Intelligent Design

Louise Antony’s three fallacies about God and goodness

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Over at NPR, psychology professor Tania Lombrozo of the University of California, Berkeley, is highly incensed at the fact that even in this modern day and age, 40 percent of Americans say that they would not vote for a presidential candidate who was an atheist. Professor Lombrozo puts this down to the widespread popular belief that immoral behavior is only averted by religious belief – an assumption she stoutly rejects, citing an article titled, Good Minus God (New York Times, December 18, 2011) by philosophy professor Louise Antony, of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who argues that moral norms are true regardless of whether or not God exists, and who concludes: “If ‘good’ is to have normative force, it must be something that we can understand independently of what is commanded by a powerful omnipresent being.”

In today’s post, I’m going to defend the theistic claim (let’s call it TC) that there can be no moral obligations without God, but I shall also argue that this does not imply that “if God does not exist, everything is permitted,” as Dostoevsky famously wrote in The Brothers Karamazov. Finally, although I would readily acknowledge that there are many morally good atheists, I would also argue that there are sound prudential reasons for Americans to be leery of electing an atheist President.

Leaving aside Professor Antony’s criticisms of the Divine Command Theory of Ethics – which, I might add, are not terribly sophisticated – her argument against the theistic claim TC contains at least three major fallacies.

Professor Antony’s argument

The nub of Professor Antony’s case is contained in the following excerpt from her article:

…[A]nyone who believes that God made human beings in His image believes something like this — that there is a moral dimension of things, and that it is in our ability to apprehend it that we resemble the divine. Accordingly, many theists, like many atheists, believe that moral value is inherent in morally valuable things. Things don’t become morally valuable because God prefers them; God prefers them because they are morally valuable.

So far, so good: Professor Antony is simply pointing out here that there are many theists – and atheists – who believe that moral value is an objective property which applies to certain kinds of things – be they living things, which are capable of thriving and which have a good of their own, as a modern-day Aristotelian philosopher might contend, or rational agents, as a Kantian would maintain, or sentient beings, as a utilitarian would assert. It needs to be kept in mind that utilitarians (such as the Australian philosopher Peter Singer) are not moral subjectivists: they believe that there is an objective fact of the matter as to whether slavery is right or wrong in a given situation, and some (e.g. rule utilitarians) would even argue that it is always wrong.

Professor Antony continues:

Consider the following moral judgments — judgments that seem to me to be obviously true:

• It is wrong to drive people from their homes or to kill them because you want their land.
• It is wrong to enslave people.
• It is wrong to torture prisoners of war.
• Anyone who witnesses genocide, or enslavement, or torture, is morally required to try to stop it.

To say that morality depends on the existence of God is to say that none of these specific moral judgments is true unless God exists. That seems to me to be a remarkable claim. If God turned out not to exist — then slavery would be O.K.? There’d be nothing wrong with torture? The pain of another human being would mean nothing?

Think now about our personal relations — how we love our parents, our children, our life partners, our friends. To say that the moral worth of these individuals depends on the existence of God is to say that these people are, in themselves, worth nothing — that the concern we feel for their well being has no more ethical significance than the concern some people feel for their boats or their cars. It is to say that the historical connections we value, the traits of character and personality that we love — all count for nothing in themselves. Other people warrant our concern only because they are valued by someone else — in this case, God. (Imagine telling a child: “You are not inherently lovable. I love you only because I love your father, and it is my duty to love anything he loves.”)

The fallacies in Antony’s argument are not readily apparent because her argument is couched in words rather than the abstract symbols preferred by logicians, and because her terminology is a little woolly.

Fallacy Number One: Confusing reasons with conditions

The first fallacy which leapt out at me was Professor Antony’s unfortunate confusion of reasons with conditions.

Consider the following inference:

X exists only because of Y.
Therefore, without Y, there would be no X.

Is this a valid inference? Yes, it is. The sole reason for the existence of X is also a necessary condition for the existence of X. (Of course, a reason Y for the existence of X may not be a necessary condition if there are other, independent reasons for the existence of X: even without Y, these other reasons could cause X to exist.)

Now let’s consider the converse inference:

Without Y, there would be no X.
Therefore, X exists only because of Y.

This is a fallacy. A necessary condition for the existence of X is not always a reason for the existence of X, let alone the sole reason.

Now let X be our moral obligation to love and value other human beings. Since we have such an obligation, it follows that this obligation exists. Let Y be God’s existence.

As we have seen, the fact that X would not exist without Y does not imply that Y is the reason for X – let alone the sole reason. Hence the fact that our moral obligation to love and value others would not exist without God does not imply that God’s existence is the reason – let alone the sole reason – for our having moral obligations towards others. A necessary condition is not a reason.

