Theism is better than atheism at justifying the normative foundations of morality.

I think #1 is the best option, but just about every self-identified atheist I've seen in this series of threads has opted for options 2 or 3. If there were others I missed, my apologies.

What the bloggers (Tahamana, etc) have been suggesting is the weaknesses in theistic and atheistic justifications for morality just show up at different places in their systems.

I don't think anyone has really dealt with this claim yet.

At bottom, belief in both God on the one hand and human rights on the other are stopping points, beyond which there is no justification other than the belief itself.

Proposing evolutionary or pragmatic reasons to behave morally (we could have evolutionary or pragmatic reasons to behave badly, from time time) is not the same as justifying the normative nature of morality.

If there are other options on the spectrum, I'm certainly open to hearing them, but for now, do any of the options (1-4) accurately describe your position?

Motivations are not nearly as important as behaviors. Metaphysical and religious explanations for behavior are impossible to prove, or even to justify, but no more so than any other explanation. What matters to people is action, not the reasons for the actions.

I am sure that many soldiers in Iraq think they are operating from pure motives, but that hardly matters to the dead, the wounded, or the humiliated.

As Aristotle observed a long time ago, there is a difference between arguing to a first principle and arguing from a first principle. If your first principle is sound, then as long as your logic holds, your conclusion will be certain. However, the argument to the first principle will always be contingent. Religion simply provides a short-cut to the first principle. To anyone who has not had a personal revelation as to its truth, it is simply a contingent argument like any other.

Excellent post, Andy. I share in you closing admonition--that believers and non-belivers should not attack the core beliefs of the other.

And you are also right that agnostics would benefit from clarifying their core commitments.

Here's my modest start: Life is the ultimate gift, and should be cherished. We give meaning to our existence through our activities in the world. Having loving relationships with others is a fundamental human good. Everyone should have a fair opportunity to live a meaningful life and to form loving relationships with others. We ought to treat others with empathy and compassion. I believe that humans have inherent dignity. Torture is wrong. We all have flaws, and should do the best we can to do the right thing.

Nothing profound here. Not much different from the beliefs of many religious folks I know (like my mostly Bahai family). Just simple ideas to live by, though robust enough to make a full commitment to human rights.

good pts by all. There are 2 emotions that explain the existence of human rights on one hand, and the violation of human rights on the other. One is empathy, the other fear. Both were necessary for the survival of a species such as ours that tend to live in "tribal groups" (tribes are everywhere, we have them too), so both evolved to the extent that we have them now, and both have been in constant tension thru out history.

We feel the most empathy for those who are closest to us, and the most fear for those who are most different from us. Both emotions were necessary for the survival of our progeny way back when we lived in small bands in caves and things that would eat us or compete with us were so many and varied. There are several theories of human evolution along these lines.

Why is one emotion stronger than the other in one person as opposed to another? The natural variability within our DNA.

The driving force behind "human rights" is empathy, and when they are violated, fear is the usual motivator. How much fear, how much empathy does one feel for the individual in question?

Jay, you said:

"The central issue is, which system or collection of ideas, atheism or theism, broadly conceived, better justifies the normative foundations of morality?"

Good question, wrong answers, because how does one account for the changing definition of "morality" within the context of history? Or the changing defintion of "morality" as one travels across the globe? or across the country?

Societal norms define morality, "tribal norms"... That is the foundation, we just cover it up and call it "religion", or what ever. A Christain in Alabama is going to have a slightly different set of moral beleifs than a Christain in Africa. Both are going to have a more pronounced different set of moral beleifs than a Hindu in India, but a Hindu in America will move closer to a Christain in New York, etc.

I'm with Andrew on this one, I don't care where one gets their morals if they more or less agree with mine.


hi tom,

I think we can define morality broadly enough to handle what we Westerners think it to be.

Do not murder, do not steal, do not deceive, etc, etc, etc.

There doesn't seem to be be too big a problem in defining what we mean simply because of the religious variations.

Atheists are going to have different moralities from one another as well, but I think we all know roughly what we mean when Brian Tamanaha and Andrew Koppelman say that both atheists and theists have hard time rationally justifying the foundations of morality.

Why are oughts powerful, or better yet, why should they be?

If they're simply a matter of evolutionary accidents, fine, but that's a description right, not a rational justification of the foundations of morality.

Maybe we'll never get such a thing, but that seems to be what the core of these sets of threads have been about.

The fact that the content can change from religion to religion (and from atheist to atheist) doesn't change the fact that the normative nature of "oughts" remains unjustified at its core, (whether those oughts be of one stripe or another) and remains reliant on beliefs themselves, rather than justifications for those beliefs.

I think this is what Koppelman was saying, through Tamanaha, when he said this,

"Tamanaha has shown that the foundation of this view is a commitment to theism that itself is a kind of existential leap, not different in kind from the leap of the agnostic for whom human dignity is itself foundational and not dependent on anything else."

Human dignity, or human rights or whatever, is not rationally justified because we evolved a certain way. I'm not trying to say that you're asserting this, I'm just trying to get at the distinction.

If we all want to just be pragmatic and not pick at our respective deeply held moral beliefs, I'm all for that, but the threads have dived right in, and many atheists have risen to the challenge to seemingly assert that their moral foundations are rationally justified, which is what I seriously doubt.

Tamanaha: "I share in you[r] closing admonition--that believers and non-belivers should not attack the core beliefs of the other."

If "attack" means "criticize," this seems to come close to self-referential incoherence, because it suggests that we shouldn't argue with each other about whether God exists. But that would only make sense if it doesn't matter much whether God exists, and lots of people have a core belief that (to put it mildly) it matters an awful lot whether God exists. So this suggestion itself seems to be attacking one of those people's core beliefs.

