Have I spotted a flaw in Christopher Hitchens’ challenge?

20 08 2008

(In which I blatantly steal content from OzAtheist’s Weblog, in lieu of having anything original to write about.)

If you’ve ever listened to Christopher Hitchens in debate or discussion on matters religious in the time since he published God Is Not Great, you’ll be familiar with the challenge he invariably poses to his theist antagonists:

Name one ethical statement made, or one ethical action performed, by a believer that could not have been uttered or done by a nonbeliever.
The second challenge. Can anyone think of a wicked statement made, or an evil action performed, precisely because of religious faith?

The second question is easy to answer, is it not? The first awaits a convincing reply.

It strikes me that there are two problems with Hitchens’ challenge, and they are kind of interrelated. One is the ambiguity in the usage of the word “ethical”, which arises because of the distinction between descriptive ethics (the study of what people believe to be right and wrong conduct) and normative ethics (claims about what people ought to believe about right and wrong conduct). The scope for what might count as an ethical statement is therefore much wider within a descriptive ethics framework than it would be within most normative ethical frameworks. I don’t think it would be drawing too long a bow to assume that Hitchens is talking from a normative standpoint; after all, as the challenge is stated above, there does appear to be a contrast drawn between “ethical” and “wicked.” If so, this leads to a second problem: that Hitchens is presupposing that he and his antagonists agree on what people ought to believe about right and wrong.

Do you remember “The Great God Debate” on the Hugh Hewitt show between Hitchens and evangelical theologian Mark Roberts? Hitchens posed that very challenge to Roberts, who responded that he prays every night with his daughter before she goes to bed, and that’s something a non-believer couldn’t do. Hitchens’ response was to dismiss prayer as an ethical action: in his words, “it does as much good as aerobic dancing would do.” But what is it exactly that makes it non-ethical? Certainly I can’t see how it is useful: prayer can’t control the weather, or change the outcome of a sporting event, or regrow an amputated limb, or lower the cost of fuel. But does the uselessness of prayer—you know, in the realitysphere—make prayer non-ethical?

Thoughts?

By way of a P.S., what do you make of John Morales’ response to Hitchens’ challenge?

How about a religious believer who defies his religious beliefs to conform with his job description?

It’s ethical, and it couldn’t have been done by a non-believer.

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45 responses

20 08 2008
William Wallace

Prayer is a good answer. Teaching a child to pray is a good answer.

20 08 2008
AV

Prayer is a good answer. Teaching a child to pray is a good answer.

Why, though? I mean, I guess the corollary of the question I posed above—”What makes prayer non-ethical?”—is this question: “What makes prayer ethical?”

20 08 2008
Tony Konrath

“How about a religious believer who defies his religious beliefs to conform with his job description?”

The reponse is simple. I’m a psychotherapist. I ignore my atheism while I work with devout deists.

20 08 2008
Tony Konrath

Again – the asction of praying cannot be ethical since it takes place under threat. If you don’t pray you go to hell. Prayer is thus outside the area of ethical behaviour since it involves a sytem of reward and punishment. It can, and I do so argue, that you cannot act ethically and be a christian at the same time. As a christian your actions are dictated by an external system and are not subject to personal decision making – only to argument about what action is dictated.

20 08 2008
Bruce

…that Hitchens is presupposing that he and his antagonists agree on what people ought to believe about right and wrong.

A common problem with God Is Not Great. Most of the wrong doings performed by the religious as described in the book are simply assumed to be wrong (and I think they are wrong for the most part) but there is little discussion in the book of how to actually tell right from wrong or even a low-Kohlberg set of criteria.

This treatment of (normative) ethics and criticism of ethical practitioners borders on the appeal to emotion, rather than an informed consequentialism (or other articulated ethical system). The Categorical Imperative gets a brief mention (as an example that atheism can be ethical), but it isn’t fleshed out and besides, humanistic ethics have moved well beyond Kant’s absolutism.

20 08 2008
Bruce

…what do you make of John Morales’ response to Hitchens’ challenge?

Assuming the job description commands ethical behaviour and the religious bucks their religion in order to be accordingly ethical, then yes. There are two ethical acts involved; challenging the unethical authority (in a way an atheist couldn’t) and performing to the ethical job description (which an atheist could do).

It probably has more to do with circumstance than character thought. Bill Gates can give billions to charity while I can’t as I don’t have the money. The religious are in a position to buck the authority of their organised religion, whereas I can’t because I haven’t granted their religion authority over me.

Similarly, a good theist who believes in an afterlife that rewards good deeds, can’t sacrifice their lives (say under threat of execution or such) with as much good intent as the most ethical atheist. The atheist intends to give it all away.

Bit of a fatuous distinction, but I guess it goes back to the original question rather than anything John or I’ve suggested.

20 08 2008
AV

The reponse is simple. I’m a psychotherapist. I ignore my atheism while I work with devout deists.

Atheism, simply put, is the name we give to a position on the question: “Do you believe in a deity or deities?” (The answer, in our case, being “No.”) It doesn’t prescribe how atheists ought to conduct themselves towards theists (or even deists). So you aren’t breaking any “rules” when you ignore your atheism when working with deists (or theists) in your capacity as a psychotherapist.

Again – the action of praying cannot be ethical since it takes place under threat. If you don’t pray you go to hell. Prayer is thus outside the area of ethical behaviour since it involves a system of reward and punishment.

I sense you may be hitting upon a major problem with divine command theory, but allow me to play devil’s advocate for the time being. Aren’t many of the ethical actions we perform, or refrain from performing because of ethical considerations, subject to a system of—if not so much reward—punishment in this world? For example, is murder any less of an ethical issue because you can be sent to prison for committing it?

21 08 2008
Gerry Rzeppa

Hitchens says, “Name one ethical statement made, or one ethical action performed, by a believer that could not have been uttered or done by a nonbeliever.”

AV says, “[but] Hitchens is presupposing that he and his antagonists agree on what people ought to believe about right and wrong.”

