Does religion promote morality?

November 28, 2017 • 12:15 pm

Today’s New York Times op-ed features a piece with a provocative title (click on screenshot to read the article):

The author, Mustafa Akyol, is described as “a contributing opinion writer. . . the author of “The Islamic Jesus” and a visiting fellow at the Freedom Project at Wellesley College.” Unfortunately, while Akyol properly calls out Turkey’s new, Islamist rulers as immoral, he’s wishy-washy about the title question. In fact, it’s answered simply and wishy-washidly in the subtitle, and that is all ye need to know.

On Turkey:

This political revolution has had an inadvertent outcome. It has tested the ostensible virtues of these religious conservatives — and they have failed. They have failed this test so terribly that it raises the question of whether religiosity and morality really go hand in hand, as so many religious people like to claim.

The religious conservatives have morally failed because they ended up doing everything that they once condemned as unjust and cruel. For decades, they criticized the secular elite for nepotism and corruption, for weaponizing the judiciary and for using the news media to demonize and intimidate their opponents. Yet after their initial years in power, they began repeating all of the same behavior they used to condemn, often even more blatantly than their predecessors.

This is a familiar story: The religious conservatives have become corrupted by power. But power corrupts more easily when you have neither principles nor integrity.

Well, we all know that no religion, including Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, the like, is completely populated by moral believers. We also know that religion becomes dangerous when wedded with political power. But I suppose it’s useful for a Turk to point this out, though he’ll never be able to go back to Turkey after this.

But here’s what Akyol says about morality and religion in general:

On religion and morality:

Does religion really make people more moral human beings? Or does the gap between morality and the moralists — a gap evident in Turkey today and in many other societies around the world — reveal an ugly hypocrisy behind all religion?

My humble answer is: It depends. Religion can work in two fundamentally different ways: It can be a source of self-education, or it can be a source of self-glorification. Self-education can make people more moral, while self-glorification can make them considerably less moral.

Religion can be a source of self-education, because religious texts often have moral teachings with which people can question and instruct themselves. The Quran, just like the Bible, has such pearls of wisdom. It tells believers to “uphold justice” “even against yourselves or your parents and relatives.”

. . . But trying to nurture moral virtues is one thing; assuming that you are already moral and virtuous simply because you identify with a particular religion is another. The latter turns religion into a tool for self-glorification. A religion’s adherents assume themselves to be moral by default, and so they never bother to question themselves. At the same time, they look down on other people as misguided souls, if not wicked infidels.

For such people, religion works not as cure for the soul, but as drug for the ego. It makes them not humble, but arrogant.

But this is all bloody obvious—at least to us nonbelievers. What Akyol does here is conflate the source of morality with the promotion of morality. Certainly religion can promote morality, though it often doesn’t. But, as Plato pointed out nearly 2500 years ago, God cannot be a source of morality. That’s because most people don’t automatically take God’s dictums as being intrinsically moral just because they come from God, but because God is conceived of as good. That is, there’s some preexisting source of morality to which God conforms, and that’s why what He’s supposed to have said constitutes “morality”. My view is that the real source of human morals is a combination of evolved sentiments and the lesson’s we’ve learned to keep a thin veneer of civilization over the plywood of our ancestry.

There are a few exceptions, of course. One is the slick William Lane Craig, who believes in the “Divine command theory” holding that whatever God says is moral because it comes from God. But few people, on reflection, would agree with that. The realization that God is not the source of morality is, I think, one of the great contributions of philosophy to clarifying human thought.

Now saying this would have immensely improved Akyol’s piece, and believe me, it needs saying.  Yes, it’s meet and proper for him to point out the immoral self-aggrandizement and corruption of Turkey’s rulers. But does that need saying more urgently than that America’s Christian rulers aren’t exactly promoting a Jesus-like morality?  For that’s been said by the Left over and over again. (That’s the same Left that recoils from noting the perfidy of Islamism.)

Instead of saying the obvious, we, at least, can talk to people about where morality comes from, and point out the relentless logic of the Euthyphro argument. It’s worked for me with several Christians and ex-Christians.

50 thoughts on “Does religion promote morality?

  1. “…the real source of human morals is a combination of evolved sentiments and the lesson’s we’ve learned to keep a thin veneer of civilization over the plywood of our ancestry.”

    Yep. Pretty much.

    1. How about making your argument, or at least proving quotes from the article, then providing a link if people want more info.

      It’s rude and lazy to just expect us to go off and read a third person’s ideas.

      I expect that most people, like me, won’t bother, and your comment is wasted.

  2. I opined the following on another site in a discussion about this article, so I may as well copy it here.

    “Religion is an excellent way to instill behaviors in adherents that would otherwise be recognized as immoral while conditioning the adherents to believe that not only are those behaviors not immoral, but that they are especially moral.

