Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Friday, November 21, 2008

An Atheist's Perspective on Abortion, Human Rights, and Morality

This post is a response to a blogger named Rhology whose empassioned misunderstanding of atheism and morality is somewhat disturbing. Rhology most likely isn't stupid, just misguided and stubbornly devoted to misconceptions about the nature of philosophy. As annoying as it is to be misunderstood and misrepresented, I do appreciate these kinds of discussions at times, because they often lead me to find clearer, stronger statements of my views. For the history of this discussion, see these two blog posts and their comments on Rhology's own blog: To Whom Rights Belong and Just What Are Rights?


You have wholly misrepresented my statements and my views.

I said I have found it impossible to take religious belief seriously. You say that is me "admitting my bias." Nonsense. As you very well know, I have explained why I reject religious belief. It's not bias. It's just common sense and reason.

You make a blanket assertion that atheists have no basis for talking about rights, values, beauty, justice, and so on. Do you have any idea how stupid that makes you sound?

You think an atheist worldview cannot "support" human rights. You clearly have no idea what you're talking about.

Justice, beauty, truth, rights . . . these are human values. We all have them because we have working human brains and because we are actively involved in the world around us. You don't need Christianity to appreciate beauty, truth, justice, or nobility. You don't need to be Christian to have honor. In fact, as you have so clearly demonstrated, too much Christianity can compromise your ability to understand these concepts.

You think you understand atheism pretty well. And yet, I don't think you could find one atheist who would tell you that you've accurately represented their views here.

It seems pretty clear that you have a poor understanding of morality, as well.

You say, “Of course, for an atheist, there is not only not any infallible authority for moral questions, there is not even an objective one outside the individual or group of individuals, so we always have to salt our thoughts with that reminder.”

If you have an infallible authority for moral questions, where's the evidence? The Bible? By what standard does any book count as evidence of an infallible moral authority?

Claiming that “God is infallible because He revealed Himself to be infallible” is nonsense. Claiming that "the Bible is infallible because God revealed it to be infallible" is similarly nonsense.

Nonsensical assertions are a waste of everybody’s time. Please produce a coherent argument for your infallible moral authority, and how it allows you to make moral judgments without any room for doubt. (I assume you know that when you apply the Bible to your daily life, you have to actually interpret it a little bit. Does God's alleged infallibility manage to survive the process of interpretation? How would you know?)

As for your “salt,” it totally misses the sense of what morality is.

You say that, for atheists, “there is not even an objective” authority for moral questions outside of whatever group is seeking answers. Let’s try to parse this, shall we?

An objective authority on moral questions . . . How would one recognize an objective moral authority, exactly? I mean, what is an objective moral authority?

You say it’s God. But that doesn’t answer the question. First, I don’t know what the word “God” refers to. Second, even if I did, I wouldn’t know what it means for “God” to be an objective moral authority. You understand the problem here?

Now, listen. I will explain what an objective moral authority is. In so doing, it should be clear why your argument is bankrupt on two fronts: first, because you wrongly accuse atheists of lacking objective moral authority; second, because you wrongly claim to have an objective moral authority of your own. See, I’m about to turn your argument upside down. Ready?

The term “objective” refers to that which can be observed and measured by anybody (in theory, of course), and not what is only available for a single person. Of course, people react differently to objective events, and no matter how similar people’s experiences tend to be, there is often some small difference in what they observe and measure. Yet, in so far as something is theoretically available to be observed and measured, we call it “objective,” even if our observations and measurements are not always exactly the same. Often we have to negotiate an understanding of objective events, because our experiences aren’t always exactly the same. In this way, objectivity can be established through discourse.

Objectivity is denied when something is defined out of conceivability or when something is defined out of observability and measurability.

Now, as you probably recall, I have explained why I steadfastly maintain the position that your use of the term “God” defines God out of conceivability. This means that, despite your claims to the contrary, you cannot use the term “God” to refer to an objective moral authority.

