Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Hemant gets the Moral Argument wrong, badly

It's generally rare that I want to write against an atheist, but here is a case where someone I really like, Hemant Mehta, gets things really wrong in a way that's damaging to how atheists are perceived.

Dennis Prager put out another one of his shitty Prager University videos that is just a conservative hack going through a presentation of the moral argument for god's existence.

Hemant tries to give a takedown of the argument and he mangles it - badly.

This in itself isn't really noteworthy - lots of atheists fuck up responding to apologetic arguments. I've done it tons of times. When that happens, I hope someone comes along and points out where I've made an error and that's what I'm attempting to do here for Hemant.

The real reason that I felt prompted to write a post about it is that Hemant is falling right into the kind of trap Prager and his ilk want to bait atheists into: Hemant's post appears to embrace moral relativism.  It's chock full with cringe worthy quotes that I'm sure apologists are salivating to quote one of the Internet's most popular atheist writers as saying:

"Yes, morality is relative. Vegetarians think killing animals is unethical, and many Christians would disagree with that. Who’s right? There are people who oppose abortion for the same reason, yet many would argue it’s immoral to limit women’s choices. Absolutely morality suggests there’s a right and wrong to ethical questions that are full of nuance."
"What would you rather have? Religious believers who believe in absolute morality yet frequently break those rules (hello, Catholic priests)? Or atheists who don’t believe in absolute morality but mostly play by the Golden Rule?"

First off for Hemant - Moral relativism as a position is self defeating and unintelligible.

Second - does Hemant really want to endorse a position where if challenged by some religious believer that he doesn't believe "Torturing babies for fun is always wrong"?  Because that's a moral absolute statement. 

If there is no kind of objective morality, then you can't make very simple moral statements like the one above.  Please don't be a representative for atheism and make it look like atheists can't justify absolute moral statements like "Torturing babies for fun is always wrong". It makes us look like monsters, especially to believers we're otherwise trying to convince that atheists are decent people.

There are parts of the article that seem to attempt at giving an objective basis for establishing something as right or wrong - but that's because the article appears to be entirely confused.  Consider this quote:

"Prager goes on to say that atheists can be good, adding that that doesn’t negate his argument. But of course it does."

The fact that atheists can be good doesn't refute Prager's argument. Prager's argument is that atheists don't have a basis for objective moral values - the entire point of the argument is that by believing in objective morality atheists implicitly assume a god exists.

This doesn't mean Prager has a good argument, it just means that Hemant doesn't know how to respond to it properly.

I recall Hemant saying in the past that he doesn't like philosophy very much. The problem is that if he's going to attempt to do takedowns of shitty apologetic arguments like the ones out of Prager, he's necessarily doing philosophy - and since he isn't well versed in the subject he's doing it very poorly in a way that paints all us atheists in a bad light.

Luckily for Hemant there are some very well educated atheists on his own blog network who have written some fantastic things about atheistic objective moral values:

Here is Jeff Lowder's excellent Primer on Religion and Morality.
If you want something more specific here is Dan Fincke's detailed explanation and defense of his own naturalistic ethics.

I've got my own responses to Prager's argument spread across two videos (one and two), though I admit I need to go through and create a new set of short videos outlining the best points from that project.


Hemant is one of the faces of atheism online and in our larger community - and for good reason! He's got an excellent blog and provides a ton of normally great resources for atheists online.

But when he messes up something like this apologists will probably gleefully quote his blog to paint all of us atheists in a bad light, and it doesn't need to be this way.

I realize the resources I've linked to are long, detailed, and well hard. Because moral philosophy is a really hard subject.  At a minimum even if Hemant doesn't want to go through the plethora of material on atheistic moral value systems he should at least point out the fact that they exist to his readers.

This fact alone refutes Pragers argument, because we can derive atheist compatible accounts of objective moral values and duties.


