The Myth of Morality
David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739)
One of the more irksome tendencies of Christians, and of theists broadly, is to pretend that atheists are a monolithic group whose views, in all meaningful ways, are uniform and identical; this thinking is, of course, mistaken, as a great deal of theistic thinking must be insofar as theists cling to an evidentially untenable belief in god and, thus, subscribe to a worldview whose centerpiece seems to be fictive. Atheism comes in many flavors and varieties, one of which is the deep humanism of Carl Sagan, who writes, “Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.” Such a point of view could scarcely be more different from that of the nihilist, as which I identify myself. More specifically, I am persuaded of the truth of both moral nihilism and existential nihilism, the former referring to the view that nothing is intrinsically moral or immoral and the latter referencing the belief that life (human and non-human alike) has no intrinsic meaning or value.
Insofar as human beings are moral creatures—by which I strictly mean creatures who are imbued with a moral sense and an inclination to make moral judgments—the point of view that nothing is intrinsically moral or immoral…righteous or wicked…virtuous or contemptible…tends not only to strike most people as counterintuitive but, indeed, to appall them. “Surely,” they will exclaim, “there must be something that you can describe as objectively, categorically immoral,” and then will proceed to list any number of perceived horrors: rape, butchery, torture, slavery, genocide, etc. Some who disagree will even imply that if my worldview does not permit a categorical condemnation of, say, the torture of children, then that is evidence that my worldview is wrong since, they say, no veracious worldview could entail so “odious” a consequence as moral nihilism. Such individuals, of course, have fallen into arguing from adverse consequences, a logical fallacy; the truth-value of some factual proposition [X] is not determined by the desirableness of any consequence [Y] resulting from factual proposition [X] being true.
So, one might ask, what is my worldview anyway? In accordance with what worldview have I been persuaded of the truth of both moral nihilism and existential nihilism, despite the perceived monstrousness of both? The principal viewpoint to which I subscribe is evidentialism, roughly stated this way: “The confidence with which one can believe any proposition that aspires to be a statement of truth is directly proportional to the amount, strength and conclusiveness of the evidence adduced to substantiate the proposition.” I am only an atheist because my view of moral and existential nihilism entails atheism, and I am only a moral and existential nihilist because my evidentialist First Principle makes it impossible—based on current evidence—to believe in intrinsic morality, meaning or value; as such, evidentialism as an axiomatic First Principle is primary, with all derived views (nihilism, atheism, etc.) subordinate thereto. If one wanted to try to convince me that the torture of children was categorically morally proscribed, one would have to adduce evidence to substantiate that proposition.
What tends to addle the thinking of generally rational people when it comes to morality is the ease with which they shift from factual observations about what is to value judgments about what ought. Let’s continue with the torture of children as our example, starting from a moral assertion (meant as a categorical statement of fact) made by a hypothetical interlocutor: “Torturing children is immoral.” As an evidentialist, I would begin by asking, “Why is it immoral?” I can imagine a number of possible “evidences” this individual might offer, but I think a perfectly plausible one to expect would be, “Because torturing children causes them excruciating pain and agony for no reason.” So, I would ask, “Why is it immoral to cause them excruciating pain and agony for no reason?” My hypothetical interlocutor, to this point, has failed to elucidate the connection between behavior [X] (torture of children) entailing consequence [Y] (pain and agony) and behavior [X] somehow being “immoral.”
This conversation could go on in perpetuity because at the heart of the claim that behavior [X] is immoral is a slide to a value judgment. The reason this individual claims torturing children is immoral is that he or she holds to the foundational moral belief (assumption, that is) that causing excruciating pain and agony for no reason is wrong (that one ought not to do it). In essence, that foundational moral assumption, to that individual’s mind, could be called a “moral fact,” seeming to need no further support or justification. But, inasmuch as I start from an evidentialist First Principle, and the claim that “causing excruciating pain and agony for no reason is wrong” seems quite definitely to be a proposition that aspires to be a statement of truth, my confidence in that proposition can only be directly proportional to the amount, strength and conclusiveness of the evidence adduced to substantiate it. If it’s simply taken for granted—that is, if it’s assumed with no evidence having been adduced—then my confidence in the proposition is zero.
Let me reiterate that I have no presuppositional allegiance to either the non-existence of moral facts or the valuelessness of human life. My sole presupposition is my evidentialist First Principle, from which my secondary and tertiary philosophical ideas flow and in accordance with which those subordinate ideas are subject to revision in light of new evidence of the requisite conclusiveness and strength. It is simply that, if one wants to convince me that moral facts exist—such as, for example, that it is immoral to hurt people for no reason—one must do the hard work of adducing evidence. The mere fact that humans, as noted, are imbued with a moral sense and a predisposition to make value judgments does not get the ball very far down the court, as it were, because the scientific community has done an estimable job explicating the Darwinian roots of Homo sapiens sapiens’ common moral fabric.
