Dawkins’ Non-apology is an Apologetic for Atheism
August 27, 2014 § 8 Comments
Last week, atheist Richard Dawkins tweeted to a follower who had pondered the moral dilemma of being pregnant with a child diagnosed with Down Syndrome. She called it a “real ethical dilemma.” It wasn’t so much of a dilemma for Richard Dawkins, who responded: “Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.” This of course ignited a firestorm of debate for and against his sentiments. Mostly against.
Knowing full well the reality that much meaning can get lost in the limitations of a 140 character Tweet, Dawkins wrote what he calls an “apology” on his web site the next day. Although the post was more of a clarification of his Tweet than a rescinding of it. He says that if he were allowed more than 140 characters, his reply would be this:
“Obviously the choice would be yours. For what it’s worth, my own choice would be to abort the Down fetus and, assuming you want a baby at all, try again. Given a free choice of having an early abortion or deliberately bringing a Down child into the world, I think the moral and sensible choice would be to abort. And, indeed, that is what the great majority of women, in America and especially in Europe, actually do. I personally would go further and say that, if your morality is based, as mine is, on a desire to increase the sum of happiness and reduce suffering, the decision to deliberately give birth to a Down baby, when you have the choice to abort it early in the pregnancy, might actually be immoral from the point of view of the child’s own welfare. I agree that that personal opinion is contentious and needs to be argued further, possibly to be withdrawn. In any case, you would probably be condemning yourself as a mother (or yourselves as a couple) to a lifetime of caring for an adult with the needs of a child. Your child would probably have a short life expectancy but, if she did outlive you, you would have the worry of who would care for her after you are gone. No wonder most people choose abortion when offered the choice. Having said that, the choice would be entirely yours and I would never dream of trying to impose my views on you or anyone else.”
What he clarifies in his post is that he really meant what most people thought he said in the tweet. He exhibits really no fundamental change of heart.
The “apology” portion is on par with what many celebrities and political figures offer as an apology. His words: “Those who thought I was bossily telling a woman what to do rather than let her choose. Of course this was absolutely not my intention and I apologise if brevity made it look that way.” And then, “I regret using abbreviated phraseology which caused so much upset.”
Maybe a little Apology 101 is in order. A true apology expresses something like, “What I did was wrong”, or, “I regret what I said and I intend to change my direction.” What produced the greatest offense is what he said—that unborn children with Downs Syndrome are probably not worth saving—not necessarily how he said it. Dawkins’ apology centers on how he said it. It was more akin to “I’m sorry if you were upset or misunderstood.” An apology is one time where the offender should seek the spotlight, owning up to what he has said or done; the focus is on his actions and his appeal for forgiveness or an offer of restitution. Dawkins may regret the fact that controversy erupted, or feel sorry that others were incapable of seeing it his way.
The remaining two-thirds of his “apology” post was directed to “the haters” who were upset with him. Then he concludes: “what I was saying simply follows logically from the ordinary pro-choice stance that most us, I presume, espouse. My phraseology may have been tactlessly vulnerable to misunderstanding, but I can’t help feeling that at least half the problem lies in a wanton eagerness to misunderstand.”
Far from an apology, his post is closer to an apologetic for the utilitarian brand of Atheism revealed in his pro-choice logic. Dawkins says, “My true intention was, as stated at length above, simply to say what I personally would do, based upon my own assessment of the pragmatics of the case, and my own moral philosophy which in turn is based on a desire to increase happiness and reduce suffering.”
Without God, the highest achievement can only be one’s own temporal happiness. Without God, personhood is endowed on a sliding scale according to a child’s growth toward (or an aging person’s growth away from) usefulness, a “a gradual, ‘fading in/fading’ out definition.” Without God, humanity has no value beyond what some men consider useful, so “the decision to abort can be a moral one.” Without God, there is no objective moral standard for good and evil, right and wrong, yet the moral law written on every fellow human heart created in God’s image compels even atheists to reason about “moral” choices, despite the reductio ad absurdum. That Law on our hearts can be suppressed for a lifetime, but ultimately convicts. Atheism is in every case a temporary state (Romans 14:11,12; Philippians 2:10,11).
