Michael Gerson tries his hand at moral philosophy in today's Washington Post:
"So the dilemma is this: How do we choose between good and bad instincts? Theism, for several millennia, has given one answer: We should cultivate the better angels of our nature because the God we love and respect requires it. While many of us fall tragically short, the ideal remains.
Atheism provides no answer to this dilemma. It cannot reply: "Obey your evolutionary instincts" because those instincts are conflicted. "Respect your brain chemistry" or "follow your mental wiring" don't seem very compelling either. It would be perfectly rational for someone to respond: "To hell with my wiring and your socialization, I'm going to do whatever I please." C.S. Lewis put the argument this way: "When all that says 'it is good' has been debunked, what says 'I want' remains."
Some argue that a careful determination of our long-term interests -- a fear of bad consequences -- will constrain our selfishness. But this is particularly absurd. Some people are very good at the self-centered exploitation of others. Many get away with it their whole lives. By exercising the will to power, they are maximizing one element of their human nature. In a purely material universe, what possible moral basis could exist to condemn them? Atheists can be good people; they just have no objective way to judge the conduct of those who are not."
Discussion below the fold.
There are several problems with this argument. The first concerns the supposed advantages of theism. Gerson says that according to theists, "We should cultivate the better angels of our nature because the God we love and respect requires it." But this statement is vague on several crucial points. First, what are the better angels of our nature? George W. Bush and I seem to disagree; which of us is right? Likewise, supposing we should do what God wills: how do we determine what that is? We might look to the Bible (assuming we know, somehow, that that is the right Holy Book, which we don't), but the Bible is a very complicated book that can be read to support a number of different views. Given many questions about whether some specific angel of our nature is one of the "better angels" or one of the fallen ones, the Bible would not provide clear guidance. Direct communication from God would allow us to answer that question, but to use it we would have to be able to tell when God was, in fact, communicating with us, and to be able to distinguish the voice of God from Satan disguising himself as an angel of light.
Moreover: why should we obey God? Because, Gerson's theist replies, we love and respect him. Are we right to love and respect him? Take love first: here, a theist would presumably not mean just that we have an unaccountable fondness or passion for God, the way we might, despite our better judgment, love someone we knew was a cheatin' thievin' black-hearted no-good bastard. That's not the sort of love that gives you a reason to do what someone thinks you ought to do. The way a theist loves God, and takes that love to show that he has reason to do what God thinks he ought to do, involves not just some inexplicable affection, but the thought: God deserves to be loved, and He deserves it (among other things) because He is good. The same is true of respect: we normally think we should respect people (or beings) who are worthy of our respect, and worthy of it, in particular, by being good.
So: if we think God is worthy of love and respect, we must think him good. Why do we think that? One possible answer is: We know, on some other grounds, what goodness is, or by what standard we should judge the goodness of a person or being, and we know enough about God to know that He meets that standard. But if we can determine what goodness is, and can see that goodness makes someone worthy of respect, without relying on the assumption that God exists, then presumably neither our knowledge of morality nor our reasons for being moral themselves depend on God. If so, then it's not at all clear why someone who did not believe in God could not go on believing in goodness, with as much justification as any theist.
[NOTE: about ten minutes after I posted this, I realized that I had changed one part of the argument without changing another that went with it, so I modified the para. that follows.] Another possible answer is: we just do love him, that's all. No reason; in particular, it's not that he's especially good. We just love him, that's all. In that case, our reason for doing what he wills follows from this sort of sentimental attachment, in something like the way in which, if I loved someone, I might accept his suggestions about where to go on vacation. But there would be no real reason to think that our reasons for doing God's will should take precedence over all our other reasons.
Thus, a theist seems to be left with two choices: either she should believe she loves God because she has an independent grasp on what is good, or she should believe that she loves God not because He is good, but for some other reason. In the first case, she can explain why she loves God and why she should obey Him, but she cannot explain why her grasp of moral standards would not be available to an atheist as well. In the latter case, she cannot explain why she has reason to think that God's views on what she should do should be particularly important, let alone overriding.
Another part of Gerson's argument might help him get around this problem. He writes that "in a purely material universe", we have "no objective way to judge" the morality either of our instincts or of other people. If there were something about believing in a "purely material universe" that made it impossible to justify moral standards, and if the only alternative to believing in a "purely material universe" was believing in God, then in this roundabout way our independent grasp of right and wrong might justify our belief in God. The claim that the only alternative to believing in a "purely material universe" is believing in God is, I think, pretty obviously false, and so I am going to leave it aside, and focus on the question: why would someone think that in a "purely material universe", we would have no way of judging moral claims?
If Gerson's claims depend entirely on his assertion that "in a purely material universe", we have no way to make objective moral judgments, you'd think he might provide some justification for this claim. Unfortunately, he doesn't. Instead, he provides a catalog of possible justifications that don't work, without any explanation of why this catalog should be taken to be exhaustive, or even on the right track. Consider, by analogy, asking: "How could an atheist prove the Pythagorean Theorem? By consulting her brain chemistry? Exercising the will to power? Following her mental wiring? None of these provide an objective basis for judgment!" To which the obvious answer is: yes, but any of the various proofs of the Pythagorean Theorem does, so why are you producing all these ridiculous possibilities, like "consulting brain chemistry"? Same here.