I completely disagree that atheists cannot rationally justify the foundations of fact, ONLY atheists can rationally do it. (Religious justifications are, by definition, irrational, as religion itself is. I don't say this to attack religion, but to objectively describe it. I think even believers have to admit their belief is irrational: hence the emphasis on "faith.")

In fact, I think my own post above, as clumsily stated as it was, goes to the heart of the foundations of "morality." "Morality" is merely the after-the-fact description and justification for behaviors that we have evolved to promote survival of the species. Being after the fact, the description is inferential, and, until the arrival of Darwin, was grounded in theology or philosophy. After Darwin, we can recognize our behaviors are evolutionarily determined, for good and bad.

Robert Cook,

I'm going to try to make my argument without sounding rude, hopefully I'll succeed, but I'm not sure that I will, because it seems like the atheists who are arguing for their position have so far willfully decided to not understand what Tamanaha and Koppelman are meaning when they say that both theists and atheists have a hard time justifying the rational foundations of morality.

See it seems like you're really good at throwing the ball fast but you're just not throwing it into the catchers mitt. Or that when the professor asks you what the sociological causes of the American Revolution were, you say, "George Washington was the first president." See you're not really wrong, per se, you're just talking about something else.

I mean that your description about the evolutionary aspects of morality seem just fine, but that's not what we're talking about, or at least it's not what Koppelman and Tamanaha are meaning when they talk about the foundations of morality being rationally justified.

A positive (or descriptive) explanation of evolution is not what is meant by rationally justifying the foundations of morality.

Virtually everyone wants to be able to say that other people OUGHT to do x, y, or z.

But why? The question is not answered by saying, "well when we were in packs we evolved to do these things and we're here now because these behaviors conferred an evolutionary advantage to those who cooperated, who are our ancestors, and now we have moral feelings and engage in moral behaviors too" or some such explanation.

That's a descriptive account of morality, not a justification for why your belief about murder, rape, etc is actually "right" or "true" or at least warranted over the opinion of Hitler's or Manson's. That's what is being sought here, or least in this case, evidenced by the way the authors have written about the topics.

If the only matter of fact to point to about morality is that we evolved some such way, then that does not tell us why one evolutionary behavior (like jealousy, rage, or even rape) is better than another (like charity, empathy, cooperation, etc). If one type of behavior is actually not ultimately better than another, then we're back to square one, without rational justifications for the foundations of OUR BELIEF than one action (say a "moral" one) is somehow better than another action (lets say an "immoral" one) in a non-relativistic way.

Actions that we would call "good" and actions that we would call "bad" could all have evolutionary explanations. This is not the same as a JUSTIFICATION for our beliefs.

I realize that atheists are not necessarily cultural relativists, but if certain moral sentiments exist because they happened to confer an evolutionary advantage, (so did some very "bad" or immoral behaviors, instincts, or what have you), then calling something good seems to boil down to how well it conferred survival probability. But many good people have been wiped out, and many bad people have prospered, so that leaves us with morality being justified RELATIVE to the situation. This is radical situationalism, since murder, even participation in committing a genocide, could sometimes be the action to confer the better chance of survival. Besides, attaching a moral value to survival is more than nature is purported to do.

So certain "moral" behaviors would be rewarded from time to time, and certain "immoral" behaviors would be rewarded by natural selection from time to time as well.

Evolution is supposed to be goal-free right? It doesn't care whether it was the United States or the Nazis that won World War II. It doesn't care who will be the next president or what will happen in Iraq.

Evolutionary explanations from an atheistic perspective tell us THAT moral feelings exist, they don't justify one feeling over another, or one action over another.

Doesn't anyone see this distinction?

Anyone? Bueller?

But there is no such thing, really, as "morality." That's only our characterization of behaviors that are generally considered to be favorable for group cohesion or survival.

Just as one cannot "justify" the blue of the sky or the rumble of thunder, one cannot "justify" "moral behavior", if by that you mean something other than a description of the evolutionary processes that gave rise to behaviors we describe as "moral."

Yes, behaviors that we see as "bad" (violent or deceptive behaviors, sadism, the drive to power, greed, etc.) are also evolutionarily developed. One can easily see how the drive to feed oneself taken to an extreme can become gluttony, which is the simplest term for greed and acquisitive behaviors, including the imperialism of nations, (the quest for resources). Other behaviors that we term "bad" are also grounded in logical evolutionary development. (But, a gluttonous individual or nation may have an survival advantage over more abstemious others.)

Evolution IS "goal free," yes. One can describe evolved behaviors as "good" and "bad" according to whether they lead to the promulgation of the species or to its demise. There is no goal, but only the end result. The universe is indifferent to us as we are indifferent to slime molds covering rocks beneath the ground. All conceptions as to "meaning" or "goals" or "good" or "bad" are purely our own ideation.

From the perspective of eternity or the universe, no, it made no difference at all whether the Allied Powers or Adolf Hitler prevailed in WW II. Stalin ruled Soviet Russia for decades of brutal repression and murder, as did Mao in China, yet both countries exist today, full to bursting with people. The misery experienced by victims of Stalin or Mao is subjectively bad, from the human perspective, but without meaning outside ourselves.

If you're looking for ANY "justification" for moral behavior beyond pure description of the conditions that gave rise to them or the benefits to be gained by them, you're on a futile search. Self-sacrifice and altruism are generally beneficial behaviors, and it changes them not at all whether one chooses to see them as evolutionarily determined or as inspired by "god." There IS no reason, really, to favor one behavior over another, (outside the survival benefits of particular behaviors), except insofar as we as individuals wish to have healthy or comfortable or "happy" lives, free of strife and misery and want, and thus can empathetically value such life conditions for our fellow humans. I object to the depredations of tyrants and the repression of human rights because I value my own freedom; from that, I decry the brutal treatment of others out of fear I might one day be a victim of similar brutality, and also through empathy with the present day victims of such brutality for whom I wish the same freedom as I enjoy.

