Why Atheists Should Be Intuitionists.

See my previous entry for a lengthy and detailed explanation of ethical intuitionism.

From an ethical standpoint, Christianity is an extremely bizarre worldview. Original sin, an innocent person dying for someone else’s sins, ethics being contingent on God, God supporting rape and slavery… it’s just contradiction after contradiction.

One of the major problems that I have with evangelical Christianity is the idea that an innocent person, Jesus of Nazareth, suffered and died in the place of sinners so that they might be forgiven. The notion of punishing an innocent person, I find intuitively to be wrong and unjust. Thus, how could man’s redemption be based on an act that is itself intrinsically unjust?

Because Christianity is so ethically contradictory, ethics inevitably permeates debates about Christianity, especially when Christians project their own ethical incompetence onto atheists and try to argue that atheists have no moral grounds.

Atheists are generally unimpressed by such arguments, for good reasons. From an intuitionist standpoint, it’s easy to understand why; ethical intuitions are so implicit and obvious to everyone that implying that atheists cannot justify ethics just seems silly. Of course atheists know right and wrong as much as Christians do, and stating otherwise can only cause natural outrage.

So, isn’t this a satisfactory state of affairs? Why should atheists be particularly concerned about intuitionism, let alone evolutionary intuitionism?

Well, for one thing, it helps drive the point home that Christian principles cannot possibly be primary, and that we all need to use our intuitions to judge proposed Christian ethical principles. This fact pretty much destroys any pretense Christians may have at influencing public life, and we need to point it out often.

It’s also helpful to be able to point out where ethics actually does come from. After all, the main Christian argument on the Internet these days is that no atheist worldview can account for moral truths. We know it’s impossible for anyone to declare anything about all “atheist worldviews,” and that it’s mainly an argument from ignorance. But most importantly, we are able to explain where moral truths come from and why Christianity is piggy-backing on those truths to assert principles that contradict those truths.

It is not enough to point out that the Christian account is incoherent and ridiculous. We need to provide an alternative position in order to argue from a position of strength, just like we use evolution and the Big Bang to argue against the incoherent, absurd nonsense of creationism from a position of strength.

Furthermore, intuitionism provides a way for atheists to discuss ethics divorced from religious concepts entirely, giving us an opportunity to expunge religious concepts from ethical discourse.

Now, I should address the fact that many people already hold to other views, such as utilitarianism, humanism and relativism. The latter is not actually a competing view, because relativism does not tell us how ethics works; it tells us that there are no ethical truths apart from cultural norms, but it doesn’t explain how cultural norms emerge, nor how cultural norms can be primary. So relativism is an insufficient position in addressing the religious debate. Humanism likewise does not tell us how ethics works, only what kind of values we should adopt.

Utilitarianism may seem like a more likely contender, but it fails to answer the question of why we should choose any given utilitarian standard. Why should we do what brings about the most happiness to the most people, or any other principle? At the end of any such process, we run into the is-ought dichotomy; it is impossible for a utilitarian to rationally justify any such principle. Utilitarianism is illogical and leads to absolutely batshit conclusions.

Intuitionism, on the other hand, does not fall prey to the is-ought dichotomy because it starts from the onset with moral judgments:

With evolutionary intuitionism, we intuitively apprehend the fact, say, that torture is wrong. We do not infer the belief that torture is wrong from other propositions. Since inference is not involved, the impossibility of inferring an “ought” from an “is” is not relevant.
Brian Zamulinski, originator of evolutionary intuitionism

Intuitionism can answer the question of justification where other secular alternatives fail. This should make it very interesting to atheists, who are sometimes called to debate the justification of ethics.

Of course it is not necessary for an atheist to have a position about ethics any more than it is necessary for an atheist to have a position about evolution or cosmology. But I don’t think anyone would argue that evolution and cosmology have not made atheistic worldviews far more intellectually attractive.

Likewise, it’s not necessary for atheists to have a position about intuitionism, but it does make atheistic worldviews more intellectually attractive. Right now, atheists as in the same position as regards to ethics as they were as regards to lifeforms two hundred years ago, having good reason to reject the religious view but without any view of their own. There is no reason to think that the widespread adoption of intuitionism wouldn’t have a similar effect.

My final reason as to why atheists should adopt intuitionism is because it’s true. Pretty obvious, but that’s what matters most to me.

Now, I have argued that reason and faith are misleading labels which really refer to what is fundamentally a social activity; call this reasoning, or thinking, or whatever you want. Jonathan Haidt, co-creator of the Socialist Intuitionist Model of Moral Judgment, has integrated this with the intuitionist model:

Moral reasoning is usually an ex post facto process used to influence the intuitions (and hence judgments) of other people. In the social intuitionist model, one feels a quick flash of revulsion at the thought of incest and one knows intuitively that something is wrong. Then when faced with a social demand for a verbal justification, one becomes a lawyer trying to build a case rather than a judge searching for the truth.