    Religion isn’t the only category of ideology that does that but it is arguably the most effective and widespread.”

    Shorter, it’s a great way to other, or worse, outsiders while feeling righteous about it.

    1. Agreed. The problem with believing that how we should behave with a supernatural being in charge is the consequences. All those people who are not only convinced they have their god’s rules down pat, but that there will be divine retribution for not following them.

      “God wants me to kill all those people who don’t worship Him properly.” Or even just treat anyone who’s an “other,” however they choose to define it, like rubbish.

      1. I’ve been reading some interesting stuff (eg- Barry Schwartz’s Practical Wisdom) on how incentives or rewards can corrupt people away from intrinsic motives, virtues, character. See Enron or teacher’s gaming standardized testing.

        If people act to receive eternal reward in heaven, doing whatever their scripture says however horrid as a rule or in consequence for others in their vicinity, couldn’t religious promise of eternal reward be said to subvert or crowd out morality?

  3. Religion adopted some simple rules early on: killing is bad, stealing is generally not good, lying is frowned upon and those rules go a long way to helping organize and maintain order in a civilized society. Religious people will conclude from history that morality can come from religion.

    Religion, however, can justify hatred or termination of people because of their race, color of their skin, gender, or sexuality. Supporters of religion cannot ignore these facts. Reform helps, but the inevitable dispersion from liberal Protestantism to fundamental extremism appears to be a central part of religion that can’t be reasoned away.

    1. The problem is that too many religious people seem to think that religion didn’t adopt those rules about not stealing etc, they created them. Because their pastor/priest/imam/whatever has never pointed it out, they haven’t made the mental leap that stealing wasn’t okay BEFORE Moses came down off that mountain.

    2. Im not at all sure that religion says killing is bad; in fact they encourage killing of the non-religious/other religions.

  4. Agreed on the “relentless logic” of the Euthyphro argument. I’m employing it yet again in conversation on a Christian web site and, as usual, getting the same “answer” that the dilemma is a false one, solved by equating The Good with God’s Nature.

    This of course does nothing to solve the problem of arbitrariness (second horn of the dilemma that theists are trying to get off of).

    If “Good = whatever God Is or Does” then it tells you nothing about whether a God would or wouldn’t command rape or murder, making those “moral actions.”

    If you want to say a Good God “wouldn’t” command rape, then you’d have to have some criteria of “Good” in the first place, landing the theist back on the first horn.

    There are further theistic attempts to get out of arbitrariness by saying things like “God can not command anything that conflicts with God’s nature.”

    But that’s an empty tautology; nothing can act in contrast to it’s own nature – you, me, anything. That tells you nothing about God’s nature, and it may be God’s nature to be a sadist, to deceive, etc.

    There are attempts to avoid arbitrariness by appealing to arguments that conclude God is a Necessary Being, and hence God has a Necessary Nature that isn’t arbitrary.

    But that doesn’t work either. Once again, it tells you nothing about God’s nature. Ontological arguments for the necessity of God don’t start by telling you what “Good” is to begin with. If they did, then the theist would be starting with a criteria of “Good” by which a God, if He existed, must match. Landing them on the first horn. But since the arguments don’t give specifics on what “Good” is, you get at best the conclusion God exists necessarily. As to what God’s nature is, and therefore what The Good is, you would have to rely on revelation.

    But…knowledge via revelation is empirical and inductive. You have to infer God’s nature from experience with God. It only gives you probabilities: God has acted like X up until now, so He will probably act like X tomorrow.”

    Given any inference about God’s nature will be inductive, it can not give you a *necessary* conclusion, that God “can not” command rape to be Good. Like a black swan appearing tomorrow, you can’t say God couldn’t decide to command rape tomorrow.

    And even if the Theist was able to traverse all those challenges, they STILL face the arbitrariness problem via the is/ought question. WHY should we accept God’s nature as the standard of “Good?” How do you go from an IS statement, “God commands X”, to the OUGHT statement, “Therefore we ought to do X?”

    1. Most defenses of religion I have seen pretty much end up as “God works in mysterious ways, beyond human understanding – but fortunately, I know exactly what God wants us to do.”

  5. The piece is similar to distinctions made by other thinkers- Erich Fromm’s distinction between authoritarian vs. humanistic religion for example.

    In general, I tend to agree with this author, but what happens when the actual basic texts of a religion are contaminated by genuinely bad ideas??

    This leads into a further problem with Craig- how do we know that a particular dictate (especially one commanding genocide) is actually coming from God??

