Tuesday, April 24, 2012

On Morality

I often hear fellow atheists proclaim that “we can be moral without God!”  This statement is so obviously false that it’s embarrassing to hear it expressed with such frequency and vehemence.  Now, before all of you religious idiots break out the champagne glasses, I have news for you, my friends: you can’t be moral with God, either.  This is because morality is sheer gibberish. 

The idea that there are external imperatives that one “ought” to obey, without reference to one’s actual goals and desires, is complete nonsense.  Value, by its very nature, is inherently mental and agent-relative.  What’s “good” or “bad” is internal to the acting individual and is thus bounded by his subjective preferences.  Moral intuitions no more refer to mind-independent facts about the nature of ethics than mystical or religious experiences refer to mind-independent facts about the nature of God.

To speak of value that’s existentially independent of the valuer is meaningless.  And to insist further that a value is somehow “binding” on a valuer who doesn’t actually value it?  That transcends mere meaninglessness and ascends to the realm of the patently absurd.  In truth, the only people morality binds are the masses of gullible fools who stupidly submit to its self-enslaving doctrines.

Think about it logically: what does it even mean to say that I “ought” to do something I have no wish to do, or that I “ought” to sacrifice my own self-interest for the sake of some “higher” purpose?  These bald assertions, at bottom, are all that morality amount to.  A principled skeptic would demand that those who advance them bear the burden of proof.  This burden can never be met, of course, because moral assertions about "right" and "wrong" are devoid of cognitive content in the first place.  They’re just the remnants of an atavistic superstition; outbursts of personal feelings, cloaked under the rhetoric of objectivity and universality.  As Jeremy Bentham famously remarked, natural rights are “nonsense upon stilts.”  Unfortunately for Mr. Bentham, the same is true of all assertions of external rules of conduct which purport to be binding in conscience, including Bentham’s own utilitarianism.

Sadly, many amateur “skeptics” and “freethinkers,” precious children of the Enlightenment as they are, have fallen prey to these very superstitions.  In every other aspect of their lives, they’re eager to subject foolish arguments to withering criticism and mockery.  It’s all the more pathetic, then, how uncritically they accept the theistic conception of morality.  They permit the theist to control the terms of the debate by agreeing implicitly at the outset that, e.g., it’s “good” to be self-sacrificing, “bad” to be selfish, and so on, and then proceeding to argue that the atheist, too, can be “good.”  By participating on the theist’s terms, they might as well be debating the theological niceties of the Trinity.

Many of these so-called “atheists” go much further in their zeal to prove just how “good” they are, by embracing a systematic ideology.  In the process, they manage to unwittingly substitute a brand new religion for their old one.  Although they may no longer worship God or Jesus, they have simply found a new god to worship instead, by reifying Nature (environmentalists), the State (right-nationalists), the Proletariat (Marxists), Man (Objectivists), Progress (secular humanists), and so forth.  In all these cases, they solemnly inform us, in order to be moral, the selfish individual must subordinate himself to some noble cause that is “greater than himself.”  How eager these self-righteous crusaders are to erect a new Moloch atop the rubble of the old one!  As the great Max Stirner once quipped, “Our atheists are pious people.”  Indeed.

At this juncture, some may argue that it’s good to behave in socially cooperative ways simply because doing so will induce other members of society to reciprocate in turn.  Conversely, if one behaves violently, aggressively, or unkindly, then others will likely retaliate in tit-for-tat fashion.  More sophisticated proponents of this line of reasoning sometimes invoke game theoretical insights, such as Nash equilibria, to propose rules governing interpersonal relations. 

While such appeals to self-interest may or may not be persuasive, they are entirely beside the point.  The crux of the matter is that these types of arguments can only suggest prudential and contingent norms.  That is, if X seeks to achieve certain ends, then X ought to adopt certain means (assuming that certain background assumptions hold true).  The obvious reply to this is: of course one can logically critique an individual’s choice of means by reference to his particular ends -- no one has ever disputed this.  Such critiques, however, tell us absolutely nothing about which ends X is supposed to have adopted in the first place. Thus, they have nothing to do with morality, which entails normative propositions that are categorical and universal in nature.

To put this all in more concrete terms: suppose I discover a foolproof way to cheat the system by defecting, i.e., deceiving other people into believing I am cooperating with them, when I am secretly benefiting at their expense in a zero-sum manner.  Suppose further that I (1) love cheating, (2) hate playing fair, and (3) can’t get caught.  (And don’t tell me this can’t be done; countless dictators and plutocrats have done it throughout history, dying peacefully in the lap of luxury, paid for by the blood and treasure of their fellow men.)  In other words, my utility will be unquestionably maximized by so-called unethical behavior.  Now I ask you this: why the hell should I even consider acting any differently?

You cannot give a good answer, because there is none.  An atheist who believes in morality is just another theist.  Leave morals to the sheep, say I; I shall be the shepherd.