Friday, 28 December 2012

Where do *you* get your morality from?

I was recently made aware of the following "debate" between the Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and Professor Richard Dawkins, and in particular the schoolboy's question at 59:07:

The question is not a new one, though at least more eloquently expressed than the usual "What's to stop atheists from having an intimate relationship with a 12-year-old?" (WARNING: links to Aish website). For those who can't or won't watch the video (I don't blame you), the question as put by the young man is as follows:
I wouldn't claim that belief in a deity is necessary to have morality, but what I would ask is, surely in the absence of a divine lawgiver, morality loses its intrinsic value - it's not written into the fabric of the universe. You cite the moral zeitgeist argument: surely that deprives morality of any philosophical legitimacy? It's merely a human construct. Why should I be altruistic? Why should I care about anyone else when fundamentally morality has no further value?
Dawkins gives a weary but serviceable answer, referring to the notion of collectively agreed social norms, after which Lord Sacks goes on to give his reply in which he drops a mere two names (very below-par for him - is he ill?) - Sir Bernard Williams and Alasdair MacIntyre.

But - as the questioner alludes - Dawkins has already made the convincing point earlier in his speech on "the moral zeitgeist argument", which can be found from about 32:00. The key argument he makes, which I think is hard to disagree with, is that morality changes broadly across society and a particular ethical stance can more easily be identified by era than by religion. As he summarises from 33:33:
There's far more in common between a liberal, enlightened Jew and a liberal enlightened atheist today, morally speaking, than there is between either of us and somebody two hundred years ago, or even one hundred years ago.  And so, the moral zeitgeist advances historically for non-religious reasons, and religious people and non-religious people advance hand-in-hand, from decade to decade; it's not to do with religion, it's to do with advances in moral philosophy and legal philosophy in the general discourse of society. That's what's changing, that's what gives us our moral values.
This, I think, nicely answers much of what The Chief (whom as a whole I quite like in this debate, if I'm honest) says about "Jewish values". I'm very happy for him to read in contemporary values and interpretations of the ancient texts, and he is right to bang on about subsequent commentaries which have mollified or otherwise transformed those Biblical stories or injunctions which Dawkins takes to be misogynistic, racist, infanticidal and so on. It does, however, seem clear to me that those messages are derived from modern moral norms, and then crowbarred into the Biblical text, rather than being inherent to them. As such, it is disingenuous to describe such values as "Jewish values", except insofar as they are values which (liberal (Liberal?) enlightened (Enlightened?)) Jews have, because they happen to live now and not then.

But as for the question of where moral authority comes from, I cannot understand why religious people - particularly Jews - think this argument helps them. If I follow it through (something they invariably fail to do), I can't help but arrive at a destruction of their belief system, rather than my own (which is too hazy and shapeshifting to destroy anyway, muhahaha).
  1. Let's accept the premise that morality without authority is no good. It changes with the times, it floats in the breeze, it can be changed and rewritten or even left up to individuals to decide for themselves. This would mean that we require an absolute morality, with divine authority, which (as the questioner quite poetically puts it) is "written into the fabric of the universe" (though what that could actually mean I'm not sure).
  2. This morality, then, must be either innate in us, as part of the universe, or communicated to us by its author or some enlightened party. Given that Orthodox Jews hold the Torah to be the absolute and true word of God, it must be the communication - the blueprint - by which we may know morality.
  3. Given that it is directly from God, any conflict between our understanding of morality and the Torah's prescription must indicate a defect in our innate morality
  4. This is troublesome inasmuch as we are created in the image of God, unless we think of our morality as being not innate but dictated by societal norms and pressures (which, according to our premise, is bad).
  5. And yet, any of the things which we consider moral truths are not only not derived from the Bible, but they actually contradict it. Abstract notions like "Love thy neighbour as thyself", or supposed "messages" such as "Don't sacrifice children", cited by The Chief are all well and good, but what about (and it's so obvious I'm almost annoyed that I have to bring it up) slavery? Courtship by rapeExecution for normal adolescent behaviour, genocide, blah blah, take your pick.
  6. So, as Dawkins invites us to ask, if you think those things are morally bad, where do these beliefs come from? You can kick the can down the road by saying that the Oral Law was given at the same time and therefore (in effect, though many would seek to deny this) has authority to overrule the Written Law.
  7. Ultimately, however, a Supreme Code, such as the Torah, is only as authoritative as its interpretation and application. Both of these have been subject to the very changes over time that the religious claim are the main flaw in atheism. Without concessions to those changes in morality over time, the moral standards of our distant (and in some cases not so distant) ancestors would be abhorrent to us all.
Where do theists get their morality from? The same place as the rest of us. The charade of reverse-engineering ancient texts to accommodate modern morality is a bit silly but ultimately no-one else's business. My annoyance is directed at two consequent claims.

First, that society should thank religion for giving them the values which in fact religion derived from society.

Second, that atheists have no authority for their morality, even though religious people simply have (broadly speaking) the same morality, which they pretend came from God.