There is no meaning extrinsic to ourselves; there is only that which is, and our imaginative interpretations of that which is.

Robert Cook,

When you tell me I'm on a futile search if I'm looking for something beyond descriptions, that's fine, thanks.

But the statement made by our hosts in the last several threads have to do with the foundations of morality being justified beyond mere descriptions, so we shouldn't get them confused.

So no, you don't really have rational justifications for the foundations of your moral beliefs, because you're not even a moral realist. Some atheist, agnostic, secular humanist types will admit that their core moral beliefs are justified only by themselves, in which case they know their core moral concepts are self-justifying. In your case, you justify them by evolutionary descriptions and admit that there really is no morality.

Equivocating on what is meant by "rational justification" of your moral outlook will give the illusion that the authors and myself are wrong when we say that atheists and theists have an equally hard time rationally justifying the foundations of their moral outlook.

Giving your descriptions, then passing them off as meeting some challenge posed by the assertion that the foundations of morality aren't rationally justified for atheists (or theists) is equivocation.

Now that we're clear on what is meant, it seems you agree with me that the belief that your view that charity is actually "better" than rape is not rationally justified at its core. After all, you just admitted that there is no such thing as "morality."

So far, so good? Good, so now we must admit that belief in God, though it doesn't help justify morality either, isn't any "better" or "worse" than atheism, at the end of the day, since there is no such thing a morality, really.

Seriously, you see how your post totally didn't put you in the moral realist camp right?

If you do see that, then perhaps you want to revise this statement you made in your 11:59 post:

"I completely disagree that atheists cannot rationally justify the foundations of fact, ONLY atheists can rationally do it."

to something like,

"theists and atheists both have a hard time justifying the rational foundations of morality, in all honesty."

This comment has been removed by the author.

One more thing, then I'll shut up for while:

When people like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, etc wish to talk about how religion is "bad," or that we would be better off without it, it's supposed to convict people, make them feel, like, somehow obligated to listen to reasons and respond accordingly.


So now, let's look at evolutionary explanations for morality, such as the type Robert Cook has given, and has admitted that they are the whole story (nothing more, nothing less, no such thing, really as "morality") so far as our moral feelings go.

The implication of R. Cook's idea are this:

These types of statements, lets call them "A" statements:

"You ought not rape my wife,"

can be reduced to statements like these, lets call them "B" statements,

"if our ancestors let anyone come along and rape their women, they wouldn't have replicated their DNA, groups needed a way to pack together and so there is an evolutionary explanation for rules against rape and so forth." (forgive me if I'm not an expert in evolutionary psychology, it doesn't matter if these examples aren't completely accurate. As a matter of fact, Steven Pinker has given an evolutionary argument for why rape may have been advantageous. The idea is that the second statement is different in kind to the first).

If that's too crude, statements like,

"do not steal,"

can be reduced to,

"stealing is disadvantageous to people and groups since those who steal will tend to not be trusted and societies won't form and so on."

But see, in order for there to be any, like, ummpphh, in the moralizing that Dawkins does, there is supposed to be an implied sense of shame on the part of those who are doing the wrong thing. Or at least a feeling of being afraid of being embarrassed, so people don't see the religious position as viable.

It's not that explanations always explain away, but they can. See, if "A" statements are ultimately reducible to "B" statements, where is the sense of inter-personal responsibility? Answer: there is none.

The sense of inter-personal (and even intra-personal) responsibility, shame, etc, need not exist rationally if we understand the nature of "B" statements.

If "A" statements are also reducible to "B" statements, then even "A" statements fail to convey any real sense of inter-personal responsibility for the things we do.

If you want to go ahead and feel responsible, fine, but you don't have to, and the traditional implication of inter-personal responsibility is a kind of fiction.

If atheists don't really believe in fictions, then I suppose Richard Dawkins has no real tools (which would pass muster in methodological naturalism) with which to fight the theist, because after all, there really is no such thing as morality. So he's left with rhetorically trying to appeal to people as best he can.

But you see, when people say they wish for the foundations of morality to be justified, they are saying, 99% of the time, that they wish for the sense of inter-personal responsibility, that normative sense, that sense of "OUGHT" to be retained, that sense of "Justice" to be retained.

When "A" statements are reduced to "B" statements, these things do not survive the translation. "B" statements are leaner, meaner, they're closer to what can really be known about why we have moral sentiments. When "A" statements are boiled down to "B" statements, that gut-level feeling of inter-personal responsibility, the "OUGHT" is gone.

Once we understand this, we can see that the idea that atheism is better than theism at rationally justifying any idea like "you ought not rape my wife" is bunk.

"You ought not rape my wife" is an "A" statement which can be reduced to very non-moral "B" statement.

Evolutionary explanations may explain THAT humanity is full of all sorts of feelings, sentiments, instincts, etc. The feeling of empathy, the instinct to rape, (hey, some people have this instinct), on and on and on and on.

But evolutionary examples do not at all say which of these behaviors or feelings is better than any other.

Evolutionary explanations do not retain that gut-level sense of "ought" that exist is "A" statements like "murder is wrong."

Because of this, the seemingly irreducible sense of "ought" contained in universal moral statements, or "A" statements is lost when translated to "B" statements.

When people are looking for rational justification for the foundations of morality, they're looking for rational justification that they are right about things like "rape is wrong" in a way that retains the sense of intra-personal "ought' of "A" statements.