I say, AV is right; Hitchens assumes (and subsumes) way too much of traditional morality into almost all of his arguments. If he didn’t, he’d have very little left to say.

So let’s simplify the challenge, and get to the root of the matter: “Name one thing a believer can do that an unbeliever can’t.” The answer is now obvious. He do anything and everything for the Glory of God. The unbeliever, obviously, can’t. In other words, the believer can do things just because they’re right and rightly demanded of him — the unbeliever has no such basis upon which to act.

Incidently, for Hitchens to focus on those extreme cases where unbelievers have usurped this prerogative of believers and have acted badly, and to likewise focus on those cases where sincere believers have been mistaken in their beliefs and have thus acted badly, and to then argue that belief in God is a bad thing — especially when he has no basis for establishing exactly what “bad” is — is ludicrous. My young son may misunderstand my commands or intentions and hence act stupidly, even “in my name,” but that doesn’t mean that my commands and intentions (and indeed, my existence!) have been brought into question.

21 08 2008
AV

Hitchens’ challenge is not meant to be a defeater of theism (i.e. the belief that a deity or deities exist), but merely of the belief that non-theists cannot act morally.

I say, AV is right; Hitchens assumes (and subsumes) way too much of traditional morality into almost all of his arguments. If he didn’t, he’d have very little left to say.

I think what we need from Hitchens is further elaboration on his views about morality. (And to be fair, it has been a while since I read God Is Not Great, and he might have provided just such an elaboration there.) He seems to be taking a moral realist position—that there are objective moral facts “out there,” and this allows him to deliberate upon what is right and what is wrong. I don’t think there is any contradiction between atheism and moral realism—atheism is, as I have pointed out above, simply the lack of belief in a deity, and beyond that it is possible for atheists to believe all kinds of crazy shit (the existence of ghosts, faked moon landings, homeopathy, etc.). I do think there is tension between scientific (methodological) naturalism and moral realism, because within the framework of science a fact is a verifiable observation about the universe. Moreover, a fact is “true” only in a tentative sense: it is “true” only in light of current evidence, and may change if new evidence comes to light. (Consider that it was once held to be a “fact” that, all things being equal, heavier objects will fall to the ground faster than lighter objects, until Galileo demonstrated that this was not so. (Actually, the jury is out on whether Galileo ever performed the falling experiment he described himself, though the fact that heavier objects and lighter objects fall to the ground at the same time in a vacuum had subsequently been demonstrated.)) If one is going to declare something a moral “fact,” (e.g. the statement “murder is wrong”) others are entitled to be presented with the material evidence that justifies the inclusion of that moral “fact” in the same category to which all the other facts (e.g. “the Earth revolves around the Sun”) belong. Hitchens presents himself as a naturalist; therefore, if he is also a moral realist, and if he takes his beliefs about right and wrong as factual, then we are entitled to demand of him evidence that his beliefs are indeed factual.

Another possibility occurs to me, and there may be more. Hitchens might be committing the is-ought fallacy, conflating the fact (or at least, the hypothesis) that humans as a species evolved with certain ideas about morality (such as the notion that murder is wrong) hardwired, with the claim that murder is wrong. If there are—and I suspect this may be the case—certain ideas about morality that are “hardwired,” Hitchens would be right to assume that, as human beings, he and his interlocutors share certain basic beliefs (regardless of where each side of the debate thinks that basis is). But if he thinks those beliefs are the right beliefs to have, he needs to explain why.

So let’s simplify the challenge, and get to the root of the matter: “Name one thing a believer can do that an unbeliever can’t.” The answer is now obvious. He do anything and everything for the Glory of God. The unbeliever, obviously, can’t.

I think that misses the point. Accepting the claim that “the Glory of God” is a worthwhile justification for doing anything at all presupposes the belief that a God exists. People who lack belief in deities can’t do that which is predicated upon having a belief in a deity (hence the profound inanity of questions like “Why do atheists hate God?”). So what?

In other words, the believer can do things just because they’re right and rightly demanded of him — the unbeliever has no such basis upon which to act.

“In other words?” No. It is not self-evident that doing x for the glory of God and doing x just because it is right are at all the same thing. Furthermore, doing something “because it is right” invites the question: “Why ought it to be considered right?” If the answer offered is “Because God says so,” it is then incumbent on the person giving such an answer to (a) provide sufficient evidence to demonstrate that there is a God, and (b) answer the further question: “Why does God consider doing x to be right?” And what if God’s reasons are unsound?

This is the problem with divine command theory. You’re not supposed to ask these kinds of questions. You’re simply meant to shut up and obey. And shutting-up and obeying, arguing that “x is right because God says so”, is simply (if you will indulge me a mixed metaphor) passing the buck further up the chain of command. It doesn’t answer the question of why x is right; it just avoids asking this question. It is a morality custom-designed for authoritarian followers. We have brains, intelligence, the capacity for reason—but when it comes to matters as important as ethics, that’s the point where we’re simply supposed to flush our brains down the toilet and be docile little sheep. That’s troubling, don’t you think?

Incidently, for Hitchens to focus on those extreme cases where unbelievers have usurped this prerogative of believers and have acted badly, and to likewise focus on those cases where sincere believers have been mistaken in their beliefs and have thus acted badly,

It annoys me when Hitchens, as he often does in these kinds of debates, sets up the fundamentalist version of Christianity as True Christianity (TM), and then accuses his non-fundamentalist interlocutors of not being real Christians. When you set yourself up as a defender of reason, and then do something so basically irrational as commit the No True Scotsman fallacy, you end up looking like a bit of a hypocrite. Hitchens has no more authority to deliberate on the question of who and who may not count as a True Christian (TM) than, frankly, any Christian does—be he Alister McGrath, or Dinesh D’Souza, or Fred Phelps, or Joseph Ratzinger; what label someone chooses to attach to him or herself is of less import, surely, than his or her beliefs and actions.

and to then argue that belief in God is a bad thing — especially when he has no basis for establishing exactly what “bad” is

He may have a basis, and he should be given the opportunity to explain what that is.

