An intuitionist answers Matt Slick re: atheist morality.


Oh Matt Slick, you so funny.

I’ve always said that Christians are at their best when they challenge fundamental premises of naturalism, because then they at least serve the purpose of making us think and reaffirming what exactly it is that we believe in. Sure, this is a backhanded compliment at best, but frankly there is absolutely nothing in Christian theology worth complimenting.

Matt Slick is a fellow engaged in Christian apologetics on the Internet, so even if you don’t know him you can pretty much imagine what kind of nonsense he’s engaged in. But he has two articles asking questions for atheists about their standards of morality, and I thought they were interesting enough to involve my intuitionist perspective and engage with them.

The first article is called Questions for Atheists on Having a Standard of Morality.

1. OBJECTIVE STANDARD Do you have an objective standard of morality by which you can judge whether or not something is morally right or wrong?

Usually this is the point at which I would complain about the use of the word “objective” and try to clarify what I think it means, but fortunately Slick has defined it further down the page as: “an objective standard is one that is not based on your opinion or your experience.”

So given that definition, the answer is yes: while it is informed by my opinions or experiences, like any other standard or ruleset that exists (including the Christian one), intuitionism is a standard that is not based on my opinion or my experiences.

Hence I can skip ahead to the next questions about objective standards.

10. HAS OBJECTIVE STANDARD If you say that you do have an objective standard of morality, then where did you get this objective standard since an objective standard is one that is not based on your opinion or your experience?

If you read ahead, you can see this is the point where Slick tries to triage your position into the following categories: SOCIETY STANDARD, COMMON SENSE STANDARD, EVOLVING STANDARD, SELF DETERMINED, INSTINCT and WHATEVER WORKS. From the nature of subsequent questions for each category, I am guessing evolutionary intuitionism would go in the category INSTINCT. So skipping ahead to those INSTINCT questions:

32. INSTINCT If you say that your morals are derived from instinct, which is brain-programmed behavior, then wouldn’t that mean that different people’s brains would produce different moral values?

In theory, I see no reason why that couldn’t be the case. For example, sociopaths certainly have “different moral values,” because they lack certain mental abilities which normally give rise to certain values. But sociopaths no more contradict the norm than people born without legs, or with six legs (yes, such a thing happens), contradict the norm that human beings typically have two legs.

I know where this question is supposed to lead: to the typical objection that intuitionism has no way to deal with moral disagreements. As I’ve discussed before, there are means to hash out disagreements in intuitionism as much as in any other moral system.

Furthermore, difference in people’s brains are not the main cause of moral disagreements: biases, especially tribal biases, are the main cause, and religion is one huge repertoire of tribal biases. So I’d say religions like Christianity are far more of a hindrance to moral understanding than brain differences.

33. INSTINCT If you say that your morals are derived from instinct, which is brain-programmed behavior, then how would you really know if anything is right or wrong?

How is “really knowing” right from wrong different from “knowing” right from wrong? Slick’s question seems to be implying that a brain state cannot “really” tell us right from wrong, but he does not make any sort of argument in his question that would back this up.

Slick, I presume, assumes a Christian epistemology. From that standpoint, no atheist can “really know” anything, so the question is pointless. From my epistemic standpoint, intuitions lead us to “really know” a lot of things, including fundamentals of human thought (logic, perception, esthetics, morality, and so on). On this there can be no discussion, because the Christian worldview is fundamentally anti-rational, and therefore anti-discussion.

34. INSTINCT If you say that your morals are derived from instinct, which is brain-programmed behavior, then how does one neuro-chemical state of the brain that leads to another neuro-chemical state produce proper moral truths?

This is more or less a repeat of question 33, with a little more precision. But the precision is useless, since it just pushes the mystery back: what exactly does Slick think a truth is, apart from a neuro-chemical state of the brain? The answer is that Slick probably believes truth comes from God first. Again there can be no discussion with such a position.

This is linked to the presuppositionalist line of reasoning that if we’re “mere atoms banging around,” then there can be no truth. But whatever divine truths you believe exist out there, they still have to go through our brains, which are “mere atoms banging around.” If the brain is unreliable, then so is any ideology that goes through our brain, including Christianity.

So we can reverse the question to Christians as well: how can you say a neuro-chemical state of your brain (such as faith, revelation, the feeling of a personal relationship with Jesus, etc) is evidence (for you) that God exists? How can you “really know” that God exists based on a mere neuro-chemical state? Can you “really, really know” that God exists? And so on.

The other page with morality questions on Slick’s site concerns the principle of harm reduction. Since this principle is the reason behind the name of this blog, I had better address them as well.