In short: I am morally obligated to love others, simply because they are what they are. But they would not be what they are without God, the Ultimate Cause of their existence. Since we can only have moral obligations towards entities that actually exist, it follows that without God, there would be no moral obligation for me to love other people, simply because there would be no people for me to love (and there would be no “me” to love them, either). However, it does not follow from this that I am morally obligated to love others, only because God exists. Other people are lovable in their own right, but they don’t exist in their own right: they exist because God wills them to exist. That is why we need God for morality.

Thus (contrary to the claims of Professor Antony) a theist can consistently maintain that we have moral obligations towards other people because they are valuable and lovable in their own right, and at the same time affirm that without God, there would be no moral obligations for us to have.

Fallacy Number Two: Failing to state argumentative premises

If there can be no moral obligations without God, then does this mean that slavery and torture would be morally permissible if there were no God? As we have seen, Professor Antony seems to think that if you believe that there would be no moral obligations without God, then you must also believe that any kind of action would be morally permissible if there were no God. But that doesn’t follow at all. Since theists believe that God is the First Cause, they also believe that there could be no actions of any sort – good, bad or indifferent – if there were no God. Hence if there were no God, then it does not follow that slavery would be OK, because there could be no slaves, or slave-owners – and hence no slavery – if God did not exist. Likewise, there could be no torture if God did not exist.

At this point, some atheists will probably want to object that I am missing the point of Antony’s argument. “Surely it is at least conceivable that there is no God,” they will argue. “Suppose, purely for argument’s sake, that there is no God, but that the material world and the beings within it are real. For many people who do not know if there is a God or not, such a supposition is epistemically possible (i.e. it may be true for all they know), regardless of whether or not it is ontologically possible (or possible in reality). Now picture a person in that position. Can that person know that slavery and torture are wrong, without knowing whether God exists or not?”

My reply to the above question is: “Certainly.” I have already acknowledged in the foregoing section that human beings are morally valuable in their own right, which implies that the intentional abuse of a human being is morally wrong. But the point I want to make here is that I am not misreading Professor Antony’s argument: she clearly states that if you believe that God is necessary for morality, then you must also believe that slavery and torture would be morally permissible without God. In her won words:

To say that morality depends on the existence of God is to say that none of these specific moral judgments is true unless God exists. That seems to me to be a remarkable claim. If God turned out not to exist — then slavery would be O.K.? There’d be nothing wrong with torture? The pain of another human being would mean nothing?

The fallacy that Professor Antony is making here is a fallacy in counterfactual logic. She seems to be arguing:

(1) If not-P then not-Q. (P = “God exists” and Q = “There are moral obligations.”) (Theistic postulate TC)
(2) If not-Q then R. (R = “All acts are morally permissible.”)
Therefore, (3) if not-P then R.

In other words, if you’re the kind of theist who holds that there can be no moral obligations without God, then you have to accept the unpalatable conclusion that everything is morally permissible in the absence of God – which means that slavery and torture would be perfectly OK, if God did not exist.

At first sight, the argument looks logically unassailable. But the second premise – that if there are no moral obligations then all acts are morally permissible – assumes the existence of a material world populated by embodied agents who are capable of performing physical acts of various kinds (such as torture). So the proper form of premise (2) is:

(2) If S and not-Q, then R. (Q = “There are moral obligations,” R = “All acts are morally permissible” and S = “There are embodied agents.”)

But wait! Theists of all stripes also believe that the following premise is true:

(1b) If not-P then not-S. (P = “God exists” and S = “There are embodied agents.”) (Second theistic postulate)

Now, at last, we can see what’s wrong with Professor Antony’s argument. Let’s restate it, with premise (1b) included and premise (2) suitably amended:

(1) If not-P then not-Q. (P = “God exists” and Q = “There are moral obligations.”) (Theistic postulate TC)
(1b) If not-P then not-S. (P = “God exists” and S = “There are embodied agents.”) (Second theistic postulate)
(2) If S and not-Q, then R. (Q = “There are moral obligations,” R = “All acts are morally permissible” and S = “There are embodied agents.”)

From the foregoing premises, it would be clearly fallacious to draw the conclusion:

(3) If not-P then R. (“If God does not exist then all acts are morally permissible.”)

We may only infer R from not-P if conditions S and not-Q hold. But the theist maintains that it is impossible for S to hold if not-P is the case. Hence theists who maintain that there are no moral obligations without God will, if they are intellectually consistent, reject proposition (3) is false.

Fallacy Number Three: Confusing ontology with epistemology

I turn now to Professor Antony’s third and final fallacy: her confusion of epistemic priority with ontological priority. I maintain that moral goodness is epistemically prior to God, but not ontologically prior. What do I mean by that?