21 08 2008
Bruce

I think that misses the point. Accepting the claim that “the Glory of God” is a worthwhile justification for doing anything at all presupposes the belief that a God exists.

Indeed, in essence it’s the same problem that Hitchens makes.

21 08 2008
Gerry Rzeppa

Could one of you guys please complete the following sentence for me? An act is moral when…

21 08 2008
AV

Could one of you guys please complete the following sentence for me? An act is moral when…

Offhand, I think the answer I gave to the “Something is good when . . .” would suffice for this one, too.

Not wishing to strawman you, how would you complete the sentence?

And as a theist, how do you think God—were God to exist—would complete the sentence?

21 08 2008
AV

An act is moral when…

I would add a third question. I think completing this sentence depends very much on what you want to achieve. What do you think?

21 08 2008
Gerry Rzeppa

I agree, AV, that “good” and “moral” are related terms. I don’t think the definition of morality depends on one’s goals. Read on, please.

I said before that something is good when it is used as it was intended to be used. I will now take the next step as say that someone is “good” or “moral” when he does good things — ie, uses things as they were intended to be used. When my little boy pounds a nail with a hammer, he’s using the tool as it was intended and is acting morally; and so I say, “Good boy.” But when he takes the hammer to the cat, he’s using the tool otherwise than intended, and is acting immorally; and I say, “Bad boy.”

We all naturally think this way, and the applications are endless. When I eat a balanced meal because I’m hungry, it’s a good and moral thing (because I’m using both the food and my digestive system as intended). When I overindulge in sugar-rich foods because I like how they taste, it’s a bad and immoral thing (because I’m misusing both the sweets and my body: gluttony is the technical term for this kind of abuse). Note that all the usual “moral” terms people typically use are easily interpreted with this framework in mind — wife abuse, animal abuse, drug abuse, and hammer abuse are all abuses, all bad things for the same basic reason. And the practitioners of such abuses are thus deemed immoral.

Your definitions (where “good” and “moral” mean minimizing suffering) might cover some of the above cases (assuming that cats can suffer and that their suffering is our concern, for example, or assuming that future suffering — like an obese person’s pending heart attack — trumps present pleasure). But it says nothing, as far as I can see, about the goodness or morality of a wide variety of other voluntary acts (like grave robbing, cannibalism, and cheating on one’s taxes) and is therefore, at best, incomplete.

Note further that your definition and mine both require a person to settle on some “facts” before he makes a decision regarding a particular act. Should I, for example, get drunk and drive home, or not? In my scheme, to act morally, I have to determine the proper function of alcoholic beverages and automobiles, and then use them as intended. You, on the other hand, have to predict the future — that is, you has to imagine what future suffering may or may not precipitate from your actions, and make the call based on those nebulous and unreliable “facts”. That’s why I think my definition gives us all a better shot at “doing the right thing.” Acting on sound principles is always easier (and better) than acting on imagined consequences.

In closing, let me say that it seems to me that atheism begins when an individual pulls out the rug from under his own feet, and continues with a desperate and futile attempt to re-establish self-evident truths on a foundation of thin air. The only remedy is repentance (ie, turning around). Start by assuming the existence of a benevolent Creator, and all things philosophical are relatively easy to define, understand, and implement. As one recent author put it, everything you really need to know can be learned in kindergarden. But start anywhere else, and the philosophical problems that arise cannot be satisfactorily resolved. Godel pointed this out, in minature, to Russell and Whitehead. I’m giving it to you with a much broader brush. Either way, it’s a gift you shouldn’t despise.

21 08 2008
AV

When my little boy pounds a nail with a hammer, he’s using the tool as it was intended and is acting morally; and so I say, “Good boy.” But when he takes the hammer to the cat, he’s using the tool otherwise than intended, and is acting immorally; and I say, “Bad boy.”

I don’t see how the “misuse” of the hammer is the problem here. Surely the moral issue is the harm done to the cat? Also, suppose the cat were dying, and in agony, and required putting out of its misery. There are no vets in your scenario, just the little boy and the cat. If the little boy uses the hammer to put the cat out of its misery, can we still say he is a “bad boy?” And he is a bad boy in this case because he has used the hammer otherwise than “intended.”

I do, as you can imagine, have a problem with “intention” here. I can’t see what relevance it bears to right and wrong at all. And in any case, figuring out “intention” can be much more vexed than you might think. Where do we locate “intention,” anyway? The first major application of Internet technology was to facilitate US military communications in the 60s. And here it is today, no longer being used for that purpose. Are we now using that technology contrary to how it was “intended” (by whom?) to be used, and if so, is that a bad thing?

We all naturally think this way, and the applications are endless. When I eat a balanced meal because I’m hungry, it’s a good and moral thing (because I’m using both the food and my digestive system as intended). When I overindulge in sugar-rich foods because I like how they taste, it’s a bad and immoral thing (because I’m misusing both the sweets and my body: gluttony is the technical term for this kind of abuse).

How we “naturally think” has no bearing on whether x or y is good or bad. To argue otherwise is to commit any number of fallacies: is-ought, the appeal to tradition, the appeal to popular belief.

And I think you’re conflating two senses in which we use the terms good and bad. When we say that over-indulging in sweets is “bad for you”, we are not making a moral judgement, but rather stating a matter of physiological fact: if you over-indulge in sweets, this may result in deleterious (“bad”) health effects. The only potential moral issues I can see here arise if your being unhealthy (your ill health being preventable in this case) causes you to become a burden on the health system in your community, and if your becoming a burden causes a diversion of resources away from other sick people.

But it says nothing, as far as I can see, about the goodness or morality of a wide variety of other voluntary acts (like grave robbing, cannibalism, and cheating on one’s taxes) and is therefore, at best, incomplete.

