Bill Vallicella on why naturalism and Nietszche Kant be good for “social justice”


Inspired not only by relatively recent online exchanges, this entry is prompted also by two independent posts by Siriusbizinus at Amusing Nonsense and the MaverickPhilosopher himself, Bill Vallicella. Sirius bats around the question whether it’s better to be a good person or a good Christian. Taking motivation from a piece from The Guardian, Vallicella argues, via Nietzsche and Kant, that goodness is not at least a bit difficult for the critical atheist to grasp. I can’t help but notice there’s a connection worth drawing.

Given his atheism, Sirius concludes that being a good person is better than being a good Christian; i.e., the two aren’t mutually inclusive as he once believed when he was a Christian. My solution to the dilemma is to recognize it as false: For the Christian, there is no such thing as a good person — or meaningfully, a good Christian either — but just a sinful, fallen creature who either can strive to accept or reject Christ.

Now this isn’t to rain on Sirius’ parade. I understand his blog is cathartic for him, as he documents his deconversion, and I don’t intend to be mean-spirited. My post here isn’t so much a confrontational rebuttal to his introspection here, which also criticizes the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac (I’ve addressed something similar here). It’s more about raising the question that logically follows for atheists, in general. As Nietzsche famously noted and then tried to address: “God is dead” but now what?

Likewise, if it’s better to a be a good person, then what does that exactly mean for the atheist? What is goodness? Before one can be moral person or have a system of ethics that directs one toward right action, one must have an account of what it means to be good or moral. In this regard, atheism and naturalism — which many, though not all, atheists are committed to — has its work cut out for itself.

Bear with me as Vallicella makes the case:

I myself do not see how naturalism is up to the task of providing an objective foundation for even a minimal code of morality…

…No God, no objective morality binding for all.  Suppose that is the case.  Then how will the new atheist, who is also a liberal, uphold and ground his ‘enlightened’ liberal morality?…

…Consider equality.  As a matter of empirical fact, we are not equal, not physically, mentally, morally, spiritually, socially, politically, economically.  By no empirical measure are people equal.  We are naturally unequal.  And yet we are supposedly equal as persons.  This equality as persons we take as requiring equality of treatment.  Kant, for example, insists that every human being, and indeed very rational being human or not, exists as an end in himself and therefore must never be treated as a means to an end.  A person is not a thing in nature to be used as we see fit.  For this reason, slavery is a grave moral evil.  A person is a rational being and must be accorded respect just in virtue of being a person.  And this regardless of inevitable empirical differences among persons…

…Kant (also) distinguishes between price and dignity. (435)  “Whatever has a price can be replaced by something else as its equivalent; on the other hand, whatever is above all price, and therefore admits of no equivalent, has dignity.”  Dignity is intrinsic moral worth.  Each rational being, each person, is thus irreplaceably and intrinsically valuable with a value that is both infinite — in that no price can be placed upon it — and the same for all…

…These are beautiful and lofty thoughts, no doubt, and most of us in the West (and not just in the West) accept them in some more or less confused form.  But what do these pieties have to do with reality?  Especially if reality is exhausted by space-time-matter?

Again, we are not equal by any empirical measure.  We are not equal as animals or even as rational animals. (Rationality might just be an evolutionary adaptation.)  We are supposedly equal as persons, as subjects of experience, as free agents.  But what could a person be if not just a living human animal (or a living ‘Martian’ animal).  And given how bloody many of these human animals there are, why should they be regarded as infinitely precious?  Are they not just highly complex physical systems?  Surely you won’t say that complexity confers value, let alone infinite value.  Why should the more complex be more valuable than the less complex?  And surely you are not a species-chauvinist who believes that h. sapiens is the crown of ‘creation’ because we happen to be these critters.

If we are unequal as animals and equal as persons, then a person is not an animal.  What then is a person?  And what makes them equal in dignity and equal in rights and infinite in worth?

Now theism can answer these questions.   We are persons and not mere animals because we are created in the image and likeness of the Supreme Person.  We are equal as persons because we are, to put it metaphorically, sons and daughters of one and the same Father.  Since the Source we depend on for our being, intelligibility, and value is one and the same, we are equal as derivatives of that Source.  We are infinite in worth because we have a higher destiny, a higher vocation, which extends beyond our animal existence: we are created to participate eternally in the Divine Life.

