An atheist(?) defends the moral argument

Robin le Poidevin is the author of an introduction to philosophy of religion called Arguing for Atheism, which atheist blogger Austin Cline calls "one of the best books on atheism which is currently available." More recently he has contributed the Very Short Introduction to Agnosticism for Oxford University Press. I have been unable to ascertain whether he is a full-blown atheist or an agnostic, but at the very least he is highly skeptical about religion, which makes his comments about morality and conscience all the more remarkable. They are presented in the context of demonstrating the ultimate ambiguity of all arguments for the existence of God, but they seem to me to lean very much in the theistic direction. To reverse well-known expression, with enemies like this, who needs friends?

We all know what it is like to have a conscience, and it sometimes gives us a hard time. But what is the source of this thing that prompts us to certain actions, makes us refrain from others, and which generates feelings of guilt or satisfaction? Sometimes, no doubt, they are a response to the perceived approval or disapproval of our actions by other people. But very often we have these feelings before being exposed to judgment in this way. Moreover, even contemplating a certain action can be enough to induce these feelings. For John Henry Newman...the moral conscience pointed to a divine source...even if we are not apparently being observed by any human onlooker when we act as we should or shouldn't, or just contemplate doing so, it feels as if we are being observed and judged, and we experience the associated pride or shame. Why would we do this unless there really were such a being observing and judging us, and communicating this judgment to us? For Newman, God is the inescapable conclusion. But let us put the point more modestly and say that the phenomenon of conscience shifts the probabilities somewhat in favor of theism.

But does it? There is an alternative explanation of the source of conscience, and that is that it is the result of both positive and negative conditioning, in which good actions are rewarded and bad ones punished, making us anxious or fearful at the mere thought of performing or avoiding certain actions. We experience approbation and disapprobation when we are at a very young and impressionable age and we internalize these judgments. When we act, it is as if we are being watched by a parent or by someone who has authority over us, because those were exactly the conditions under which we took our first steps towards understanding right and wrong...

That may seem plausible enough, but it cannot be the whole story. The actual experiences we had when young don't seem enough to explain the all-pervasiveness of conscience. Sometimes we did bad things and got away with them; sometimes we did good things and no-one knew. Sometimes we were unjustly punished or unfairly rewarded. Those meting out the judgment may themselves have been morally flawed. And our conscience is stirred by actions we perform as adults that have no counterpart in our childhood experience: how could blind associations generalize in this way? Moreover, this 'conditioned fear response' approach to conscience doesn't explain the peculiarly moral sense. We feel embarrassment and shame over many things we do that have no specifically moral content...The thought of speaking in public or appearing in certain forms of dress may evoke strong anxiety or embarrassment, but no moral sensations. So what aspect of conditioning explains the moral dimension of our emotions?

We could try supplementing the social conditioning account by one that sees conscience as the legacy of both biological and social evolution over millenia, in which dispositions to certain kinds of behavior-generally, those that contribute to greater social cohesion-are selected for at the expense of those that are damaging to social groups...So what of Newman's suggestion that our moral feelings intimate the existence of a judge: that the kinds of feelings we have are those we would feel before the gaze of a moral being? We could say that this is just a product of evolution; that these kinds of feelings are more likely to be selected for than those that don't involve the sense of a judge...

But there is still something missing from the purely secular account of conscience. Conscience directs us to moral properties of the acts themselves: the act (of murder, theft, and deceit or charity, compassion, and sacrifice) is itself good or evil. That property does not appear to reside in the mind alone. It may be that an action must originate in an evil thought in order to count as bad, but the badness of the action is not the same thing as the badness of the thought...This is the (real or apparent) objectivity of our moral judgments. Now, if the conscience whose promptings give rise to these judgments is a result of a combination of biological and social selection plus psychological conditioning, where does this sense of objectivity come from? The mechanism is perhaps something like this: we witness, or think about, certain actions, such as deliberate deception, and they induce feelings in us, say of disapproval. This feeling is then somehow projected onto the act itself, resulting in what appears to be a perception of the act's badness.

But this projection-if that is what it is-is very puzzling. It doesn't happen when things induce pain in us, for example. The experience of something may be accompanied by pain...but we don't then project the pain onto the thing that causes it. We may recognize a property in the object as the one that causes the pain, but the painfulness remains firmly fixed to the experience itself. Things are not intrinsically painful: it depends how they are presented to us. Why, then, when actions induce moral feelings in us, does the moral aspect of the experience not just stay fixed to the experience itself, rather than being projected onto the action, so that the action is seen as intrinsically good or bad, however it is presented to us? It isn't at all obvious that there is an explanation of this in terms of natural selection. There is certainly a close connection between moral feelings and feelings of pain and pleasure: guilt is a kind of mental pain, and moral satisfaction a kind of mental pleasure. The intensity of these feelings is enough to explain the role they play in the reinforcement, positive or negative, of certain kinds of behavior, without the need for them to be taken as detecting objective moral properties in the world. And yet they are taken in this way. Why? Perhaps we have to accept that this is just how things are, that it is simply an accident of nature. But in the light of the God hypothesis, they become more intelligible: such feelings truly are the perception of the goodness or evil which is quite independent of any human beliefs or practices, and which points ultimately to a divine source. (pp. 63-67)


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