Thank you to all of the materialists (and there were several) who rose to the challenge of my last post [Materialists: [crickets]]. We will continue the discussion we began there in this thread.
Before I continue, please allow me to clear up some confusion. Several of my interlocutors seem to believe that the purpose of my post is to refute metaphysical naturalism. (See here for instance) It is not. Please look again at the very first line of the paragraph I quoted: “Let us assume for the sake of argument that metaphysical naturalism is a true account of reality.”
Please read that line again carefully. I am NOT arguing that metaphysical naturalism is false (though I believe it is; that is an argument for another day). I simply wish to explore the logical consequences of whole-heartedly embracing metaphysical naturalism. I thought this was clear, but apparently it was not, so I will repeat my argument step by step:
Step 1: What metaphysical naturalism asserts
Metaphysical naturalism asserts that nothing exists but matter, space and energy, and therefore every phenomenon is merely the product of particles in motion.
Step 2: Consequences of naturalism vis-à-vis, the “big questions”
Certain consequences with respect to God, ethics and meaning follow inexorably if metaphysical naturalism is a true account of reality. Perhaps Will Provine summed these up best:
1) No gods worth having exist; 2) no life after death exists; 3) no ultimate foundation for ethics exists; 4) no ultimate meaning in life exists; and 5) human free will is nonexistent.
Evolution: Free Will and Punishment and Meaning in Life, Second Annual Darwin Day Celebration Keynote Address, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, February 12, 1998 (abstract)
The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.
Richard Dawkins, River out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, 133.
Step 3: Why Not Act Accordingly?
What if a person were able to act based on a clear-eyed and unsentimental understanding of the consequences outlined above? If that person had the courage not to be overwhelmed by the utter meaningless of existence, he would be transformed. He would be bold, self-confident, assertive, uninhibited, and unrestrained. He would consider empathy to be nothing but weak-kneed sentimentality. To him others would not be ends; they would be objects to be exploited for his own gratification. He would not mind being called cruel, because he would know that “cruelty” is an empty category, the product of mere sentiment. Is the lion being cruel to the gazelle? No, he is merely doing what lions naturally do to gazelles.
In my original argument I suggested this person would be a psychopath. That is not quite accurate. A psychopath, by definition, lacks empathy. Our Übermensch, however, might well have the capacity for empathy which he suppresses. It is more accurate, therefore, to say that the actions of the person who acts based on a clear-eyed and unsentimental acceptance of naturalism would be indistinguishable from the actions of a psychopath.
Finally, I raised the issue I would like to explore:
Why should our Übermensch refrain from hurting other people to achieve his selfish desires.
Mark Frank takes a stab at answering the question:
Do you mean “why should I?” in the sense of why is it right for me to do it? If so, that is tautology, of course it is right to do what is right.
Or do you mean “why should I” in the sense of “what is there in it for me?” In this case the pay-offs include:
* The intense satisfaction of having done the right thing.
* The congratulations of those that will approve of your action
* The firm example you will set for others to treat you the same way
* If done repeatedly an excellent basis for persuading others to do what you think it is right for them to do etc…
Thank you Mark. I believe your answer is about as good an answer as a naturalist can give. Let’s explore it and find out why it is wholly unsatisfactory as a logical matter.
Do you mean ‘why should I?’ in the sense of why is it right for me to do it? If so, that is tautology, of course it is right to do what is right.
Readers, notice the equivocation at the base of Mark’s argument. It is always “right” to do what is “right” is indeed a tautology if the word “right” is used in the same sense in both instances. But it is not. Remember, Mark is a metaphysical naturalist. The word “right” has no objective meaning for the metaphysical naturalist. It is purely subjective. For the metaphysical naturalist the good is the desirable and the desirable is that which he actually desires. In other words, Mark has no warrant to use the word “right” as if it had an objective meaning. Yet that is exactly what he does.
To see this, let us re-write Mark’s sentence using different words for the two senses of the word “right” that he uses: “of course, it is right [i.e., it conforms to a code of objective morality] to do what is right [i.e., that which I subjectively prefer].” Written this way, amplifying the inconsistent ways in which Mark uses the word “right,” exposes the fallacy.
Now let us turn to the second part of Mark’s argument. “What’s in it for me?” I want to thank Mark for unintentionally making my point for me. He says our Übermensch might refrain from hurting another person in order to achieve his selfish ends because he has engaged in a cost/benefit analysis. Mark points to certain “benefits” of refraining from hurting another person to achieve selfish ends. Presumably, the point of Mark’s argument is that “what’s in it for me” (i.e., the benefits received from not hurting the other person) outweighs the cost (failing to achieve a selfish end).
But of course Mark’s argument fails, because the benefits he suggests may not outweigh the cost. It depends on what selfish end the Übermensch wishes to achieve and how badly he wants it. Indeed, some of the so-called benefits are not really benefits at all to our Übermensch. Consider the first one: the intense satisfaction of having done the right thing. Here again Mark is employing a concept he has no right to employ. Our Übermensch understands that “the right thing” is a meaningless concept. Why should our Übermensch feel satisfaction at having conformed his behavior to a non-existent standard? That is the whole point of the exercise after all. Once we understand that there really is no such thing as “the right thing” why should we not do exactly as we please even if it hurts another person? Mark has no answer, because there is no answer.
Eric Harris was paying attention when someone taught him Nietzsche. He believed he was an Übermensch. He believed he was a lion and the other students at his school gazelles. On what grounds can a metaphysical naturalist say “Eric Harris was wrong”? Is it not true that the most a metaphysical naturalist can say is “I personally disagree with what he did and would not do it myself”?
A final note:
Many of the comments at the other thread concerned whether “objective morality” exists. I believe that it does, and those comments are very interesting. However, whether objective morality exists has no application in this thread. Again, the question I want to explore in this thread is “Why shouldn’t a metaphysical naturalist do exactly what he pleases even if it hurts another person?”