But before I do that, I want to make one thing clear, which Slick does not seem to understand. When I, and most people, talk about “not imposing harm,” we mean it as an ethical principle (i.e. that which pertains to groups in society or society itself); what that means is, we’d like it to be a rule or law regulating society or sub-groups of society. We are not saying that it is a moral principle, a value that the individual should align their moral compass on, although it can be a part of one’s morality as well.

Slick’s questions seem to assume that the harm-reduction principle is a moral principle. So for example he assumes that self-harm is relevant, when in fact self-harm is not, on the whole, an ethical issue (i.e. an issue about how people treat each other as members of society).

Now that this much is clear, I continue with the questions.

1. VALIDATE THE NO-HARM STANDARD If you, as an atheist, say that what is morally good is that which reduces over-all harm, then on what basis do you validate that assertion as being a proper moral standard?

This does not seem to branch out, but he does designate a separate sub-category called [IT’S] WHAT PEOPLE WANT. This is obviously not relevant to my position, so I will skip those questions.

My answer would be simple: it is wrong to cause injury to people or treat people unjustly. Since that is the case, it would be good to set society up so that we disallow people to bring harm to each other, so we may get as much of the benefits of living in society as possible while getting as little injury from it as possible. This is why all societies have set themselves up to condemn unjustifiable harm such as murder, assault, theft, and so on. Unfortunately they have not done so systematically, for reasons which are too lengthy to get into in this entry.

4. SELF-PROTECTION If reducing overall harm is the standard of morality, then should a nation that is being attacked by another nation not practice self-defense since by defending itself it would increase overall harm to both nations?

So Slick’s process here assumes that the person will either answer “they should defend themselves anyway, the harm-reduction principle is not always valid” or “no, they shouldn’t defend themselves.”

But this seems like a false dichotomy to me. Slick’s premise that self-defense increases overall harm seems to me silly at best. At the very least, it is a huge assumption which is unsupported, and it renders the question moot. Perhaps sometimes self-defense makes things worse, but, whether we’re talking about individuals or nations, surely in the great majority of cases self-defense makes things less worse than they would be otherwise.

I don’t understand how Slick arrived at this assumption and it really doesn’t make any sense from a realistic standpoint. It’s like he thinks wars are fought so the winners can have tea and crumpets with the losers. No, when a country invades another the usual consequences are massive destruction of infrastructure, massive deaths, political enslavement, and sometimes genocide. Of course Slick is probably a neo-con and wants to believe that American imperialism is flowers and butterflies, but whatever dude.

8. NO-HARM STANDARD IN PRACTICE If reducing harm is the standard of morality, then is it okay to sexually assault a comatose person if no physical or emotional harm is suffered, and the person is never aware of it?

Here Slick is confusing harm-reduction as an absolute principle, with harm-reduction as the only principle. In this he is falling into the same trap as voluntaryists: the trap of thinking that anything that’s not forbidden is permitted.

Suppose that all harmful acts should be disallowed. This does not prove that all non-harmful acts should be allowed. We may want to say that non-harmful acts where one of the parties has not consented should be disallowed as well. The consent principle would not supersede or contradict the harm-reduction principle (as Slick seems to think would be the case, judging from question 11), but rather complement it. There are also other complementary principles, but since the example here is about consent, there’s no need to continue further.

9. NO-HARM STANDARD IN PRACTICE If reducing harm is the standard of morality, then is it okay for people to lie and commit adultery as long as others don’t find out about it, and there is no physical or emotional harm incurred by anyone?

Yes, I think that should be allowed in a free society. Lying is undesirable ethically because it leads to control and manipulation (with corporate and State propaganda, manipulation of public opinion on a global scale). If I interpret the question correctly, the instances of lying discussed here do not entail any of that, so I don’t see what’s unethical about it. It may irk me personally, but there’s no clear reason to disallow it.

As for adultery, while it is obviously not ideal, it is certainly a positive force in the world. The main problem, the main harm, I think, is marriage: this mental delusion that a person can, and should, stay faithful to one other person for the rest of their life. Insofar as it breaks the stranglehold of this delusion on people, adultery is a good thing. And if it doesn’t harm anyone, then all the better.

10. NO-HARM STANDARD IN PRACTICE If you answered yes to one or both of the two previous questions about rape and adultery, then aren’t you approving of these acts as long as no one is harmed?

Yes, I am approving of adultery. I’m sure Slick wants me to squirm and try to say that I don’t “really” approve of adultery, but I see no reason to do so.

11. NO-HARM STANDARD IN PRACTICE If you answered no to one or both of the questions on rape and adultery, then how is your position consistent with the what-is-good-is-what-reduces-harm standard since no harm was suffered by anyone?

I’ve already explained this on question 8. My position is consistent because it sets the consent principle as a complement to the harm-reduction principle, so it is perfectly consistent with it.

