Moral philosophy in the media.

Does it always have to be done so badly?

I’ve tried to suspend recognition of the phenomenon, and will no doubt return to it in greater depth once Finals are done with and it inevitably crops up once more. But I can’t resist a few comments to deflate my frustration for now.

The phenomenon is this: a religiously-inclined commentator in the mainstream media makes some crude argument equating atheism with secularism and liberalism and materialism and humanism and thereby nihilism and Nazism. Or, in other words, they take a truly staggering leap from a lack of faith in God to a world devoid of any morals and rights, because Christianity is all there is standing between human dignity and despair.

I know I could find more examples, but these will suffice: Douthat, on Real Time above, tries the trick on Bill Maher (skip to 6:36). Charles Murray, as Alex Carlill exposed on here so well last week, does the same. And now Douthat has gone for another round on his blog, hosted by the New York Times.

These crass, simplistic commentators both attempt to speculate about deeply philosophical matters, and in doing so they expose how their knowledge of meta-ethical history borders on the non-existent. Douthat claims to know his Euthyphro – Plato’s infamous demonstration of why invoking God to ground morality gets us nowhere. Plato noted that the question remains: does God discover and dictate a morality that is above and prior to him? In which case, it’s not God after all that appears to be the initial source. Or, do morals flow from God, as an act of free creation? If so, why, exactly, should we categorically submit ourselves to his will?

Douthat’s quick and easy fix? It’s a false dilemma:

God does not establish morality; he embodies it. He does not set standards; he is the standard.

Like Julian Sanchez, my bullshit siren goes on overdrive when I read language like that. Can anyone after a moment’s critical reflection discern anything but an evasion here, masquerading as a solution?

Either way, we get to the attack and the equating of the various -isms soon after:

I don’t think that many humanists actually do have strong reasons for their hopes regarding human dignity and human rights. I think that they have prejudices and assumptions and biases, handed down as an inheritance from two millennia of Christian culture, which retain a certain amount of force even though given purely materialistic  premises about mankind and the universe they don’t actually make much sense at all. As to why they retain such force, I think Sanchez’s invocation of “awfulness” is actually spot-on: Liberal ideas about human rights and human dignity are still near-universal in the West today in large part because that same West spent the first half of the twentieth century experimenting with more genuinely post-Christian approaches to morality and politics and then recoiled in horror from the totalitarian and genocidal consequences.

Then in conclusion:

[B]ecause secular liberalism has trouble given a coherent account of itself absent those premises, the confidence with which many contemporary liberals presume to stand in judgment over Christianity (on sexual ethics, especially, but much else as well) is unwarranted and even self-deluded.

The Maher clip and the emphasis on materialism help us here, because you see the ounce of substance seeping through: indeed, we won’t find rights under microscopes and in test-tubes. And if Douthat has it his way, you won’t find them anywhere unless derived from the Bible.

So metaphysics without the divine is a sham. All moral philosophy from Aristotle through Kant to modern theorists like Nagel and Parfit – none of which reference God – is, to borrow Bentham’s famous phrase, mere nonsense upon stilts. Some of the greatest minds in history were simply ‘deluded’ to think ethics could find a genuine, firm foundation as a path to human happiness, or as a logical implication of some basic views we hold about ourselves, or in a form of moral realism that does not hang morals around God’s neck.

And, by implication, let me guess: since atheists (and humanists, liberals, secularists) apparently only believe in what they physically see, Douthat no doubt thinks we must be resigned to skepticism about mathematical and logical truths too, to go with our awkward relationship with ethics?

Please. I obviously can’t explain these theories in more detail for now, but as much as I hate arguments from authority, sometimes they are necessary. So look: there are theories are out there. They are highly credible. Ross and Charles are casually flirting with questions that people in academic departments devote their lives to, and to suggest atheist morality can be swept away in one foul paragraph of polemic is simply absurd. There is no other academic discipline, perhaps with the exception of economics, in which otherwise reputable journals and newspapers would give space for people to theorise upon topics they are ill-equipped to tackle. Can we please start treating philosophical questions with the respect granted to matters of natural science?


2 thoughts on “Moral philosophy in the media.

  1. Greetings,

    One particular point that frustrates me about the view of the field of philosophy is the assumption that the knowledge is centralized in a few key figures and texts which laypeople pillar their arguments on.

    While I sympathize with Douthat’s views I find that the argument that there is a single static set of ideas that makeup the state of post Europe will be misconstrued.

    I do look forward to your future work.



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