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Sunday, October 23, 2011

Dawkins Doesn't Answer Question on Morality

In this video, an audience member asks Dawkins if atheists, who typically reject notions of absolute morality, are taking a leap of faith when they call something good or evil. Dawkins gives an answer and the crowd applauds. However, Dawkins's answer does not address the question at all. Not even a little.

The entire video can be summarized like this:

Audience Member: "Does an atheist's rejection of absolute morality prevent him from intelligibly making moral judgements?"
Dawkins: "I don't agree with religion's morality and would like a new, secular one."
Audience: *Applause*

I have to wonder what this says about the applauding audience. Are they really the product of an Age of Reason, listening intently to understand points and counter-points, thinking critically and assessing presented arguments? Are they really interested in truth and reason? Do they really care about the relationship between atheism and morality? Or are they just there to be fashionably atheist, mindlessly applauding an eloquently incoherent Dawkins?

I also wonder what this says about Dawkins. He is very intelligent, well educated and highly literate. I find it very difficult to believe that he did not understand the question. It is a fairly common issue in the philosophy of religion. He must have known that his answer was wildly irrelevant.

Even more disturbing is this: If he (rightly) thought he could get away with this, how must he view his audience? Does he see us as educated, rational, critical thinkers who would catch on if he dodged a question? Or does he know we're not even really listening? Does he think he can play us? Is he right?


vedrank said...

Actually he did answer the question at hand.
He thinks that secular morality, which he perceives as the morality of atheism, is superior to the theistic, absolute morality.

Cristofer Urlaub said...

Whether or not the "morality of atheism", whatever that might mean, is superior a theistic, absolute morality was not the audience member's question.

He answered in the sense that he responded to it with some words, but he did not answer in the sense of actually addressing the issue raised by the question.

vedrank said...

Watch the video again. In the first part prof. Dawkins addresses the issue of nonsensicality of theistic absolute morality, and then goes on about the superiority of secular morality, which "he would like".
Those "some words" are the answer to the issue, you just have to listen more carefully.
So in a nutshell the answer would be "No. If anything, rejecting religious absolute morality and embracing secular improves moral judgement".

Cristofer Urlaub said...

That may be the answer, but that's not the answer given by Dawkins. His answer is basically,

"Theistic morality doesn't seem very moral. I don't want an absolute morality. Most of our modern morals came about only recently by reason and discussion. There are some good bits to religion, but it is outweighed by the bad. We have grown out of the horrible bits because of secular philosophy and discussion." If you think he's saying something else, then your just twisting it to fit your understanding.

But that does not, in any way, answer the question, "Can one who rejects absolute morality intelligibly make moral judgments?"

The heart of the question is the nonsensicality of absolute moral relativism. The question is whether or not moral relativism makes sense.

Dawkins doesn't touch the question at all. He doesn't even explain why he doesn't want an absolute morality. He only says that some biblical and koranic precepts, which are held to be absolute, are horrible.

However, "stoning people for adultery" is not the definition of absolute morality. That has nothing to do with whether or not morality is objective and absolute. Absolute morality has nothing to do with religion at all. Even an atheist can have an absolute morality. An atheist can believe that rape is ALWAYS wrong. An atheist can believe that murder is ALWAYS wrong. I'd be willing to bet that even Dawkins views some morals as absolute. "Absolute morality" and "secular" are not opposites, either.

But I digress. In order to have answered the question, he would have had to explain how a person who believes that morality is relative can legitimately impose that morality on other people/things by making moral judgments. He doesn't even come close to that.

Even your suggested interpretation does not answer the question. If rejecting religious absolute morality and embracing the secular improves moral judgement, then how do we know that moral judgement has been "improved"? Is that fact based on some absolute moral standard, to which our secular morality more closely conforms than the religious? That sounds like absolute morality.

And how much of that secular morality is truly relative? As I said, even a secular morality can be absolute. So how does promoting secularism answer the question?

If you disagree, and you think that he did answer the question of how a person, holding to moral relativism, can legitimately pass moral judgement, then I invite you to write a more complete explanation, using nothing but Dawkins response.

vedrank said...

Well, since you wrote "Absolute morality has nothing to do with religion at all. Even an atheist can have an absolute morality" and you're right, according to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_absolutism), then the question alone is nonsensical.
Here's an excerpt of the question:
"(...)considering that atheism cannot possibly have any sense of absolute morality(...)"
How come atheism has no sense of absolute morality whatsoever?

Cristofer Urlaub said...

Now there's a real question and, to be honest, I'm not sure I have an answer. It's an ongoing debate. If you Google something like "atheism absolute morality," then you'll see hundreds of rants on the subject from both theistic and atheistic sources.

Nevertheless, it is a fairly common position for atheists to reject absolutism, because, among other reasons, it keeps them from having to explain what, exactly, they base their absolute morals on. I think the majority of atheists make the same error you made a moment ago. They somehow equate "absolute morality" with "religion" and blindly dismiss it, not knowing that absolutism and atheism are actually compatible.

Dawkins, for example, even says, "I don't want an absolute morality." So even though it is possible for him, as an atheist, to have an absolute morality, he simply chooses not to subscribe to such a system. He aparently subscribes to moral subjectivism, under which we cannot pass judgement on others, because we recognize that our morals are a matter of opinion.

Yet Dawkins passes moral judgement on things like the Old Testament God, etc. Can he pass judgement if there is no absolute right or wrong? Can the actions performed by God be evil if there is no such thing as evil? The question remains.

But I agree. The audience member's question is poorly worded and I do think he is mistaken. He, like Dawkins, aparently, confuses moral absolutism with moral objectivism.

However, whether or not the audience member formed a coherent question is not the point. The point is that Dawkins does not answer it.

How hard would it have been for Dawkins to simply say, "Atheism is actually compatible with moral absolutism, and therefore we can pass moral judgement. I believe that no one should ever do X, but I do not believe this because God said it. I believe this because society would fall apart if we all did X. However, atheism is not compatible with moral objectivism. That is, I do not believe that there is some entity, whether God or not, independant of us, which decides for us what is right or wrong."

But the audience member gets nothing like that. He gets only, "Here is yet another reason why I do not like religion and why secularism is better."

vedrank said...

True, true. Guess Dawkins tackled the issue from a different angle. Or misunderstood the question.

Anyway, was nice debating with you!
It's hard to find a good theistic website these days that tackles these issues. Keep up the good work :)

Cristofer Urlaub said...

Thank you very much! I hope you comment again in the future.

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