Saturday 15 January 2011

Should atheists talk about evil?

That depends. "Evil" could be said to be an exclusively religious term. To talk about good and evil is to talk in the same realm as that occupied by "sin" — which seems a much more religious term.

Some might make the case that talk of "morality" is also exclusively religious. Indeed many religionists scoff at atheistic moral pronouncements, claiming that atheists have no business talking about morality because they have no grounding for it. But such a view is itself not so much grounded as perilously perched atop one horn of the Euthypro dilemma: that what is morally good is whatever God decrees — and however arbitrary such a decree may be, nothing else really counts as "moral".

It should also be recognised that some religionists make no distinction between morality and absolute morality. They seem unable to grasp that there can be any morality that isn't absolute. As an atheist who occasionally engages in online debate and discussion, I've come across this religious blind-spot more than once. After explaining at length how I see morality — what it is, where it comes from and so on — I'm still asked to justify it on metaphysical, transcendental grounds.

I'm currently reading The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris. I'm about halfway through, but so far Harris has fairly comprehensively laid the groundwork for a thesis that the distinction between facts and values is not as clear cut as the philosopher David Hume would have us believe. Hume's contention that you can't derive an ought from an is sounds on the face of it to be reasonable, leading to the kind of demand for moral grounding mentioned above.

Harris makes a good case for knowledge of moral facts about the world without resort to metaphysics. We know what the difference is between a state of everything being as lovely as it possibly could be, and the state of everything being as horrible as it possibly could be. And crucially we know that one of these is good and the other is bad. We do not need a transcendental moral law-giver to tell us which is which. Spread out between these two extremes are a myriad states of relative well-being, and while it may be difficult and in some cases impossible in practice to tell exactly where on a hypothetical scale of well-being these states lie, there can be no doubt that such a determination is possible in principle.

From what I've read so far it's too early to draw definitive conclusions from Harris's moral exposition, but I'm looking forward to the rest of the book.