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Why don’t atheists kill? October 17, 2009

Posted by Ian in Morality.
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Wow it has been a chaotic last 2 months!  This post has been in the back of my mind since I got back from my trip and that was a long time ago – a lot longer than I thought actually!

In this post I want to address one of the common arguments about morality against the atheistic position.

One common argument against an atheistic position is the idea that without some external source of moral judgements there should be no morality.  It is not unheard of for people to say they would kill if it wasn’t for religion but more relevantly theists often claim that without some external set of rules, there shouldn’t be any reason not to murder (or replace murder with any “bad” thing you like).

There is a significant problem with this which is that it assumes murder is the default action and that not doing it is somehow actively moral.  I don’t think this notion of default actions can be justified and this takes down the entire argument in one sweep. 

Murdering someone is a deliberate action which requires a decision.  In any society that we know of, murdering another member of that society for no reason has generally been frowned on so it is not a free action either – to murder someone is to deliberately accept the risk of consequences.  The action also takes effort – most people don’t just sit idly by while you try and murder them – so it isn’t something you could ever do lightly even divorced from moral decision making.

Now we know murders do happen so now we need to ask what it would take to overcome these difficulties and actually do it.  Obviously it requires that something else outweighs the perceived consequences of the murder.  That something else could be some sort of emotional push or it could be an external pressure.  Atheists are often accused of not believing in anything so it would seem counterproductive to then claim they are more likely to murder. 

In fact it is this that sits behind Weinberg’s more forceful phrasing of the idea:

Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing bad things, but for good people to do bad things, it takes religion.

Religious people, all else being equal, are surely more likely to murder than atheists for no other reason than they have additional motivations that could potentially push them over the barriers to murder that atheists do not have.   I say this not as a slight against religion but as an point against the moral argument put forward at the start of this post.

In order for the original argument to stand theists need to somehow demonstrate that, all else being equal, atheists have more motivation to murder than theists.  I don’t think this can be done but I think a small case can be made that the exact opposite is true.

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Comments»

1. Dale Campbell - November 20, 2009

Hey Ian,
was tweeking a few things on my blog, which apparently involved re-posting of existing posts, and resulting re-trackbacks, so I came over and saw this post which I wanted to engage a bit with you on, but hadn’t had time until now (semester over – assingments done!). So here goes… 🙂

I’m wondering, primarily, if you’re failing to distinguish (at least in this post) between two questions/issues:

a) the question/issue of how an action can be said or thought to be moral/immoral (i.e. is there any kind of ‘objective’ goals/values which morality is worked out from, or do we work out our morality merely as a ‘subjective’ accidental, self-convincing phenomenon?)

b) the question/issue of how likely a given person is to perform an action that is (possibly?) moral/immoral.

Does that make sense?

I’m interested in both a) and b), but before jumping in, I wanted to see if you recognised the distinction or had a perspective on it.

Cheers,

-d-

2. Ian - November 24, 2009

The question makes sense and I do see the difference but what I’m not sure about is how it relates to the post itself?

3. Dale Campbell - November 24, 2009

Cheers Ian,
I’d say that the typical form of the argument from theists would have less to do with question ‘b’ (i.e. ‘atheists are more likely to kill for ‘x’ reasons…) and instead would be more within the realm of ‘a’ (how –within an atheistic framework– can a given action be said to be moral or immoral).

4. Ian - November 24, 2009

Ok, now I understand.

My post was mostly directed towards those theists (and there are plenty) who like to use the argument “atheists have no reason not to kill someone” as a trump argument. I suppose this loosely fits into “category b”.

I suppose the “category a” version of the question would be “why is it immoral from an atheistic point of view to kill someone?” That is a whole other question which I’m happy to explore assuming I interpreted you correctly?

5. Dale Campbell - November 24, 2009

Cheers Ian,
I think you’ve understood me correctly. Indeed, I would call that argument (“atheists have no reason not to kill someone”) simplistic at best.

And yes, in terms of exploring the ‘a’ question, please allow me to offer some introductory (and hopefully pre-emptive) comments:

First, in terms of the ‘a’ question (how can actions be said to be wrong/immoral/etc.?), it is worthwhile to notice -at least in passing- the general/specific distinction. If nothing else, I think it’s helpful to ask the ‘a’ question at both levels – i.e. (general) ‘how can anything be said to be immoral?’ and (specific) ‘how can killing murder be said to be immoral?’

Second, I’m reasonably convinced that one cannot properly speak of anything being ‘wrong’/’immoral’ without reference to some kind of a ‘goal’. It is my contention that for any given context (particular or universal), if there is no real and true ‘goal’ (telos), then no action can really and truly be said to be wrong/immoral/etc.

I’ll leave it there for the moment – look forward to your perspective.

-d-

6. Ian - November 24, 2009

First, in terms of the ‘a’ question (how can actions be said to be wrong/immoral/etc.?), it is worthwhile to notice -at least in passing- the general/specific distinction.

I agree it is a useful distinction although my response to your second point is more interesting 🙂

Second, I’m reasonably convinced that one cannot properly speak of anything being ‘wrong’/’immoral’ without reference to some kind of a ‘goal’.

Agreed.

It is my contention that for any given context (particular or universal), if there is no real and true ‘goal’ (telos), then no action can really and truly be said to be wrong/immoral/etc.

I also agree. However whereas your next step would be to start searching for that goal, my next step is to challenge whether the concept has any value at all given it needs something so complex to make sense. I am half way through a new post exploring what is behind my reasoning for this and I’ll aim to have it done in the next day or two 🙂

7. Dale Campbell - November 24, 2009

Cool. Since you’re doing another post, I reckon (and I suspect you’ll agree) we pick up this discussion on that one?

8. Ian - November 24, 2009

Makes sense to me 🙂


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