Continued from here.
Everything I’ve said so far—more specifically the argument that the atheist’s value system rests on no firmer ground than the theist’s—is only true if at least one of two facts is true: that the value system is arbitrary or that the atheist in question has accepted this value system without fully questioning and examining it. (An unquestioned value system that is not arbitrary still has no foundation because the atheist only believes it by chance.)
I realize there are plenty of rabbit holes to race down, dissecting the definitions of “belief” or “arbitrary,” but I’m trying to be plain spoken here, avoiding all sophistry. I think it’s clear that almost all human beings fail to question the value systems they grew up in in any meaningful way. This is actually good! If every person questioned his or her value system, we’d have millions of different contradictory conclusions about arson and traffic laws, and we’d live in chaos.
There’s a certain amount of fooling ourselves we all go through about this. You tell your children, “Think for yourself,” but if your daughter comes home and says, “The KKK is right and lesser races should be annihilated”–what, do you say, “Good job, my dear! Keep thinking for yourself”? No, you have to find a way to say, “Think for yourself, but come to the same conclusions I have about the very important issues,” without tripping over our own contradictions.
“Think for yourself” is a harmless shibboleth for small, unimportant issues. Deciding what music to like or what kind of shoes to wear are great places to exercise your independence. (Unless you wear flip flops to the White House, in which case people will try to shame you.) But important issues, like who counts as a human, and whether rape is a moral crime, are issues we can’t really afford, as a society, not to indoctrinate our fellow citizens in.
It’s possible, though, that our society’s values are a natural conclusion all free-thinking people will come to given their druthers, in which case it is not in the least arbitrary, and there is no danger in allowing people to come to their own conclusions with perhaps a minimum of guidance; like arithmetic.
But the fact is (as we have already seen) so many of our core beliefs have been contradicted by the core beliefs of large numbers of people. I’m opposed to homophobia just as you’re opposed to homophobia, but ninety years ago Winston Churchill told Lloyd George “One might as well legalize sodomy as recognize the Bolsheviks,” and when you’re talking about one of the most repressive and murderous regimes in history and the crazier thing you’re comparing it to is to stop using the violence of the state to hurt homosexuals—look, it’s not going to be news that even ten years ago the world was much much more homophobic than it is now. Your core belief is mainstream, but it’s really recently mainstream. The idea that human life should be dedicated to happiness and self-actualization is really recent in historical terms, but not hating gay people is recent by any terms.
Think how many time periods, parts of the world, and communities in this country disagree with you on feminism. Trans acceptance is still in its infancy. So it is extremely unlikely that most of our value system is some kind of universal Schelling point.
But some people will say that there are, nevertheless, certain things we agree on that are universal or almost universal across almost all societies. All societies (I have heard people say) condemn murder, rape, and theft. So let’s look at these.
Murder is here not a legal term, but a social one (although there is overlap, of course). Someone who is found not guilty of murder on a technicality, and then goes around admitting he did it, is, in the eyes of the law, not a murderer, but would still be condemned by society at large (O.J. is close to this category, depending on your demographic). I want to look at what mainstream America considers as falling into the category murder. This may not match your own definition of murder, but it shouldn’t seem too alien, either (of course, if you disagree with mainstream America on murder, it’s going to be hard to hold murder up as a universal).
Murder is not killing. Even if you kill willingly and with full intent, you are not a murderer if you kill…
- in self defense
- an enemy in a war (even if not in direct self defense, as a bomber or sniper)
- by pulling the lever on a condemned man’s electric chair as part of your job
- a dangerous criminal if you’re a policeman
- a comatose patient (after hoops have been jumped through)
- a fetus (in some but perhaps not all circumstances)
- a cat (in some but perhaps not all circumstances)
- a weed (lots of nonhuman examples, of course)
- baby Hitler after time travel (maybe?)
The most succinct definition of murder is: Murder is killing that is not permitted by the custom of society.
What is permitted by the custom of society is precisely what varies. We have already seen that the king is often permitted to kill, without it being murder. In many places an upper class person could kill a lower class person with impunity. In others blood feuds do not count as murder. In medieval Iceland, and perhaps in the Wild West killing an outlaw was not murder. It’s not hard to imagine a pacifistic society where self-defense was still murder, a Bastian society where killing cats was murder, a Fundamentalist society where abortion was murder. It is true, then, that all societies do not permit killing that is not permitted by society, but it’s also circular. It tells us nothing.
It’s probably true that all societies regulate violence, just as they regulate sex (by labeling some sexual acts rape) and property ownership (by labeling some transfers of ownership theft).
Not too long ago the consensus of this society was that husbands could not rape their wives, by definition; the cutoff age for statutory rape is obviously somewhat arbitrary (it varies legally state by state); “affirmative consent” campuses are deliberately trying to redefine rape in an aggressive new way. The only thing consistent about our definition of rape is that rape is a sexual act not permitted by society. (A society could decide on other terms for impermissible sexual acts, of course, such as sodomy, but this is a minor complication.)
There probably are things almost all societies agree on, such as discouraging dissent or avoiding destroying the tax base, but these are so vague that they don’t offer much of a grounding to build a value system on.
Even one dissenter from a value system prevents it from being universal, of course. Even if you say, “Only a crazy person would disagree about x,” this is almost certainly circular. You can spot a crazy person because he or she disagrees about x; the crazy person does not count; therefore, all sane people agree on x. Again, this tells us nothing.
If x is something deeply ingrained in you, such as “racism is bad,” it can be difficult to think of x as being arbitrary. But the things it is difficult for us to imagine are arbitrary are the very things that are most likely to have no foundation in our belief. Why bother constructing a foundation for something that seems self-evident?
Even a very basic value, like “don’t hurt other people,” a value I agree with and hope you share, has no reason behind it.
A society that believes you shouldn’t hurt other people will be more pleasant to live in than one that does. But why are you obliged to make society pleasant to live in? Why not insist other people be nice and then, when no one’s looking, cheat? Of course you may fear getting caught, you may fear punishment, but very few people say their entire morality is made up of only caring about not getting caught when there’s a possibility of punishment. Sometimes religious people do, but then everyone else makes memes mocking them.