    On the Euthrypho dilemma, William James thinks God is a better motivation for morality than humanism, but this doesn’t altogether comport with his own (often insightful) negative critiques of the moral short-sightedness of many specific religions. (James is quite hard on the Puritans, for example.)

    A kind of half-baked resolution of Euthyphro is Thomas Aquinas’ idea that some moral truths are discernible to everybody, but it takes Christianity to discern certain special moral truths.
    This does not wash, since Aquinas holds you must be following the latter to get to heaven.

    If you hold to a notion of God as a “Ground of Being” you can kinda sorta IMO resolve the Euthrypho dilemma, but you still are faced with resolving the problem of why is there evil? (Theodicy)

    1. Another problem with Aquinas’ arguments is that Aquinas proposes that the “end” or “Final Cause” of the human intellect, of our ability to reason, is to know truth, and God being truth, our intellect is aimed at knowing God.

      But then Aquinas admits there are things we can not know about God via intellectual inference – and God would have to supply those specific propositions via Revelation. And Aquinas admits that belief in Revelation, in this case belief that The Bible is God’s revelation, requires a leap of faith!

      Which makes nonsense of the idea he started out with. Why would God give us an intellect that uses rationality and reason as the method of arriving at truth, especially if it is supposed to ultimately lead to knowledge of God, and then at the last minute require we abandon this method when it comes to knowing God via revelation???

      1. I suppose if the revelation is considered a supplement rather than an abandonment of reason by simply providing extra information, then this sort of works.
        However, Aquinas does not provide the best reasons for why this revelation should be regarded as reliable. Maybe reasons that made sense in the 13th century, but ones that don’t make sense today.

  6. We should drop the concept of morality all together or at least be skeptical of it. Especially if we are ourselves free will skeptics.

    Morality for FW skeptics is a kind of compatibilism.

    1. All attempts to objectify morality have failed, cf. Is-ought problem (*).

      Morality, as it is generally tied to ontological (God-like) claims, is and should be abandoned. Maybe something like ‘minimizing suffering’. Of course, we still have the problem of who suffers, what constitutes suffering and even more complicated, how to redistribute suffering so that the most people have the least amount of suffering.


      1. Here is Jerry on moral responsibility:

        What is seriously affected is our idea of moral responsibility, which should be discarded along with the idea of free will. If whether we act well or badly is predetermined rather than a real choice, then there is no moral responsibility

        and for the fill context:

        Again why have morality? A code, OK, fair enough? Morality for a free will skeptic is a form of compatibilism … at least for me.

        1. I can’t go the full distance with Dennett, but there is much to be said for deliberative self control and forward fed training during the course of childhood through adolescence for making the O between S and R exhibit a complex tuned network that has some elbow room or degrees of freedom. A bivalve is more restricted than a human forelimb with all its joints. The forebrain of a human has more degrees of freedom than the neural whatevers of an earthworm.

          I don’t agree with Harris’s philosophic move of tumors all the way down. I think Dennett called him on that typical neuropsychological move where all is defined in terms of dysfunction or reduction to what goes wrong, tumors compelling murders. There are things that most often go right and at some point people are expected to have the efficacy or competence to function in society and abide by the rules. If one breaks such rules that the average citizen can be expected to comprehend they are held responsible. How else can we expect people to abide to terms of contracts they sign as “free act and deed” or not perjure themselves under oath?

      2. All attempts to objectify morality have failed, cf. Is-ought problem

        I disagree.

        Once you start with a value, you can derive an “ought” in terms of what actions will or will not, in fact, fulfill that value.

        The immediate objection will be that the selected value may be arbitrary, and hence why “ought” we select that value. But that’s a different argument than the one that says the is/ought issue can’t be bridged.

        Then we’d move on to what value we could most sensibly agree on as a starting point. Sam Harris makes a pretty good case for “conscious well being” as a fundamental value. Though I don’t think it’s complete and specific enough to get the whole job done.

        I think some promising theories for objective morality appeal to where we get our reasons for actions (e.g. preferences, desires) as well as those which appeal to the nature of reason itself. In essence: reason by nature is about coherency. So we would look at the spectrum of our desires/goals (from which our reasons to act arise), and find that there will be more and better reasons for certain actions over others. And if someone disagreed but couldn’t offer just as coherent reasons for alternatives, they would be “objectively wrong.” Just as we decide anyone is “wrong” about anything else in reality (e.g. there are more and better reasons, leading to greater coherency with everything else we accept, to believe the earth is over 4 billion years old, vs only 6,000 years old).

        1. Facts and values are distinct thingies. Facts can inform moral choice but not always in a direct manner. In other words, facts may be necessary but insufficient for making value judgements or moral choices. In Moral Landscape Sam Harris uses the firewall metaphor for the is-ought distinction, but goes nowhere with it. A firewall may stand between a computer and the outside network. It is bridgeable but with rules. I think Humean purists make too much hay out of what is merely a regulatory barrier. And Harris totally takes a crap on the concept in Moral Landscape going to the other extreme.