But if you reject theism, how will you uphold the Kantian values adumbrated above?  If there is no God and no soul and no eternal destiny, what reasons, other than merely prudential ones, could I have for not enslaving you should I desire to do so and have the power to do so?

If you deny the transcendental, good luck affirming other things that aren’t readily empirical like value and dignity as persons — Kantian accounts or otherwise — that many people readily recognize and argue for in moral terms as humanists and secularists. Now, Vallicella delivers the Nietzschean knockout blow:

No God, then no justification for your liberal values!…Make a clean sweep! Just as religion is for the weak who won’t face reality, so is liberalism.  The world belongs to the strong, to those who have the power to impose their will upon it.  The world belongs to those hard as diamonds, not to those soft as coal and weak and womanish. Nietzsche:

Here one must think profoundly to the very basis and resist all sentimental weakness: life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, conquest of the strange and weak, suppression, severity, obtrusion of peculiar forms, incorporation, and at the least, putting it mildest, exploitation – but why should one for ever use precisely these words on which for ages a disparaging purpose has been stamped?

Beyond Good and Evil, Chapter 9, What is Noble?, Friedrich Nietzsche    Go to Quote

What Vallicella is basically getting at is one of the glaring contradictions and challenges for any atheist who thoroughly considers the implications of his or her unbelief. It’s just fascinating how he walks the problem through Nietzsche and Kant; I was made aware of it via G.E. Moore’s “open question” arguments and subsequent atheists who bit the bullet and developed non-cognitive and nihilistic meta-ethical theories. In short, like God, they maintained right and wrong as incomprehensible and or illusory. Following from this claim, why should should we take ethics seriously at all, let alone questions of “social justice” like “diversity,” “income inequality” and “marriage equality.” In a world beyond good and evil, the will of Nietzsche starts to look more and more plausible and unavoidable; God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac looks more and more inconsequential; and striving to become what we typically consider as a “good person,” impossible.

Hail the ubermensch!

Modus Pownens

P.S. I mean Vallicella, not Nietzsche.

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12 thoughts on “Bill Vallicella on why naturalism and Nietszche Kant be good for “social justice”

  1. Great article!

    It will be interesting to see how an atheist answers this.

    What I have learned is that atheists look at morality completely different than most people. An atheist can not discover any kind of absolute morality, for the very reasons stated in the article. They recognize this, but also believe that it can’t possibly exist so they don’t often argue for it. This does not mean that they can not arrive at a moral code for the time period that they live in, which is all that matters to them. They can and they do.

    That is why this kind of argumentation, though forceful for a Christian, largely falls on deaf ears for the deeply committed atheist who will tell you quite loudly that they do have ethics.

    I have come to believe that both sides are correct! The Christian who claims that you can’t have any real objective morality binding to all without God and the atheist who claims the same thing, but also says that a person and a society can arrive at a shared morality that is open to changing over time.

    “For the Christian, there is no such thing as a good person — or meaningfully, a good Christian either — but just a sinful, fallen creature who either can strive to accept or reject Christ.”

    I don’t think this is true at all and weakens your argument. It requires no morality to accept or reject Christ. There is much, much more to the Christian life than simply accepting Christ. We are called to believe in Him and then to become like Him. Nobody reaches that point in this life, but some get closer to others. The Eastern and Western churches have recognized this throughout history designating those who get closer to it as “saints”

    If one’s morality code can distinguish between Jihadi John (bad person) and Mother Teresa (good person), it is worthless, in my opinion.

    1. Jim, thanks for stopping by! Well, I’ve found that many atheists do speak in objective moral terms, especially in regard to their liberalism or progressivism. Of course, they do have a code of ethics or behave ethically, but getting down in the nitty-gritty of philosophy, I don’t think they can justify it and honestly call it good. They might just say, “There are moral brute facts that I accept them as true and what we call ‘good’ even though I can’t tell you how or why they’re are such facts or that they’re really ‘good'” or “I’m expressing my approval or disapproval about such and such.”

      I’m not sure I agree that both sides are correct. Either morality is subjective or objective. It can’t be both. Just because different societies throughout time and separate individuals may disagree on what is good or moral does not mean they are no objective moral truths. Moral objectivism, by its definition, can’t be simply falsified by claims about how people differ on what is good and what is not.

