I’ve written before about National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins’s claim that “the Moral Law”—that is, the instinctive feelings of right and wrong we experience when, say, we see a drowning child or a cheater—are evidence for God. For, claims Collins, there’s no way to explain such instinctive feelings by evolution or other naturalistic processes. In this way Collins, an evangelical Christian, violates his own admonition to fellow believers to avoid god-of-the-gaps arguments.
The Argument for God from Morality is common, and, as I show in FvF, deeply flawed. Plato’s Euthyphro Argument kills dead any claim that morality derives from God. And even if it did, what do we do with the bullying, misogynistic, homophobic, rape-and-genocide-approving God of the Old Testament? Did He change his mind some time during the last 6000 years? In the end, we can see that religion can serve only as a sustainer or reinforcer of morality that comes from sources other than God. It can indeed serve this function for some people, but the observation that diverse religions promote drastically different (and often conflicting) moral codes puts paid to the notion that there is a universal religious morality.
My view is that morality is a combination of evolved feelings that were adaptive for our ancestors who lived in small social groups, overlain with a veneer of largely consequentialist morality that comes from our evolved reason. That is, we can figure out ways to behave that are good in our modern society, which explains why what is considered “moral” changes over time. (Religion can’t explain that without invoking secular reason.)
At any rate, a friend who will remain unnamed told me that I should pay attention to the website The Conversation, which, he said, published good and thoughtful stuff. Well, it might, but he then pointed me to an article called “Morality requires a god, whether you’re religious or not,” by Gerald K. Harrison. My friend, who’s an atheist, thought the article deserved a look, but it was so dreadful, so ridden with holes, that it’s put me off the whole website. What kind of intelligent website would publish an argument that I’ll present briefly below, and argument that would be graded “F” by a first-year philosophy student? Moreover, its author, Gerald K. Harrison, works at a secular university, Massey University in New Zealand, and if he teaches this stuff to his students I’d be appalled. It simply goes to show you that, contra Massimo Pigliucci, someone with real philosophy credentials (Harrison has a philosophy Ph.D. from Durham University) can be taken apart by a mere biologist, or by anyone who reads his website!
The argument proceeds via four assertions, each deeply flawed (the indented text is Harrison’s):
- Moral commands are commands.
Take moral commands. It is trivially true that a moral command is a command. A command is a command, right? It is also true that commands (real ones, rather than apparent or metaphorical ones) are always the commands of an agent, a mind with beliefs and desires. My chair cannot command me to sit in it. And commands cannot issue themselves. It follows that moral commands are the commands of an agent or agents.
They are not commands in the traditional sense, but feelings or opinions that guide your behavior. And, like the feelings of hunger or love, they need not be “issued by an agent”. They can be evolved feelings and emotions, and then who is the “agent”? Natural selection? Or, they can be arrived at by reason, and reason is the result of cogitation involving experience, genes, and the influence of others. The use of the word “agent” here is of course designed to make us think that there is a god behind it all. This is reinforced by his point #2.
2. Only agents can issue commands – so moral commands are the commands of an agent or agents.
Many philosophers maintain that moral commands are commands of reason. They are right, I think. But the point still stands. Reason’s commands are commands. Therefore, reason’s commands are the commands of an agent or agents.
This is verging on lunacy. We have feelings about all kinds of things, many instilled by natural selection. We feel love and kinship, for instance, and those aren’t different in substance (or origin, I think) from moral feelings. Is there an agent telling you to fall in love, or feel closer to your own children than to other peoples’? Is there an agent commanding you to solve a math problem using reason?
3. Moral commands have an external source – so moral commands are the commands of an external agent or agents.
We are agents. Could moral commands be our commands? That does not seem plausible. For one thing, it would mean we could make anything morally right just by commanding ourselves to do it. That doesn’t appear to work – and we can test that easily enough. Command yourself to do something that has hitherto seemed obviously wrong to you – physically assaulting someone, say – and see if it suddenly starts to seem morally right to assault someone now.