          I think Hume was saying it is naughty to deduce ought from is. Moore said that the idea of Good is not analyzable or simply definable. Sometimes the latter notion is equated with appeals to nature. Regardless of what the dead old dudes said, facts and values should be held distinct.

          1. My original reply was to Kevin’s assertion that all attempts at objective morality fail.
            This is not the case even if there is a distinction between facts and values. So long as one starts with a certain agreed upon value, facts can follow, and hence “ought” statements can have objective truth values.

            “Facts and values are distinct thingies.”

            The is/ought dilemma seems to imply that, but I’m partial to some theories that deny that facts and values are distinct in kind. They can instead be seen as distinct in category.

            I’ve defended this idea at length here before so I’m not inclined to go a lot further than I write here in this post. But if you’d like to know what I’m getting at:

            I am persuaded by theories that argue the existence of “value” is explained via the existence of “desires.” It doesn’t seem to make sense that something that fulfills no desire whatsoever would be “valuable.”

            Morality concerns reasons for actions, and the only place reasons for actions can come from is from desires. I can tell you how to get from A to B on the transit system, but this set of fact statements would give you no reason to go from A to B. That information is of value to you if you have the desire to go from A to B. Your reason to act, to go from A to B comes from your desire.

            So “value” can be understood as arising from desire in the following manner: “Something is Good, of value, if it is such as to fulfill the desire(s) in question.”

            That means value statements are actually a form of “Is” statement. To say X is “good” is to say “X IS such as to fulfill the desire in question.” Hence a fact statement.

            So “ought” statements that arise from the connection between desires and states of affairs/actions that would fulfill those desires, are must another form of “is/fact” statement – the ones that arise from our desires.

            This isn’t all that controversial; it’s pretty similar at this point to Kant’s hypothetical imperatives “IF I want X then I OUGHT to do Y.” Where it gets tricky is where it got tricky for Kant. Kant made the move to “categorical imperatives” in trying to move beyond the purely personal and subjective reasons for actions, to universalizing certain rules.

            Similarly, the form of utilitarianism I’m speaking about, also makes the move to universalizing certain “ought” statements.
            It generally takes several converging forms of analysis: Since “desire fulfillment” = Good, we can turn the question on desires themselves and see which desires tend to fulfill more desires (Good), and which desires tend to thwart more desires (Bad).
            So this creates not a new “kind” but a new “category” – Morality – morality concerns those desires which we have reasons to promote and those desires which we have reasons to condemn. (And we would be talking of course about only those desires which are possible to change in people).
            Reason, being a system of universalizing depending on consistency, can lead to those desires which we have the most and strongest reasons to promote among one another.

            This maintains the unity and objectivity of morality. The unity insofar as moral “ought” statements are, like practical everyday ought statements, still “is/fact” statements. A “Good/Moral” desire means “X desire IS such a to fulfill other desires (or has the tendency to fulfill other desires).”

            It’s objective because they are fact statements that are true or false, and about which someone can have a wrong opinion. It is either true or not that a desire such as “desiring the well-being of others” has the tendency of fulfilling other desires, vs thwarting other desires. And it’s true or not that we have consistent reasons for favoring such a desire over, say, the desire to harm others.

            That’s hopefully all I’ll say on that 🙂

            But it’s just to say that I don’t think the idea that facts and values are different in kind, as if they are different entities inhabiting different universes, should be bought into too quickly. In principle at least, I think some theories like the above suggest otherwise.

        2. I’d go further and say that the fact/value distinction is utter nonsense. Values are either ultimately facts about the world or under the purview of facts. Anything else makes a hash brown of the subject.

          Hume was right in diagnosing the problem: that too many religious tracts jump from such premises as “God exists” to non-sequiturs of the “Therefore we ought…” variety. Unfortunately, his prescription was just as much a problem as the disease.

          Now, he could have pointed out the need for revealing the hidden premisses that are supposed to complete the argument. Regardess of if those premisses are themselves true or false, at least they should constitute a valid chain of reasoning before we ask whether they’re true. Or else he could have concluded that any ought untethered to the real world is basically non-existent (hence nihilism).

          INSTEAD, he created a nonsense distinction that tries to have the best of both worlds (amenable to reason and yet not a subject of fact). Presumably, that made sense during a time when mind-body dualism was common belief, but it’s nonsense today. It would be like making a fact-digestion distinction: sure, the process of logical deduction and the process of digesting food are not the same thing, but no sane thinker would deny that the process of digesting food is under the purview of facts.