      Though I don’t think it really weakens the main argument, I think you’re right to point out that my claim about the good Christian and good person was hasty. I think I originally had it as “either a person can strive to imitate Christ.” Sure, Mother Theresa is a “good” Christian — certainly better than me — but she still is so far removed from Christ, who is goodness personified, for a lack of a better term and the purpose of brevity. She still “is not worthy to stoop down and tie his sandals.”

  2. If one’s morality code can distinguish between Jihadi John (bad person) and Mother Teresa (good person), it is worthless, in my opinion.

    This should read “If one’s morality code can NOT distinguish between…

  3. “I’m not sure I agree that both sides are correct. Either morality is subjective or objective. It can’t be both.”

    Sure it can, at least in the practical sense I am talking about. The one who believes in absolute truth tries to base their own morality on these absolutes. The one who doesn’t believe in moral absolutes, like our atheist friends, base their morality on what they think is best for them.

    The atheists I have had discussions with hate it when we say they don’t have morals, or that they can’t logically hold moral truths. They tell you they do indeed have morals and that they don’t need a god to base them on and then call you an idiot for making such a pathetic claim.

    I agree that you can’t have absolute objective moral truth without God. But it’s not impossible to be an atheist with subjective morals.

    1. I get what you’re saying, but if anything, it’s trivially true. Of course, you can find atheists who think whatever is good is best for them or goodness is just a function of what society or what the individual thinks it is. You can also find someone who thinks the world is flat. Whether or not any such positions are true or coherent — not violate any laws of logic — is another matter. My post actually doesn’t deal with whether morality is objective or subjective. It assumes that morality is objective. In other words, it is directed toward an atheism or naturalism that maintains that morality is objective.

      I’m sure they do hate it when we say that they don’t have morals or cannot condemn morally reprehensible behavior and the like. I did not say that here. I’m saying, given their atheism, as in naturalism, they cannot give an account of moral abstract objects like goodness or rights or personal dignity or value in their own naturalistic terms that just doesn’t collapse into what we colloquially call moral nihilism — though as a digression, that term is not completely accurate. Sure, that has implications in their normative and practical ethics. If they don’t like where that leads, then tough. I don’t like it when they claim, for instance, that God is a moral monster and any morality derived from him must be thereby bankrupt. But I’m not going to take it personally. It’s not a direct attack against me or Christians but a criticism of our theology or philosophy. Likewise, Vallicella and I are criticizing atheism as a philosophy, not atheists as people. If atheists interpret that wrongly as a personal attack — whether they’re being dishonest or merely misinterpreting — then that looks to me like a double standard. If certain atheists show they can’t or won’t recognize this clear distinction, then there is not much, politely speaking, I can do for them.

  4. Don’t misunderstand me. I agree wholeheartedly with the argument and personally find it compelling. I also think it is an argument that doesn’t get a lot of traction with atheists, at least online.

  5. I liked this post on the quality of the pun in the title alone. The fact that I pretty much agreed (although I would disagree that an objective morality exists, which was just a kind of throwaway statement made in the comments, and not really part of the article) with the line of argumentation is completely secondary.

    “I agree that you can’t have absolute objective moral truth without God. But it’s not impossible to be an atheist with subjective morals.”

    I think this sums it up pretty nicely. Or how you put it, MP, morality is either subjective or objective. And outside of God, I don’t see how words like “good” and “bad” can have any credence without first establishing what they’re predicated on (i.e. in reference to well-being, suffering, societal flourishing, etc.) But it must be acknowledged that even these predications, lofty as they may be, are always going to be subjective.

    1. “But it must be acknowledged that even these predications, lofty as they may be, are always going to be subjective.” Oscar! Hi. Interesting. Well-being, suffering, societal flourishing, etc. are terms that can be empirically measured. But it still begs the question, why are such things good? What’s good about them? Your quote precludes the possibility of something just being good in it of itself or intrinsically valuable.

      1. I wouldn’t disagree – there will always be that question, “What’s good about them?” Proffering a foundation (i.e. societal flourishing) would establish a foundation on which to measure, but it will necessarily always be subjective.

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