The Mystical Ethics of the New Atheists

Alan Germani
Content Type
Journal Article
The Objective Standard
Issue Number
Publication Date
Fall 2008
The Objective Standard
Examines the moral ideas of Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins, exposes some curious truths about their ethics, and provides sound advice for theists and atheists alike who wish to discover and uphold a rational, secular morality.
Political Geography
Middle East
In the wake of the religiously motivated atrocities of 9/11, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens have penned best-selling books in which they condemn religious belief as destructive to human life and as lacking any basis in reality.* On the premise that religious belief as such leads to atrocities, the "New Atheists," as these four have come to be known, criticize religion as invalid, mind-thwarting, self-perpetuating, and deadly. As Sam Harris puts it: "Because each new generation of children is taught that religious propositions need not be justified in the way that others must, civilization is still besieged by the armies of the preposterous. We are, even now, killing ourselves over ancient literature. Who would have thought something so tragically absurd could be possible?" The problem, say the New Atheists, is not merely the "armies of the preposterous"-militant religionists such as Islamic jihadists or so-called religious extremists. The broader problem, as Harris notes, is the "larger set of cultural and intellectual accommodations we have made for faith itself. Religious moderates are, in large part, responsible for the religious conflict in our world, because their beliefs provide the context in which scriptural literalism and religious violence can never be adequately opposed." In other words, religious moderates shelter and fuel the religious militants of the world by espousing or condoning the beliefs that motivate them. The New Atheists want such moderates to wake up to the dangers inherent in their religions, to question their unquestioned beliefs, and to stop supporting the militants' faith by giving it, in Dawkins's words, undeserved respect. In their efforts to change the minds of such religionists, the New Atheists enumerate the absurdities of religious doctrine, from virgin births to covenants with God to harems for martyrs; they recall the atrocities to which religious belief has led, from the Spanish Inquisition to the Salem "witch" trials to 9/11; and they call for a "future of reason" and "the end of faith." But the New Atheists acknowledge that documenting the historical consequences of religious belief is insufficient to convince people to abandon religion. Many people cling to religion because they regard it as the only possible source for an objective morality. They believe, as Dawkins puts it, that "without God there would be no standard for deciding what is good." In other words, people accept religion because they need morality; they need principles to guide their personal choices, social relations, and political institutions-and, explicitly or implicitly, they know it. Until religionists are convinced that there is a secular source for an objective morality, they will continue to cling to religion for this reason if no other. As Harris puts it: The problem is that once we abandon our belief in a rule-making God, the question of why a given action is good or bad becomes a matter of debate. And a statement like "Murder is wrong," while being uncontroversial in most circles, has never seemed anchored to the facts of this world in the way that statements about planets or molecules appear to be. The problem, in philosophical terms, has been one of characterizing just what sort of "facts" our moral intuitions can be said to track-if, indeed, they track anything of the kind. Setting aside for the moment the notion of "moral intuitions," this passage points to a crucial truth: In order to persuade religionists to abandon their dangerous beliefs, one must do more than show what is wrong with religion-one must provide something positive to fill the moral void. One must show that an objective morality exists and that it is based not on revelation or faith but on observable facts. One must show how morality is derived via reason from sensory evidence. What do the New Atheists offer in this regard? What morality do they espouse-and how do they arrive at its principles? Let us turn first to the ethical ideas of Christopher Hitchens. "We believe with certainty that an ethical life can be lived without religion," says Hitchens of himself and his fellow atheists in the opening pages of God Is Not Great. Although Hitchens exerts little effort elaborating what such an ethical life entails (he focuses primarily on demonstrating the follies of religious belief and arguing for a secular and scientific vs. supernatural understanding of the universe), he does assert his ethical views in statements scattered throughout his written works and public appearances. For instance, in one passage in God Is Not Great, he posits that men are naturally selfish and opines that perhaps we would be "better mammals" if we were not. Asked on ABC's Good Morning America to respond to those who ask him to consider the "good" that religion does, including its promotion of "charity" and "selflessness," Hitchens lauded as moral those "who live their lives in effect for others"-but insisted that atheists can lead such lives, too. These and similar statements show that Hitchens equates morality with altruism, the notion that being ethical consists in living for others. How does Hitchens "know" that this idea is true? What facts of reality does he cite in support of it? "[C]onscience," says Hitchens, "is innate," and "[e]verybody but the psychopath" has the "feeling" that this is so. This "innate conscience" is what makes