          Making value judgements is fundamentally no different, except that because it’s a psychological process rather than a physiological one, and since humanity has too much biased stake in glorifying or mysticizing morality and in the nature of the mind, we tolerate there the sort of nonsense that would be laughed out of any other field of study.

          That’s why I consider ethics a sub-branch of science, specifically of mind sciences.

          1. I see more a useful intersection of facts and values than the hardcore Humean purist and hazard Hume was himself no Humean purist. Facts can inform but not determine morality. Sorry Sam. Values set guidelines for science. No more Milgram or Zimbardo extremes. Animals too shouldn’t be wasted in frivolous and tortuous ventures into navel gazing. Harris’s firewall has pores but still has two opposing faces or surfaces. His takes on eudaimonics are interesting and provocative, but he got bogged down with way too much grandstanding polemic. When it comes to eudaimonics or virtue ethics Owen Flanagan and Alasdair MacIntyre are much less offputting.

            1. However impure you make your fact/value distinction, at the end of the day it’s still a distinction. You can’t say “facts and values overlap here BUT NOT HERE” because the problem still exists in the bit you label “here”. And values set guidelines for scientific practice among human beings. It does not set guidelines for actual facts. The whole point of objective study is that one’s opinions or attitudes have no bearing on what’s actually true or false. Indeed, in an age when even an objective study of mind sciences exists, the old objective-subjective distinction is tricky to maintain at best. We don’t need a special category for minds; we just need to acknowledge that when studying, say, perception or art, there’s a physical phenomenon behind people’s eyes we need to study too, not just the thing being perceived.

          2. “I’d go further and say that the fact/value distinction is utter nonsense.”

            I mostly agree with the rest of what you wrote, but not with the way you started out.

            I think Hume did us an enormous favor, giving us one of the most powerful tools for uncovering the weakness in many moral arguments.

            As I think you acknowledge, Hume simply said that someone who leaps from is to ought owes an explanation for how they got there.
            That’s so important.

            BUT, Hume also said he couldn’t himself be sure there was any such bridge to be made – though he proposed the necessity of sentiments/desires, which was on the right track.

            I don’t think we can blame Hume for his is/ought distinction becoming something like a “law” – that came from people after Hume, I believe.

      3. I think something along the lines of Ross’s prima facie sduties apt:

        “Ross gives a list of seven prima facie duties, which he does not claim is all-inclusive: fidelity; reparation; gratitude; non-maleficence; justice; beneficence; and self-improvement.”

        Universal human rights, though useful fiction, are important too.

        There may not be an objective morality, but compelling cases of intersubjective agreement versus everything is permitted moral nihilism.

        Hume’s is-ought distinction need not preclude making facts useful for moral value judgements. If you value the moral stance of conservation, science is gonna be important to you. Is informs your ought. The problem lies in scientism. Harris crossed that line in Moral Landscape. Sciences and moral philosophy are not the same.

        1. The trouble with taking that sophisticated-sounding stance is the same as the trouble with taking a dualistic stance of consciousness: far from clarifying anything, it essentially glosses over the problem at hand, most obviously by attributing values to an unreachable “subjectivity” and then saying “the buck stops here”. And “intersubjective agreement” is either an oxymoron or a veiled way of saying “objective”.

          Denying values any anchor in real-world facts lands it on its own version of the Euthyphro Dilemma: either values are arbitrary nothings, in which case you hit a contradiction the moment you meet your first psychopath (who, remember, values harming people), or there are reasons for one set of values over another, in which case you’re smuggling moral objectivism via the back door.

          Therefore, if you’re not an objectivist, the only sensible position is nihilism.

          1. Diversity is valued in two senses of the word: biodiversity and human diversity. Ought we value diversity in these senses? I prefer a society that minimizes extinction events and that gives people a fair shake regardless of ethnic background. I can think of no sciency initial buttress for such valuation. Doing a Pinker and pointing to long term societal shifts ala Singer’s circle doesn’t make such valuations morally correct, just more common in the population. We could say diversity of plant life ensures better chance of finding life enhancing pharma. Yet life enhancement breaks down to anthropocentric values. We could say diversity in the workforce yields a better range of viewpoints enhancing success. Success is a value term.

            We could set measures to give us an idea if we are meeting standards for protecting both senses of the diversities valued (if you happen to share those values). Those measures could be intersubjectively agreed. Facts about the degree of diversity achieved in both senses would be important and themselves sciency but distinct from diversity as value itself.

            Conservatives would be less likely to share such value systems for species and workplace diversity and poo the notions from the getgo.