I’ve already analyzed the incest taboo in the previous entry, so this is a good example. When we pay any attention to the rationalizations provided for the taboo, we realize that they fall apart at the merest scrutiny. We don’t usually apply such scrutiny because the intuition is a priori strong. Our defense of the incest taboo (or any other belief) is a rationalization of what our subconscious has already chosen to believe.

The problem with any belief system, including Christianity and capital-democracy, which purports to enforce some ethical principles is that they repress our intuitive judgments. They cannot suppress them because they are part of what it’s like to be human, but they try their damn best.

This is most observable in cult structures such as Scientology or LGATs (Large-Group Awareness Training), which attempt to brainwash (i.e. demolish your sense of self and replace it with a group self) people. But we find that even in those extreme cases, people can and do “wake up.” What this means is that some of their intuitions come back to the fore, generally due to events around them which reawaken their faculty of comparison (as I’ve discussed in the previous entry, scenarios, whether real or hypothetical, are how we compare and adjust the importance of various intuitions).

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3 thoughts on “Why Atheists Should Be Intuitionists.

  1. John David Leng November 11 2013 at 17:28 Reply

    scientists more and more are proving that we do not live in a rational Universe, religion is primeval science, science is advanced religion

  2. Geoffrey Transom November 11 2013 at 18:15 Reply

    “Utilitarianism is illogical and leads to absolutely batshit conclusions.”

    What you maybe meant to write is “the freshman-year straw-man version of utilitarianism is illogical and leads to absolutely batshit conclusions.”

    Nobody in his right mind argues that we have interpersonally-comparable measures of utility, or cardinal measures of utility (and we need both), but the idea that individuals try to make choices in order to maximise expected happiness is superior to any alternative I’ve heard put forward in my half-century of life thus far. Otherwise, we’re making our decisions based on what? White noise? A lifetime of ad-hockery?

    That sort of thinking – that individual agents are bad judges of their own preferences – is the ‘wedge’ that holds open the door marked “Something Must Be Done”, which is the portal by which the political class gets its entree into our lives, and its tentacles into our pockets.

    Think hard about a utilitarian (and consequentialist) case against the State: I’ll give you my BOTE version.

    Start with Arrow, who showed in 1950 that demographic preference-collation does not reliably reflect ‘social preferences’ and thus that the political class can not plausibly claim to be representative of the general will.

    So every aspect of the ‘public goods/externality amelioration’ role of government dies stillborn – even before we consider the informational and logistical problems, and the other ills that attend .gov turning up to ‘fix things’ – simply because the ‘social welfare function’ is unknowable.

    But let’s assume it is knowable, and use Harberger welfare analysis (where dollar-value of consumer surplus is deemed a basis for statements about utility – a very bad idea, but it’s .gov’s entire schtick in Public Finance).

    Now apply the above to war (only States do war): what you get is the ultimate utilitarian case against the State.

    We know from Arrow, that States go to war based on an approximation (or unknown accuracy) of representativeness of social preferences. We also know that in doing so they wipe out hundreds of millions of years’ worth of little ‘Harberger welfare triangles’.

    Add all those up (not ordinarily a sensible thing to do – we are using ‘their’ calculus for the minute): 250 million dead non-combatants in the 20th century, figure 10% unemployment and a 30-year working life, all undertaken at minimum wage (just to be conservative) and without reinvestment or additional technological change.

    Result: 2 years’ worth of global GDP, burnt on the bonfire of political vanity. Made worse since a bunch of the 30-50 million soldiering dead were coerced (i.e., they were in a lower-utility occupation than they would have otherwise been).

    Can you imagine anybody being able to arrive at a sum of social-welfare-augmenting coercions that would offset that carnage?

    There is nothing wrong with utilitarian argumentation per se: when it’s deployed by dumbasses who think that utilitarianism means “5 men kicking an old man to death is welfare-enhancing if the sum of their utility exceeds his lost utility”, obviously that’s just asstardery. Asstards will say asstardy things – it’s the nature of the beast – and will put whatever lipstick they can find on that particular pig. It’s like dummies who think that the US crony-ocratic financial system has anything to do with laissez-faire capitalism: a category error

    • Francois Tremblay November 11 2013 at 22:01 Reply

      “Nobody in his right mind argues that we have interpersonally-comparable measures of utility, or cardinal measures of utility (and we need both), but the idea that individuals try to make choices in order to maximise expected happiness is superior to any alternative I’ve heard put forward in my half-century of life thus far.”
      How do you not connect both parts of this sentence? How do you expect to make choices in order to “maximize expected happiness” if you can’t compare the “expected happiness” of individuals?

      “Otherwise, we’re making our decisions based on what? White noise? A lifetime of ad-hockery?”
      Didn’t you notice that this whole entry is about ethics? I already answered your question.

      “That sort of thinking – that individual agents are bad judges of their own preferences – is the ‘wedge’ that holds open the door marked “Something Must Be Done”, which is the portal by which the political class gets its entree into our lives, and its tentacles into our pockets.”
      I never say “individual agents are bad judges of their own preferences.” What I have said in the (recent) past is that people’s beliefs about how their mind works in normal daily circumstances are hopelessly confused. I don’t think that includes preferences.

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