Just before Christmas, Ross Douthat wrote a column (NYT) wondering how scientific materialism and its account of “a purely physical and purposeless universe” could provide the basis for liberal egalitarianism. Jerry Coyne took the bait:
I’m not sure what Douthat means when he says “cosmology does not harmonize at all” with the moral picture of secularism. Cosmology doesn’t give one iota of evidence for a purpose (it could!) or for God. Most of the universe is cold, bleak, airless, and uninhabitable. In fact, such a cosmology harmonizes far better with a secular moral picture than a religious one. Secularists see a universe without apparent purpose and realize that we must forge our own purposes and ethics, not derive them from a God for which there’s no evidence.
Yes, secularism does propose a physical and purposeless universe, and many (but not all) of us accept the notion that our sense of self is a neuronal illusion. But although the universe is purposeless, our lives aren’t. This conflation of a purposeless universe (i.e., one not created by a transcendent being for a specific reason) with purposeless human lives is a trick that the faithful use to make atheism seem dark and nihilistic. But we make our own purposes, and they’re real.
Douthat counters by noting that “if the only real thing is matter in motion, and the only legitimate method of discernment the scientific method, you’ll never get to an absolute ‘thou shalt not murder’ (or “thou shalt risk your life on behalf of your Jewish neighbor”)”:
I don’t think those of us who still embrace the traditional Western idea of God are crazy to suggest that our cosmology has at least a surface compatibility with moral realism that the materialist conception of the universe’s (nonexistent) purposes seems to lack.
So if you’re going to defend both materialism and modern rights-based liberalism, you have to actually address this point head-on. Make a case for a more limited, non-metaphysical form of moral realism, make a more thoroughgoing attempt to discern some sort of moral teleology in the Darwinian story (though of course Coyne has denounced efforts along these lines as “creationism for liberals”), go full relativist and make a purely aesthetic case for cosmopolitanism, I don’t care what — but give me something that doesn’t either beg the question (“we should help people because it helps people!”) or pretend that there are actually solid selfish reasons for the most costly, heroic, and plainly self-sacrificial forms of non-self-interested behavior.
Coyne goes another round:
I’ve often said that I don’t know how much of human morality comes from natural selection’s instilling in us certain behaviors and feelings, and how much is due to reason. But I am virtually certain that none of it is due to God.
I want to live in a world where people are treated fairly and in which, were I disadvantaged, people would try to help me. For it is only an accident of biology and history that has made me better off than others. I want to live in a world where people promote the well-being of our fellows. That is what I see as “moral” behavior. This kind of morality is justified by its results, but one thing it is not is circular. (Indeed, it is Douthat’s morality that is circular, for it ultimately rests on what he thinks God wants, and unless Douthat can further justify why God wants such behavior, that’s the end of the road.) Like all nonreligious brands of morality, mine comes down to a justified preference: a judgment call.
But it’s better to make a judgment call based on science, observation, and reason than on the dictates of an imaginary being.
Millman steps in and examines Douthat’s original question:
[W]hy be moral? If the universe has no point, and human beings are not here for a reason, why not be a hedonist? Or worse – a sociopath?
I’m always mystified by this question from theists. Douthat complains that Coyne’s argument is circular: “If my question is ‘what’s the justification for your rights-based egalitarianism?’ saying, ‘because it’s egalitarian!’ is not much of an answer.” But his own argument is equally circular: secular liberalism is “unjustified” because it lacks a foundation in belief in God, but a belief in God is “justified” because without it you don’t have a foundation for morality! I don’t know about Douthat, but I suspect that, at least some of the time, what I’m really hearing with this kind of argument is a species of Straussianism. To whit: yes, I know, and you know, that there isn’t really any arguing with a cold and empty cosmos. But most people can’t handle that kind of truth; they need to believe that there’s an objective meaning to their lives. So, for the sake of the greater good, we have to affirm publicly that there is such a thing, that God is the foundation of morality. I’ve always suspected that Strauss would have got on just fine with the Grand Inquisitor; in any event I’ve never liked this line of argument.