The Evisceration of Our Moral Sensibilities

December 6, 2011

There is an interesting article in Education Forum a publication of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, The author Dr. Stephen Anderson reports the reaction of students in his class when he shared with them the details of the case of Bibi Aisha, an Afghan woman was mutilated by her in-laws for fleeing her abusive husband. Time magazine had done a cover story on her, featuring her horrifically scarred face absent a nose on the cover.

When Dr. Anderson presented this to his students in his senior philosophy class during a discussion on making moral judgments he made a startling discovery – the students couldn’t bring themselves to criticize Bibi’s mutilators:

But I was not prepared for their reaction. I had expected strong aversion; but that’s not what I got. Instead, they became confused. They seemed not to know what to think. They spoke timorously, afraid to make any moral judgment at all. They were unwilling to criticize any situation originating in a different culture. They said, “Well, we might not like it, but maybe over there it’s okay.” One student said, “I don’t feel anything at all; I see lots of this kind of stuff.” Another said (with no conscious-ness of self-contradiction), “It’s just wrong to judge other cultures.”

As a teacher, I had to do something. Like most teachers, I felt uncomfortable with becoming too directive in moral matters; but in this case, I could not see how I could avoid it. I wondered, “How can kids who have been so thoroughly basted in the language of minority rights be so numb to a clear moral offense?” Where are all those “character traits” we inculcate to address their moral formation? You know them — empathy, caring, respect, courage—the wording may vary among boards, but we all know the script.

My class was “character developed” and had all the “traits” in place. They were honest – very frank in their views. They had empathy — extending it in equal measure to Aisha and to the demented subculture that sliced her up. They were accepting — even of child mutilation. And they persevered — no matter how I prodded they did not leave their nonjudgmental position. I left that class shaking my head. It seemed clear to me that for some students—clearly not all — the lesson of character education initiatives is acceptance of all things at all costs. While we may hope some are capable of bridging the gap between principled morality and this ethically vacuous relativism, it is evident that a good many are not. For them, the overriding message is “never judge, never criticize, never take a position.”

Any many ways this incident shows the vacuity of what passes for secular morality. I am often told by atheists that ‘morals’, such as they are, are a product of our natural inclination to feel empathy and our evolutionary tendency toward cooperation – but as Dr. Anderson notes, neither of those traits is particularly ‘moral’ in and of itself. Absent a truly objective moral framework such traits could just as easily result in the moral weakness we see pictured above. True moral courage requires a clear ability to ascribe inherent value to individuals and a sense of confidence in the right based on transcendent eternal values. Those values can be derived from the teachings of Christ, but they cannot be derived from either nature or mere reason – and it is increasingly clear the ongong secularization of our culture is eviscerating the moral sensibilities of our children.



September 13, 2011

“In most times and in most places, the group was seen to be the essential moral unit. A shared religion defined rules and practices. Cultures structured people’s imaginations and imposed moral disciplines. But now more people are led to assume that the free-floating individual is the essential moral unit. Morality was once revealed, inherited and shared, but now it’s thought of as something that emerges in the privacy of your own heart. “

David Brooks, commenting in his New York Times column about how the current generation of young people is no longer able to comprehend a common morality

William Lane Craig/ Sam Harris Debate

April 15, 2011

I finally got around to listening to this debate (and much later, writing about it); it is yet another melee in a growing oeuvre of skirmishes between William Lane Craig and the New Atheists. With the caveats I mentioned in the Craig/Krauss debate post, I found this one to be much more engaging overall. Perhaps that is because Harris is a much more engaging speaker than Krauss was. Also Craig covers somewhat different ground here, less apologist and more critic of atheism’s power to ground objective morality.

I only have a couple of quick observations – I imagine people will draw their own conclusions based on their inclinations, so these are merely my take on it.

As I mentioned, Harris is very easy to listen to. Even when he is intimating that Christians are psychotic, idiotic and comparable to the Taliban he does so in even, reasonable tones that come across like he is just making an observation, not proffering an argument. And Harris often touches on points of agreement rather than merely dismissing his opponents – clitoral circumcision is bad, Jesus was a charismatic leader, we should fear losing an objective grounding for morality, etc.

Indeed one notable aspect of this debate is that Craig and Harris agree on one fundamental fact – that morals can be objectively known. Harris’ greatest critics in this regard aren’t Christians, but other atheists. Where they differ though is that Craig thinks morals are objective because he believes morals have an objective existence grounded in the existence and nature of God. Harris on the other hand thinks science can simply provide the framework for investigating morality by pegging it to human suffering, and we can understand that suffering is wrong because we have minds.

In arguing this Harris engages in a lot of question begging, but that is not my chief criticism of his views. In fact my chief criticism of Harris here wasn’t even one Craig considered. My chief criticism of Harris is that he puts great faith in human nature, though he probably wouldn’t call it that. For example, in his criticism of Craig’s ‘Divine Command’ theory he posits that in classroom of young children the kids might readily accept a direction from a teacher that it is fine to eat a cookie, but would reject a direction that it is fine to hit your neighbor. Apparently Craig has never actually encountered a child. In fact, this is exactly how we often end up with problem children – they have been given free reign by an adult to act as they desired, either through neglect or permissiveness. If humans simply acted in accordance with some inherent intuitive morality that we all innately agreed upon, we would have little need for laws or government at all. We actually have experimental evidence to show that adults will act to harm others in deference to an authority figure (ironically, a scientific researcher!), much less Harris’ imaginary children. So commands of an authority figure certainly do play a role in the moral choices humans make, and that authority should be one that is sufficiently great to warrant our obedience.