  1. Counter Apologist,

    I'd like to know exactly what you are referring to when you refer to "moral relativism." Apologists like WLC often use relativism as a synonym for something like Mackie's Error Theory, which is a form of moral nonrealism. By others use relativism to describe a form of moral realism in which moral facts are objective but differ across places, times, and persons, similar to how facts about weather are objective, but differ across times and places. Alternatively, the article you linked to describes moral relativism as having two components: 1) there are no absolute objective moral facts, 2) but moral facts are nonetheless "true" in some alternative sense somewhere in between mere opinion and objective fact. The article correctly states that condition (2) is unintelligible because it proposes a meaningless concept of what it means for something to be true. However, the author then seems to imply that if (2) is false, then Moral realism must be true. I don't follow. His argument that condition (2) isn't met doesn't imply that condition (1) isn't met either. This version of moral relativism could be false, but this does nothing to disprove a standard version of Error Theory.

    Or consider something like Arnhardt's theory. I think if you fully fleshed out his theory, a theist would say that it is not truly a realist theory, because even though there are objective facts about which actions best serve the universal needs and desires of humans, there is still no objective reason why the needs and desires of humans ought to be satisfied, at least not from a mind independent "cosmic" point of view. My response would be to simply say, "whatever, that's fine with me. Call it a non-realist theory if you want, by its good enough for me. If the "universe" doesn't ultimately care about the wants and needs of humans, then I don't care what the universe cares about."

    Unless you incorporate a nonnatural Platonic value that says "it is intrinsically good for the needs and desires humans to be satisfied" then I think the theist can rightly say that Arnhardt's view is not "objective" in the way that they want morality to be objective. But this is not a reason to think it's false. It seems fairly evident to me that morality is not "objective" to the full extent that theists want it to be. And atheists shouldn't be forced to say morality is objective just because they are afraid of looking like monsters. Instead they should say that morality of not "at bottom" objective because it is dependent on the desires and needs of persons. Nonetheless, there are objective ways to behave in order to satisfy those needs.

    Basically, I guess I'm looking for an argument/evidence in favor of the robust form of moral realism theists want. The article you posted doesn't get us there; it merely rules out one form of moral relativism. And your other argument seems more like a threat than an argument ("do you REALLY want to say that torturing babies isn't objectively wrong")

    1. I'd agree there's a difference between non-realist theories like error theory and moral relativism - though I think Hemant's article is endorsing an incoherent form of relativism.

      I think if you just keep the first part of moral relativism as defined, you'd end up with either moral nihilism or non-realism of a stripe, which I think is fine. I'm not necessarily arguing against those in this post as I am arguing against relativism.

      As far as a supposed theist's objection that if we went with Arnhardt's theory then there's no objective or cosmic reason why the needs/desires of a human need to be satisfied - well that misses the point at best or is special pleading at worst.

      The issue here is that on Arnhardt's theory, morality just is about things that fulfill the needs and desires of humans. This is parallel to the theistic claim that moral values just is about aspects of the divine nature.

      The point of the meta-ethical theory is to give an account of our moral intuitions that is compatible with our worldview.

      The kind of objection you're bringing up regarding "robust moral realism" not being really objective for atheists is about as applicable to the theistic account of morality. After all, their account of moral values is not mind-independent: quite the opposite. It's equivalent with the nature of god, who they think is at base a mind. There's no independent reason that the nature of god should be fulfilled - only that it will be because their god is supposedly omnipotent/omniscient.

      The only move a theist can make is to say that facts about gods nature are mind independently true (ie. objectively true) and so that counts as realism, but then we can say the same thing about Arnhardt's theory of morality.

      So perhaps your argument would work and then the theistic and non-theistic accounts of morality aren't really "objective" in the sense you're describing - perhaps only Platonism could fulfill that kind of morality.

      But that doesn't really help the theists out any.

  2. "So perhaps your argument would work and then the theistic and non-theistic accounts of morality aren't really "objective" in the sense you're describing - perhaps only Platonism could fulfill that kind of morality."

    I completely agree