murder and theft "abhorrent to humans without any further explanation"; it is what gives children an "innate sense of fairness"; and it is what informs each of us of our "duty to others." In short, according to Hitchens, this "innate conscience" enables us to just know what is right and wrong-and altruism is right. The notion of an "innate conscience" is, of course, not original to Hitchens; the history of philosophy is replete with appeals to a "moral sense" or "moral intuition" or "moral law within." But although many have appealed to such a sense, none has ever been able to overcome the fact that it is observationally false that humans possess an innate sense of right and wrong: Many people, and not just psychopaths, make horrifically bad choices that ruin their own lives, the lives of others, or both. And not all of these people know that their actions are morally wrong. On the contrary, many believe that their actions are morally justified. Among the countless counterexamples one could cite against any claim to an "innate conscience" is the fact that the 9/11 hijackers regarded their murderous actions not as abhorrent, but as sublime. Did these killers-and the millions of people in the Middle East who celebrated their actions-lack an innate conscience? Or did their innate consciences house different contents than those of Americans who reacted with horror to what they did? Ironically, the claim to innate knowledge-the claim to "just knowing" something-is precisely what Hitchens and the other New Atheists condemn when they condemn faith. Accepting an idea on faith means accepting it when there is no evidence to support it. Claiming innate knowledge amounts to the same thing: claiming to "know" something apart from evidence. The claim to "innate knowledge," like the claim to knowledge through faith, is a form of mysticism, the claim to a non-rational, non-sensory means of knowledge. The fact is that moral ideas are not innate; like all ideas, they are created, chosen, learned-and they can be developed or accepted either rationally (via observation and logic) or irrationally (via non-rational means). Moral ideas can be founded on fact or based on feeling; they can be valid or invalid. The question is: How do we know whether a particular moral claim is valid or invalid? What is the standard of moral validity? By insisting that moral ideas are innate, Hitchens shirks the vital task of identifying a moral standard-and thereby abdicates the possibility of grounding his anti-religion diatribes: How can religious belief be wrong if the "innate consciences" of billions of people tell them that it is right? Would that this was the extent of Hitchens's failures. In connection with his observationally false view that morality is innate, Hitchens subscribes to the idea that man is mentally and thus morally hampered by innate irrationality. As he puts it: Past and present religious atrocities have occurred not because we are evil, but because it is a fact of nature that the human species is, biologically, only partly rational. Evolution has meant that our prefrontal lobes are too small, our adrenal glands are too big, and our reproductive organs apparently designed by committee; a recipe which, alone or in combination, is very certain to lead to some unhappiness and disorder. Hitchens further claims that man has a "religious impulse" or "worshipping tendency" and that religious faith exists and is ineradicable because "we are still-evolving creatures." These are curious claims coming from an intellectual who seeks to change minds about morality. If man's ethical ideas were innate, if his biology predisposed him to irrationality, if he had no choice about whether to commit evil, then the entire field of morality-which presupposes that man does choose his actions-would not only be pointless; it would be impossible. If man cannot choose his actions, then he cannot have a guide to choosing his actions. Although Hitchens may be adept at pointing out religious absurdities, he not only fails spectacularly when it comes to providing a valid secular alternative to the moral guidance provided by religion-he endorses essentially the same ethics as do religionists (altruism) and he arrives at this ethics by essentially the same means (mysticism). If this is the best the New Atheists have to offer in their efforts to lure people away from religion, they should not be surprised to find religionists ignoring them. At first glance, Sam Harris appears committed to discovering a valid secular moral standard: He shows as little regard for secular viewpoints that lack such a standard as he does for religion. Harris correctly characterizes the folly of moral relativism as follows: "No one is ever really right about what he believes; he can only point to a community of peers who believe likewise. Suicide bombing isn't really wrong, in any absolute sense; it just seems so from the parochial perspective of Western culture." Harris also condemns pragmatism for lacking a moral standard, noting that, from its point of view, "the notion that our beliefs might 'correspond with reality' is absurd. Beliefs are simply tools for making one's way in the world." And Harris speaks frankly to the futility of holding either of these views: To lose the conviction that you can actually be right-about anything-seems a recipe for the End of Days chaos envisioned by Yeats: when "the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." I believe that relativism and pragmatism have already done much to muddle our thinking on a variety of subjects, many of which have more than a passing relevance to the survival of civilization. Eschewing relativism and pragmatism, Harris subscribes to "ethical realism," the view that our statements about the world will be "true" or "false" not merely in virtue of how they function amid the