One of the greatest ironies in life is watching theists try to reason about moral philosophy. The mess of contradictions produced makes for some laugh-out-loud reading and can be terrific fun to unpack. Working through this kind of fractal wrongness can also help us to clarify our own moral reasoning and shows us why secular morality is superior to that of the religious.Exhibit A is Rabbi Moshe Averick’s A Plea to Atheists: Pedophilia Is Next On the Slippery Slope; Let Us Turn Back Before It Is Too Late. I’ve picked out a few of the major problems and given my response to them.
Averick’s main beef with atheistic morality is that is subjective:
“For the atheist, morality is simply a word that is used to describe the type of system that an individual or society subjectively prefers. Each society establishes, maintains, and modifies its values to suit its own needs.’
While some atheists do see morality as subjective there are also moral philosophies based on facts and a shared understanding of reality (i.e., objective). Rabbi Averick also thinks it is a problem that moral philosophy can update itself as new arguments are made and accepted. As someone who works in the sciences I am comfortable with knowledge improving as new facts are discovered and new ideas developed. There will be setbacks, aberrant paths that are found to be wrong, but on the long view a gradual improvement is continuously made. In modern social democracies can we really doubt that we are better off today than in the past? We have more freedoms and more rights than ever before. This is not the result of mere subjective whims that happened to go the right way, but a recognition that some actions of the past (e.g., slavery) were wrong and should no longer be permitted in our society. Dogmas, on the other hand, do not update and are stuck in our less enlightened past.
Averick spends a significant chunk of the article attacking Peter Singer for his views on consequentialist utilitarianism. Which is an objective moral system. The Rabbi doesn’t seem to recognise that his criticism of moral subjectivism doesn’t apply to Singer but he continues regardless:
“Singer went on to explain that he is a “consequentialist.’ For the benefit of the philosophically challenged let me explain “consequentialism’ in a nutshell: If you like the consequences it’s ethical, if you don’t like the consequences it’s unethical. Thus, if you enjoy child pornography and having sex with children it’s ethical, if you dislike child pornography and having sex with children it’s unethical.‘
What Singer’s philosophy actually entails is the evaluation of harm that results from an action. Utilitarianism considers happiness to be desirable and harm to be deleterious. This means that when assessing an action for its morality you should look at the consequences in terms of the people harmed and the people helped. So if enjoying child pornography and having sex with children harms someone then it is unethical. Since paedophilia often has traumatic effects on the child involved, their parents, and the wider community Singer would most likely find most cases of paedophilia morally wrong. So much for the slippery slope argument.
Averick claims that since we resulted from slime (or from dust if you are Jewish, I guess that’s better?) that means we are morally bereft. The fact that we evolved from primates does not degrade humanity. It is thrilling to think that all species on this planet are interrelated though the process of evolution. What makes humans different, more significant than our jungle dwelling relatives, is our ability to reason. When we exercise our unique intelligence we get to make our own decisions about meaning, value, and morality. Atheists aren’t handed their morality from on high, we have to think about it, and thanks to evolution we have that ability. After spending most of the article decrying the ability of secular philosophers to reason about ethics, Averick engages in the most dishonest part of the article. He simply throws out a bunch of ethical rules without giving any justification for his claims.
- All men are created in the image of God and are therefore inherently and intrinsically precious.
- All men have been endowed by God with unalienable rights and among these are the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
- Thou shalt not murder.
- Thou shalt not steal.
- Thou shalt not bear false witness.
- Thou shalt not commit adultery, incest, or bestiality.
- Thou shalt not have sex with children, and if you do you will be looked upon as a disgusting and contemptible criminal and will be treated as such.
- Thou shall teach these laws to your children.
Fortunately, we can recognise the source for some of these claims, and they don’t come from a god. The ones about unalienable rights are from the American Declaration of Independence and the rules about murder, stealing, perjury, and adultery are from the Torah. These moral rules aren’t from God but from the men who wrote the documents. But where do the other bits and pieces come from? Since Averick hasn’t demonstrated God is the moral author, we have to conclude they come from Averick himself. The Rabbi simply prefers it to be the case that paedophilia is immoral and so claims that it is a divine command. This is merely Self-Projection As God. After spending an entire article railing against subjective morality we find that the only justification Averick has is that he just feels paedophilia is wrong (and God agrees with me!) Unfortunately for Averick the main point of his article is that atheism leads to paedophilia. It is rather easily countered by the mention to two religions: Catholicism and Islam. Both of these theistic beliefs have managed to rationalise and accept (respectively) the sexual molestation of children. If theistic societies are also capable of accepting paedophilia then Averick’s point is moot and it seems that God does not totally agree with our hapless Rabbi on the immorality of pedophilia.
Irony, it’s everywhere.