Richard Dawkins’ pro-abortion statements make perfect sense on Atheism, which would make a genuine about-face apology quite unexpected anyway.
I see two possibiltiies:
a) We agree that you are a human being. If so, then you are not perfect and not absolute. And thus you cannot be absolutely certain that your own opinion somehow reflects god’s will. So, while you might think abortion is wrong and even base your thoughts on an interpretation of the bible, you cannot be sure that it is correct.
b) You think that you somehow know what this absolute morality is, thus implying that you yourself are absolute. Which would make you a blasphemer, so I think we can disregard this possibility.
So we stay with a, which leads us to the simple fact that you claim that there is an absolute morality and you claim that you know of it – but in reality, you cannot e sure, thus we have to treat your opinion as just another opinion, which you have to justify, since not even you yourself can be really sure that it is actually god’s will.
Atomic Mutant, thanks for the comment! Given a), isn’t it also the case that your assessment of my idea of absolute morality as just another opinion is also just another opinion? Are you any more certain of your moral convictions than I am of mine? My deepest convictions are ultimately rooted in faith, and so are yours, because our axioms are not tangible. And even if they were, we’d be relying on our senses to tell us if what we can tangibly examine is true, and there’s room for doubt there too. So I see two possibilities:
1) You’re a hard agnostic/radical skeptic who believes we cannot know anything for certain (i.e. Descartes’ “Dream Hypothesis”).
2) You believe objective morality can be known, but you’re biased against any source rooted in the nature of God.
I’m going with #2. You obviously believe in absolute truth, because you’ve made absolute claims, beginning with your certainty that you “see two possibilities”. According to the Bible, we are made with basic intuitive knowledge that certain things are morally right and wrong. I hold to this truth by faith, so in that sense I can say I know it to be true (as certain as I can be), just as your deepest convictions and basic presuppositions about the world are invisible, unprovable and therefore held by faith. Biblical morality, once believed to be true, actually makes sense of the world and how we handle morality. (And a God who wants to be known makes sense of the fact that we assume our senses are generally reliable). Everyone treats moral law as if it is supposed to apply to everyone. Without an objective source such as the moral God described in the Bible to logically ground absolute moral truth, it is mere opinion. But nobody treats it that way, because you expect your moral viewpoints to be regarded others.
I don’t claim that I am more certain of my convictions than you – just that you cannot be more certain than me. And of course, I follow this problem to it’s logical end and accept that we thus have to rely on ourselves to find the best possible solution – which may not be absolute. Simply insisting that absolute morality is THE way to go – without being able to be sure you know about it – is leading nowhere.
Personally, I think morality is a human concept, so absolute morality does not exist. Same with beauty. It’s a human concept and the best we could, but even that only theoretically, reach is that all humans agree on it. Absolute morality is just a claim, to make one set of moral values look better than others, but that’s just a marketing gag. In reality, absolute morality doesn’t exist – same with absolute beauty. It may be a nice goal to strive for, perfect morality, perfect beauty, but expecting to reach it is foolish and trying to enforce only one version of morality/beauty by claim that this one is absolute is just nonsense.
And yes, I believe that absolute truth exists – but not for any question. For example, “Is the speed of light constant in this and that circumstances?” has one answer, one truth. But “What is more beautiful – green or blue?” doesn’t have one absolute answer. So, just because some questions have an absolute answer (which we may or may not be able to find) doesn’t mean that every question has.
So, no, moral law is subject of culture, etc. We can discuss the premises and we can discuss the implementation, measure it with various tools, but in the end, there is nothing absolute there. And I don’t consider the evolved feelings of human beings as somehow absolute – just useful for survival.
