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The Good Samaritan according to Christopher Hitchens

by Greg Krehbiel on 23 February 2012

A friend recommended a debate between Christopher Hitchens and Al Sharpton on Hitchens’s god is not great. I listened to it while I was doing some mindless work.

There are a few interesting points, which I may post later, but for today I’d like to comment on Hitchens’s take on the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Sharpton kept attacking Hitchens on morality — e.g., if there is no God, then what makes right right and wrong wrong? Does the strongest or most powerful person get to decide? Do we vote on it every four years? Does it change from time to time?

Hitchens’s reply is that people don’t need religion for morality. The Good Samaritan was, according to Hitchens, acting from “no other prompting” than “elementary human solidarity.”

In a similar way, he says it’s silly to imagine that the Israelites didn’t know anything about morality until Moses came down from Sinai with the 10 commandments. (I’ve heard Hitchens several times and this is a regular part of his material.)

This is a very silly argument for many reasons.

First, as a literary matter, it misrepresents the situation in both of those texts. Samaritans had a common religious heritage with the Jews up to a certain point, so the idea that a Samaritan had no religious moral instruction is absurd. And the Israelites also had traditions about God before they got to Sinai.

Second, Sharpton’s point is not that people have no idea of right and wrong until they get religious instruction. His point is that our moral rules are either based on some objective moral reality that exists apart from our own opinions and feelings, or it’s up for grabs. Hitchens never responds to that problem.

(I should note in passing that it’s at least conceivable for there to be an “objective moral reality” even if there is no God.)

Third, how does Hitchens know what was motivating the Samaritan?

Hitchens attempts another response to Sharpton’s argument by saying that our species would not have survived if we didn’t have the need to take care of others.

Okay. Maybe that’s so or maybe it’s not, but it doesn’t answer the question.

Hitchens loves to toss around moral rules and call things wicked and such, but when Sharpton asks him to justify these rules — where do they come from, how does he know what’s wicked or what isn’t, and why should anybody care about Hitchens’s take on morality? — he has no real answer.

Why shouldn’t we vote on what’s right and what’s wrong every once in a while? If our moral rules are just instincts that served our ancestors …. Well, we’re in a different situation now. Maybe we should change them.

And on Hitchens’s assumptions, if the guy with the most bombs comes along and decrees a new set of moral rules, on what basis will Hitchens disagree with them, or say he doesn’t have that right?

It’s a fair criticism, but the dirty little secret is that you can turn that criticism around on Sharpton as well.

Let’s say there is an objective moral order. Let’s say God organized the universe in such a way that some things really are right while other things really are wrong, and that we have an instinct that points us towards those rules.

Now the guy with the most bombs comes along and decrees his 13 new commandments. Is the situation any different? If the mass of humanity rises up and says these new commandments aren’t consistent with our moral instincts (that, to one degree or another, reflect the objective moral reality God built into the universe), do they have a better argument than they would have if they just all said “we don’t like these new rules”?

The situations sound similar, but I think there is an important difference. On Hitchens’s theory, our common moral instincts are just happenstance that helped us survive in some remote past — which was, of course, a very different situation. It makes sense that there might come a time we would need to fight against those instincts and adopt new rules that work better in the new world.

It goes without saying that the new rules would feel uncomfortable when we compare them with the arbitrary rules we inherited from our ancestors — who were hunter gatherers in a non-technological world. But so what? It’s time to replace those rules with smarter ones.

But on Sharpton’s theory, human moral instincts would actually have some meaning, so if the new rules contradicted our moral instincts, that would be relevant.

-- 2012-02-23  »  Greg Krehbiel

Talkback x 12

  1. pentamom pentamom
    23 February 2012 @ 7:50 pm

    I find the whole idea of a shared morality historically daft.

    The Spartans thought it was immoral not to take little boys from their families, teach them to fight for their food, and ultimately that pointless death was better than a loss in battle. It was also immoral to expect born Spartan citizens to perform any work other than warfare or breeding warriors, and so it would have been destructive of morality to decline to enslave the alien guy by the side of the road, if the GS had been a Spartan.

    The Aztecs thought it was immoral not to enslave their neighbors, cut their hearts out, and throw them off the tops of pyramids.

    Mind you, it’s not just that they thought it was “okay” to do these things — anyone suggesting that these things not be done would have been considered an immoral destroyer of society and opposed to everything that was decent and right.

    And we’re not talking about sociopaths here and there, but entire groups of people with jobs and families who had notions of morality diametrically opposed to the ethic demonstrated by the Good Samaritan.

    So where does Hitchens get off claiming that the GS simply acted out of some common human impulse? It’s ISN’T common to humanity, only to the humanity that’s been conditioned by certain streams of culture and thought.

    So it seems like you *must* have something more than a common human ethic, that doesn’t even really exist, if you’re going to claim that some things are always moral and others are not. What that is could be debated further, but it seems inescapable that there has to be something.

  2. Greg Krehbiel Greg Krehbiel
    24 February 2012 @ 1:04 pm

    I’m not sure I’m quite as down on the idea of a common human ethic as you are.