First of all, I should declare that my own approach to moral goodness is broadly Aristotelian: we know what is good for a thing – be it a vegetable, an animal or a human being – when we know what that thing is (i.e. when we understand its nature), and what makes it thrive, or flourish. To me, that sounds pretty common-sensical. (To identify what is good for a thing with what it wants, as utilitarians do, seems to be putting the cart before the horse: even leaving aside the problem of individuals wanting things that are bad for them, the more fundamental problem is that someone’s wanting something presupposes that they believe it is good for them. In other words, wanting cannot be constitutive of goodness because it presupposes the concept of goodness.) And if somebody asked me what morally good behavior is, I would say, as a first approximation: seeking the flourishing (or well-being) of other individuals, especially those with whom you have the closest moral ties, while interfering as little as possible with the flourishing of those individuals with whom you have weaker moral ties. (I would add, of course, that our moral ties with our fellow human beings are fundamentally different in character from our ties with non-human animals and plants, which lack the use of language.)

Now, since (i) we are able to know what things are and what makes them thrive or flourish, without knowing what God is or even whether God is, and
(ii) we are unable to know whether God exists without at least knowing what some things are, and what makes them thrive, it follows that
(iii) our knowledge of goodness comes before our knowledge of God.

Premise (i) is obvious enough: for instance, a zoo-keeper knows what’s conducive to the flourishing of his animals even if he is a total atheist. Premise (ii) assumes that we have no innate knowledge of God, and no a priori knowledge of Him, either. Rather, our knowledge of God is a posteriori: it is derived from our observations of (and inferences about) created things. Thus we may conclude that for human beings, then, goodness is epistemically prior to God.

However, since the ultimate reason why things exist is that God chose to make them, it follows that without God, there would be no things of any sort, let alone thriving things – and hence, there would be no goodness. In the order of being, then, God comes before good things. Hence it would be totally wrong to say that goodness is ontologically prior to God.

Professor Antony is therefore correct, on an epistemic level, when she contends: “If ‘good’ is to have normative force, it must be something that we can understand independently of what is commanded by a powerful omnipresent being.” But she is quite wrong in thinking that such a claim is at odds with TC, the theistic claim that if God does not exist, then there are no moral values. The reason is that TC is an ontological claim, not an epistemic one.

An additional reason why God is necessary for morality

Until now, I have argued that God is is required for morality, simply because He endows all things with existence: they would be literally nothing without Him. But there is a further reason why God is vital for morality: as the Author of human nature, He is also the Author of its built-in norms. It is He Who determined what makes us flourish and what harms us, when He made us. And it is He Who determined what makes other kinds of creatures thrive, too, when He designed them. (The process whereby He did so is immaterial to the argument I am propounding here.) Hence if slavery and torture are not conducive to our flourishing as human beings, it is because God made us that way: He intended us to be free agents.

If the built-in natural norms (or conditions of thriving) that we find in various kinds of creatures are God’s norms, then we have another reason for regarding God as indispensable to morality: without God, things would have no “conditions of flourishing” which define their fundamental nature, and distinguish them from things having a different nature. Thus the theistic claim TC is grounded not only in the fact that things could not exist without God, but also in the fact that things would not be what they are without God.

The danger of trans-humanism: Why Americans should be leery of an atheist President

I’d now like to address the statistic which aroused the ire of Professor Tania Lombrozo: the fact that 40 percent of Americans wouldn’t vote for a presidential candidate who was an atheist. Are they simply being prejudiced, or is there a food reason for Americans’ caution?

Here’s my on take on the subject. Until now, we have been examining the possibility of a naturalistic account of goodness, which an atheist might apprehend as readily as a believer, simply from understanding what makes various kinds of things thrive – humans included. Such an account presupposes an understanding of the nature of the entities we’re talking about – which means that in order to know what’s good for people, we require a solid grasp of human nature.

Now here’s the problem. What happens if you’re the sort of atheist who denies that humans have a fixed “essence” or nature of their own, which defines what is good for them? What happens if you think human nature is completely malleable, and that we are morally entitled to make ourselves into whatever kind of being we want to? Thus we might, if we wish, genetically engineer the creation of a breed of human beings who desired to be enslaved – or even tortured – because they found such treatment pleasurable. Indeed, a superficial observer of these individuals might be tempted to argue that for this particular breed of human beings, enslavement and torture was conducive to their flourishing in an Aristotelian sense, as they appeared to thrive on such treatment. If we engineered this race of people, then what would become of Professor Antony’s claim that slavery and torture are inherently wrong?

Now I’m quite sure that the vast majority of atheists in the United States would be appalled at the scenario I described above. But the view that underlies it now has a name: trans-humanism, or the view that humans have the right to tamper with their nature in an attempt to make themselves better. You don’t have to be Cassandra to see that if this view gets to be widely adopted, things will turn out very badly for the human race. And who is championing this movement? People like atheist Richard Carrier, who in his book, Sense and Goodness without God, declares his hope that humans will spend eternity inside computer programs, or Alex Gabriel, the author of Godlessness in Theory, a blog about religion and how to leave it, who favorably reviews a Hollywood movie about a man who comes to have a sexual relationship with the artificial intelligence inhabiting his computer’s operating system.

