Virtuous Pagans and Honest Atheists

The angelically named Michael writes this formidable argument:

“Suppose that an atheist is not a moral relativist. Then he believes that there is a universal immaterial reality outside of himself, moral truth, that his character ought to conform to. Then, as a reasonable person, he must ask the question, “What is the source of this universal immaterial moral reality which I ought to conform to?” There are two possible sources: natural or supernatural agents. Supernatural agents are ruled out for an atheist, so we consider a natural origin. I claim that something cannot be created out of nothing, and I think you would agree. So we must consider the natural agent, be it human, animal, protoplasm or alien creating the universal moral reality from its own being and experience. But it is impossible for a completely natural being to have universal moral qualities without being united with a universal moral agent. On a completely natural plane, there is no human being, no animal, plant, protoplasm, etc. that is universal in genetics, and behavior, and reasoning by which to derive such a universal truth for all other beings (the atheist considers only natural causes in the agent as the source of a universal moral reality in question). Thus, by contradiction, that moral reality in question is nothing but a relative reality to the natural agent that originated it. Therefore, an atheist must be a moral relativist.”

Speaking as one who once was an atheist who is not a moral relativist, allow me with fear and trembling to pick up the hurled gauntlet on behalf of all atheist moral absolutists. I submit that an atheist absolutist is a logically permissible position, if not logically inevitable.

I point out that there is a third option between natural and supernatural agents: the laws of thought, or the laws of logic, are neither ‘natural’ in the sense of being inside timespace, obeying the laws of physics, or being made of matter-energy; but neither are they ‘supernatural’ in the sense of being citizens of heaven or fairyland or the spirit world. They are ‘supernatural’ only in the rather limited and awkward sense that the laws of mathematics are supernatural, that is, not made of matter-energy.

These are not agents in the sense of a person to whom a duty is owed, but they are agents in the sense of a reality to whom a duty is owed. You can owe fealty to a king, but you can also owe fealty to a conscience, a code of honor, a knowledge that the world is as it is, and is not as it should be.

Any philosopher contemplating whether there are universal moral laws soon realizes that he, in order to think about this or any other topic, is under a moral obligation to think honestly, since to think dishonestly is futile. Hence, all humans live in an inescapable web of moral duties, of which the skeptical philosopher is convinced of at least one: a duty to be honest, to think with integrity.

But the existence of even one moral law indicates that law exists, and law is defined as the constant or universal underpinning many specific instances: in the case of moral law, a moral law is not a moral law if it does not apply equally to all men in the same circumstance, ignoring the particulars. (The question of what to count as a circumstance, a constant, and what to count as a particular, a variable, is the center question of moral or legal reasoning).

If the moral law does not contain in it a moral duty to be moral, then it is a dead letter, hence the moral law does not exist: but we already established that at least one moral law exists merely by the act of inquiry honestly whether any moral law exists; therefore moral law exists, and binds all men with a duty to obey it.

It is not atheism, disbelief in God, that makes men disbelievers in the universality of the moral code of the universe, it is materialism or nominalism, the disbelief in the objectivity of ideas that make him so.

I welcome any comments showing the flaws or assumption in my argument above.

ADDED LATER: Several comment have pointed out a flaw in the paragraph “Any philosopher contemplating whether there are universal moral laws soon realizes that he, in order to think about this or any other topic, is under a moral obligation to think honestly, since to think dishonestly is futile. Hence, all humans live in an inescapable web of moral duties, of which the skeptical philosopher is convinced of at least one: a duty to be honest, to think with integrity.”

The word causing confusion is the word “futile.” Many read that sentence to mean that I am saying reasoning without integrity is inefficient. That is not what I mean. I am saying reasoning without reason is unreasonable, that is, not logically possible. I am using the word “futile” in its strongest sense here. I am  not saying it is “futile” (inefficient) to try to clean your car windshield with a toothbrush; I am saying it is “futile” (impossible) to add a cubit to your stature merely by taking thought.

Also, the word “hence” beginning the second sentence sounds as if I am saying the second sentence is the conclusion where the first sentence is the axiom, as if this were an induction. Sorry for the ambiguity: the argument is inductive. “Hence” indicates here what are the axioms which the philosophers comes to realize he already believes and must come to realize he already believes as a logical pre-condition or foundational assumption before he even sits down to begin philosophizing.

To put the argument in clearer form:

1. Either all humans live in an inescapable web of moral duties or not.

2. If not, then there are no inescapable moral duties: in which case this reasoning is or might be under no moral duty to be honest.

3. If this reasoning is not honest, its conclusions ought not be trusted, not even this conclusion: which is absurd. Therefore all humans live in an inescapable web of moral duties.

If you like, you may substitute the phrase “A philosopher honestly doing philosophy by means of honest reasoning” for the term “this reasoning” — the result of the argument is the same.

The stark fact of the matter is that we neither perform nor heed dishonest philosophy by definition. Reasoning that is specious, deliberately erroneous, deliberately cowardly, misleading or rhetorical  is called “sophistry” not “philosophy.”

The argument does not say you ought or ought not reason. It is not a normative argument. It is an observation. It says that if you are reasoning, you have already accepted the moral principle that you ought to reason, otherwise you would not and could not be doing it. The question of why you accept that moral principle is still a mystery; but that you do is self-evident.

The argument merely points out that the phrase “reason honestly” is redundant. To reason is to reason honestly since dishonest reasoning is unreasonable.

A dishonest philosopher is not properly called a philosopher; dishonest reasoning is not reasoning properly so called.

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