But let’s dig deeper. An objective moral authority is one that provides authoritative answers to moral questions in a way that can be observed and measured by any properly situated person. The question is, how do we know we’ve found an authoritative answer to a moral question? In other words, what are the defining characteristics of a moral authority?

That’s easy. Authority is granted by convention, of course. The most rationally conceived authority is one most adapted to the needs of the community and most adaptive to the demands of reason. Morality is all a matter of justification, after all. So, a moral authority is a person or body of persons whose decisions on moral questions are respected within a community.

Atheists have such a moral authority: it is the decision-making processes within the community itself! You see, atheists respect the processes whereby moral questions are rationally argued. And whatever rational argument prevails is respected as authoritative. That is how moral questions are answered, and it is perfectly objective.

Now, of course, you were talking about some objective moral authority existing outside of any group or community. And yet, by framing the argument in such terms, you are talking nonsense. For, if some moral authority is going to be available to people, then what sense does it make to demand that said authority remain outside of their grasp?

It’s absurd.

If you want objective moral authority, it has to be at least theoretically available to everyone in the community. You can’t define it out of comprehension, and you can’t define it out of the community. You wish to do both, which is why your argument fails.

Your position is not one of moral superiority, Rhology. It is one of moral bankruptcy.

Now, let’s talk about prejudice, shall we?

You said, “To say that b/c Person X is quite young (arbitrary distinction) and living in a specific location (again, arbitrary distinction), it's OK to kill that person is illicit. It's morally bankrupt, and it's precisely of the same quality as 3rd Reich reasoning wrt Jews.”

Indeed, I would never recommend legislation that made it legal to kill people under, say, eleven years old who lived in Chicago. That wouldn’t quite be equivalent to Nazism, because I wouldn’t be legislating the extermination of an entire race. But it would be really bad stuff.

Fortunately, my position here is nothing like what you describe. It shouldn’t be too hard to see the difference. I’ll try to explain it slowly, to make sure I’m not misunderstood.

We need to start with the very basics. See, again, I’m going to have to turn your argument upside down. Ready?

You say that your position is not arbitrary and that mine is. You even laughed when I asked why you don’t attribute the same rights to all mammals as you attribute to humans. Why did you laugh?
Because you can’t see how arbitrary your position actually is, apparently.

Look. What is the biological difference between a human being and a chimpanzee? Not all that much, if you go by DNA. About two percent, I think. And what is the biological difference between a person with Jewish parentage and a person without Jewish parentage? Less than two percent, for sure. But there is still a biological difference. Now, you claim that the biological difference between these two should be insignificant when it comes to granting the right to life. Both human, after all, so they should be afforded the same rights. Well, why not extend those same rights to chimpanzees? They aren’t so biologically different from humans, after all.

So, why give some rights to humans, but not to chimps?
You say it’s because humans have human DNA. Well so what?
Chimps have 98 percent of the same DNA. Why claim that only humans get these rights?

You want to resort to the same nonsense about God’s revelation. That’s not an argument. It’s avoidance.

So, you ask, how do I justify ascribing rights to anyone at all? Again, look back at the moral authority I mentioned earlier. I justify ascribing rights to certain organisms because the prevailing rational arguments justify it. I do not look for authority beyond rational discourse, because there is no conceivable authority beyond rational discourse.

Note that this does not make my position on rights arbitrary or subjective. Not at all. My position is based on the needs of civilization and the demands of reason. The arguments for my position are available for consideration by anyone capable of understanding them. I do not postulate any secret knowledge, any wholly subjective information, or any other-worldly, ultimately unknowable realm, to justifies my position here.

In short, my hand is open, and it remains firmly rooted in rational thought. If you wish to challenge my moral judgments, if you wish to challenge my position on abortion, you can. I won’t hide behind incomrehensible words like "God."