You espouse a pretty popular Humanist view about morality. But first, on the comparison between morality and beauty: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and what the observer finds subjectively true about a color or a woman or a sunset is subjective in the sense that, say, a preference for blue is person-relative, and may even change over time or according to mood. But, it’s objectively and absolutely true that on a particular day, John prefers blue and Jane prefers green, or whatever the case may be. Morality isn’t in the eye of the beholder any more than any other law. I may not think that driving 70 in a 55 is breaking the law, but there is an absolute reality that says otherwise.
To say that there is no absolute morality means that we should have no moral convictions, because they don’t correspond to any reality. There is no “IS” or “SHOULD” in that scenario, but we should be just as open to “IS NOT” or “SHOULDN’T”. And that’s just it. Real world experience is the opposite. Moral relativism can never be lived out. Relativists like to talk about it, but even in talking about it they assume that what they think about right and wrong is absolute. Otherwise there is no point to any discussion about anything that could be considered moral.
There are two major problems with the idea of moral evolution. First, in order for a first moral act or thought to have occurred anywhere in our evolutionary past, there would have had to have been a pre-existing moral standard by which to measure it.
Second, if morality did evolve in humans, it would only govern humans. Why is it then that we intuitively apply our morality to other cultures in the past, or to aliens whenever we write science fiction, or to God, real or imagined, when we assess His moral values? I’ve never heard anyone excuse God from moral evaluation. This is because we can’t actually imagine a local type of morality with the limited human jurisdiction that moral evolution requires.
Morality obviously comes from outside of humanity. We recognize it rather than invent it. Person to person and culture to culture there are many variances on which moral laws we hold to and think are the most important, but I’ve never encountered anyone who lived as if universal moral obligations didn’t exist. There are certain things we can’t not know (Romans 1-2), and this makes sense only if Christian Theism is true.
So you want to tell me, that something should be considered “absolute” because humans said so? While it is true that the question “Is, on this street, on this date, a human law that forbids driving faster than 50mph?” has an absolute answer, the answer is still based only on a human invention – and thus, the comparison to morality is totally ok: Morality is also a human invention.
By your own argument, either human invented morality is already in itself absolute (strange idea, honestly) or you claim that we should have no laws, because they are not absolute and thus “don’t correspond to any reality”. Both sentences are strange. I do not consider human laws as absolute, but just useful. Same with morality, it doesn’t reflect any deeper reality, but is useful for humans.
And no, it’s always just Christians who have this strange notion that just because someone doesn’t write “In my opinion” in front of every sentence, it has to be absolute – while everyone else simply accepts that many sentences are just opinions, without being having to be told specifically. So, if I say “x is bad/evil/good/etc.”, then of course, “according to my moral standards” is implied and I do not want to express “x is absolutely bad/evil/good/etc.”.
And why should that prevent any discussion? Morality needs to have a premise, on which it is based. That is even true for religious morality (“Something is ‘good’ because god says so.” or something like that). For non religious morality, such premises could be “We should strive to maximize human happiness and freedom.” This premise is chosen and perhaps justified by arguments (for example, you can come to that premise by looking at what every human can agree to, based on simple egoism -> Every human wants to be happy and free and the best chance to get that is to live in a society that tries to maximize that for everyone), but of course, that premise is not absolute.
And with that premise, we can discuss the implementation of morality, look at specific rules and determine, how well they fit to the premise. For example “Everyone should be flogged once a day” could be ruled out, since it doesn’t do anything to increase human happiness, neither individually nor overall. “Laws should be in place to prevent people from stealing” on the other hand would be justified, because while it limits individual freedom, it ensures freedom for everyone (even the people who want to steal normally don’t want to have something stolen from them).
While that is not absolute, because quite honestly, the universe doesn’t give anything about human happiness, at least it is rational and justified by arguments. Simply claiming that there is a god and that you, a non-absolute being, know how his absolute rules look like, is nothing more than that – a claim. And this claim is, without absolute proof, in itself ALSO NOT ABSOLUTE. So, we are both the same here, we both have no absolute justification for our morality – only that I embrace that fact and try to get the next best thing while you simply insist that your morality is absolute.