Atheism doesn't provide that, and this is what theists are getting at. Now, I don't think theism is better off, and agree with our hosts that the problem with theism simply shows up at a different place in the belief system.

I'm not talking about theism because it seems like the atheists are one's kicking and screaming around here, trying to resist the conclusion that atheism isn't any better off (no, sorry, your team didn't win) than theism at justifying the foundations of moral belief, and it's sense of inter-personal responsibility.

Jay, with all due respect, I don't feel a need to revise my statement. When I say there is no morality, I say there is no morality extrinsic to humans. However, we humans have defined a morality, which is basically a description and codification of behaviors we evolved that tend to promote the survival of the species, of the group.

IF there is felt a need to "justify" morality, I think it can only be rationally done by describing what it is on a purely materialistic level. Appeals to more metaphysical foundations are merely our imaginations (or ignorance) at work.

I'm perfectly willing to admit we may be talking at cross purposes or that I may be misunderstanding your terms.

Now, while I regret the degree to which our society remains entrenched in religious myths and dogma, I can recognize that there may even be an evolutionary advantage to having such beliefs...religious faith can bring meaning to people's lives, help them endure tragedy and turmoil with the hope that their lot will improve, inspire optimism, and so on. At the same time, though, the superstitious thinking that underlies religious faith can foster ignorance and intolerance, or can hinder the recognition or acceptance of material solutions to problems that bedevil us, (medical, sociological, etc.).

In other words, I don't think religious is "bad" for people except insofar as it is a pattern of thinking that can lead us down deadends in finding the answers to problems that threaten our survival or cohesion.

In the October 2006 issue of Theology Today, I took issue with Michael Perry, arguing for a "non-religious" basis in support of human rights.

Drawing upon recent discussions of "common morality" in philosophical and theological ethics, I presented a "pragmatist" reading of the Golden Rule (informed, implicitly, by the writings of Gene Outka and Robert Brandom) as offering a sufficient "non-religious" basis for a coherent commitment to human rights.

We had better hope that Michael Perry is wrong. There are too few religious persons concerned about human rights, and too many "non-religious" activists and theoreticians deeply devoted to them to take much comfort in Perry's argument.

--George Hunsinger, professor of theology, Princeton Theological Seminary, and founder, Naitonal Religious Campaign Against
Torture (

Robert Cook,

First, I said I would shut up for a while, and I obviously am not shutting up here, so I apologize.

Second, I appreciate the back and forth, we disagree sharply on the terms, but it has managed to be less than acrimonious.

I have to say however, that our hosts, Tamanaha and Koppelman, are really smart guys, they've heard of evolutionary explanations before, I'm sure, and they consistently said that both atheism and theism have a hard time rationally justifying the foundations of morality, a point which I echoed.

In order to answer the way you did, (that atheism can rationally justify the foundations of morality because of these evolutionary facts), you would have to had presumed that our hosts had not considered that possibly atheists DID after all have an explanation for why morality exists.

In all their learning and experience, I imagine they have become aware of evolutionary explanations. So when they said that atheism and theism have great difficulty in rationally justifying the foundations of morality, it would not occur to me that they perhaps failed to consider that there do exist evolutionary descriptions having to do with morality. From the context, it seems pretty clear that the posts were dealing with the notion of "rightness" or "justification" or "warrant." These concepts are just distinct from factual descriptions which show no preference one way or another, they just are.

Now, perhaps the whole notion of "rightness" is a bit metaphysical.

If so, it can be left at that.

But when people look for rational justification of the foundations of morality, they're looking for a reason to think that they are "right" about their moral feelings in the way I described in my 3:15 post (you may have been typing your post when I entered mine).

I do have to thank you for being so forthcoming too. What I mean is that 9 times out of 10, I can't get atheists to admit what you have about the underlying nature of morality, or when they do go to 3rd person facts to describe, they don't realize that those facts don't make anyone "right" about a moral judgment.

I know you're being pragmatic about morality, but I honestly think many atheists are unconsciously Platonic about the notion of 'human rights.'

Platonism has about as much going for it as theism, yet somehow belief in this heavenly realm is tolerated. Like with math, many mathematicians and physicists are Platonists, and there is no reason why that should be tolerated if belief in heaven isn't. I mean really, why should math be able to exist in a heavenly realm?

In Daniel Dennett's case, he didn't sound so unconscious in his Platonism in this interview:

The clip lasts about 10 minutes, and noted atheist Daniel Dennett gets Platonic about morality and math.

At least he's self-aware.

But anyway, the reason I mention unconscious Platonism is that when people talk about justifying morality, they're talking about something more than mere description.

And when atheists talk about right and wrong they seem to have the impression that they are right in the old way, in the metaphysical or "Platonic" way. That's what most people often mean by being right over someone with a differing moral view.

If it turns out that with the presumptions of atheism, there really is no ultimate morality, well then this isn't at all the type of justification which will satisfy anyone on the theistic side, and probably will not count as "justification" to very many people, but it will count as description.

The reason I think you would revise your statement is that you would come to understand the nature of what our hosts were saying (and that I choose to echo) when they said that both theism and atheism were basically hard pressed to rationally justify the foundations of morality. When you understand what the nature of that statement is, then you realize that neither atheism and theism can rationally justify one view as really "right" (the way "A" statements are right) over another.

If you think your rendition of evolutionary descriptions is a relevant answer to the challenge, then you must presume that you added something to the debate, namely some evolutionary facts, something our hosts (and probably all of us) were aware of already.

There is an angle of this question that I am surprised no one has looked at. Everyone, including the bloggers, have looked at the "micro" side of the question, the question of whether an individual's view of human rights makes sense only in the context of religion.