Abuses tend to start out small before they get big. In the beginning, people will mainly talk about minor enhancements: a better memory, thanks to cybernetic implants; or a longer lifespan, thanks to nanobots that can clear your body of dangerous diseases. But it will snowball from there. And at some point in the future, we will reach a moral tipping point: a pressing social issue, where what seems “right” to a trans-human will be fundamentally at odds with what seems right to a “normal” human being. We will then have created a race of beings who don’t feel the same way as we do. What then?

Political leaders play an important role in steering the moral trajectory of the countries they lead. Almost without exception, they come to champion some “cause” on which they feel society needs to “move forward.” As a result of their activism, popular attitudes frequently change – often within the space of just a few years. (Case in point: think back to 2005, and ask yourself how Americans viewed gay marriage or drug legalization. That was just ten years ago. And now ask yourself: who, more than any other individual, was responsible for this change of attitude?)

The real danger of an atheist President, then, is that he or she will not respect the norms of human nature, but will instead seek to change, enhance or radically transform what we now know as human nature. Not believing in a Higher Power, this President will feel no moral qualms about allowing scientists to modify structures in the human brain which are deemed to be relics of our Stone Age past, in order to curb “anti-social” or “stupid” behavior. And of course, it will be scientists who have the responsibility of deciding whose brains need to be “modified.” In a similar fashion, the human body will come to be the plaything of technocrats who believe they can make it “swifter, faster, stronger” – all in the name of progress, of course. And the eventual result? Your great-grandchild may be so unlike you that you might not even be inclined to call him/her human. And he/she may not deem you to be morally significant.

I expect to be told that even if all (or most) trans-humanists are atheists, only a tiny minority of atheists are trans-humanists. That may be so, but the question is not whether a future President will be a trans-humanist, but whether he/she will nip the movement in the bud, before it reaches the critical social mass at which its ideas are finally taken seriously by the public at large, simply because they are vocally defended by a sufficiently large number of prominent citizens?

A President who has a firm belief in God as the Author of natural law – as the Founding Fathers all did (even those who weren’t Christians) – will have the moral fortitude to stand up to trans-humanism and denounce it for what it is: lunacy. But a President who doesn’t believe in God may say to him/herself: “The idea sounds pretty flaky to me, but perhaps I’m mistaken, and I don’t want to be on the wrong side of history. Better to wait, and let the issue resolve itself.” And as the movement gathers steam, that President’s successor, if he/she is also an atheist, may then choose to “jump on the bandwagon” and become a “vanguard of the revolution,” telling the American people that trans-humanism is the way of the future.

The real danger of an atheist President, then, is that at a time when the very foundations of morality are being eroded by rapid social and technological change as never before, that President, having no fixed conception of morality and no firm convictions of his/her own, will lack the courage and the calm self-assurance required to stare down the lobby groups and special interests agitating for radical change, and say no to their morally outrageous proposals.

President Ronald Reagan was fond of remarking: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” The same goes for our moral sense. It won’t take much to erode our moral intuition that slavery and torture are inherently wrong. It was difficult enough to attain these insights, even when people lived in a society where the concept of natural law was generally accepted: the issues had to be thrashed out and publicly debated for centuries, before the public came to accept as self-evident the proposition that all men are born free and equal. But if we reject the very concept of “natural law,” then we no longer have a firm foundation on which to argue that these practices are fundamentally wrong. That will be a sorry day for the human race, indeed.

4 Replies to “Louise Antony’s three fallacies about God and goodness

  1. 1
    ppolish says:

    40% big deal. 50% of Americans won’t vote for a candidate if the candidate is a Republican.

  2. 2
    REC says:

    “The real danger of an atheist President”….”It won’t take much to erode our moral intuition that slavery and torture are inherently wrong.”

    Heh. Do you follow US news? We have “Enhanced Interrogation” courtesy of God’s chosen administration.

  3. 3
    ppolish says:

    Pew Stats 2014 USA:
    77% Theist
    16% Nothing in particular.
    4%. Agnostic
    3% Atheist

    Bernie Sanders is a “Nothing in particular” I think, all the other 2016 candidates are Theists.

    An Atheist candidate is an imaginary candidate at this time. An imaginary third party candidate at that.

  4. 4
    anthropic says:

    REC 2 “Heh. Do you follow US news? We have “Enhanced Interrogation” courtesy of God’s chosen administration.”

    ———————————————————

    Yeah, sleep deprivation and waterboarding, which some US armed forces undergo as training, is SO much worse than blowing the bad guys — and any surrounding civilians — into bloody shreds with drone strikes.

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