The problem with my definition, of course, is that “harm” or “suffering” can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Grave robbing might violate someone’s property rights, and might cause emotional or psychological harm to relatives of the deceased. (I don’t think the “ick” factor has anything to do with morality—that’s the appeal to emotion fallacy.) Cannibalism obviously involves violence and the suffering of the victim. Cheating on one’s taxes—causes potential harm to many in a society, insofar as taxes are used to fund law and order, general infrastructure, public education, health, sanitation and so on.

To be continued.

21 08 2008
Gerry Rzeppa

AV says: “I don’t see how the “misuse” of the hammer is the problem here. Surely the moral issue is the harm done to the cat?”

I reply, No, it’s both. The cat, of course, has more intrinsic value than the hammer (in the Christian’s view), but misuse of anything, sentient or not, is still a bad thing. And the consequences will be bad for the cat and the hammer: most people don’t like dead cats and don’t want blood on their hammers. But note that the consequences are bad because the act is bad, not the other way around. Cause and effect, y’know. Something most atheists tend to get backward!

AV says, “Also, suppose the cat were dying, and in agony, and required putting out of its misery… If the little boy uses the hammer to put the cat out of its misery, can we still say he is a ‘bad boy?’ And he is a bad boy in this case because he has used the hammer otherwise than “intended.”

I reply, In the extreme case you site (which requires, of course, many qualifiers) the hammer is being used properly — to “hit things that need hitting.” So if the cat needs killing, and the boy is the proper person to do the killing, and no better means is available, then he is acting morally. Note that I’m still appealing to principle here, and not consequence.

AV says, “I do, as you can imagine, have a problem with ‘intention’ here. I can’t see what relevance it bears to right and wrong at all.”

I reply, I’m sorry to hear that. I probably won’t be able to help you then. But I’m going to press on through this post just in case.

AV says, “And in any case, figuring out ‘intention’ can be much more vexed than you might think.”

I reply, True, but significantly less problematic than trying to predict the future, which is the only other option on the table.

AV says, “The first major application of Internet technology was to facilitate US military communications in the 60s. And here it is today, no longer being used for that purpose. Are we now using that technology contrary to how it was ‘intended’ (by whom?) to be used, and if so, is that a bad thing?”

I reply, Indeed. Just consider how many of the Internet’s problems are the result of not being used as it was intended and you’ll see what I mean. Wouldn’t the Internet be better (ie, less “bad”) if it was designed, from the ground up, to provide the services people are demanding of it today?

AV says, “How we ‘naturally think’ has no bearing on whether x or y is good or bad. To argue otherwise is to commit any number of fallacies: is-ought, the appeal to tradition, the appeal to popular belief.”

I reply, How we “naturally think” has plenty of bearing on the subject if we begin where I begin — with a benevolent Creator who wants us to think rightly, and has made it possible for us to do so.

Regarding appeals to tradition: they’re not always bad; sometimes our forebears got it right, and in most cases they were closer to the actual events. Regarding appeal to popular belief: if the belief is more-or-less ubiquitous in time and space, and not merely popular, it’s can be a good clue, a good piece of data to work with. Regarding is-ought falacies: Exactly what does an atheist mean by “ought”?

AV says, “And I think you’re conflating two senses in which we use the terms good and bad. When we say that over-indulging in sweets is “bad for you”, we are not making a moral judgement.”

I reply, You may not consider gluttony a sin, but the Church always has, and most people do — at least semi-consciously. “I really shouldn’t,” they say, meaning “ought not,” as they reach for that second donut.

AV says, “The only potential moral issues I can see here arise if your being unhealthy (your ill health being preventable in this case) causes you to become a burden on the health system in your community, and if your becoming a burden causes a diversion of resources away from other sick people.”

I reply, You’re arguing from unknown and unpredictable consequences again. Some people overeat and smoke and drink to excess and live long, healthy lives. Who can know? Besides, you say nothing about someone being a danger to himself!

AV says, “The problem with my definition, of course, is that ‘harm’ or ‘suffering’ can be interpreted in a variety of ways.”

I reply, Not to mention the fact that the ‘harm’ or ‘suffering’ you speak of is always future and therefore contingent — it may not occur. The boy swings the hammer at the cat and misses: Has he done wrong? The Church says, yes, if he intended to hit the beast (without good reason). And we’re back to intent. See the next point.

AV says, “Grave robbing might violate someone’s property rights, and might cause emotional or psychological harm to relatives of the deceased.”

I reply, Contingency again. “Might violate,” “might cause.” But is it wrong if the grieving widow doesn’t find out? If so, is it right until she finds out, and then does it become wrong, long after the fact, when she discovers the event? What if she later learns that her husband was unfaithful and is then glad that his grave was robbed of that nice watch that he said was a gift from the boss, but was actually from his mistress? Does the deed then revert to being good? I say it again: We simply aren’t omniscient enough to make decisions based on imagined consequences.

AV says, “Cannibalism obviously involves violence and the suffering of the victim.”

I reply, Unless he’s dead already.

AV says, “Cheating on one’s taxes—causes potential harm to many in a society, insofar as taxes are used to fund law and order, general infrastructure, public education, health, sanitation and so on.”

I reply, The key word again being “potential.” I’m pretty sure that if I short the government a nickel on my next return, no suffering will result. But where do we draw the line? How much is too much? And can I assume I’m the only one cheating, or do I have to question every other taxpayer before I make a decision?

Your approach to morality, AV, is simply impractical. You should think about that before you reject the wisdom of those who have gone before you. Traditional morality not only works (not perfectly, of course, since we’re dealing with fallen men), but it’s the only system that has ever worked.

21 08 2008
Gerry Rzeppa

Speaking of bad design — I didn’t put that winking smiley in the previous post. The “much-abused” patchwork Internet misinterpreted my closing parenthesis!

21 08 2008
AV

Gerry, I’ll continue my previous response before replying to your more recent comments.