12. NO-HARM STANDARD IN PRACTICE If reducing suffering is what is morally good, then if a society decides to incarcerate Christians because it deems them harmful to that society, would that then be the morally right thing to do?

But Christianity is already enormously harmful to our societies. And yet there’s no atheist out there, even anti-theists, demanding that Christians be incarcerated. The obvious solution is not to put religious people in jail, but to set society up so that people’s religion has as little harmful impact on everyone else (especially defenseless children) as possible.

So no, I don’t think imprisonment is the right thing to do, not because I think Christianity is not harmful, but because imprisonment does not eradicate harm. I am against incarceration, at any rate, precisely because it inflicts more harm, it does not eradicate any harm.

13. NO-HARM STANDARD IN PRACTICE Likewise, if reducing suffering is what is morally good and a society decides to incarcerate atheists because it deems them harmful to that society, would that be the morally right thing to do?

Same answer as in question 12, except that atheism in itself is not a moral position and therefore cannot entail any harm.

14. NO-HARM STANDARD IN PRACTICE If incarcerating Christians and/or atheists because society says it reduces overall harm is really not the morally right thing to do, then why is it not right since it would be that society’s attempt at reducing overall harm?

Here Slick is confusing cultural relativism with harm-reduction, which is ironic since he’s against cultural relativism in the first place (not sure how you can be a Biblical literalist and be against cultural relativism, but whatever). What is the moral relevance of it being “that society’s” belief? Even if we could classify it as a cultural practice, that wouldn’t factually make it a valid way of reducing harm.

If we follow the harm-reduction principle, then we must consider moral those rules or laws which actually do reduce harm. We cannot consider a rule or law moral just because a given culture believes it reduces harm.

16. SELF-HARM If reducing harm is the standard of morality, then what do you do with those people who are perfectly normal, productive members of society who also just happen to like harming themselves?

Here I have to come back the distinction between moral principles and ethical principles. As I, and most people, use it, the harm-reduction principle does not apply to individual motivations but to social organization. It is not concerned with things like self-harm which only affect the individual.

So none of Slick’s questions here apply to any substantial harm-reduction position. His tactic is to ask whether the principle should be applied or not, and if not, then how can you say the harm-reduction position is valid? But its validity is not in doubt. Self-harm does not affect this fact.

Now, I do not deny that self-harm can sometimes affect other people, especially where children are concerned. A parent killing themselves has a profound effect on a child’s life, psychologically and in terms of future well-being. So I do agree that, in that regard, there should be rules against parents self-harming, but that’s only because we live in a monogamist system where a child’s livelihood depends entirely on the livelihood of two specific people. So I will continue answering from this standpoint.

24. SELF-HARM But if you do force your standard on those who like to suffer harm, then aren’t you doing the same thing that you complain about regarding God in the Old Testament who also forced his morals on people?

First of all, I don’t believe any of that happened. The Old Testament is a book of myths, not of real history. But if we take the myths as real history, then my answer would be no, because there was no justification for God’s morals beyond “might makes right.” The harm-reduction principle is a justified principle which can be analyzed on a rational basis, and the means we take to achieve it can be analyzed on a rational basis. We know for a fact that there are many things that people like which are actually harmful, including religion.

I also find it ironic that Slick seems to be pointing out that the God of the Old Testament “forced his morals” on people. Of course he doesn’t see anything wrong with that because Christianity is inherently tyrannical in nature.

His next questions about SELF-HARM AND CONSENT assume that one believes that “reducing harm is good only when the consent of an individual is not violated.” This does not apply to my position because, again, harm-reduction and consent principles do not have to be in any sort of conflict. This is only Slick’s assumption.

Slick’s final, cheeky question:

33. SELF-HARM If what-is-good-is-what-reduces-harm, then shouldn’t you, as an atheist, just ignore all of these questions since they might harm your worldview on morality?

How fragile is a Christian’s faith if they see the innocent act of answering questions as being a threat to their worldview. I don’t see Slick’s questions as no such thing, and I think that’s mostly his ego speaking. Unless you are a close-minded bigot, no question alone can harm your worldview. But if the questions are particularly good and well formulated, they can cause you to think and expand your views a little bit, and that’s great, not harmful.

3 thoughts on “An intuitionist answers Matt Slick re: atheist morality.

  1. selfimmolator February 27, 2015 at 01:23 Reply

    Excellent again

  2. sbt42 February 28, 2015 at 06:04 Reply

    Yes, definitely some polished work here, Francois! Well done.

  3. Brian L March 5, 2015 at 10:40 Reply

    That’s the thing.you’re not supposed to question faith. Merely to accept our heavenly fathers extreme disappointment in his ankle-biters.

    But of course, he is incorrect. Many of his closeted friends, parishioners, and family, brought up in his faith, do support a Christians ‘right’ to expression…

    Shoot, I just giggled.

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