Sometimes people think that it's obvious that "in a purely material universe", we have no way to make objective moral judgments, on the grounds that physics and the rest of the natural sciences don't use moral terms at all. But if we accept the implicit standard in this argument -- that nothing is real unless it figures in the natural sciences -- then a whole host of other things turn out to be unreal as well: Louis XV chairs, birthdays, exquisite risottos, the distinction between real and counterfeit money, etc. (I defy anyone to find a natural science that uses the term 'Louis XV chair'. If it turns out that, oddly enough, there is one, then just substitute another of the many terms we use to describe kinds of furniture that really do exist.) Whatever the problem with atheism is supposed to be, this is surely not it.
Sometimes, people then move to the idea that in a purely material world, only material objects exist; and that while we can introduce schemes for classifying these objects that natural science itself does not use -- e.g., classifying some chunks of matter as "Louis XV chairs" and others as "Regency sofas" -- all those objects are themselves material. And since, on most accounts*, "goodness" is not a material thing, in a purely material world, "goodness" does not exist. The problem with this move is that if the claim that we live in "a purely material universe" means that there are no non-material objects, then it is almost certainly false, atheism or no atheism. For instance, the number two is a non-material object. (If you doubt this, try to figure out how you'd determine its location, size, weight, etc., as well as what sort of matter or energy it is made of.) Likewise, there are no logical operators, no sets or classes, no propositions (as distinct from specific utterances), and, in general, no all sorts of things we normally assume that there are, with very good reason. If Gerson wants to argue that atheism forces us to believe that numbers do not actually exist, since we live in "a purely material universe", he should explain why.
It is unclear to me how Suppose we manage to spell out what "a purely material universe" means in such a way that a belief in one allows for things like norms of rationality, the distinction between valid and invalid arguments, and so forth. But suppose we have explained all this. Surely one thing we would want to say is: if some sound argument shows that we can say that some objects have a certain property, then we can conclude that those objects do have that property, even if the property is not a material one. For instance, if we have a proof that the Pythagorean Theorem is true, then we can conclude that it is true, even though the Pythagorean Theorem is not itself a material object, nor is truth a material property. Moreover, when such an argument exists, we have "an objective way to judge" whether or not the Pythagorean Theorem is true: namely, argument. Our proof shows that it is true, and so we are entitled to judge that it is. Similarly, if a sound argument shows that some actions are morally wrong, then we can conclude that they are, in fact, morally wrong, whether or not "wrongness" is a material property. And we have "an objective way to judge" whether they are wrong or not: namely, our argument.
What Gerson needs to show is: that in a "purely material universe", no such argument is possible. It is not clear to me how he could show this, though the fact that he doesn't seem to recognize the need to show this doesn't give me much optimism about his prospects for success. Without a clearer explanation either of how theism provides us with an objective standard for moral judgment or of why atheism means that we can't have one, however, Gerson's piece looks less like an argument than like a bunch of assertions connected by, well, nothing. It sounds nice, but as soon as you start to examine it, it just melts away into a mess of unsupported allegations.
I know a film critic (hi Andy!) who used to find it annoying that more or less everyone assumed that they could do what he did for a living; that there was no expertise or skill or trained judgment involved in being a film critic. I sometimes feel the same way about being a moral philosopher. If one of Bush's speechwriters wanted to write an op-ed on the latest advances in entomology, or some unique properties of eight-dimensional space, or the best techniques to use in constructing a certain kind of organic lattice, I imagine that the editors of the Washington Post would recognize that some fact-checking was in order. But moral philosophy? Anyone can do that!
I think that anyone can, in fact, talk about what is right and what is wrong. At some points moral philosophy helps, but it's not essential. (And a good thing, too.) But this op-ed is not about what's right and what's wrong. It's about the question whether belief in an objective morality requires a belief in God. That is a straightforwardly philosophical question, exactly the sort about which one might think: it might help to have studied this. Or even: is this obviously the sort of thing Michael Gerson would know much about?
Oddly, though, a lot of people** really seem to think that they don't need to have such thoughts when they are talking about moral philosophy. I honestly don't know why not.
* One prominent modern exception is an ad that used to say that some breakfast cereal -- I can't remember which -- had "Real goodness in every bite!" Back when I was a philosophy grad student, this used to cause me and my friends no end of amusement. See also: True Value hardware stores.
** Consider Dinesh D'Souza, for instance: in the linked article, he goes on and on about a regress argument from Aquinas without mentioning any of its subsequent refutations. Or, to choose someone with a lot more intellectual heft to him, an Atlantic article by E. O. Wilson, ‘The Biological Basis of Morality’, in which Wilson asserts such fantastic claims as: that ethicists “tend not to declare themselves on the foundations of ethics”, that Kant’s Categorical Imperative “does not accord ... with the evidence of how the brain works”, and that John Rawls “offers no evidence that justice-as-fairness is consistent with human nature.” (Rawls devotes a sixty-page chapter of A Theory of Justice to this question.) Much more seriously, Wilson begins by distinguishing the view that moral laws “exist outside the mind” from the view that they are “contrivances of the mind”. He then argues that we should reject the first alternative, since it amounts to the view that moral laws are “ethereal messages awaiting revelation, or independent truths vibrating in a non-material dimension of the mind”. He takes the view that morality is a human contrivance to imply that we can answer moral questions only by understanding the biology behind our moral sentiments.
This is beyond bizarre. If we could not conduct any inquiry whose object is a human contrivance without inquiring into its biological roots, we would be unable to balance our checkbooks or figure out winning moves in chess without first understanding the selection processes that led us to engage in these activities -- unless, of course, we were prepared to regard truths about our bank balances or what move will mate in two as “ethereal messages awaiting revelation”.