Note further that your definition and mine both require a person to settle on some “facts” before he makes a decision regarding a particular act. Should I, for example, get drunk and drive home, or not? In my scheme, to act morally, I have to determine the proper function of alcoholic beverages and automobiles, and then use them as intended. You, on the other hand, have to predict the future — that is, you has to imagine what future suffering may or may not precipitate from your actions, and make the call based on those nebulous and unreliable “facts”. That’s why I think my definition gives us all a better shot at “doing the right thing.” Acting on sound principles is always easier (and better) than acting on imagined consequences.

What makes a principle “sound” is that it has been tested against the world, and not yet found wanting. It is “sound” only if there is evidence that it works. Otherwise, what you have is dogmatism: abiding by principles regardless of whether they have any bearing on how the world actually works.

Your approach is actually parasitic upon a posteriori knowledge. Knowledge such as the physiological effects of alcohol consumption, how it affects judgement, co-ordination, response time, and so on. Because of these effects, there is a fair probability that you will be involved in an accident, and this probability increases in proportion with the amount of alcohol you have consumed. On top of that, there are the statistics themselves. You make out as if it’s a crap-shoot, and that’s simply a misrepresentation of the case. It is this information, the real-world consequences, that allow anyone to say “Don’t drink and drive” and be deemed worth paying attention to. Without that knowledge, without the empirical data to back it up, the statement “Don’t drink and drive because you’re not using either the alcohol or the automobile as it was ‘intended’ to be used” is unsubstantiated dogma, which nobody is obliged to pay any attention to while it remains unsubstantiated. With that empirical data, the aforementioned statement becomes superfluous. It is that empirical data that makes “Don’t drink and drive” a sound principle or rule of thumb. (That, and the fact that there are legal consequences if you are caught by the authorities.)

In closing, let me say that it seems to me that atheism begins when an individual pulls out the rug from under his own feet, and continues with a desperate and futile attempt to re-establish self-evident truths on a foundation of thin air.

Atheism is a response to the fact that there is no evidence that a deity exists, and hence no reason to believe in one.

Start by assuming the existence of a benevolent Creator, and all things philosophical are relatively easy to define, understand, and implement.

There is no reason to do so, any more than there is reason to assume the existence that there are little green men in orbit around Alpha Centauri. Show me the evidence that the little green men exist, and I”ll change my mind.

But I can’t simply “decide” to believe in the existence of something when there is no evidence that it exists, any more than I can “decide” to believe in a square circle, or a married bachelor, or six impossible things before breakfast.

As one recent author put it, everything you really need to know can be learned in kindergarden.

What do we “really” need to know? What evidence do you have that it is all we “really” need to know? This author you speak of, what makes him or her an authority on what we “really” need to know?

21 08 2008
AV

I reply, No, it’s both. The cat, of course, has more intrinsic value than the hammer (in the Christian’s view), but misuse of anything, sentient or not, is still a bad thing.

Why? You’ve acknowledged that the mistreatment of the cat is a bad thing. You continue to assert that the misuse of the hammer is a bad thing. You still haven’t explained why the misuse of the hammer is immoral.

And the consequences will be bad for the cat and the hammer: most people don’t like dead cats and don’t want blood on their hammers. But note that the consequences are bad because the act is bad, not the other way around.

No, I don’t note that at all. Please explain why the consequences are bad because the act is bad.

I reply, In the extreme case you site (which requires, of course, many qualifiers) the hammer is being used properly — to “hit things that need hitting.” So if the cat needs killing, and the boy is the proper person to do the killing, and no better means is available, then he is acting morally. Note that I’m still appealing to principle here, and not consequence.

But I still don’t see why the “proper” use of the hammer has anything to do with the boy acting morally. How do you know that the hammer was “intended” to hit things that need hitting, rather than to pound nails? Have you personally interviewed the individual who invented the hammer? Do you have access to his writings on the subject?

All I see you doing is making a bald assertions about what is the “intended” use of the hammer, and then expecting to simply accept without question your assertions.

And I don’t see why I ought to dismiss consequence. The cat is in pain and dying. It needs putting out of its misery. Here is a boy with a hammer. The boy, taking pity on the creature, hits it with the hammer. The cat dies, and is thereby put out of its misery. Surely it is the consequence—along with, perhaps, the boy’s motives—that render his action (i.e. killing the cat with the hammer) a good one? I don’t see how the supposed “intended” use of the hammer bears any relevance at all.

I reply, True, but significantly less problematic than trying to predict the future, which is the only other option on the table.

This is very slippery. Unless you have evidence that psychic abilities are real, “predicting the future” can only really mean modelling and anticipating outcomes based on probabilities. This, it seems to me, is much easier to do than determining (as opposed to making ambit claims about) “intended uses” and so forth.

I reply, Indeed. Just consider how many of the Internet’s problems are the result of not being used as it was intended and you’ll see what I mean.

So is the the Internet bad for not being used as it was intended, or are we (you and I, having this conversation) bad for not using the Internet as it was intended?

Wouldn’t the Internet be better (ie, less “bad”) if it was designed, from the ground up, to provide the services people are demanding of it today?

It would be better . . . today. But if it was designed with today’s needs in mind, it might not (and probably wouldn’t) meet the needs of those using it ten or twenty years from now. It might not have met the needs of those using it (i.e. the US military) in the 60s.

I reply, How we “naturally think” has plenty of bearing on the subject if we begin where I begin — with a benevolent Creator who wants us to think rightly, and has made it possible for us to do so.

Prove the existence of a benevolent Creator and get back to me.

Regarding appeals to tradition: they’re not always bad; sometimes our forebears got it right, and in most cases they were closer to the actual events.

We only know they got it right by virtue of a posteriori knowledge. Note that testing their claims, rather than blindly accepting them because “it’s tradition,” takes you far away from the appeal to tradition.

