George Brahm reflects on The Big Conversation on Morality and Atheism between Glen Scrivener and Matt Dillahunty
Justin Brierley of Premier Christian Radio and Unbelievable? just released the latest in his ‘The Big Conversation’ series, a debate between Glen Scrivener and Matt Dillahunty on ‘Can Atheism Lead Us to a Better World?’. You can watch it here if you’d like to. I have much to say on many aspects of the debate, but I’d like to focus my present efforts on setting out some thoughts I had on an issue that came up over the last third of the debate—whether secular humanism is capable of grounding the sanctity of all human life.
Can atheism lead to a better world? Dillahunty says he does not know, but he does affirm that if we make maximizing humanity’s well-being our ultimate goal, we just might get to a better world, at least in what he thinks is the most meaningful sense of ‘better’.
“Why?” you might ask. “Why not?” Dillahunty will respond. We’re human beings, it seems self-evident to us that the well-being of our species matters most to us over all things, so why not pursue it? Some fundamental ‘truths’, he points out, are universally agreed upon among human beings — truths like ‘life is better than death’, ‘health is better than sickness’, and ‘pleasure is better than pain’ — and we derive further principles from these truths that can then be used to evaluate the expected consequences of our actions. If the expected consequences are in line with these axiomatic principles and their derivatives, those actions are moral; if they’re inconsistent, they’re immoral. We can even have an ‘objective’ ethical system under this view, Dillahunty claims, since for every given situation, we can clearly demarcate between those possible actions that are consistent and those that are inconsistent with the aforementioned principles, thereby demarcating between moral and immoral actions. In this way, he claims that secular humanism can actually give us ‘objective moral values’. (I put that in scare quotes for a reason I will come to in the next section.)
“But you have no way of going from an ‘is’ to an ‘ought’!” you might object, “and your moral system is merely a matter of personal preference!” “As is yours,” Dillahunty will respond, “except that it involves the personal preferences of a God.” In fact, he argues that his moral system, in which one can say “We ought to perform Action x because we all prefer Action x over Action y” is better than the one in which one says, “We ought to perform Action x because God prefers Action x over Action y.”
You might further object, “But merely valuing the interests of our species is not morality!” “If that’s not morality, then I don’t care about morality,” Dillahunty will admit, as he does in his debate with Scrivener.
An error worth forgiving
To address the least of Dillahunty’s problems, mere universal agreement on fundamental ethical principles does not result in an ‘objective’ moral system. The problem lies in how he uses the words ‘objective and ‘subjective‘ — something is ‘subjective’, he says, if it is contingent on a single mind, and something is ‘objective’ if it is not contingent on a single mind. (Check around the 15:34 mark in the video linked above to hear him delineate his definitions.) Since his fundamental ethical principles have universal intersubjective agreement, they are not contingent on a single mind and are thus ‘objective’.
This isn’t how the words ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ are used by moral philosophers — something is ‘objective’ if and only if it is independent of any human mind, while something is ‘subjective’ if and only if it is contingent on at least one mind. Not even universal intersubjective agreement, then, entails objectivity — at best, you have a view called ‘ethical subjectivism’, or the view that ethical claims do express propositions that are either true or false, but that the truth or falsity of these propositions are contingent on the attitudes of moral agents rather than some fact about the world itself. In fact, Dillahunty seems to hold to this very view, admitting that while ethical claims are ‘true’ or ‘false’, they are not ‘true’ or ‘false’ in the same sense as ‘2+2=4’ is true or ‘2+2=5’ is false. Their truth or falsity comes from the fact that there is near universal agreement about their truth and utility. It seems thoroughly misleading, then, that he claims that his version of secular humanism can deliver ‘objective moral values’, when really, he is just selling ethical subjectivism. (This is a system that is universal in its scope, but universalist systems are perfectly compatible with ethical subjectivism; ideal observer theory would be another example of a univeralist moral system that is also a subjectivist one, since it bases the truth or falsity of ethical propositions on the attitudes of a moral agent.)
But perhaps Dillahunty is unaware of these distinctions, for which I suppose he can be forgiven. For those interested in an atheist who advocates for objective moral values, or someone who believes that moral claims like ‘It is wrong to torture babies’ are true independent of human attitudes, and would be true even if there were no humans around, take a look at the work of Derek Parfit in his three-volume On What Matters. His metaethical system, while ultimately unsuccessful in my opinion, does advocate for the objective truth of moral claims.