The "macro" side of the question is also interesting, and might lend some guidance on the "micro" question. The "macro" question is whether human rights as a concept would even have existed in the absence of religion, or very specific forms of religion. While more speculative, answering it should help to answer the side of questions brought up here before.

I for one think it completely clear that the answer to the question is that human rights, whereever they have traveled since, were grounded in religious modes of thought. Once found, many in the Enlightenment and since have since tried to cull them from their religious roots. However, if religion was the original source of human rights, one should wonder whether human rights needs the support of religion to survive.

First, I don't agree with this statement:

conscientious belief, without more, is entitled to no respect whatsoever

As an important part of our being, as well as something I think protected by the Constitution, it deserves some respect. Without more, such as if it used negatively, only merits limited respect. But, "no" is wrong.

Next, as to the comment religion is possibly the foundation of rights, a comment here raises chimps. Chimps in some fashion appear to have a sense of "right" behavior. Do they have "religion?"

[Man as social animal sets up certain things as givens. Without really thinking about it, society began to have certain moral rules, expanded outward as the world got smaller, so to speak.

Seeing this as necessary is in some ways akin to expecting crops to grow each spring ... people thought gods were involved there too. Were gods necessary to agriculture?]

Finally, what exactly IS religion? Do you need to believe in a God? I think not (see also, the Seeger and Welsh cases). I think it often can be seen in a general sense of something parallel to what many deem "religion." In this sense, atheists can have a "religion."

They surely can have something some here deem necessary for rights. For instance, "religion" is often conscience and internal belief and what such things drive us to do.

Religion is also emotional, not just rational. Love, for instance, arises from scientific drives, but many see it as "sacred" (see Griswold v. CT use of the word). Seen in a functional sense, IOW, "religion" has a broad meaning.

This seems to be the rub here. Some think such things as some internal drive to do good etc. requires "religion" and in return really try to prove too much because they think the term only has a limited God-focused meaning.

"Religion" grows from natural drives and evolution while being partially a human creation (the rules, organization and so forth, again, such things need not be God focused; certain things are "sacred" w/o God per se).

Anyway, I think the definition of "religion" must be part of the discussion as much as "moral" etc.

I also would describe myself as a realist, but I have to disagree with Mr. Cook with regard to evolutionary explanations. Instead, I am afraid that there are no such things as universal rights, whether based upon religion or evolution: "Rights" is merely a social construct which we have adopted because of its utility in the workings of a better (that is, richer, more complex) society.

Religion can only claim to justify morality if it is true (I speak as an evangelical Christian, so I happen to believe at least one religion is correct). I may sincerely believe in the FSM and claim to follow the direction of his noodly appendages, but there is no reason for you to accept my morality as normative.

With regard to evolution, how did Scandinavians evolve in 1000 years from rape and pillage to social welfare and generous donations to UNICEF? If the answer is that both sets of behavior are contained in the genome (along with many other possibilities) then you are not really explaining anything, all the just-so stories about survival of the group notwithstanding.

Morality is a technology, one that has developed in concert with humanity's other technologies, both social and material. The more complex a society (in general) the more developed its morality must be to provide the freedom necessary for innovation. And no, I do not consider short-term aberrations such as Nazi Germany to be counter-examples, as they do not alter the general trend.

A society's "goal" (in an economic perspective; societies are not conscious, nor are most cultural decisions made consciously) is to provide the most benefits (food, sex, leisure, etc) to the largest group possible (which may be less than the whole; everyone cannot benefit from slave labor, for instance).

Scale back the environment and technology to the level of ancient Greece, then the only people worrying about universal rights would be a few rich men of leisure who are supported by the slaves working their latifundia. There exists no such thing as a self-evident truth, merely ideas that we as a society choose to accept because they make our way of life possible.

I happen to agree that both theists and atheists are equally capable of making rationalizations as to why their moralities should be normative, and I certainly will not argue that such moralities are very good things. But Jay J is correct in arguing that neither is in any way normative.

Excellent discussion, and my thanks to all. Cheers! Kurt Ehrsam


Here is an answer to your request for the usefulness of an attempt at moral objectivity analysis: the foundation of morality notwithstanding, the crucially important thing to do in any moral analysis of a specific situation is to define the moral stakeholders.

Robert Cook pointed out that 'morality' is not a 'thing' that can be objectively manipulated. So what are we arguing about? I contend there are 2 fundamental misunderstandings that occur when atheists and theists debate morals. The first is the matter of whether the so-called 'foundation of morality' is relevant to the discussion at all. As an atheist, it would be expected that I declare the source of morals to be of no issue, but as this series of posts describe, arguing about it of little help either.

But lets form our specific moral problems in analogy to a mathematical function. A function is an equation that exists like a black box - you put data in, and the function transforms it into a line, or a curve - something tangible that describes the result of the input in a consistent way. Similarly, with a question of morality, the people whose rights are being debated - the moral stakeholders - could be called the 'independent variable' side of an equation, while morality itself measured against the stakes involved - life, property, human rights - constitute the 'dependent variable' side of the equation. This is also known as the function, or operator. Under this theoretical formulation, morality itself is a function, not a result. The insight here is that a function describes a 'line' - that is - a continuum of balance. A moral equation either balances out or it doesn't - that is the definition of 'right' and 'wrong' in the moral calculus.

Therefore the actual 'source' of morality is of non-importance when discussing morality.

The second misunderstanding is intimately related to the first: more serious than contending that a Deity is the sole responsible source for morality, Theists have a bad habit of insisting further that God is one of the stakeholders too! This causes all kinds of trouble, and is in fact the working definition of a crusade: when a State has decided that it's own survival is equal to the survival of God.