Regarding appeal to popular belief: if the belief is more-or-less ubiquitous in time and space, and not merely popular, it’s can be a good clue, a good piece of data to work with.

No, it isn’t. All you can conclude is that the belief is ubiquitous (among human beings on planet Earth: we don’t have verifiable knowledge of any other beings that have beliefs). That doesn’t mean the belief is right.

Regarding is-ought falacies: Exactly what does an atheist mean by “ought”?

That’s completely irrelevant. Atheism is the lack of belief in a deity or deities. Nothing more, nothing less. What an atheist means by “ought” depends upon which particular system of ethics that particular atheist subscribes to. You seem to hold that any morality that is not divine command morality is not really a morality at all. I see no reason to share that presupposition.

I reply, You may not consider gluttony a sin, but the Church always has, and most people do — at least semi-consciously.

So have you an appeal to authority (the Church believes gluttony is a sin), and an appeal to popularity (most people believe gluttony is a sin). Both are logically fallacious, and neither proves that gluttony is immoral. It may be immoral, but fallacies don’t get you there.

I reply, You’re arguing from unknown and unpredictable consequences again. Some people overeat and smoke and drink to excess and live long, healthy lives. Who can know? Besides, you say nothing about someone being a danger to himself!

Again, you’re ignoring probability, and making out as if the likelihood of developing poor health as a result of overeating or smoking is somewhere in the vicinity of winning the Lotto jackpot. This is a profound misrepresentation of reality.

And if someone is adult, and competent, and capable of choosing otherwise, and if by being a danger to himself he is not a danger to anyone else, then I see no reason to restrain him.

I reply, Not to mention the fact that the ‘harm’ or ’suffering’ you speak of is always future and therefore contingent — it may not occur.

But it may occur, and it does occur. If people drink and drive, you may end up being killed as a consequence. People drink and drive, and they do end up being killed as a consequence.

Has he done wrong? The Church says, yes, if he intended to hit the beast (without good reason). And we’re back to intent.

Ah, but you’re talking about the boy’s intentions. The boy intended to cause harm to the cat—as far as we can tell—and that, I concede, is probably worth taking into consideration when reflecting upon the morality of his actions. But I note you have not said anything here about the intentions of the maker of the hammer.

I reply, Contingency again. “Might violate,” “might cause.” But is it wrong if the grieving widow doesn’t find out? If so, is it right until she finds out, and then does it become wrong, long after the fact, when she discovers the event? What if she later learns that her husband was unfaithful and is then glad that his grave was robbed of that nice watch that he said was a gift from the boss, but was actually from his mistress? Does the deed then revert to being good?

If I steal five dollars from your wallet, I have harmed you, regardless of whether you notice the missing cash. You are five dollars poorer as a consequence of my having robbed you, and you have thus suffered financial harm—harm caused by me.

But in your comment above, you describe two scenarios. The first scenario I’m not so sure about (and that’s the real world is like—replete with moral dilemmas, the solutions for which are not always readily apparent. Facing up to the idea that some moral problems, upon closer inspection, are not as easily resolvable as they might seem—that’s difficult. Sitting in one’s armchair and making ambit declarations about right and wrong, without deigning to substantiate those claims—that’s easy. A kindergartener could do that.): it depends upon whether we think the widow has suffered some kind of harm as a result of the robbery. Does she have property rights over the grave? Can the corpse of the deceased be considered her property in some way? Does some other person or body (such as a church) have property rights over the grave site? And so on.

In the second scenario, which is different from the first scenario, the widow has not, in the end, been harmed. All other things being equal, by which I mean, so long as nobody else is harmed by the graverobber’s actions, how are his actions bad?

AV says, “Cannibalism obviously involves violence and the suffering of the victim.”

I reply, Unless he’s dead already.

Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571. I don’t consider their actions immoral. Do you?

I reply, The key word again being “potential.” I’m pretty sure that if I short the government a nickel on my next return, no suffering will result. But where do we draw the line? How much is too much?

The harm is proportional to the amount of money being bilked from the tax system. How much is too much is an economic question, and one that should be put to the Department of Taxation.

Your approach to morality, AV, is simply impractical.

I disagree. My approach to morality is reality-based: it is derived from a posteriori knowledge, knowledge about the (likely or anticipated) real-world consequences of actions. Your approach to morality, by contrast, is the essence of impracticality. It is faith-based, which basically means “these are my principles, I’m sticking with my principles, reality be damned.” Where its axioms make testable claims about the world that end up being supported by the evidence, (i) that wouldn’t make a lick of difference to you, and (ii) those axioms qua axioms are made redundant, because you now have a body of evidence that tells you why doing x or not doing x is right or wrong, rather than making ambit, unsupported claims that doing x or not doing x is right or wrong.

Traditional morality not only works (not perfectly, of course, since we’re dealing with fallen men), but it’s the only system that has ever worked.

Speaking of traditional morality, do you consider slavery immoral, and if so, and if your morals are derived from the Bible, why do you think the Bible doesn’t explicitly condemn the practice as it condemns murder?

22 08 2008
Gerry Rzeppa

I’m saddened at the thought, AV, but I think we’ve reached an impasse.

22 08 2008
AV

At least we know where we stand.

22 08 2008
AV

By way of a P.S., I think I can sum up our differences thus. We both agree that “Don’t drink and drive” is a good rule of thumb. (And I assume we both agree that it is worth enshrining in law.) Where we disagree is on what it is that makes it a good rule of thumb. I think it is a good rule of thumb because of the likely (harmful) consequences of not following it. You think it is intrinsically a good rule of thumb. If there were some way of making drink-driving a safe activity, then I would no longer see an reason to urge people not to do it. What would be the point? Your approach has no way of dealing with this scenario, other than stubbornly sticking to its guns. “Don’t drink and drive.” “But it’s safe to drink and drive.” “I don’t care. Don’t drink and drive.”

(Not that I can imagine a safe way of drinking and driving, btw.)

