Monday, March 1, 2010

Thoughts on Dacey / Hausam debate

This past Saturday, I attended a lecture (organized by SHIFT) by Austin Dacey entitled "Blasphemy: Hate Speech or Human Right."

Despite me sending Dr. Dacey off on a fifteen minute wild goose chase in search of a bathroom minutes before the lecture, he was extraordinarily well-spoken, eloquent and persuasive.

The thrust of Dr. Dacey's argument is that all people are deserving of equal respect and dignity, but that not all ideas are, and that a truly open society depends on the ability to criticize ideas. I couldn't agree with this more. With blasphemy laws spreading, such as the new one in Ireland and the various proposals put before the UN (the talks for which Dr. Dacey has participated in), this is an important distinction.

Following his lecture, Dr. Dacey was joined by Dr. Mark Hausam for a debate (really, more of a conversation) called "Is Morality Possible Without God?"

Dr. Hausam's position, of course, is that no, morality is not possible without God.

Hausam began by listing off several things that would be true in a Godless universe. I objected to very little of what he said here, I just don't view it as a problem. (e.g., the universe is so vast and expansive that in the grand scheme of things, we puny humans on our pale blue dot add up to very little, except in our own eyes.)

Then things got dicey. Hausam's contention, and I'll try not to strawman here, is that all human morality is "subjective" and therefore illusory. Only an observer outside of the Universe and truly "objective" can therefore be the source of true morality. (For no apparent reason, he also said this fact demonstrated God's existence... which was neither the topic of discussion nor true.)

Nearly everything Hausam said hinged on one or both of these assumptions being true. Yet he failed to substantiate either assumption. Furthermore, I think both of these can be deomstrated to not be true: human's can be moral without a god, and God (and let's not beat around the bush here, Hausam was talking about the God of the Bible) is neither "objective" nor consistently moral.

Human-based morality is not real morality?
Hausam played a little linguistic trick throughout his arguments. He was supposedly saying that morality cannot exist without God. But what he actually contended is that objective morality cannot. I got so tired of him invoking the word "objective" as if it gave him a free pass to say whatever he wanted.

Here's the deal: in a way, he's right: there is no universally accepted "objective" morality in humans. Things deemed anathema to one society wouldn't garner so much as a batted eyelash in others. We can come up with some approximations of "objective" morality: equal opportunity no matter one's gender, race, religion, or nation; rejection of murder and rape, and so on. But even those qualities are based on some assumptions (assumptions that I subscribe to), such as the inherent equality of all people. Indeed, without holy words in the picture, I'd contend that it may be easier to fashion something approaching an "objective" morality, as wouldn't be based around the capricious desires of beings that only speak through chosen "prophets."

So what if human morality is "subjective?" They're the result of evolution and social cohesion, primarily, which doesn't make them less applicable to human life, but more applicable than those based on the unintelligible motivations of a sky god, operating under the the simple moral rule of "whatever I say goes."

Hausam repeatedly stated that although he wouldn't act any differently in a godless universe, other people would. He doesn't have numbers to back this up of course, as atheists are the least well-represented in American prisons of any religious group, and the least religious nations in the world report the highest levels of overall happiness and stability (yes, there are many other factors playing in to those two statistics, but it does throw into question the idea that lacking belief in God = guiltless crime spree party).

God is objectively moral?
Hausam came out as a Calvinist during the debate, meaning he believes that every jot and tittle of our lives is specifically preordained by God, making EVERY HUMAN ACT EVER a moral act by his standards, as it was preordained by the perfect holder of "objective" morality. Torture? Moral. Rape? Moral. Murder? Moral. I doubt very much that Hausam truly believes those acts are okay, yet he's constructed a world in which there is no reconciliation -- save cognitive dissonance -- of these factors. If anything God does is moral, and god specifically preordains all human acts, then the 9/11 attacks, the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, and [insert horrific human act of choice here] are all moral acts.

Indeed, this is a much more troubling scenario than the one he proffered about we amoral atheists.

So how objective is God's morality? If we are talking about some inchoate, distant Deist god who is not concerned with human affairs one way or another, then fine: call it objective. But also call it meaningless. Of what use is "objective" morality if this being is not concerned with us and does not communicate with us?

If, instead, we're talking about the God of the Bible (and let's be clear: we are), then we most certainly are not talking about an objective being. God says so himself, in describing himself as variously jealous, loving, vengeful, pleased at the smell of burning animal flesh, and myriad other decidedly subjective dispositions towards humans and human acts.

Based on my own set of "subjective" morals, rape and genoocide (to pick two examples) are always wrong. The same can't be said for the God of the Bible. If whatever he says is moral is moral, then that means raping war orphans is not only sometimes morally acceptable, but morally obligatory. Same goes for murder, genocide, and on and on. These things aren't always okay. Just whenever God says they are. How is this objective? It sounds rather capricious, petty, and -- dare I say it? Yes, I dare -- immoral to me.

Furthermore, if we assume that Yahweh is an "objectively moral" being, then from whence comes this objectivity? This is a classic turtles all the way down problem: Who bestowed moral authority on God?

I wished there was a Q&A session afterward, as Austin Dacey only had a limited amount of time (and therefore, a limited scope) to respond to Hausam. I've touched little on Dacey's criticisms here, precisely because he answered them so persuasively that all I have left is the stuff Dacey was unable to address and I thought warranted more exploration.

If you read through all of that (and I don't blame you if you didn't), I'd be interested to your your thoughts in the comments below.


Jim Lippard said...

What, I wonder, is the empirical difference for Hausam between an atheistic universe and a theistic universe that makes a difference to human moral knowledge? He seems to assert, on the one hand, that (1) The existence of God is necessary for there to be objective morality. I.e., a metaphysical claim. But he also seems to be asserting, on the other hand, that (2) Belief in the existence of God is necessary for (at least some people) in order to be moral.

(1) gives us no help in determining what's right or wrong if God doesn't tell us--the divine hiddenness problem is a problem for this view. Whatever plausibility this view has comes from taking the view of moral law as requiring a lawgiver/enforcer--i.e., the divine command theory of morality--which suffers from the Euthyphro dilemma pointed out by Socrates in Plato's dialogue. That is, is what is right so because God commands it (the subjective whim of God) or does God command what he does because it is right (by some independent objective standard of morality which would still be present even if he didn't exist)? Only the former aids a case that God is necessary for objective morality, and there are lots of possible moral frameworks for the latter, all of which are as readily available to the atheist as to the theist.

(2) gives us no reason to believe that God exists; at best, it gives us a pragmatic reason to inculcate such a belief (like the "noble lies" that Plato speaks of in The Republic).

Hausam takes the first leg of the Euthyphro dilemma, and must defend a "God's subjectivism" form of morality by which God's commandments for genocide, killing of infants, taking slaves, and the subjection of women are all good and moral. Does anyone find *that* a persuasive case for objective morality?

Amandarrell said...

I had the same take on it as you did. Dacey raised a great question: If God didn't exist, would you love your children any less? Hausam's response that they'd have the same subjective value to him, but no objective value was rather nonsensical.

清楚 said...

Unable to give you a heart. so have a reply to push up your post. ........................................