An example for showing how an calculistic approach to morality works is capitol punishment, which Mr Perry also apparently addresses in his book. While many find the debate as to the legitimacy of using state power to enforce a death sentence a murky one, fraught with the tension between societal order, the human thirst for equal justice and the ideals of a all-powerful moral light - the Calculist can peer deep into the issue and quickly see that in a civil society, capitol punishment is unbalanced - and thus unworthy of our support.

In the case of a prisoner sentenced to die by the State, he (or she) has presumably committed murder - he has prioritized some petty stake (money, sex, drugs) above the life (the highest stake) of another person - and thus committed a very unbalanced action (from a Calculist standpoint). Similarly, in executing a prisoner, the State is committing exactly the same sin: rather than possessing some arbitrary right to commit reciprocal homicide, it is violating the absolute highest stake of the prisoner (taking his life), while suffering from no similar threat to survival by simply keeping the prisoner incarcerated, but alive. Capitol punishment is therefore immoral not (only)on the basis that it takes a life, or even that it, through injustice, might take innocent life, but on the basis that it does not meet the 'threat to survival' threshold that we generally use to excuse killing (war, self-defense). This is not to say it might not have been necessary at one time in societies without the capacity for long-term incarceration, but this is not longer the case. Capitol punishment is an abuse of State resources because an incarcerated killer is not a threat to the survival of society.

In the problem of abortion, a moral calculist sees that the Supreme Court has ruled correctly in Roe, and moreover, that all attempts to overturn are in fact an attempt to capitalize on the second misunderstanding by making God (or some version of God) a stakeholder in the equation. For even were we to equate the life of an eight-celled blastocyst with the life of the woman who nurtures it - and thus conclude any abortion after conception to be an unbalanced (immoral, if you insist) act, Roe is STILL correct because, in America anyway, THE STATE HAS NO COMPELLING INTEREST TO INTERVENE. All of the stakes in the issue of an potential abortion, and thus all the 'lines' and 'gray areas,' lie within the immediate family, and the specific genius of the Constitution is its bottom-up notion with respect to both politics and morality. Moral or immoral, in an abortion debate (much like adultery debates of days gone), the State has no stake in the issue and therefore should not get involved. The only compelling argument for the State to intervene is the so-called 'protection of life.' But really, the state has no mandate to protect life, only to punish transgressions which threaten social order. In order to insist that State should actively protect life, one must argue that 'God' has ordained it so - and therein He suddenly goes from the source of morality, to Someone whose 'will' must be defended.

The clear giveaway that Perry has elevated his notion of God far above the status of mere 'author' of morals to that of actual stakeholder down here with us mortals is the ultimate contention of his book: that we have to start re-thinking our notions of constitutional jurisprudence in order to start getting the 'right' answers.

The Constitution is the purist document I've seen in regards to a calculist theory of morality, for it describes the circles of interest that cannot be crossed by government in order for men to be considered free. If Perry is arguing for the necessity for God as Stakeholder, he is arguing for a different America.


Thanks for the post...

But I wasn't requesting that anyone explain the "usefulness of an attempt at moral objectivity analysis..."

I know that there are many useful methods that can be called objective.

This conversation has always been about the foundations. Tamanaha and Koppelman made the point that atheists and theists both are hard pressed to rationally justify the foundations of morality.

This seemed to be annoying to some self-described atheists who have since responded.

If the foundations aren't important you to, then I guess the conversation isn't that important to you...with respect.

Ok then, try this. The foundation for morality isn't God or even an inherent sense of the rights of man, but the foundation of morality is 2 or more humans living within proximity. Perhaps I mis-explained myself by saying that the source is irrelevant. As Cook explained, morality is a tool, a device for divining a correct path of action. We craft this tool every time two or more stakeholders come into conflict. We are not discovering this tool now, we have been honing it for millennia. We 'know' it works because we all have the experience that it does.

If one needs the assurance of a creator that life has 'meaning' in order to act morally, than one is not really committed to being responsible to the society in which he lives. Agreeing to act in accordance with a balance between personal interest and the interests of one's fellow members of society is an act of maturity, not one of fealty.


Seriously, the root of the conversation is not about whether atheists can be moral, or that atheists can't use moral tools as effectively as anyone else.

When Koppelman and Tamanaha were saying that atheists and theists are hard pressed to rationally justify the foundations of morality, they weren't saying that moral tools aren't available to the atheist, and they weren't saying that atheist morality is bound to work irrationally.

Maybe my 3:15 post will shed some light on where I'm coming from.

Really, workability is not the same as rationally justifying the foundations of morality.

The conversation is about moral realism, or lack thereof. I keep saying "the conversation," but I suppose that anyone can talk about whatever they want.

I'm just meaning to say that Tamanaha and Koppelman meant something specific when they said that atheists and theists are hard pressed to rationally justify the rational foundations of morality, and it didn't have to do with whether or not atheists could be moral people, or if they could be really good at operating within a moral framework. The answer to both these questions is yes and yes.

The conversation (or at least Tamanaha's and Koppelman's original claim) is more philosophical than pragmatic.

About God, I don't think theism rationally justifies the foundations of morality either (in the way Tamanaha and Koppelman orginally meant) so your stuff about that isn't really applicable to me.

To be very specific, morality can be defined as the function which balances a stake against a set of stakeholders.

We can stipulate certain moral 'truths' such as "do not kill" and "do not steal," in order to simplify our formulation of this equation, but they all amount to simply codifying evidently vagrant violations of balance of the scale of life or property in favor of one stakeholder over another.