welter of our other beliefs, or with reference to any culture-bound criteria, but because reality simply is a certain way, independent of our thoughts. . . . To be an ethical realist is to believe that in ethics, as in physics, there are truths waiting to be discovered-and thus we can be right or wrong in our beliefs about them. Such passages in Harris's works raise hope that he will identify and advocate a reality-based alternative to the ethics of religion and relativism. Unfortunately, however, Harris, like Hitchens, "grounds" his ethics in innate knowledge, which he labels "intuition." According to Harris, there is a point at which "we can break our knowledge of a thing down no further," a point at which we must anchor our ethical and other ideas to reality by taking "irreducible leaps" via "intuition," which he says is the "most basic constituent of our faculty of understanding." Why does an "ethical realist," who claims to believe that ethical truths are waiting in reality to be discovered, insist that ethics must be grounded "intuitively," via "irreducible leaps," rather than rationally, via direct observations of reality? Because, Harris's paean to a discoverable ethics notwithstanding, he subscribes to the neo-Kantian view that our sense perceptions are "structured, edited, or amplified by the nervous system" to the point that "[n]o human being has ever experienced an objective world, or even a world at all." Although there is a long philosophical tradition that denies the validity of the senses, and although such skepticism remains fashionable to this day, the validity of the senses is self-evident: We rely on our senses all day, every day to ascertain the facts of reality. If our senses were invalid, we would have no means by which to determine whether it is safe to cross the street, whether our food is sufficiently cooked, or whether the phone is ringing. If our senses were invalid, we would have no means of identifying any such facts, and we could not function or live. The fact is that the "most basic constituent of our faculty of understanding" is not "intuition," but sense perception-our mind's basic contact with reality. And those who try to deny the validity of the senses must rely on that very validity in the process of doing so. In order to put his denial in print, for instance, a skeptic author must rely on his sense of touch to convey his thoughts through his keyboard; he must rely on his vision to see his monitor and confirm that his keystrokes have correctly formed his intended words and sentences; he must rely on the vision of an editor to read his manuscript and on his own sense of hearing to field the editor's phone calls; he must rely on the sensory perception of thousands of people involved in the printing, marketing, and distribution of his tract; and he must rely on the vision of his readers if they are to gain knowledge of his remarkable assertion that "[n]o human being has ever experienced an objective world, or even a world at all." Fashionable though it may be to deny the validity of the senses, doing so makes no sense. Nor is it a sound strategy for persuading people, as Harris hopes to do, that ethical truths, like physical truths, are "waiting to be discovered." Because Harris denies the possibility of knowing reality, it should come as no surprise that he, like Hitchens, defaults to the "just knowing" view of ethics. Unlike Hitchens, however, Harris specifies a moral standard. Our "intuitions," he says, tell us that the standard of the good is "happiness" and that the standard of the evil is "suffering." Does this mean that one should promote one's own life by pursuing happiness and by avoiding suffering? No, says Harris, such pursuits and avoidances do not qualify as moral; an act "becomes a matter of ethics only when the happiness of others is also at stake"-at which point we have "ethical responsibilities" toward them. Does this mean that we should reward those who bring value to our lives? No, says Harris, to "treat others ethically" is to set aside one's own selfish interests and to "act out of concern for their happiness and suffering. It is, as Kant observed, to treat them as ends in themselves rather than as a means to some further end." On Harris's account, we are morally obliged to promote the happiness and reduce the suffering of others, whatever the consequence to our own lives may be. [I]t is one thing to think it "wrong" that people are starving elsewhere in the world; it is another to find this as intolerable as one would if these people were one's friends. There may, in fact, be no ethical justification for all of us fortunate people to carry on with our business while other people starve. . . . It may be that a clear view of the matter . . . would oblige us to work tirelessly to alleviate the hunger of every last stranger as though it were our own. On this account, how could one go to the movies and remain ethical? One couldn't. One would simply be taking a vacation from one's ethics. Like Hitchens, Harris advocates altruism, the notion that being moral consists in living for the sake of others, or, more precisely, in self-sacrificially serving others. And although Harris acknowledges that "there are millions of people whose faith moves them to perform extraordinary acts of self-sacrifice for the benefit of others," he claims that "there are far better reasons for self-sacrifice than those that religion provides." The best "reason" for self-sacrifice, says Harris, is that "the social feeling of love is one of our greatest sources of happiness; and love entails that we be concerned for the happiness of others." This, he says, "suggests a clear link between ethics [by which Harris means altruism] and positive human emotions. The fact that we want the people we love to be happy, and are made happy by love in turn, is