            Wildlife conservation (as subset of biodiversity valuation) might run into factual hurdles or brick walls. How far can such a value based ethic be pursued? Are Florida panthers salvageable? Ought implies can as set by the possibility space. And conservation could butt heads with animal rights. Two *value* systems. Do we subsidize feral hog hunting to minimize their impact on ecosystems? Do we treat hogs as destructive menaces that threaten our cherished diversity that happen to taste good or as sentient almost self-aware beings that have rights? A value laden dilemma.

            You could make the seemingly profound move that it is a fact people value diversity or come up with a way to see that reflected or indicated in an fMRI brain porn image. That still doesn’t collapse the distinction or allow you to conflate facts and values.

            1. And now you’re stuck. You’ve got two value systems competing with each other. Which is correct? Which is incorrect? Having disavowed any connection to objective facts, you can’t answer the question. Ergo, you have a contradiction that cannot be resolved by your own system. Ergo, it’s arbitrary and meaningless. Ergo, nihilism.

              The best you can do is point to the preferences of people (you value diversity, conservatives don’t, etc.), and therein you reveal the mysticism hidden beneath the subjectivist account. As soon as you try persuading anyone of one value system over the other, you’re going to have to appeal to actual reasons, otherwise it’s just a mechanical exercise in re-engineering brains.

              Whereas if you go about it objectively or scientifically, first thing’s first you’re looking for real-world facts regarding the phenomenon of interest. Yes, you call this “anthropocentric” – but that’s a bit like calling biology “biocentric”. That’s what it’s about; or as Harris puts it, it’s about the well-being of conscious creatures. If those creatures did not exist, ethics would make as much sense as biology would in a universe with no life in it.

              Next, you’d need real-world phenomena as the subjects of study. An obvious one is sentient experience – of, say, pain, pleasure, various emotions, and the like – and some way of measuring and comparing these things. Granted, not easy, especially when we know so little about human minds, but human minds are made of physical matter. Everything between our heads is, at least theoretically, quantifiable, so it’s a matter of narrowing it down.

              The alternative you’re touting – whatever your initial intentions – basically amounts to calling it “subjective” and treat it as mystically as pixie dust. Yes, I admit ethics is a science way, way in its infancy, but that’s a significant improvement over a stillborn concept like subjectivism, which can’t even resolve the problem of conflicting or arbitrary value systems – because it explicitly disavows any means of comparison, and flat-out can’t settle its own internal contradictions.

              1. How does Science resolve the feral hog dilemma? Well being of many versus rights of the few? Does well being warrant locking some sad case child in broomcloset as in Ursula LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” for societal betterment? That may seem a facetious question but reveals potential conflict in eudaimonic versus rights based value systems. We prefer the well being of ecosystems. So extirpate the hogs regardless of mirror test. Or should we sacrifice the discomfort of a lone sea turtle to help protect the species? Where does concept of well being or rights emanate from if not a smuggled value?

                And your either-or objectivist vs nihilist dichotomy lacks nuance for the grays of reality. Intersubjectivity is not nihilism nor solipsism, but the best we got.

            2. A science of ethics would resolve it in the same way it would resolve any kind of comparison: with accurate measurement. In fact, what else are you doing in a moral dilemma if not trying to rank one outcome over another? Flipping a coin?

              And if you’re squeamish about a moral choice that ensures somebody loses out on the deal, as if that somehow was a point against moral objectivism, then I’m obliged to point out that you still need some way to measure one outcome over another, and nothing about a moral objectivism rules out the possibility that you’re left picking the least-worst option. The very fact that we can measure one outcome as worse than another should be a hint. And if that’s how reality is, then so be it. The key question is whether that really is how it is, and not e.g. a mistake or error.

              Concerning the smuggled values accusation: smuggled from where? The whole point of an objective ethics is that there’s a real-world phenomenon to be measured. An obvious example would be the experience of pain and pleasure. Unlike most examples of “good” and “bad”, you can’t argue them out of existence. They present themselves as real phenomena all the time. Heck, in theory a moral objectivism could be pluralistic, including not just pain and pleasure, but life and death too. The point is not just that these things exist, but that they have an apparent, sentiently relevant positive or negative nature. You only have to compare eating a favourite food versus sticking your hand in a fire. That at least is a grounded starting point.

              Lastly, “lacks nuance” is not a genuine criticism. Subjectivism ultimately is incoherent, in a way which nihilism and objectivism aren’t, most obviously because it falls for its own version of the Euthyphro Dilemma (either its values are arbitrary or appeal to objective facts). It is not the best we got, but the exact opposite.

        2. Hemidactylus: “The problem lies in scientism. Harris crossed that line in Moral Landscape. Sciences and moral philosophy are not the same.”

          I don’t agree.