From humanism to inhumanism
A secular humanism like Dillahunty’s, one based on widespread agreement about fundamental ethical principles, can easily turn into an inhumanism. A lot of the material covered below was brought up by Scrivener over the course of the debate, but I thought it might be worthwhile to systematize the train of thought and show you how one thing follows another.
Only extrinsic value
As mentioned earlier, the final third of the debate focused on questions around the sanctity of human life and whether an objective grounding can be found for it within a secular humanistic system.
An interesting (but not surprising) admission from Dillahunty was that, per his version of secular humanism, human beings have value ‘to us’ without having intrinsic value. Call this an extrinsic view of human worth. I do admire Dillahunty for being honest enough to stick with the implications of this extrinsic value view. When asked by Scrivener whether all members of the human family were worthy of protection, he replied, “I have no idea.” He went on to say that his instinct was to say ‘yes’, but he could think of situations in which ‘rights conflicts’ arise between human beings, and we would have to make distinctions in value between the humans in question in order to determine which one deserved protection of its rights and which one didn’t.
And here are the big questions: On what basis do we make these distinctions in value? How do we decide which party in these ‘rights conflicts’ matters more ‘to us’? And who is the ‘us’ to whom value is added by one party’s survival over the other?
Scrivener asked this last question during the debate. “Humans,” Dillahunty answered. Which humans, though? All humans? Clearly, some humans are left out of consideration during these ‘rights conflicts’ by Dillahunty’s own admission, so it can’t be all humans. Rather, it seems like there is a certain privileged group (and Dillahunty might not like the language here, but I don’t see any other way of putting it) that gains by the loss of a less-privileged group in these conflict cases, and it is to the former that value is ‘added’ by the negation of the latter. And to note the somewhat obvious implications of this line of reasoning, we must go full Godwin, as Justin Brierley did while moderating the Scrivener-Dillahunty debate.
A shrinking circle of humanity
Brierley brought out the big guns: Why was Hitler wrong in euthanizing people with certain ‘weaknesses’? How can secular humanism say that Hitler did something morally wrong there, something that he ‘ought’ not to have done? Can secular humanism account for this ‘ought’ at all?
Dillahunty admitted that, ultimately, you can only get from an ‘is’ to an ‘ought’ via a preference, but that we can still judge the ‘truth’ of these preferences by seeing whether they are consistent with the widely agreed-upon fundamental moral axioms that we spoke of earlier. He said that if he had the chance to sit across the table from Hitler and try and convince the latter that he was wrong to do what he did to the Jews, he would begin by walking Hitler back to what they cared about in common — the aforementioned fundamental moral axioms — before showing Hitler that his moral preferences that led him to annihilate the Jews were inconsistent with those fundamental moral axioms. Just like the rest of us, Dillahunty says that Hitler also believed in things like life being better than death and pain being better than pleasure. It just so happens that what made his later actions immoral involved him having moral preferences that were inconsistent with these fundamental moral axioms. If Hitler is rational, we can reason with him and convince him that his actions are morally wrong, using this method of walking him back to what we agree on and demonstrating his inconsistency.
But consider the following scenario — Person A and Person B have contradictory moral preferences x and y. Nevertheless, Persons A and B both agree on a set S of foundational moral axioms . It so happens that Person A has found a justification j that allows him to consistently hold to x and the truth of set S at the same time, while Person B has a justification i that lets him do the same with y and the truth of set S. (A justification could be something like Dillahunty’s ‘rights conflict’ exception.) In this case, Dillahunty’s tactic of “Let’s walk back to the things we care about in common, our foundational moral principles, and see which one of us has moral preferences in contradiction to these principles” will not work; both A and B have their own justifications that allow them to hold moral preferences that are contradictory to one another, but consistent with their shared set of fundamental moral axioms. What is to prevent both Hitler and Dillahunty managing to trace back to their fundamental moral principles, only to find that Hitler has a special justification that lets his moral preferences remain consistent with those principles, just like Dillahunty has a different justification to do the same for him? They have three options: Either Hitler gives up his justification and admits Dillahunty is right, or Dillahunty gives up his justification and admits Hitler is right, or they both allow for their individual justifications and walk away from the table allowing for each one to do as he wills per his preferred justification. The first two options seem unlikely, given how we’ve stipulated that each of these justifications are consistent with their most fundamental moral principles. It seems like the only thing Dillahunty can do is to say, “I really dislike what Adolf did there” and walk away.
