TIA Tuesday: An exercise in rationalizationDecember 9, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
We’ve got a special treat for this week’s installment of TIA Tuesday: a textbook example of manufacturing an argument whose sole virtue is that it gives Vox a pretext for calling the other guys wrong. He calls it his response to “the argument from superior morals.”
There are many atheists who live lives that are morally exemplary according to religious standards. This causes some atheists to claim that this exemplary behavior is evidence of atheist moral superiority, because the atheist is behaving in a moral manner of his own volition, not due to any fear of being eternally damned or zapped by a lightning bolt hurled by an offended sky deity. However, this is a logical error, because while motivation plays a role in how we judge immoral actions, there are no similar gradations of that which is morally correct. There are many evils, there is only one Good.
Only one Good? Is this perhaps a reflection of Jesus’ remarks that only God is good? No, it’s not even that sophisticated. There is only one Good because Vox needs an excuse to deny the existence of the Better, and thus make it impossible, by definition, for atheists to be better than believers.
We see this in the shallowness of Vox’s defense of his “only one Good” claim.
For example, the act of stealing a loaf of bread is considered more immoral if the theft was committed by a rich thief who simply didn’t feel like paying for it than if the bread was stolen by a poor man who needed to feed his two hungry children. But the act of driving an injured person to the hospital is no more right when performed by a good Samaritan who just happened to be passing by than by a paramedic team who will be financially compensated for their actions. We may find the one more admirable, being less expected, but it cannot be more morally correct because that would imply that there was some degree of moral incorrectness to a correct action.
A couple seconds’ worth of reflection would suffice to show that, if one action cannot be morally superior to another, then neither can it be inferior, otherwise whatever it was inferior to would be superior. Thus, according to Vox’s argument, Jesus was mistaken when He said that the “widow’s mite,” given out of poverty, was better than the rich donations the Pharisees gave out of their wealth.
What Vox is trying to do here is to pull a fast bait-and-switch. Though he claims to be addressing an “argument from moral superiority,” his rebuttal hinges on substituting “moral correctness” in place of “moral superiority.” This would seem to be an ingenious, if deceptive strategy. After all, if you get the correct answer, you can’t have some other answer that is more correct, can you?
Alas, this is simply not the case. There are many situations where more than one “correct” answer is possible, some answers being better than others. If you see a hungry, homeless man, for example, and he asks you for money, is it correct to give him some cash, or to take him to McDonalds for a free meal, or to secure some training and/or medical help that will equip him to provide for his own needs, or to launch a program that will provide food, housing, rehabilitation, and job placement services for a large number of homeless people?
Contrary to what Vox claims, there’s nothing really incorrect about giving food to a hungry man, even though it’s better if you can take steps that will provide a long term solution to his hunger and homelessness. The person who grudgingly gives to the poor because he doesn’t want people to call him stingy is doing the morally correct thing, but it’s better if he gives willingly, out of genuine compassion for his fellow man. One action can be more morally correct than another, by encompassing a greater context, both in terms of the motivations for the action, and in terms of the scope of the “blessings” that result.
In other words, there are lots of things that we can do to make life better for ourselves and those around us, and there’s no harm or moral stigma if it turns out that not all of those things are the Ultimate Best Perfect Morally Correct Solution. One good deed can be inferior to another simply by undertaking less, without necessarily being an evil deed. Even just minding our own business is a morally correct choice in a lot of situations, though there is usually a morally superior alternative to mere passive non-harm.
Vox, however, makes it clear in the closing lines of his argument that all he’s really after is some way to deny, in the face of incontrovertible evidence, the validity and cogency of the argument from moral superiority.
An atheist can certainly behave better than a theist by the theist’s own moral reckoning. But it is logically incorrect to insist that identical moral behavior on the part of an atheist and a theist is proof of the atheist’s moral superiority.
That’s what Vox would like to accomplish by his pseudo-syllogistic legerdemain, but in fact he’s contradicting both common sense and the teachings of Jesus. A person who behaves in a superficially moral manner just because he fears punishment is morally inferior to the person who voluntarily embraces and advances moral behavior because good is intrinsically better than evil. In the latter case, morality is a reflection of the atheist’s own good nature; in the former case, the virtue does not spring from the heart of the person, but is forcibly imposed from without. There may be goodness in the heart of the person doing the compelling, but the one under compulsion has no right to claim that virtue to his own credit.
And Vox can’t deny it. For all the fluff and bluster about how godliness is supposed to be the source of virtue, study after study finds that non-Christians are not the moral reprobates that Christian haranguing would have us believe. They’re not just good, they’re good without having to be coerced by some superstitious fear of endless torment. Only people who deny the existence of Hell can make a comparable claim to loving goodness entirely untainted by some fear of ultimate punishment. (But without Hell, what need is there for a Savior to save us from it?)
Backed into a corner, Vox cannot think up a better rebuttal than to try and deny the possibility of one thing being better than another. It’s a silly argument, and all the more so in that it “proves” just as easily that God cannot be morally superior to an atheist. But we already knew that atheists were superior, because you can actually see atheists showing up and helping in tangible and meaningful ways. And that’s more good than the Christian God is willing and able to do.