Again, I extend my hearty thanks to Seversky for breaking the dike here. Now other materialists are following his brave lead and admitting the obvious (but nevertheless frequently resisted) implications of materialism:
There doesn’t seem to be anything remarkable in what Sev has said. Its little more than what us heathens have been repeating.
Indeed Graham2. Why don’t you tell RDFish, who is still resisting with all his might?
As a materialist and subjectivist I agree with Seversky:
A ) Personal preferences can be reduced to the impulses caused by the electro-chemical processes of each person’s brain.
B) There is no such thing as objective good and evil.
C) Statements about good and evil are expressions of personal preferences.
Thank you Mark.
Now for the next step: Having admitted the obvious implications of materialism, stop speaking like theists when it comes to good and evil. The point of all of my recent posts has been to get materialists to admit that they don’t get to use words like “morally wrong,” “evil,” “bad,” “immoral,” or “wicked,” in any sense other than “that which I personally do not prefer, which personal preference can be reduced to the impulses caused by the electro-chemical processes of my brain.”
If on materialist premises terms like “morally wrong,” “evil,” “bad,” “immoral,” or “wicked” are exactly synonymous with “that which I do not prefer,’ what is the sense of using those terms at all? Indeed, using those terms creates confusion and obscures what the materialist is actually saying, because to the vast majority of English speakers those terms are almost always understood to mean “that which transgresses an inter-subjectively binding moral norm.” But when materialists use those words that is precisely NOT what they mean for the simple reason that they reject the existence of any such code.
Why do materialist use those terms in one sense with the full understanding the almost everyone understands them in a completely different sense? In other words, why does it seem like materialists are addicted to equivocation? There are three reasons:
1. Materialists have a PR problem
As Alex Rosenberg notes in chapter 5 of his The Atheist’s Guide to Reality:
But we should also worry about the public relations nightmare for scientism [i.e., materialism’s intellectual handmaiden] produced by the answer theists try to foist on scientism. The militant exponents of the higher superstitions say that scientism has no room for morality and can’t even condemn the wrongdoing of a monster like Hitler.
Rosenberg is, of course, correct about this as Richard Dawkins famously demonstrated when he said, “What’s to prevent us from saying Hitler wasn’t right? I mean, that is a genuinely difficult question.”
Materialists believe they are right about ontology, and they want to convince other people they are right. But that is very difficult when people find out the nihilistic implications of materialism. To deal with this PR problem materialists cheat and continue to use morality words as if those words have meaning. Materialists have a simple PR interest in obscuring their meaning from others.
2. No one cares what you prefer.
No one cares about your idiosyncratic preferences (or mine). Yet we find ourselves trying to influence others all the time. The problem for materialists is that in such debates it would be absurd to say “Do X because that is what I personally prefer.” Debaters always appeal to what they hope will be (or at least perceived to be) inter-subjectively binding norms.
Consider the following two statements:
(a) “Discrimination against homosexuals is desperately wicked!”
(b) “Discrimination against homosexuals is something which I personally do not prefer, which personal preference can be reduced to the impulses caused by the electro-chemical processes of my brain.”
On materialist premises statement (a) is exactly equivalent to statement (b). Obviously, statement (b) is far less compelling in a debate.
3. Russell’s Problem
Finally, not only do materialists have an interest in obscuring their meaning from others, but also they have an interest in obscuring their meaning from themselves. Bertrand Russell pointed this out many years ago: “I cannot see how to refute the arguments for the subjectivity of ethical values, but I find myself incapable of believing that all that is wrong with wanton cruelty is that I don’t like it.” Russell on Ethics 165/Papers 11: 310–11. For most people materialism requires self deception.
Russell hated the ineluctable conclusions of his own premises. But if his premises were true, then it really is the case that all that is wrong with wanton cruelty is that he does not like it. Going further, this means that in Russell’s moral system “wrong” and “I don’t like it” are equivalent terms. It follows that Russell does not get to condemn what he calls “wanton cruelty” using terms like “morally wrong,” “evil,” “bad,” “immoral,” or “wicked” in any sense other than “that which I do not prefer.”
On a more contemporary note, Richard Dawkins engages in self-deception all the time. He does not really believe condemning Hitler is difficult. Indeed, if one reads Dawkins, he is constantly going on about moral issues as if the word “moral” means something other than his own personal preferences.
Here WJM’s dictum comes into play: “No sane person lives as if materialism is true.” The truth underlying WJM’s dictum creates extreme dissonance problems for materialists. They say one thing is true (and perhaps they even believe it); yet all sane materialists act as if what they say is false. Consider, for example, Mark Frank’s statements above: “Statements about good and evil are expressions of personal preferences.” “Personal preferences can be reduced to the impulses caused by the electro-chemical processes of each person’s brain.” Mark Frank seems like a descent fellow. I am all but sure that he is not a psychopath. And this means that he does not live his life as if what he just said is true. Like the rest of us, he goes about making moral judgments as if those judgments are something other than expressions of his idiosyncratic preferences. Indeed, on these very pages he has recently expressed moral outrage at the tone of my posts, and he clearly meant something other than merely, “I do not personally prefer the tone of Barry’s posts.”
So what is a non-psychopath materialist to do when embracing the nihilism at the bottom of materialist premises is all but impossible for most people? The answer, of course, is that they do exactly what we seem them do on these pages all of the time: To deal with their dissonance, they obscure the conclusions impelled by their premises even from themselves. They follow WJM’s dictum slavishly and speak in moral terms as if those terms mean something other than “that which I prefer.”
In conclusion, I say to materialists: We know that you equivocate on moral terms all the time. We even know why you equivocate on moral terms. Nevertheless, such equivocation is not licit. If you are going to have your materialist roast, you must accept the nihilistic sauce that inevitably comes with it.
Stop using words like “evil,” “wicked,” and “immoral” as if those words are expressions of anything other than your personal preferences. To do otherwise is an act of deception.