          Harris is explicit in admitting his value theory gets off the ground on assuming a value first – one he argues for of course. But it’s a value-first theory just like typical moral philosophies. Science only comes in, as you say, in providing us facts to guide us toward fulfilling that value (e.g. facts about what is likely to lead to conscious well being, or thwart conscious well being).

    2. Let’s start with the idea that murdering people is wrong. I’m sure that’ll go down well.

      Since free will is incoherent, it cannot possibly inform morality at all. That says nothing about morality itself unless you ASSUME you need free will for it, which hasn’t been demonstrated.

      1. Was it a tumor or did someone with a reasonably healthy brain either act from impulse to murder a rival or better yet spend months planning it out…every precise detail? The premeditated murderer is more responsible in the eyes of society than the tumor victim or impulsive one. A cultivated regime of self control could override impulse. Reading Covey’s 7 Habits on win-win and abundance versus zero sum could flip the mindset of potential murderer and cause them to seek to find points of agreement with their rival using active listening techniques. Not quite the free will we seek but just added nuance that complexifies the brain granting more wiggle room in various life circumstances. Dennett’s degrees of freedom and deliberative self control? I am reminded of a podcast where Pat Churchland adds delayed gratification to the mix, but such restraint could convert the impulsive murderer into the premeditated murderer. Do people who forgo marshmallows as children tend toward 1st degree murder with malice a forethought?

        1. If you’re trying to establish the cause of the murder, then I’m afraid invoking “responsibility” is meaningless. We’ve already got some information regarding the causes of a particular murder from, say, testimony and forensics, or more broadly from statistics of the genral population compared with, say, the subpopulation of criminals.

          That can be used to tailor a prescription to prevent or at least reduce the impact of future crimes. Which is really the whole point of doing this, even if you somehow want to argue that deterrence is a viable strategy here.

          THAT I don’t have a problem with, though when it comes to psychological or social factors, the causes would necessarily be very complex and hard to tease out. After all, just because we’ve ruled out a tumour doesn’t give us carte blanche to use blanket pronouncements. Is it a virus? Bacterium? Fungus? Protein abnormality? Even psychosomatic?

          No, it’s the bit about labelling it free will and responsibility I object to. That answers nothing. It’s empty. It’s just a reiteration of our expectation that most people normally don’t murder, not a genuine explanation for why it apparently failed in this one case. You might as well invoke God to explain it, for all the explanatory light you’ve shed on the issue.

          Obviously, SOMETHING caused or failed to prevent the murder, so the job is to find out what those causal factors are. People who don’t commit murder and people who do are not clones with the same free will mechanism, whatever that would even look like (a random number generator?). But exactly the same could be said about non-tumour diseases, and no one sane calls them “responsible” or “free”, just because a tumour wasn’t involved. It’s cause and effect, scientifically amenable and non-mystical.

          1. Echoing Pinker I would hold that explanation is not exculpation or exhoneration. Excepting extenuating circumstances of brain tumors or being held coercively at gunpoint, people should be considered competent and coherent enough to conduct themselves accordingly.

            And in case you missed the subtlety I am not invoking free will to underpin responsibility. I am also not throwing out the baby with bathwater of Dennett’s stance.

            1. “Culpation” is only useful in a strictly causal sense, as in “John did the deed, not Mary”. Since I’m arguing that any other sense – namely, of the “he therefore deserves to be punished” sense – is problematic at best, I’m not sure why you felt the need to echo Pinker here. Explaining a disease does not “exculpate” it, either.

              As for the “exempting coercion” stance, therein lies the problem. There IS a distinction here, but it’s the distinction between causal factors and what that means for the incidence of such crimes. That’s again no different from identifying different causes of a disease: for instance, diseases spread by sexual contact require a different response to diseases spready by airborne pathogens.

              More specifically, you’re upholding an expectation of competent and coherent conduct, but what is an investigation going to look for if not evidence of the opposite? The very fact that murder is rare and non-standard in the population means beholding a murderer to a normal standard is an after-the-fact waste of time. You might as well tell a rare cancer that it’s unlikely to happen.

              This is not to say there’s nothing to gain by identifying causes. Maybe the culprit had a jealous fit, a stressful day, an abusive childhood, drugs in his system, a particularly aggressive personality profile, or any other statistically or causally probable circumstance (I’m assuming he wasn’t framed or otherwise innocent). It is likely to be a combination of causes rather than one major one, given how complex humans are, but it’s guaranteed at least one thing is going to distinguish the murderer from the “normal” population.

              Absolutely, let’s find those causes. Let’s make it harder for the crime to arise in the first place. But this is a readily defensible position, whereas invoking free will and responsibility aren’t.