So far, your challenge to atheism is nonsense. You claim to have a moral authority when you clearly do not. You also wish to deny the validity of atheists' objective moral authority for no apparent reason, though I suppose it has something to do with your inability to tell the difference between genocide and abortion.

Let me put it another way. My views on abortion are based on rational argument. Your views are based on an irrational devotion to an old book. The Nazis tried to justify genocide by irrationally clinging to a book. It was called Mein Kampf. Whose position looks more like the Nazis now?

Moving on . . .

I referred to a woman having an abortion as the "termination of a pregnancy." You say, “Let's call [abortion] what it is - to murder her baby. No euphemisms allowed.”

The word “murder” implies illegality. Since it is not illegal, it is not murder. The word “terminate” is not a euphemism. It accurately describes what happens.

And you say, “Um, so baby humans are not "remotely similar to human beings"?”

Babies are human beings. Fetuses are not. In any case, you missed my point. I said I don’t support the “wanton killing” of anything remotely similar to human beings. That includes embryos and fetuses. So you don’t need to throw a fit.

I said, “I do not support genocide.”

You replied, “Unless we're talking about really young people. Then it's OK.”

Ha. That’s funny. Because obviously allowing a woman to terminate her pregnancy is an act of genocide. Yeah, that makes sense. Either you don’t know what the word “genocide” means, or you just weren’t thinking when you typed that.

I said, “You claim that the Nazi’s attitude towards Jews was rational.”

You replied, “??? Where did I say that?”

You don’t remember? I'll refresh your memory. Earlier I wrote: “They were not legislating policy according to rational standards of human ability and development.”

You said, “Sure they were. Jews weren't human. Simple.”

Rember now? By your account, the Nazis had a rational standard of human ability. Their attitude towards the Jews was thus based on a rational standard. Are you taking that comment back now, or what?

You wrote, “The Nazis were CONSISTENT with their arbitrary "this one is human, this one is not human" distinctions, just like you are.”

As I've demonstrated, you are the one consistently (and irrationally) sticking to arbitrary distinctions.

You asked, “on what rational basis do you conclude that babies aren't human?”

We’re not talking about babies. We’re talking about embryos and fetuses in early stages of development. They’re not human beings because they are not capable of acting independently in the world according to their own interests.

Many fetuses in the third trimester can act like human beings, and so they should be treated like human beings.

Lesser developed fetuses and embryos cannot. This is why they are dependent on their mothers, and this is why their fate should be left in their mothers’ hands (or in the hands of whoever is watching over the mother, in case she isn’t able to act according to her own best interests.)

See, at certain stages of development, a fetus is not an independent, self-sustaining organism. It is still a part of the mother’s body. That’s why it makes sense to give the mother the decision over its fate.

This is the prevailing rational argument, and it makes sense to me. Your grounds for disagreement, on the other hand, do not make sense to me at all.

Now, back to your non-argument . . . on what basis do you ascribe rights to anyone? On what basis do you justify your moral judgments about anything?

I see no reason to accept quotes from the Bible as a rational argument. If you want to use quotes from the Bible, fine. But the Bible itself is not an argument. It's just a collection of really old stories.

You’re not even willing to admit that you lied when you said you wanted to grant full rights to all human organisms at the moment of conception.

You tried to hide behind an undefined distinction between "rights" and "privileges."

Why is the right to enter into contracts not a right?

Why is the right to vote not a right?

Why is the right to own property not a right?

Why don’t you grant these rights (or privileges, if you want to call them that) to newborn babies? Or children at the age of 8?

Now you want to avoid the issue of rights by talking instead about God's commandments. This leads to your claim that people who have committed capital crimes do not have the right to life. Who decides what is a capital crime? By what authority, in your opinion, can certain actions warrant the removal of a person's right to life?

Your only answer is the Bible. Until you understand why that is not a valid answer, I'm afraid we're not going to make much progress here. Hopefully after reading this post a couple times you will have a better understanding of atheism and morality, and this might help you more rationally approach your favorite book.