And this easily allows for what Scrivener called a ‘shrinking circle of humanity’ — anyone with the necessary power and desire to take away human dignity from a certain group of people by means of certain qualificatory justifications that are consistent with all of secular humanism’s fundamental moral axioms. Put differently, a few ‘rights conflicts’ are all that’re needed. That was exactly what Hitler did to the Jews, and Dillahunty’s secular humanism fails to provide any meaningful way of condemning his actions as absolutely wrong, thereby doing nothing to prevent a further shrinking of this circle in the future.
Lines of reasoning like the above that demonstrate the utter bankruptcy of secular morality are what often cause honest atheists like Douglas Murray to lose sleep at night. In a powerful piece titled ‘Would human life be sacred in an atheist world?’, Murray challenges the nonchalant way in which atheists like Dillahunty pretend to brush off religion and say, “We can and have come up with a better system than Christianity by ourselves.”
Why do we feel repulsed, for instance, when we hear that aborted babies were incinerated to heat UK hospitals? After all, Murray says, the babies are unwanted, and their bodies have now been put to good use. Dillahunty’s moral system ought to stand and applaud — burning dead babies as fuel contributes to life, health, and pleasure. Heck, we’d be even better off if every woman who didn’t want her unborn child (for some ‘rights conflict’ reason, of course) would opt to donate the dead child’s body to one of these baby-incinerating hospitals. Wait, we can take it further — why not switch to baby incineration as our primary source of fuel? Greta Thunberg won’t be happy, but human beings are always going to have sex and we’re told that abortions are going to happen regardless of whether they are banned, so why not use a few ‘clumps of cells’ to solve the crisis around the depletion of fossil fuels? We can even get cheap heat everywhere, including homeless shelters and what have you. What a marvelous idea!
Yes, I went too far there. And the reason you know that, Murray says, is either because you are religious or because the values you hold have their ultimate source in some faith-based moral system that holds to the intrinsic worth and absolute sanctity of innocent human life. While you might not accept such a moral system on the outside, your own system constantly and shamelessly smuggles assumptions from the the former, thereby keeping your conscience in check.
Yet, as we slowly let go of our Judaeo-Christian roots, Murray notices that we are also moving towards caring less about the sanctity of life at either of its ends — both the unborn and the unable are undesirables because they add no value ‘to us’. (Where have I heard that before?) Outside of an absolute moral system that values every human being, you are left with some human beings being arbitrary valued over the others, with the powerful doing all the valuation over the weak. Dominionism, not humanism, would be a good term to describe that. (Too bad that has already been hijacked by another power-hungry group.) This is not humanism, but inhumanism.
So if you are an ‘enemy of religion’ like Dillahunty is, and you have decided that a post-Christian society is what we need right now, Murray warns you that the concept of the sanctity of human life might not last for long after you’ve successfully achieved your goal. Upon abandoning faith, you have one of three options. First, you can fall on the sword and accept that there is no such thing as human sanctity. But if you choose to do so, you must also be sure to see the glaring and inhuman implications of doing so, something that Dillahunty fails to see. Or, you must first figure out a way for atheism to account for the sanctity of every human individual, something that Dillahunty’s secular humanism cannot ground. Or finally, you can return to faith where you have the Imago Dei to account for why you, as an individual, are intrinsically valuable.
Like Dillahunty, you might scoff at this last idea, until the day you realize that it is the only thing that stands between you and some crazed despot with a dream of a Reich that will last a thousand years. For as Scrivener put it at the end of the debate, what follows from atheism is either nothing, or anything — and ‘anything’ is not an enticing prospect when you’re not the one in power, making decisions about what that ‘anything’ is going to be.
George Brahm is a philosophy student based in Canada. This article was first published at Cogent Christianity, a group blog on philosophical, theological, and cultural issues.