So the answer to your original question is... none of the above. Or, if you insist, 4, simply because theism is the only one that really attempts to, or feels the need to, justify a 'normative' morality. Atheism may feel pressured to by theism because everyone likes a happy ending, but truth actually is quite messy.

Have a nice day.

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but i tell ya what, if I have time I'll re-read your posts specifically tomorrow and see if I have anything to offer you. My opinion really is pretty close to Koppleman - that divisiveness between theists and atheists is ultimately not helpful to those who wish to do the right thing. I guess I'm just being preachy, not thoughtful and I'll try to do better if I can.

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This comment has been removed by the author.


This "normative" morality you speak of is what Tamanaha and Koppelman meant when they said that atheism and theism are both hard pressed to rationally justify the foundations of morality.

This is what they meant, so all of the things said by atheists about workability are not at all relevant.

They may be relevant insofar as showing theists that atheists too can be moral people, but since that's not what Tamanaha and Koppelman were meaning, it doesn't really matter here.

I guess I have to accuse you of the same thing I accused R. Cook of, and that's imagining that Tamanaha and Koppelman didn't know that atheists can cite that morality has existed ever since "2 or more humans living within proximity," or that the "tool" of morality has worked for millennia. Come on man, if it were that easy, do you imagine our hosts would have said what they did?

It's the normativity that's important. If you and/or R. Cook say that searching for normative authority, or justification beyond description won't work, then you're right where Tamanaha, Koppelman, and myself have been since the beginning of the discussion, which is that atheists and theists are both hard pressed to justify the foundations of our moral beliefs.

To me the authors, when they said the foundations of our moral belefs were tenuous, were talking about justification, which is not some explanation about workable frameworks or 3rd person descriptions about evolution. To presume that explanations about workability or 3rd person accounts was an answer to our hosts is to presume that they just overlooked the fact that atheists can operate within moral frameworks and talk about evolutionary origins. Justification is a different animal than showing how things can be workable or explaining the origin of a phenomena.

The most important thing may be that we both agree with Koppelman in his point about divisivenes.

Have a good one too...

If I may add my 2 cents. Certainly tying any idea to God helps give the argument a firm (the firmest) grounding or otherwise make it non-negotiable.

However, as has been noted, the notion of human rights as we understand them today, or as America's Founders understood them in the late 18th Century, do not derive from any of the theistic/monotheistic religions, even if some philosophers or historical figures otherwise so claimed to make conventionally religious folks feel better.

For instance, revolutionaries claimed a "human right" to revolt against tyrannical governments. The problem is the Bible never says this and in fact intimates the opposite (see Romans 13).

Likewise, "rights" were born out of religious disputes and philosophers asserted an unalienable right to liberty of conscience; Jefferson, Madison and the key American Founders declared a God-given right to worship false gods or no gods. This all sounds nice, it's just not biblical. Nowhere in Scripture does the Biblical God, who in His very first command, forbids the worship of other gods grant an unalienable natural right to worship as one pleases.

While religious conservatives who preach to the masses are still conflating their biblical teachings on the one hand with "rights talk" on the other, more academic realize conservatives the disconnect between the two.

For instance, Robert Kraynak, a conservative Catholic, of Colgate who once summed it up this way (talking to fellow religious conservatives): "We must face the disturbing dilemma that modern liberal democracy needs God, but God is not as liberal or as democratic as we would like Him to be."

Interesting comments, Jonathan. You are discounting the fact that God gave us "free will" even though you are correct about the rest. I am interested in finding out which "religious conservatives" you believe are conflating their Biblical teachings on the one hand with "rights talk" on the other, and did you mean to end that sentence with "more academic conservatives realize the disconnect between the two"?


Yes on the way the sentence should read; I flipped the two words.

A lot of the preacher type conservatives, most notably D. James Kennedy, but just about all of the other notables (Dobson, Robertson, Falwell, Parsley, Randall Terry) I've seen do this. Whenever they try to Christianize the Declaration, they invariably argue something along the lines of if rights come from the Biblical God, then you only have the right to do what the Bible says.

This in turn makes the Declaration more pallatable to and seemingly consistent with religious conservatism. But this only works as rhetoric; that is, the philosophical argument can't stand scrutiny.

The Bible never talks of unalienable natural rights, certainly not to engage in revolt against governments or to exercise religious liberty. These are, for the most part, enlightenment concepts. And a majority of the drafting board of the Declaration -- Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin -- were unitarians imbibed in enlightenment rationalism.

As noted, they believed one had an unalienable right to worship false gods which the Bible forbids and thus contradicts the notion that the Declaration grants men only rights of which the Bible approves.

Someone like Robert Bork, though I disagree with his politics, is one of those more academic types of social conservatives who realizes the Declaration is not at all a document that enshrines traditional Judeo-Christian morality.

There is no god, so it is simply idle to proceed with one's political theory as if there were.

We all have the rights that we all agreed upon in the Constitution.

The foundation for that claim is consent of the governed. The psychological base is that described by the Scottish Enlightenment theorists of moral sentiments, which have real psycholoigcal power and are the product of tens of thousands of years of evolution in small kinship bands.

Jay J.

The strength of evolutionary arguments is that they provide realistic explanations for how someone's moral behavior can be motivated. As part of that evolutionary legacy we all have moral sentiments comprising a capacity for empathy as well as expectations of reciprocity. When our expectations of reciprocity are violated, the result is unpleasant emotion.

This is all there is to morality. Morality is a scheme of behavioral coordination reinforced by an appropriate underlying psychology. The psychology makes you feel that "this is right" or "this is wrong". Looking for anything beyond this is a common mistake.