The other non-considered issue I take with Harris’ idea that science and provide a purely naturalistic framework for morality is that science has tried to do this before. As has been discussed here previously, the eugenics movement of the early 20th century was primarily an attempt to impose on humanity a purely scientific framework for making a better society. It was thought we could apply evolutionary theory to better mankind and thereby alleviate human suffering. Of course we now know that such efforts failed miserably. Just recently the global-warmists tried to save humanity by imposing on us a framework for how we should behave and act economically with regard to the latest scientific findings. We are only now beginning to realize how replete this ‘science’ is with politics, selfish ambition, and financial gain.

This is in fact that is the very reason we need a transcendent code of morality – because anything less than that is invariably the product of human inclination, and thus subject to the corruption of power and selfish interests. Sam Harris and the New Atheists aren’t above this. No person is.

As an aside Craig alluded briefly to the fact that the naturalism Harris believes in is deterministic with regard to human free will. This is critical, because if humans aren’t actually free to make moral choices, then attempting to determine which of those choices is ‘moral’ is irrelevant.

A number of folks have tried to counter that since by invoking the indeterminism of quantum physics. The problem with this argument is that while such indeterminacy might leave our futures indeterminate, it does nothing to free our will, because our will in purely mechanistic brain would be illusory anyway. Quantum mechanics would no more give us free will than it would cause a computer to exceed its programming and become aware of the its own operations and be able to modify them.

One has to wonder what the end-game for atheists is here. The reality is some subjects are amenable to scientific study – optimally those phenomena which can be readily quantified and subjected to repeatable experimentation. The cause and effects of human morality though are enmeshed with the complexities of human society and the results of bad morality may be stretched over generations. Take the ‘free love’ movement of the sixties. At the time it seemed like a fresh and exciting idea. Decades later, with communities plagued by broken families, deadly diseases like AIDs which cost our society significant resources to combat continuing to spread, and the objectification of women and girls which has turned human flesh into a consumer good has engendered much suffering in our society. While science has been employed to treat the symptoms it could do little to prevent the moral corruption to begin with. It certainly isn’t more effective than a few well understood and adhered to principles that prohibit adultery and sexual immorality, which if followed would lead to vast improvement of the human landscape.

Nonetheless, the debate raises some great discussions, which I think is the best outcome of such events.

You can listen to it here, and see it here.


January 2, 2011


Ah, it’s good to be back. A New Year, a new set of posts…

One of many thoughts I had over the break – concerning the objective reality of morality:

Saying that objective morals don’t exist because they are difficult to apply to certain situations is like saying mathematics doesn’t exist because one can’t solve a particular equation.

Indeed, if morals don’t exist, then there are no moral quandaries.

Blogging the EPS Conference 3

November 24, 2010

Another breakout session I attended was by Dr. Frank Beckwith, Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He spoke on Natural Rights and the New Atheists, primarily discussing how New Atheism undermines the notions of moral rules and inherent rights. I have been following the writings of Dr. Beckwith for sometime having blogged about an analysis of his on gay marriage a few months back and so it was great to see him in person. This particular discussion was as thorough as I had hoped on the topic.

He began by noting an inherent contradiction in the atheist position. He did so by way of noting how New Atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins adopt the language of purpose and meaning while denying that it exist. The example he cited for Dawkins was from The God Delusion where Dawkins laments the fact that geologist Kurt Wise had surrendered a promising secular career in science because of his adherence to Biblical truth. Dawkins writes:

….I find that terribly sad; but whereas the Golgi Apparatus moved me to tears of admiration and exultation, the Kurt Wise story is just plain pathetic–pathetic and contemptible. The wound, to his career and his life’s happiness, was self-inflicted, so unnecessary, so easy to escape. All he had to do was toss out the bible. Or interpret it symbolically, or allegorically, as the theologians do. Instead, he did the fundamentalist thing and tossed out evidence and reason, along with all his dreams and hopes.

Beckwith pointed out that this situation is only and ‘sad and contemptible’ if one believes that it is wrong not to live up to one’s talents and abilities – a belief that only makes sense if one believes we have an intrinsic purpose or design to live up to and that some morality prompts us to live up to that purpose. Of course Dawkins believes in no such purpose and so to lament one not fulfilling it is itself irrational.

From their Beckwith went on to make the point that if moral rules or rights exist, they are not physical – thus they defy empirical observation. According to the New Atheist rationale then, they do not exist. To contend rights do exist is to deny a materialistic and naturalistic view of reality. I find this interesting considering the consistency with which atheists will assert the ‘right’ of homosexuals to marry – if atheism doesn’t exist, not only do homosexuals not have a right to marry, no one else does either! They can’t even argue it on the basis of ‘equal rights’ because it is an assertion of inherent good or rights which cannot exist in the atheist worldview. All talk of objective inherent rights is nonsense when proffered by an atheist.

Beckwith went on to respond to the notion that morality and rights might be a product of evolution, and thus are inherent to us humans as social beings – the problem with that view is that the tendency to suppress rights and dominate others could as easily be justified by the same rational, and so there is no particular force in such an argument for rights.

Ultimately the existence of morality and rights is best explained as a product of intelligent intent – that we were designed to live a certain way and best do so when we can flourish according to that design. And that the adoption of certain morality and respect for certain rights best allows us to live in accordance with that design. This was the motivation for the assertions in the Declaration of Independence and subsequent adoption of the US Constitution – and interestingly, other human rights charters. The concepts of rights and moral duties are unintelligible apart from the concept of God, and New Atheism either contradicts itself by adopting the language of rights and responsibilities, or undermines these notions all together.