But of course if moral feelings come from evolution, reason, and what we’re taught by others, then they derive from either natural selection promoting specific feelings or are the byproducts of reason and emotions that derive from natural selection. In other words, they’re coded in our neurons, which are built by our genes and our environments. Just because you can’t make yourself feel differently about what’s “right” (and I’m not sure you can’t, given the way people resolve cognitive dissonance), doesn’t mean that there are one or two people out there making you feel the way you do. If moral feelings are internalized, then of course they’ll be hard to dispel. But you see where Harrison’s going here: the external agent will be God. Harrison has already decided what he wants to show before he starts his argument, and hasn’t considered alternatives. This is one way that his piece differs not only from secular philosophy, but from good philosophy.
4. All moral commands have a single source across all of us and all time.
Another basic truth about moral commands (and the commands of reason more generally) is that they have a single source across all of us. This can be demonstrated by the fact that “Tim is morally commanded to X” and “Tim is morally commanded not to X” are clearly contradictory statements. They cannot both be true.
Yet, there would be no necessary contradiction if moral commands could have different ultimate sources. And as those statements contradict each other whenever or wherever they are made, moral commands must have a single unifying source across all space and time.
Well, sadly, different people are “commanded” to do different things. In Saudi Arabia, people are “commanded” to kill apostates, gays, and infidels, and to stone adulterers. In the U.S., we are “commanded” (well, most of us) to leave such people alone, and to treat gays, women, and unbelievers as equals, or at least not kill them. That alone contradicts proposition #4, but maybe I am misunderstanding what Harrison is saying here. If there is a single unifying source of morality, that single source gives different people and different societies different commands, and moreover those commands also change over time (viz., compare the Old Testament versus now).
5. Ergo, God.
We are heavily influenced by moral commands and other commands of reason. Thus, this single agency is immensely influential. Moral commands are, then, the commands of a unique, external, eternal agent who has colossal influence over virtually all of us.
It is no abuse of the term to describe this agency as a kind of god. Thus, the commands of morality (and the commands of reason more generally) require a god because they are, and can only be, the commands of one.
If that’s not philosophical weaseling (really? “kind of god”?), I don’t know what is. Harrison hasn’t even proven a single agent issuing “commands,” much less that moral feelings even are “issued commands” or that there is one external source of those commands across all time. (What happened to “agent or agents”? Why couldn’t the “commands,” if they exist, be issued by a committee of gods.)
Harrison then asks, “but what if there are no gods”? Good question! His argument falls apart completely if there is no god, for then we simply wouldn’t have moral feelings and we’d all be killing and looting in the streets. Fortunately, Harrison has a kicker here:
6. Reason requires a god, too. (JAC’s words). Harrison says this:
Well, if that is the case [if there are no gods] all moral and rational appearances constitute illusions and all our moral beliefs are false. Happily, however, there seems no rational way to reach this conclusion. If the commands of reason really do require a god, then that god exists beyond reasonable doubt.
For any argument that sought to show that a god does not exist would have to appeal to some commands of reason, and thus would have to presuppose the existence of the very thing it is denying. The same applies to any argument that seeks to show that the commands of reason do not exist in reality. All such arguments undermine themselves.
Thus, if the commands of reason are – and can only be – the commands of a god, then that god exists indubitably.
There are of course ways to determine if beliefs have the intended consequences, and to do that rationally. If we are consequentialists, and see morality as producing certain results in society, well, those moral “commands” can be tested. And notice the segue he makes between “moral commands” and “commands of reason.” Those are not equivalent, nor has he shown them to be. He’s just slipped in another assumption here—that reason comes only from God. But of course reason can come from natural selection and experience as well, so there’s another alternative Harrison hasn’t considered.
I don’t want to go further; the argument above is a hash of false assumptions, seasoned with a failure to consider alternative explanations. The whole argument is simply confected a posteriori to arrive at Harrison’s preferred conclusions. Anybody with two neurons to rub together can give alternative explanations for moral sentiments that have a purely secular basis.
If this is the rigor of Harrison’s thinking, I feel sorry for his students at Massey.