  7. If anything, religion poisons morality by hijacking its meaning. (I blogged on this recently.) Morality *should* be a code for living in which (1) each tenet has a reasonable explanation and (2) the entire code has goal of human survival/happiness.

    In religious morality, more often than not, the reason for each tenet is “God said so”. Some of the stranger rules (wearing hats at certain times, or at different times if you’re a different gender, for example) might have originally had some practical use but those are lost to time. A reasonable moral code would drop any rule for which the reason no longer exists.

  8. “Certainly religion can promote morality, though it often doesn’t.”

    Nowhere is this more blatantly revealed than in the sorry spectacle of Roy Moore, who not only denies culpability, but in the face of these accusations, this child molester takes to his podium/pulpit to preach his crusade to bring people back to the bible — the Law of God, the source of Morality with a captial “M”. However, I suppose that, vis-a-vis his own behavior, he might have a case that his lusts aren’t immoral, since, as some of his defenders point out, the bible condones such practices; and there’s nothing in the Ten Commandments, which he’s so enamored of, that proscribes such behavior. I do wish that he’d have to go around with a chain around his neck that was attached to the monumental monstrosity of the Decalogue that he tried to install in the rotunda of the Alabama judicial building, and drag that sucka everywhere he goes. I wouldn’t even mind if it were on a dolly.

  9. There was a time when Christians could put together a weak argument for religion supporting morality, but with evangelical Christians overwhelming support for Trump and now Roy Moore, even the suggestion that religion promotes morality can be dismissed out of hand. If anything the default position should now be that religion is inherently immoral and let those who wish try to argue against it

    1. I know of a fundamentalist Christian who claims helping the poor materially is not as important as saving their souls. Thus, he sees quality health care as unimportant compared to getting them baptized. I questioned this as being immoral, but he insists souls come before bodies.

  10. Religion doesn’t promote morality, it encourages its followers to view whatever they believe as moral and to feel intense self-satisfacton about adhering to it. As a bonus, such moralities can be easily adjusted to say whatever the current leader thinks they should say.

  11. Following Jerry’s invocation of Euthrypro dillemma we act morally when we aspire to to do something because it is the right thing to do, not because we are commanded to do so. Obedience to edict gives us the Milgram results or slaughtering the outgroups as God commands.

    People have prosocial tendencies as studies on social version of prisoners’ dillemma, dictator, and ultimatum show (see Stout’s “Killing conscience: the unintended behavioral consequences of “pay for performance”. The Journal of Corporation Law 39.3 (Spring 2014): p 525-?) We aren’t always egoistically inclined. Only sociopaths completely eschew what could be called a conscience.

    Barry Schwartz has two bugbears, rules and incentives ( see his book Practical Wisdom or this TED Talk; ). Now if we apply the problems of rules and incentives to religion, we get the problems where our natural moral tendencies can get really mucked up. The Torah as a contract is overspecified. Too many rulz. If you gotta die for picking up sticks on the sabbath there is a problem. The incentives suck too. Don’t do anything that results in death by stoning. The contract got renegotatied with the New Covenant. One should live by the Golden Rule. The incentives got ramped up to eternal life versus hellfire.

    Couple the rules in the Torah with the transcendental incentive structure of the Christian scriptures and where is the room for someone living the Good Life and choosing to do the right thing just because it is right and not specified in the Torah or rewarded by Eternal Life in heaven?

  12. The fundamental urges for committing to a life considerate of others has been corrupted and distorted by religion.
    Imposing a god will on a population is more to do with control not morality, a multi headed monster that wants to feed itself with riches and souls.
    And i’d add a confused shamble of dictums as in who and which one has the moral high ground?
    Religion and religionist have failed to control their own excesses proving morality is not their exclusive domain.
    Why? because they are only human, a bipedal hairless ape, and like morality, we are a work in progress.
    No one is in control, moral behaviours extend beyond humans and i think we need to work out what it is we want or perhaps nature broadly construed, will tell us what we can have. Taking in how we are now, that doesn’t sound very pleasant.

  13. The trick here is that ethics is effectively being granted to religion’s purview. This is effectively like asking “Does religion reveal the nature of the universe?”, except it would then be obvious that A) we’re actually talking about cosmology, which is its own secular subject, and B) religious answers are no better than Joe Public’s random guesses.

    It’s exactly the same when it comes to ethics. Whether or not one thinks it’s a much-neglected branch of science, it’s certainly a secularly rational subject in its own right. The whole point of Akyol’s article is – intentionally or not – to obscure this by assuming from the get-go that religion has any notable expertise on the subject. Again, imagine how obvious the assumption woul be if it were “Does religion teach people about the universe?” The only difference is that our science concerning the universe is so advanced that the answer must be an unqualified NO.

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