    There are certainly some remarkable differences in how society’s have defined moral obligations, but there are also some similarities.

    I guess the question is whether it’s possible to start with the similarities and, using reason and the dreaded concept of “natural law,” to come up with a consistent ethic.

    I kinda doubt it, but it seems conceptually possible.

  3. pentamom pentamom
    24 February 2012 @ 1:40 pm

    Well, I guess that’s what I meant.

    In a sense, there’s a common human ethic that generally speaking, we should do what’s best for one another.

    But when in some cultures that looks like “kill or enslave everybody who was born in a different town and teach the little boys to beat each other up for their supper because that makes a great warrior culture” and in other cultures that looks a little bit more like what any of us here would recognize as moral treatment of people, it’s hard to see that the idea of a common human ethic gets you where Hitchens wants to go — the idea that the Samaritan just knew that was the right thing to do because everybody knows that, so we don’t need Some Other Source to tell us that the Samaritan’s choice was the moral one. The Spartans didn’t “know” that — they would have thought they were traitors if they helped an enemy at their own expense.

  4. smitemouth
    24 February 2012 @ 2:42 pm

    Other cultures might have a notion to kill all the neighboring culture’s men, women, animals, and to dash their babies heads against rocks and to enshrine it in their holy book(s). Who would there be to say that is wrong?

  5. pentamom pentamom
    24 February 2012 @ 2:56 pm

    Good point. Good that we have a book saying we’re not supposed to do that except when a voice comes flashing out of a mountain, telling us to.

  6. pentamom pentamom
    24 February 2012 @ 2:59 pm

    Oh, and BTW, Smitemouth, is that supposed to mean that anything that I said was actually wrong? Or somehow make more sense of Hitchens’ claim that everybody knows what’s right (in the sense of agreeing with him about it), when clearly everyone does not?

    This “I’m going to mock your argument because of things you believe without refuting it or saying anything constructive” thing gets tiresome. Why not pick up a fun hobby instead?

  7. smitemouth
    24 February 2012 @ 3:57 pm

    C’mon. Every ounce of moral fiber in you tells you it’s wrong to dash babies heads against rocks. Don’t be mad at me. Your anger is displaced and should be Elsewhere.

  8. pentamom pentamom
    24 February 2012 @ 9:47 pm

    Mad at you? Not really. Just mystified as to how you think this contributes to the conversation, and a little saddened by your need to inject negativity into every single conversation on every topic. The only thing I can fathom is that I must be wrong about this, because of what I believe about other things, regardless of what I’m saying.

    So if I argued the opposite, you’d think that was wrong, too.

  9. John Krehbiel John Krehbiel
    26 February 2012 @ 10:49 am

    I am reminded of one of those silly “What would a Martian think” discussions in my high school sociology class. We were asked what the hypothetical Martian would think of race relations in the US (This was less than a year after the beginning of busing in PG county Md.).

    My answer was that the Martian would be very confused. “After all,” I said “if I were to look at a flock of sheep, I’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between individuals.” There are bird and fish species in which we can’t tell which sex is which, but the members of those species clearly can.

    So my point is that what look to us like huge differences in moral rules from one society to another may not be such big differences after all. Also, some of the things that sound so outrageous to us may not every have really happened. At one time, people believed that most native tribes on various continents were cannibals, but I think that turned out to be just a common insult between tribes which white explorers took a bit too seriously.

    On Hitchens, I think the press zeroes in on a very few flamboyant, quotable people rather than do the hard work of reading (not to mention understanding) some thing like this.

  10. Greg Krehbiel Greg Krehbiel
    26 February 2012 @ 4:36 pm

    I’ve read consequentialist stuff before, but I’ll try to go through that link you provided.

    Out of curiosity, have you ever read any critiques of consequentialism?

  11. pentamom pentamom
    27 February 2012 @ 9:17 am

    Is it really under historical dispute that the Spartans trained their kids in ways we’d consider child abuse, and enslaved all the neighbors they conquered to feed their military machine? By observed historical standards, that’s neither unusual nor outrageous; I just picked it because it’s a clear example.

    There’s exaggerating differences because we’re looking at fine distinctions, and then there’s pretending that teaching little boys to fight for their food daily and believing everyone born in your city is properly regarded as an interchangeable slave for the good of your native society “isn’t such different” morality. I thought it was pretty well accepted in American society that an impulse of enslaving every foreigner you meet is immoral to a pretty significant degree.

    I’m not trying to exaggerate anything — not trying a paint a picture of slavering monsters with no normal human ethical or social impulses. I’m sure the Spartans loved their kids after their own fashion and were acting out of what they held to be a beneficent morality — the needs of the man vs. the needs of the few and all that. I’m saying that societies have developed accepted moral structures for themselves that vary much too widely to support the claim that every “human” who wasn’t a moral transgressor would have done what the notional Good Samaritan did, or at least believed it to be the better ethical path even if his own interests prevented it. It’s just not supportable.

  12. smitemouth
    1 March 2012 @ 1:03 am

    Gee, I would classify myself as “cheerful”. :p