And no, moral evolution is quite simple: Mutations occur and lead to animals feeling a certain way. If that feeling is beneficial for the species to survive, the feeling will survive to. Example: Protection of the children. If animals feel the need to do so, the children will survive better and thus their offspring will inherit that trait, too. Same with humans and cultures: If we assume that humans indeed have some basic moral feelings (that are not learned), these feelings can be easily explained by evolution – they simply were beneficial for the survival of the species (as we learn from game theory, cooperation is often the best tactic). And of course, many of these feelings ARE learned.
The fact that humans tend to project their own ideas onto others, which will undoubtedly lead to us viewing aliens, if they exist, as “human”, too. Look around an see how many people tend to think of animals, etc. as human being (we could discuss of this is useful or not). People nowadays even look at animals and try to judge them by their moral standards, which is, of course, absurd, but leads to people giving dogs away who show “homosexual” behaviour or lick themselves. It’s a human trait and we could discuss if it’s a good idea or not – but it isn’t an argument for or against evolved morality.
And sorry, as soon as someone says, something is “obvious” you know that there are no arguments left to support it. No, it is NOT obvious. You only need to feel that way because you believe it. But that doesn’t make it obvious. Personally, I also feel that it is obvious that god is a human invention, but that doesn’t make it obvious in any absolute sense.
I live as if there were good rules to live by, because this rules are based on human nature, on human needs, etc. And for this reason, morality tends to show certain traits – but so do houses. And just as there is no absolutely right way to build a house, there are simply ways to build a house THAT WORK WELL and thus get used. Morality is a human invention, based on our feelings, our needs, our nature. And that’s all it needs to do: It needs to work. It doesn’t need to reflect some cosmic truth. It just needs to work. For us.
Something is not absolute because we say it is, nor because God says it is, but because moral law extends from the eternal nature of God. The laws humans codify to protect people and property are in general based on our ideas of moral law. Our laws can change based on changes in our culture and needs, but God’s moral law does not change because He does not change.
It seems you are letting a prior commitment to atheism or naturalism limit your thinking. You’ve a self-ascribed upper limit that is man’s reason, man’s intellect, man’s ethics that can’t be grounded or explained on a universe that began as merely mindless matter and motion. At least not logically. The best way around this is to not think about this fundamentally, but instead draw the line at humanity. In this view, there is no “good”, only “useful” or “beneficial”. The basis for most explanations of moral evolution is the desire or instinct to survive and reproduce. But don’t stop short in your analysis. Why is survival a good thing? Why is it beneficial to pass on your genes? After all, the world is a rough place. Wouldn’t non-existence be better, ultimately happier? There is an inherent “good” in survival, community, cooperation, protection of our young, sacrificing for others, fulfillment in work, etc. that most atheists aren’t willing to explore, possibly because the implications lead to an external source for morality. Following that trail will take you outside of naturalism, which is not allowed.
The result really is where we are here. If it’s all just subjective, there is no real point to discussion, since at best discussion is helpful, but ultimately, helpful for what? So that we can conclude that there is no real meaning behind what we say and how we live? The line of reasoning you suggest we can use to get to the premise that “based on simple egoism… Every human wants to be happy and free and the best chance to get that is to live in a society that tries to maximize that for everyone” is an exercise. But the reality is that we don’t actually go through those motions to get to our moral convictions or think about the premise. We already have it. 🙂 The convictions come first, because they are innate. The exercises to understand their origin come long after we are aware of them.