an empirical observation." The happiness that Harris advocates is not the happiness that comes from the achievement of one's own self-interested, life-promoting values. Rather, it is a "higher happiness," which allegedly comes from sacrificing one's own interests for the sake of others. What if someone, in his self-sacrificial service to others, fails to achieve this "higher happiness"? Harris says that he should rectify the situation by meditating and liberating himself from the "illusion of the self" that is the "string upon which all [his] states of suffering and dissatisfaction are strung." And what if this person still fails to intuitively grasp the sacrificial essence of ethics? Then, says Harris, he may be precluded from "taking part in any serious discussion" of morality. Far from demonstrating how ethical truths might be discovered by reference to the facts of reality, Harris severs moral inquiry from reality by denying thevalidity of the senses, embraces self-sacrifice as the essence of morality, "grounds" this principle in "intuition," and then attempts to intimidate those who challenge the propriety of that code or method. Further, like Hitchens, he maintains that man is both impaired by immoral intuitions that "lurk inside every human mind" and predisposed to religious belief. And, lest he leave open the possibility that man can choose to act contrary to his intuitions and predispositions, Harris explicitly denies the existence of free will. Without choice, it is worth reiterating, morality has no meaning, and books such as Harris's are an exercise in futility. Again, if this is the best the New Atheists have to offer in the realm of morality, they should not be surprised when their bestsellers fail to change many minds. Like Hitchens and Harris, both Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins hold that being moral consists in self-sacrificially serving others. Dennett regards as moral those who are "making the world better by their efforts, inspired by their conviction that their lives [are] not their own to dispose of as they choose" and willing to let their "own mundane preoccupations . . . shrink to proper size" (Dennett's emphasis) because they are "not all that important in the greater scheme of things." He regards as immoral those who are "self-absorbed," "self-centered," and who "slack off on the sacrifice and good works" in which they ought to engage. Similarly, Dawkins regards as moral those who are "altruistic," and as immoral those who are "selfish." Dawkins, like Hitchens and Harris, claims that man possesses innate moral ideas, but he posits an evolutionary basis for them, saying that, "in ancestral times when we lived in small and stable bands like baboons," natural selection "programmed into our brains altruistic urges," which he characterizes as "Darwinian mistakes: blessed and precious mistakes." Dawkins also holds that humans are predisposed to religious belief-but, again, he posits an evolutionary explanation for the idea and, in the process, references a theory of Dennett's that our irrational tendency toward religion is "a by-product of a particular built-in irrationality mechanism in the brain: our tendency, which presumably has genetic advantages, to fall in love." Of course, the same objections to Hitchens and Harris's positions on these matters apply to Dennett and Dawkins's: If man's views of "right" and "wrong" spring from innate ideas (genetically rooted or otherwise), or if he is biologically predisposed to irrationality, then morality, the realm of chosen values, simply does not apply to man. According to Dennett and Dawkins, however, ethics is not derived merely from innate ideas; social consensus also plays a role. Dennett says that "no factual investigation" could answer "questions about ultimate values" and that "we can do no better than to sit down and reason together, a political process of mutual persuasion and education that we can try to conduct in good faith." In other words, because we cannot derive moral principles from facts (the old "is-ought dichotomy"), we should survey existing ethical views and accept those that are most popular. Although Dawkins agrees that ethics must be rooted in moral consensus, he says that we can forgo Dennett's extended ethical chat-because such a consensus already exists. Citing some of the horrors found in the Old and New Testaments, Dawkins observes that today "we do not, as a matter of fact, derive our morals from scripture. Or, if we do, we pick and choose among the scriptures for the nice bits and reject the nasty." He notes that if we derived our morals from scripture, "we would strictly observe the sabbath and think it just and proper to execute anybody who chose not to. We would stone to death any new bride who couldn't prove she was a virgin, if her husband pronounced himself unsatisfied with her. We would execute disobedient children." Because we do pick and choose, he says, "we must have some independent criterion for deciding which are the moral bits: a criterion which, wherever it comes from, cannot come from scripture itself and is presumably available to all of us whether we are religious or not." The "independent criterion" by which Dawkins denounces the story of the biblical flood as evil and by which he praises Jesus as "surely one of the great ethical innovators of history" is what he calls the "moral Zeitgeist." [T]here is a consensus about what we do as a matter of fact consider right and wrong: a consensus that prevails surprisingly widely. . . . With notable exceptions such as the Afghan Taliban and the American Christian equivalent, most people pay lip service to the same broad liberal consensus of ethical principles. The majority of us don't cause needless suffering; we believe in free speech and protect it even if we disagree with what is being