22 09 2008
mmfromh

lol

What a cop-out. You are really trying to weasel your way out actually answering the challenge. Stop playing word games admit that there is no moral act a religious person can do that a nonreligious person couldn’t do.

22 09 2008
AV

What a cop-out.

Who are you addressing?

23 09 2008
Bruce

Stop playing word games admit…

Yeah! That tells people! Stop using like words’n’stuff and agree with him!

23 09 2008
Bruce

…there is no moral act a religious person can do that a nonreligious person couldn’t do.

Give up a bad religion (in lieu of a more benign one or none at all). Never having been religious, this is something I can’t do.

23 09 2008
AV

The work of Haidt and his colleagues suggests that we as humans in our various social and political communities cannot even agree upon what morality is—what kinds of issues count as foundational moral issues, and so forth. Surely these questions need to be sorted out before it is even possible to answer Hitchens’ challenge satisfactorily.

24 09 2008
Bruce

True.

3 02 2009
jens

I think your solution to the challenge does a lot less than you hope and here is why:

Let [A] be any odd system of belief.

The challenge can be posed to [A] thus:
“Name me an ethical statement made or an action performed by a believer [in A] that could not have been made or performed by a non-believer [in A]”

What this challenge is intended to prove is that [A] is not necessary to ethics, even if you (with Hitchens in mind) insert [the values of the secular enlightenment, especially those held by Paine and Jefferson] for [A]. No more, no less.

Your solution amounts to:
Let [a] be an action that is only (or mainly) considered ethical by adherents of [A], then [a] meets the above challenge.

What that reply proves is that any odd system of belief can meet that challenge in a trivial sort of way.

On the whole, Hitchens challenge proves that religion isnt strictly necessary for ethics or an ethical lifestyle valued by more than its adherents. Neither is any other particular system of belief.

The challenge can not prove that religious ethics are any worse than secular ones, it only proves that they are not necessarily better. One can argue that many are sufficient, as there seems to be a large consensus on many matters. But that is a contingent question as is the question of which of those one should prefer. And the above challenge does not contribute anything to that debate.

The force of Hitchens challenge lies in the fact that religious people sometimes claim their system of belief (or a small subset thereof that is exclusive to them, specifically the existance of a particular deity) to be strictly necessary for ethics.
Atheists usually do not make that claim to exclusivity on behalf of whatever they derive their ethics from. In that sense, even though the challenge can just as effecively be put to atheists, it proves nothing we would not accede anyway.
Likewise, any religious person who does not claim the logical necessity of accepting the existance of a deity for ethical behaviour need not be bothered by the challenge. I only met very few who really make that very strong claim, but it does pop up.

As an afterthought, there is a counter challenge that goes as follows:
“Name me an ethical statement or an ethical action that must be made or performed by a believer that need not have been made or performed by a non-believer”

This is supposed to prove something good about religious ethics, but if you insert the [A] at the appropriate places, you see that this challenge can also be posed by the followers of any odd system of belief, proving exactly the same point for their system.
It really only proves that total nihilists can not be very ethical. Hardly a surprising point to make.
Usually, a non believer in [A] would believe in something else ([B]) that may well force him or her to perform said action. Whether or not [B] does that or whether [B] is preferable to [A] on this or other accounts is again a contigent matter.

4 02 2009
arthurvandelay

jens, I wasn’t so much posing a solution as looking for one. I happen to like Hitchens’ challenge, and I think it works just fine in those situations where there is general consensus on what is and is not considered ethical. (As well as, of course, how to define ethics itself.)

I just don’t think it is going to convince those whom it is targeting—the religious dogmatists who consider yodelling at a magic sky fairy to be an ethical action.

4 02 2009
jens

I agree that it will not impress them much if taken on its own. And rightly so: proving that something isnt strictly logically necessary isnt much of an attack against believing it for other reasons.

I had the following context in mind: it is usually used to fend off the question Dostoyevski raised in The Brothers Karamazov.

When they charge us with ‘How can you possibly be a good person if you dont believe in God?’ they mean ‘What stops you from killing/raping/burning people?’ They dont mean ‘What makes you praise the Lord then, eh?’. The latter would be plain silly.

The question is intended to charge atheists with being immoral on the atheists own terms or at least with having a God shaped logical hole in the foundation of the atheists own purported ethics.
No consensus on what actions are ethical is required for that attack. The attack must indeed presume (even just for the sake of the argument) the atheists own ethical standarts as it tries to prove that those rest on faulty logic. (Not the way the atheist reasons in ethical matters, but the results of that reasoning)
Thus, the reply in the form of Hitchens challenge also takes place on the atheists own ethical ground.

5 02 2009
arthurvandelay

I only have time for a brief response:

The question is intended to charge atheists with being immoral on the atheists own terms or at least with having a God shaped logical hole in the foundation of the atheists own purported ethics.

I realise this. Apologists regularly claim that while it is possible for atheists to perform any ethical action that a religious person could perform, they have no “warrant” for doing so. (“Because God says so” being that warrant.) I’m not sure how Hitchens’ challenge answers this, which is not to say that he doesn’t answer it elsewhere.

5 02 2009
jens

Put like that, the apologist would simply inquire after the specific warrant the atheist has. That could be any secular ethics (Kant, Mill etc.). The apologist could then well argue that this brand of ethics or meta ethics is wrong or inferior or that the warrant is too weak and a normal discussion on the merits of different kinds of ethical reasoning can follow. I agree that Hitchens challenge doesnt help us here.

But the assumption behind the question in The Brothers Karamazov is that there could not possibly be any secular warrant at all. Most religious persons do not make that strong claim, but it does pop up. I think it is mostly a failure to see how anybody could possibly do anything against their own immediate shortsighted instincts or desires unless threatened with punishment. Hitchens uses another retort against it which is probably more effective. When asked why he does not murder and rape if he feels safe from Gods wrath, he simply asks back: ‘Would you?’.

8 06 2009
elikakohen

Wow.