This (together perhaps with some utilitarian theory) is all you need to produce systematic cooperation and to provide a foundation for a moral theory. It has the following advantages:

1) it's real, not made up
2) the motivations are there



I already agree that atheists can be perfectly moral people, and since Tamanaha's and Koppelman's statements were about rationally justifying the normativity of morality, your post isn't taking part in the discussion other than to say maybe that it's irrelevant.

You say that looking for morality beyond the psychological feelings of "this is right" or "this is wrong" is a common mistake. Well, see, that's not what this conversation is about, or at least it's not what our hosts were doing and not what I was defending. I'm not sure if you just came along and read one of my posts or just one of the threads, or if you have read each of threads. If all you're saying is that the conversation is misguided well, then, OK, thanks.

So you haven't answered our hosts, you've just said that we can build systems of cooperation, something virtually everyone agreed with already.

But as far as something being real, who cares? Since the original point had to do with retaining old fashioned normative instincts, and since neither theism or atheism does that, it doesn't matter.

To any atheists who will come along later:

1) I agree that atheists can build systems of moral cooperation, and operate within them perfectly fine, sometimes better than theists.

2) Tamanaha and Koppelman are not ignorant, to assume that they overlooked evolutionary explanations of morality available to atheists is to give them too little credit. I choose to give them more credit and to assume they were fully aware of such explanations. In his post "Religion and Human Rights II," Tamanaha wrote,

"The thrust of my argument is that believers and atheists have equally tenuous rational foundations for their moral views, which merely show up at different moments in their respective belief systems..."

This clearly seems to be saying that the normative ummpphh of people's moral views are justified by neither atheism or theism. Evolutionary explanations are not about normativity.

3) If you want to say that looking for normativity is a mistake, then that may be a relevant contribution to some discussion, just not this one, since its not about looking for normativity.

4) To say that any moral view is justified over another by evolution is a mistake. Moral views may be explained better by one system or another, but this is entirely different. If all atheists want to say is that evolution explains morality better, fine, who cares?

5) If someone wants to say that people will be more likely to behave better if their system is based on something true, like evolution, rather than something false, like God, then that's just a belief not demonstrated by the evidence.

Studies have shown that people who are good at deceiving themselves are often happier than those who have accurate views of themselves and other people's view of them. Studies have also shown that religious people tend to be happier and live a bit longer.

I know there are more studies to come, and I'm not saying anything definitive, but even if these studies don't hold up, their opposite won't be true because of it, and they confirm a piece of intuition, which is that truth can sometimes be bitter and delusion can sometimes be sweet.

This relates to morality in that people often psychologically or subconsciously base their moral life on what they view to be meta-ethical justifications for their beliefs. Do we know that they would be better if they left their religious beliefs behind? I assert that we can't be confident in saying so.

6) So we're left right where Tamanaha and Koppelman were at the start, which is that atheists and theists have equally tenuous foundations for their moral views. If you wish to assert that evolutionary explanations are your foundation, then you're really talking about something else entirely, since evolution contains nothing about normativity.

Setting aside the fact that evolution is said to have no goals, we have to acknowledge that one of the most successful humans from a standpoint of reproduction is Genghis Khan, but he didn't become successful through cooperation. Sure, there were times when he had to cooperate, but other when he used very forceful and coercive means. If morality is only one tool among others, say like, murder, rape, etc, then basing your moral views in evolution doesn't seem to be justification for what we would call a moral life.

Just because reproduction would TEND to be best facilitated through a system of cooperation, that doesn't say anything about the very notable exceptions.

7) So much of our moral life is about going beyond the basics. Leaving aside Genghis Khan, many people stay within the basic framework of the law without being a "good" person.

We all know people who pay their taxes and refrain from beating their spouse, but are always looking for that edge, even if that edge can be gained by being a 'son-of-a-b*itch.'

If anyone doubts this, because of some theory, then they probably agree with the old saying "that sounds great in practice, but how does it work in theory?" We all know that in contemporary society, people screw other people over, and they succeed often times because of their willingness to do this.

8) I apologize for my curt delivery, but if anyone is sincerely interested in knowing what our hosts meant, all they have to do is read their original posts in context. Then they can read the comments in the threads. Read, digest, comprehend, understand.

If you want to say that the conversation is irrelevant because there really is no morality, then that is a comical confirmation of what our hosts were originally saying.

If you want to say the conversation is irrelevant because moral systems can be built and can be effective, then fine, but I don't know what you would participate in such an irrelevant discussion.

If however, you want to say that our hosts were wrong because they failed to consider the evolutionary explanations available to atheists, then you've misunderstood what they meant. And therefore these explanations are the most irrelevant part of the discussion...which has become way too tiresome...

Jay J:

What I'm saying, to make it more explicit, is that both Tamanaha and Perry go wrong for similar reasons. They both beg the question, with Tamanaha assuming 1) universal dignity and 2) that anything follows from dignity, while Perry assumes the existence of a being for which he has no evidence at all.

They both lack a grounding in reality as well as anything that would give their ideas moral force, i.e. the normativity you see lacking.

My argument is a reductionist one. I reduce normativity to contrived arrangements that are beneficial and psychologically and morally compelling. You may repeat the question and ask where's the normativity in that? But this misunderstands the nature of reduction. By definition, when one performs a reduction such that Z = (A + B), Z does not reappear on the righthand side of that identity. Z is normativity.

Don't get me wrong. I have a lot of respect for Tamanaha and recently benefited from reading his book on the rule of law.

But as soon as I hear people throwing around such logically inert concepts as "dignity" or "respect" as the supposed grounds for human rights, I reach for my philosophical wallet.

But as far as something being real, who cares?

That is an attitude that will take you very far -- in the wrong direction.

I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.
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