Moral confusion is a common problem. When a conversation begins about the difference between right and wrong, everyone can feel the tension, because admitting you’re wrong isn’t just about saying you have bad reasons, but can become about whether or not you are a bad person. Sometimes we argue past each other because we’re using the same words to mean radically different things. Sometimes we agree with each other, but we don’t even recognize it. This article is an attempt to offer conceptual clarity so we can have fairer, more intelligent conversations with one another about the pressing moral issues of our day.
For the sake of further clarity, I’ve divided this article on ethics into two parts. In the first part, using the metaphor of a house, I offer a brief overview of the categorical differences between behavior, ethics, and meta-ethics. The second half of the article explains the implications of this metaphor for the ‘New Atheist’ worldview, as exemplified by Richard Dawkins.
Part One: The difference between behavior, ethics and meta-ethics
Generally speaking, there are three different levels, or kinds, of ethical statements: meta-ethics, ethics, and descriptions of our actual behavior. In any case, one way to visualize these differences is by thinking about a one-story house with its roof and foundation.
Let’s look at our “house of morality” from the top down:
In this metaphor, the roof of the house is how you behave, your actual actions. For instance: I tutor a child from a disadvantaged school or I embezzle money.
The first or main floor of the house is your ethical theory, that is, what you believe is right and wrong to do. For instance: I believe volunteer service is morally good or theft is wrong. You might also turn these specific ethical statements into general principles like “do not harm others without good cause (e.g., for the sake of a medical operation).”
The foundation of the house is your meta-ethical position, what you believe to be true about ethics and morality. For instance: Moral beliefs are an expression of personal preferences or moral truth is based upon God’s holy character.
- There’s our actual behavior – our morally significant (or insignificant) choices and actions
- There’s our ethical system – what we believe to be right and wrong
- There’s our meta-ethical position – what we believe about the nature of our ethical system
In daily life, the common understanding is that personal integrity and logical consistency come from an alignment between the foundation, the first floor, and the roof of your ‘moral home.’ For instance, if you believe that “moral truth is based upon God’s holy character” (foundation) and that “theft is wrong” (first floor) but you also embezzle money (roof), we see this contradiction as glaring hypocrisy. In this case, the supposed foundation and first floor of the home don’t properly support the roof.
Clarity about the difference between meta-ethics, ethics, and behavior is essential. When these issues get mixed up, angry disagreements arise. For instance, when Christians claim that “the atheistic worldview cannot support the existence of moral truth” (discussing the foundation), sometimes atheists hear this as an attack on the roof (“you are saying we are immoral”).
Similarly, sometimes atheists point out immoral behavior among Christians and say “this behavior is inconsistent with your (and our) ethical system, which makes you a hypocrite.” Christians can respond by saying, “Yes, that is bad behavior, and we resolve to change our lifestyles.” But if they respond, “But our ethical standards are the same here, so really, we agree” then they’ve missed the point.
Part Two: A House Without Foundations
One of the most interesting kinds of “moral houses” is when the foundation doesn’t offer any support for the first floor and roof. When this is not a metaphor, but real life, well, as you can imagine, houses without solid foundations literally fall apart.
One prominent example of this tension is the moral belief system of Richard Dawkins. For the moment, lets give Dawkins the benefit of the doubt and stipulate that he generally lives a good and decent life. Let’s also accept that Dawkins ardently defends the reality of many important moral truths: kindness, compassion, altruism, teamwork, and so on. He’s also on the record for stating that rape, murder, and theft are wrong. In this regard, I noted with praise the value of Dawkins’ Ten Commandments in my last post. In other words, while we might have some important criticisms, we can rightly praise Dawkins for a great deal of his roof and the main floor of his “moral home.”
However, what kind of meta-ethical foundation has Dawkins provided for his ‘moral home’?
Here are some particularly clear quotes on the nature of his meta-ethical beliefs:
The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.
This is one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn. We cannot admit that things might be neither good nor evil, neither cruel nor kind, but simply callous – indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose (Wikipedia).
Not all absolutism is derived from religion. Nevertheless, it is pretty hard to defend absolutist morals on grounds other than religious ones (The God Delusion).
We are machines built by DNA whose purpose is to make more copies of the same DNA, Flowers are for the same thing as everything else in the living kingdoms, for spreading ‘copy – me’ programmes about, written in DNA language.
That is EXACTLY what we are for. We are machines for propagating DNA, and the propagation of DNA is a self sustaining process. It is every living objects’ sole reason for living (source).
DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music (source).
What are the implications? For the sake of argument, let’s say that these quotes from Dawkins are completely, totally, 100% true. Consider with me for a moment that these statements accurately describe reality. Don’t think of them as ‘just his view,’ but as ‘this is how things really are.’
Here’s the point: If Dawkins is correct on these matters, then Dawkins is denying that the house has a foundation. Without a foundation, the main floor and the roof collapse into the resulting hole. In other words, if Dawkins meta-ethical theory is correct, then none of his ethical statements are particularly meaningful or true. All human behavior would exist in an amoral vacuum.
After all, his point is that morality is a mirage. Morality is a comforting illusion. But these delusions of our brains, while they may promote genetic propagation and the survival of the species, do not reflect anything real about our world.
Therefore, if and when Dawkins claims that compassion is a good thing or that racism is a bad thing, these would be empty statements. At best, they tell us something about Dawkins’ DNA and cultural heritage. They might tell us something about whether or not we should trust him or work together with him on a project. But they do not tell us anything about what is right or wrong in the world, because there is no such thing as right and wrong. As Dawkins puts it so clearly, “We cannot admit that things might be neither good nor evil.” But once we do admit that things are neither good nor evil, profound implications follow.
Conclusion and Further Questions
Dawkins’ lack of a foundation for his moral system is a highly significant issue. If he’s right about this, a number of intriguing implications follow. It might be the case that you agree with Dawkins. Or perhaps you have friends who do. Either way, it is a valuable intellectual exercise to take Dawkins’ meta-ethical position quite seriously and ask some follow-up questions.
*Given that Dawkins has repudiated the existence of good and evil, why do you think he continues to speak out on so many ‘moral’ issues? What motivates him to provide a new and improved ’10 Commandments’?
*If Dawkins is right, and you change your views on the morality of some action, can you become a better person?
*If morality is merely a matter of personal preference, is it possible to legitimately judge someone as evil or wicked, as good or virtuous?
*If there are no moral truths, if the house lacks a foundation, what are the implications for our justice system?
*If morality is merely an illusion, how does this change your thinking about actions like a man forcing a woman to have sex with him, one person killing another person for the fun of it, or the systematic extermination of a particular class of people?
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To visitors from the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, here’s two further posts on this topic: