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