From a Darwinian point of view, living things are just machines the purpose of which is to aid in replicating the genes that built them; on Darwinian theory, as Richard Dawkins observes, our genes are actually a “duplicate me” program that happens to build humans (tigers, grizzlies, etc.) as a digression that, nevertheless, is an essential part of the “duplicate me” program’s efficient execution. Natural selection would select for a moral sense—and an adherence to particular moral rules—if doing so would increase reproductive fitness and lead to more copies of genes reaching successive generations. Why do humans generally view theft, mendacity and wanton selfishness as immoral? The answer, according to many in the scientific community, is because those behaviors tend to cause social groups to break down and, as a result, members of the community suffer diminished fitness (fewer copies of their genes reaching successive generations). Thus, Darwinian selective pressures would deem those fitness-inhibiting behaviors “immoral,” whereas Darwinian selective pressures would deem fitness-boosting behaviors “moral.” It has nothing to do with intrinsic moral facts…just what facilitates gene replication.
Setting aside crudely functional moral instincts that facilitate the Darwinian imperative to reproduce and have reproducing progeny, a world devoid of moral facts (as ours seems to be) necessarily renders all ostensibly factual moral statements not merely wrong but, in fact, absurd. Using Bertrand Russell’s example of the present king of France, the statement, “The present king of France is bald”—or the opposing statement, “The present king of France is not bald”—presupposes in its structure that there is a present king of France. Because there is not, both statements suffer from “presupposition failure” and, therefore, are more properly described as absurd than as false. To say, “It is immoral for Bob to enslave Deb because he feels like it” is neither a true statement nor a false one; it’s an absurd statement because it presupposes a moral fact (“It is immoral to enslave people because you feel like it”) that, based on current evidence, doesn’t exist.
Some people—including myself, on occasion—recognize the untenability of objective morality but yet, owing to our innate disposition as morality-minded beings, slip into moral language not as a means of making a statement that aspires to be a factual proposition but, rather, as a means of expressing personal approval or disapproval. By this, I mean that someone who says, “The Holocaust was immoral” might not intend to declare, “The genocidal butchery of millions of people is, factually speaking, immoral.” Instead, it might simply be a morality-minded creature’s way of saying, “I didn’t like the Holocaust and I disapprove of it.” Such a statement is categorically different from claiming that the Holocaust was factually immoral; a statement of dislike and disapproval merely describes one’s reaction to a particular behavior or incident, whereas a statement about the behavior or incident being moral or immoral aspires to describe the moral character of the behavior or incident. Evidentialism is perfectly consonant with expressions of like and dislike…approval and disapproval…because there is plentiful evidence that conscious creatures like us can like, dislike, approve of and disapprove of various things.
Perhaps our evolutionarily inculcated moral instincts are so strong that to recognize that the world seems devoid of moral facts—pending evidence of the requisite conclusiveness and strength to upend that conclusion—would strike us as too much to bear…as too horrid to abide. Although the conclusion might seem awful, we must be careful not to fall prey to wishful thinking and pretend as though we are justified in believing things for which little or no evidence has been adduced merely because believing those things would be “pleasant.”
For example, it’s perfectly agreeable to believe that humans have rights merely by virtue of our humanity, but, much as with the fictive moral facts that litter our consciousness, no compelling evidence has ever substantiated the existence of intrinsic, naturally existing rights. All claims of such rights betray a deep-seated anthropocentrism that assumes without evidence or argument that distinctly human traits (i.e., self-awareness, the capacity for abstract thought) confer greater intrinsic value than distinctly bovine (porcine, avian, etc.) traits confer. And, worse yet, no mechanism has been proposed whereby such hypothetical intrinsic value might be reliably demonstrated even to exist. Intrinsic value that has not been shown to exist can scarcely be a solid foundation for naturally existing “rights” that, themselves, seem to have been pulled from the ether and of whose existence we’ve found neither hide nor hair, evidentially speaking.
Finally, I turn to the question of livableness: That is, is the worldview I am espousing one within whose bounds one can actually live? If that question is posed as a test for a worldview’s veracity, let me admit my considerable skepticism. Suppose, for example, that a man were hopelessly, endlessly devoted to his sister such that, if his sister were to die, the man would immediately commit suicide. If that man’s sister were to die, I see two possible outcomes: either the man would recognize that his sister had died and, thus, commit suicide, or perhaps the man would create a delusional fantasy (à la Ed Gein) in which his sister was still living. In this invented scenario, the truth (the man’s sister is dead) would not be livable but a delusional fantasy (the man’s sister is still alive) would be quite livable and, in fact, would be the sole means of preventing the man’s self-annihilation. It might be the case that looking at the world head on, unblinking and unflinching, is more than one could handle and, therefore, one must submit (consciously or unconsciously) to some number of delusions to trudge on. The necessity of delusions, however, would do nothing to undermine what the facts actually are.
Christopher Hitchens, speaking of supernatural imaginings, writes, “It has taken us a long time to shrug off this heavy coat of ignorance and fear….” It will take us still longer to relinquish the meretricious myth of morality.