said; we pay our taxes; we don't cheat, don't kill, don't commit incest, don't do things to others that we would not wish done to us. An important attribute of Dawkins's "somewhat mysterious consensus" is that it evolves over time. This shifting "moral Zeitgeist," then, would explain why civilized people today look with horror upon the numerous instances of biblical heroes committing or condoning rape and mass murder, whereas the Bible's authors-with their ancient ethical mindsets-did not think twice about portraying such real or imagined events as magnificent. To illustrate this evolving morality, Dawkins points to several examples from the past two hundred years. For instance, whereas just a few decades ago it was uncontroversial in the West to hold that blacks were intellectually inferior to whites and that women were intellectually inferior to men, such views seem shocking today. Attitudes regarding civilian casualties have similarly changed; Dawkins points out that "Donald Rumsfeld, who sounds so callous and odious today, would have sounded like a bleeding-heart liberal if he had said the same things during the Second World War." But Dawkins's theory of the "moral Zeitgeist" clearly does not solve the problem of how to validate moral ideas by reference to reality; it just treats collective opinion as though it were objective fact. That a changing moral consensus exists and that most people unthinkingly absorb their moral views through social osmosis does not mean that the consensus is correct or that people should acquire their moral views this way. Although Dawkins acknowledges that we can and must judge the contents of the Bible by reference to an independent moral standard, he fails to recognize that we can and must judge the social consensus by reference to the same. Any attempt to ground morality in social consensus-whether of Dennett's "we democratically agree on it" variety or of Dawkins's "mysteriously shifting" variety-is hopelessly non-objective. Either the consensus is always right, or it can be wrong. If it is always right, then morality is subjective and simple: Morality equals popular opinion, whatever that happens to be at the time. If this is the case, there are no objective moral principles; there are only ever-changing social policies. If this is the case, the New Atheists have no grounds on which to condemn the inhuman religiosity of the Middle Ages, for its crimes were moral by the standards of the then-contemporary "Zeitgeist." If the consensus can be wrong, however, then there must be an objective standard by reference to which it can be assessed. For all their noise, the New Atheists fail to identify such a standard. While decrying faith, they fail to show that morality can be based on reason and thus grounded in reality. They fail to offer anything essentially different from the religionists whom they condemn, instead joining them in the belief that moral knowledge can only be gained by non-rational means. Why do these alleged men of reason join men of faith in appealing to mysticism as a basis for morality? The reason is simple: The morality they seek to defend, altruism, cannot be grounded in reason or reality. There are no facts that give rise to the principle that a person should sacrifice himself for the sake of others. Those who maintain that being moral consists in being altruistic have no alternative but to base that belief on some form of mysticism-whether "innate ideas," or "intuition," or a "mysterious consensus," or religious faith. The New Atheists may have omitted God from their ethics, but their ethics remains essentially the same as that of the religions they condemn: a mystical call to self-sacrifice. In today's predominantly religious world, it takes some measure of courage to criticize faith and challenge the existence of God-and Hitchens, Harris, Dennett, and Dawkins deserve some measure of credit for doing so. But it takes greater courage to challenge the even more widespread belief that being moral consists in self-sacrificially serving others. If the New Atheists are serious about convincing people to abandon religion and adopt a rational secular worldview, then they must find the courage to follow reason wherever it leads-even if it leads them, as it will, to challenge the validity of altruism. Fortunately for those who do have the courage to follow reason and challenge the validity of altruism, Ayn Rand has already discovered, demonstrated, and codified a morality based on and derived from the demonstrable requirements of human life, happiness, and coexistence: rational egoism. By first asking the question "Why does man need morality?" she proceeded to discover that man, as a being who must make choices, needs morality as a guide to life-promoting action. She discovered that man's life is the standard of moral value-which means that actions that advance man's life are moral and that those that retard or destroy man's life are immoral. Unlike religion and secular altruism, rational egoism neither entails nor permits any claim on the lives of other men. It holds that each man should act in his own best interest and that each man is the proper beneficiary of his own thought and action. And because egoism recognizes that it is right for a man to think and act in his self-interest, it also recognizes that it is wrong for others to violate this right through physical force or fraud. Rational egoism not only serves to guide an individual's actions; it also serves as the foundation for a rights-respecting, civilized society. It is beyond the purpose of this article to elaborate the ethics of rational egoism. But those who see the glaring need for a rational (i.e., non-mystical), life-serving (i.e., non-sacrificial) morality-a morality for living and achieving happiness on Earth-will find it elaborated in the works of Ayn Rand.