There are a lot of logical fallacies in his argument. Though, I am glad people are starting to catch on.

I answered his challenge quite a while ago:

http://www.kohen.com/2008/06/christopher-hitchens-answered.html

12 11 2009
firali

What you have written as “descriptive ethics” is now simply known as morality, which varies from one person to another. But Hitchens targets Ethics which is systematic such as social ethics or national ethics.
i.e. Some person might thinks it is moral to fly a plain into a building but it is socially and nationally unethical.

Hitchens didn’t say it was unethical to pray with your child but he said it was not an ethical activity. In other words, something does not have to be either ethical or unethical. Also, the man praying with his daughter might think its moral while another think its delusional, that topic is a moral one not an ethical one, it doesn’t concern a nation.

27 11 2009
copperblade

Yeah, Hitchen’s challenge is a carefully worded trap. Hitchens will never agree to something being ethical that he himself does not believe is ethical. So of course the question is unanswerable. If you come up with such a statement, and he cannot agree that it is ethical, then it doesn’t satisfy the challenge. He’s basically saying “find something ethical that I don’t believe is ethical.” When you find it, he’ll say it’s not ethical so it doesn’t count.

And he gave us one answer: “love your enemy.” He has stated on more than one occasion that he does not agree with that, and that it is immoral (along with other Christian morals). So if there is any meaning at all to his “challenge” then it is this: there is in fact a difference in Christian morality and atheistic morality.

(Actually he generally disagrees with a lot of the morality presented in the Bible, so one has to wonder exactly what his point is.)

3 12 2009
RON GARVEY

I sugest that you review english composition 101, where it says whats you point?

30 08 2010
jeffersonianideal

Prayer is not necessarily in itself, an ethical act so this a rather weak and ineffectual response to Hitchen’s challenge. Prayer is the practice of petitioning a god who may or may not exist for something you desire. While the prayer may indeed be pleading on behalf of someone else, more often than not, prayer is used for personal benefit. The more relevant concern is that the focus of a person’s prayers my be ethical, unethical or neither.

21 01 2011
Fanny

I think the relevant concern here is not the focus of one’s prayer. In context we know that Hitchens is not questioning whether prayer is useful or not, but he is questioning what prayer does. Of course, Hitchens is certain that prayer does not do anything. Therefore, it can not commit or contribute to good or evil actions.

25 01 2011
Jeffersonianideal

Since Hitchens believes foremost in the reasonable observation that nothing fails like prayer, what one prays for is absolutely relevant. I have personally known so called, born again, devout fundamentalist Christians who have prayed for the superficial, such as being able to schedule a nail appointment to the selfish and extravagant, like being able to have a successful acquisition of a $390,000 lake front house.

30 09 2010
K

Hitchens’ challenge is is a simple rhetorical question to the SPECIFIC religious assertion that without a god or the bible there can be no morality or people cannot not be moral or ethical…. period. It neither affirms atheistic moral supremecy nor makes the religious seem any less ethical. It merely and quite easily evens the playing field in this one respect between atheism and deism. The assumption in the dissecting of this challenge is that it seems many are assuming he us making a broader point than he actually may be. Hitchen’s is far from being over-simplified in explaining ANYTHING. The analyzation of this challenge should

30 09 2010
K

(continued from above)

start with the question “Why has he not been more singular or specific in his challenge?” I believe the answer lies in the simple retort he made against this one religious claim.

If he were making or opining that atheists were more moral or ethical because of lack of belief I’m pretty sure he would have added that into the challenge. He has, in fact, stated that he believes that atheists are more moral because of not bowing to a higher power or letting it control their lives, but it just doesn’t seem he was doing it with this challenge.

As matter-of-factly as the religious say there can be no morality without their doctrine of belief, he subsequently and effectively turns the metaphoric mirror back on them.

21 01 2011
Fanny

I think when Hitchens talks about ethical actions vs wicked ones he dismisses the differences in belief over which actions are ethical / wicked. This is consistent with all his views concerning belief: no evidence, no go. So I think it’s fair to assume that his definition of what is ethical / wicked is based on evidence. Prayer has proven to do neither good or bad (an experiment on prayer funded by the Templeton Foundation, which is known for supporting religious scientists: http://www.davidmyers.org/Brix?pageID=12). This explains Hitchens’ response to prayer as an ethical action.

I’m not inclined to pick apart the wording in the challenge or look for flaws. I understand, clearly, the intent of Hitchen’s questions. I know that he values reason and evidence. If I wanted to take on his challenge, I know he, and other like-minded people, would not accept an answer outside of one logical and supported by evidence. My first step in beating the challenge would not be picking apart the wording (unless the question was complicated beyond my understanding)…it would be looking for the answer that supported my claim, within the requirements set forth by the challenger.

Nothing comes to mind.

15 07 2011
grategodalmighty

“How about a religious believer who defies his religious beliefs to conform with his job description? It’s ethical, and it couldn’t have been done by a non-believer”

Wrong. I am an non-believer and I too can do this.

I work with children, often cooking for them. I ensure that the Muslim students are alerted as to any non-Halal ingredients (chiefly pork) which may be in the food so they can avoid eating them in observance of their religion. I do so, even though I find the religious aversion to pork to be silly.

So no, leaving your beliefs at the door isn’t unique to the religious. Given their frequent religious intrusion into people’s private lives, I would argue its not even particularly common amongst them in the first place.

14 03 2013
JP

Prayer is UNethical in the sense that it gives the person praying a sense of accomplishment without any sort of labor towards a goal. Real world demands real work, and just wishing is not doing something better. To claim otherwise would be like saying that if you ask someone to buy a homeless person a meal, you bought him part of that meal.
Also, your questioning of the challenge is flawed: you mention the two different kinds of ethic, but skips over the part where that actually is impeding of a response. And although atheists DO disagree on right and wrong, that is no reason to not answer, because they can usually be persuaded with proper argumentation. Which you of course lack.

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