You’re right, “obvious” is person-relative, so that was presumptuous. I can really only say that it’s obvious to me, and the best we can do is try to make it more obvious to others. If I step completely into Atheism or Naturalism, the pieces don’t fit, the questions increase and the answers become scarce. If you are able to completely step into Christian Theism, you might see that there is a rational basis for what atheists must fundamentally assume, such as universal moral obligations, uniformity in nature, general reliability of sense experience, and the laws of logic we all intuitively follow to even get that far. But you would need to get past the limitations of your own worldview by applying faith differently than you do now (“By faith we understand…”, Hebrews 11:3). The bad news in the reality of God’s moral law is that we all fall sadly short of His standard because of our sin. That’s often the reason many don’t want to take that step of faith, but there is good news there too in the payment of God’s Son Jesus for sin on our behalf once you do, by faith, understand.
Unfortunately, that still just means that morality is, what humans say it is, only that you are adding a totally unproven and unprovable claim about your reason to your statement. You are making a reference to “god’s moral law”, but if you are honest with yourself, you will realize that you have no idea how sure you can be about these laws. Of course, you feel strongly that you are quite close (or something like that) – but surprise, so is almost everyone else, including all the people from different religion with different moral opinions. You have no way of being sure that you are right about god’s moral law, even if we assume for a moment, that it exists, so you cannot use it in good faith to justify anything, which means, you have to look for actual arguments to support your position, like the rest of us. Claiming “god wants it” leads nowhere, because too many people do that for wildly different things.
And then you start with another unproven claim: “man’s ethics that can’t be grounded or explained on a universe that began as merely mindless matter and motion.” Why? Who says that? Which physical law can you quote that actually tells you that? While it is true, that we don’t know (yet?) how it happened, that doesn’t imply that it CANNOT happen on it’s own. Your belief clouds your judgement here. If you take a step back, you will realize that we simply don’t know. End of story. We have no clue if it is possible without god or not. You WANT it to be impossible without god, but that doesn’t make it true. Ignorance cannot be an argument for anything and claiming that something CANNOT be, without having any actual evidence, that this is actually the case, is never a good idea.
You are then starting to mixing up words, which makes it confusing: If you base morality on survival (which you can do), then you cannot use the word “good” for survival itself, because that would make the whole thing circular. Survival is a biological imperative, which we cannot easily escape. It is not “good” in a ethical sense of the word nor “bad”, at least not if you use survival to justify ethics in the first place. In any case, no, nothing here leads to an external source – at least not, if you don’t consider evolution of biological needs as an external source.
The problem here is, that you are making problems up, simply because you want them to be there. But in reality, it is much more simpler. We are humans. We have a certain nature. It even doesn’t matter if this nature was formed by evolution or god. And we live according to this nature (we have a choice in this regard, but it turns out, that ignoring our nature only leads to suffering and problems, which we, according to our nature ironically, we tend to want to avoid) and are trying to make the best out of it. It’s really that simple. A good system of ethics allows us to be ourselves – either because that’s what’s in our nature or because that’s how god made us. In either way, it seems to be a reasonable way of doing things on which atheists and theists actually can agree, because the cause of the nature isn’t important for that.
And please stop using big words like “ultimately”. If you cook, do you want to create the “ultimately best food”? Or do you simply want to cook a good meal? By adding words like “ultimately”, “absolute”, etc. you are just adding an unreachable goal to totally normal stuff, making them suddenly useless. That’s like “I would like to watch TV, but as the ultimately best TV show has not been produced yet or ever will, it doesn’t make sense, so I will not but stare out of the window.”
And no, I don’t agree that moral convictions are inborn. Some of them may be, as I already mentioned, which can be easily explained with evolutionary processes, while many others are learned from society around you.
And yes, you are right, answers are scarce. We don’t know even most of the truth. We don’t have good answers for everything. But that doesn’t mean that inventing a good as a filler for all these gaps actually is a good answer. It is not, sorry. I understand your need to flee into a simpler reality, where you can understand everything, where everything makes sense and where you don’t have to face the harsher facts of reality, but instead live in a comfortable shell of illusions – I just don’t share that need.
“you have no idea how sure you can be about these laws. Of course, you feel strongly that you are quite close (or something like that) – but surprise, so is almost everyone else…”
Agnosticism is indeed a wearisome position, usually for everyone else. 😉 What we say we “know” or “are sure” of is something we arrive at by reason with a degree of certainty great enough to convince us it is true. Even if we held something in our hands and observed it with our eyes, we could always reason that our hands, eyes, or minds are faulty and the thing we are holding still might not exist—we don’t know for certain. Maybe the laws of logic are flawed too, who knows? In short, nothing is really 100% knowable on this view. I would say this is where you are at much of the time, but you still make absolute claims about your own beliefs, which you apparently believe to be reasonably held. This is why no one can be truly agnostic.
“…god’s moral law, even if we assume for a moment, that it exists…you cannot use it in good faith to justify anything, which means, you have to look for actual arguments to support your position, like the rest of us.”
What are “actual” arguments?
“…another unproven claim: ‘man’s ethics that can’t be grounded or explained on a universe that began as merely mindless matter and motion.’ Why? Who says that? Which physical law can you quote that actually tells you that?”
What law would you accept? Empirical observation tells me that intelligence does not come from non-intelligence by chance. Order does not naturally come from disorder without intelligent intervention. There are zero real life examples of this, and a host of natural laws (entropy, uniformity, cause and effect) contradict such a notion. Can nature create nature? These are the kinds of things you call possible when you say “we don’t know (yet?) how it happened, [but] that doesn’t imply that it CANNOT happen on it’s own” because that we can empirically observe and test about our universe proves that stuff doesn’t happen on its own. And while you haven’t expressly said that God CANNOT be, you seem far more open to the possibility of this world of order and complexity arising from nothing “without having any actual evidence.”
“If you base morality on survival (which you can do), then you cannot use the word “good” for survival itself, because that would make the whole thing circular.”
The only reason this would be circular is if there was no “good” before mankind discovered ethics. If morality evolved, then at some point in timespace, activity which was not moral became moral. Did the definition for “good” then arrive simultaneously? Magically? “Good” can absolutely apply to survival, because we consider murder and suicide, the opposite of survival, to be “bad”. There is no reason (and no natural law) that says “good” didn’t apply to the first moral/ethical human act—including acts done for survival, because it’s good to survive—except the doctrine of naturalism or atheism, which assumes there is no God.
“you are making problems up, simply because you want them to be there. But in reality, it is much more simpler. We are humans. We have a certain nature. It even doesn’t matter if this nature was formed by evolution or god.”
It’s intellectual resignation to just say things are just simply the way they are. It may be that you’d rather not ponder it. Some like to know why things are the way they are. And it ONLY matters if we were created by God. If we are just chemical accidents, then we don’t matter, and nothing we say matters. That’s not necessarily the reason to believe in God, moral law, or redemption for sinners; Belief is the result of rational faith.
“…please stop using big words. If you cook, do you want to create the “ultimately best food”?…By adding words like ‘ultimately’, ‘absolute’, etc. you are just adding an unreachable goal to totally normal stuff”
That’s just it. I am talking about God, not macaroni. Such terms are appropriate and correctly contextualized.
“I understand your need to flee into a simpler reality, where you can understand everything, where everything makes sense and where you don’t have to face the harsher facts of reality, but instead live in a comfortable shell of illusions – I just don’t share that need.””
You just wrote that in reality things are “much more simpler” and I shouldn’t use big words, and here you say I’m just seeking a “simpler reality”. Which is it? 🙂 None of us will understand everything, but we can understand enough to know there is a God who cares enough about us to save us from our own mess, a mess we recognize only in light of God’s moral law. I’ve faced the harsher facts of reality, that I’m a sinner too, but thank God it doesn’t end there (Romans 5:8). I don’t honestly think this debate will convince you, and if you truly can’t know anything for certain then it doesn’t matter if either of us is “right” or “wrong”. But I’ve enjoyed the discussion and thank you for jumping in. I always learn a lot from civil debate.