Years ago I produced a video response to a conversation between David Deutsch and Sam Harris on the topic of morality. It can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5kPSI6djlwE
Just to give him "right of reply" right up front, though Sam said he watched part of it and it was a "nice job", he disagreed that he was as much of a foundationalist as I was claiming. See here: https://twitter.com/SamHarrisOrg/status/1057867691573166080?s=20
Whatever the case, this video remains my most watched and liked one (by quite a stretch). At the time I argued that what I interpreted David Deutsch’s position to be (fundamentally, but excuse the pun) on morality was that there can be no moral foundations. This is simply consistent with David’s view of all knowledge: it is not built up from “firm” foundations to ever more lofty precepts. Knowledge, following Popper, is always conjectural so even the most cherished foundations can be questioned and are liable to error because we discovered all of morality and we are fallible. Morality is about moral explanations just as science is about scientific explanations. In neither case do we need to concern ourselves with some set of foundations that act like axioms from which we derive (i.e: “justify”) the rest of our knowledge. Instead the correct approach is that we encounter a problem (a conflict between our ideas) and then go about seeking solutions. We do this in a critical manner: a solution is proposed and we try to find fault with it. If we cannot and there are no other rivals, then that becomes our best explanation and our tentative purported solution to our problem situation. Where there is no such single solution we have to continue the process of conjecturing better ideas and setting them against our criticisms. This process is all objective: it is about what solves the problem and not (in the overwhelming majority of cases) what one thinks or feels about things. This is why morality is not built on feelings (like empathy or happiness or even “well being”) and nor is epistemology - knowledge - built on feelings of trust or certainty, hope or faith. In all cases it is about what “out there” in the world solves the problem. And that is a matter of fact in the objective world: either the problem is solved or it is not. I must also mention that there is an important link that David Deutsch has discovered that unites morality to epistemology. That link is that the only moral imperative is that we ought not to destroy the means of correcting errors. Error correction is what knowledge creation and epistemology is all about and destroying the means by which we correct errors and thus create knowledge is a choice we cannot make as from this only evils follow. See his book "The Beginning of Infinity" for more on that.
Keeping all this in mind, our present circumstances have brought into bright relief some of the feelings that people have been relying upon in order to arrive at this or that opinion on what to do to help others, or not help others as the case may be. I have been inspired this time, therefore, in large part by Yaron Brook who speaks eloquently about morality (and many other things). If you are not aware of Yaron, you should begin at his Youtube channel and listen to what he has to say. He has a lot to say: and that is good. Because he uses a few poorly understood explanations of the world in order to guide his thinking on some of the most pressing problems of our time. Because the explanations he is relying upon are themselves so poorly understood (even though they are true) the conclusions he often reaches are counter-intuitive to those who have not heard them before. For some of us, though we understand where Yaron begins and can imagine where he’ll get to, the force of his conviction and the eloquence of his speech are inspirational. His channel is here: https://www.youtube.com/user/ybrook and he can be found on Twitter and Facebook.
What follows is what I am calling The Christian worldview of mainstream atheism and a version of it (without the above remarks) can be found in audio form here: https://soundcloud.com/brett-hall-653181617/christian-atheists
And, while I have you, my own podcast largely devoted to the work of David Deutsch can be found here: https://brettroberthall.podbean.com/
The Christian Worldview of Mainstream Atheism
What is an atheist? By definition nothing more than someone who rejects theism. It’s not a high bar. Strangely, perhaps, many atheists will say they “reject all religion”. See Ricky Gervais for that. But do they?
Let us first admit that many atheists will concede they will not throw the baby out with the bathwater. They want to retain rather much of what in religion is good. Sam Harris says there is a “kernel of truth” with respect to the spiritual insights Christians and other religious devotees are seeking. Douglas Murray will praise the tradition and even the ceremony to some extent. And I myself will argue that there is inexplicit knowledge in these cultural practices that we would do well to respect if not always adhere to. Religion can be a stabilizing force.
And yet rather many of us notice that there is very little bathwater and rather a lot of baby. In the case of prominent atheists - let us take Ricky Gervais - it is mere drips of bathwater on a bath sized baby. In particular Ricky will reject God (that’s the easy part) and angels and saints and all the other Gods too. But really - and I do mean really - this is the icing on the cake. Yes some religious people are deeply moved to take seriously the notion that God is answering prayers and has a plan for them. But rather all of them take the morality seriously.
What is Christian morality? It is altruism - self sacrifice. Do good for others at cost to yourself. The more you sacrifice the better a person you are. That is the example of Jesus. He gave up everything for everyone else (so it is said). “What greater gift can any many give than to lay down his life for another?”
But some may object: that is not CHRISTIAN morality - that is simply, morality. That is good virtuous stuff. A moral universal that no Christian can lay claim to owning. That is human morality.
And that, in a nutshell, is how deep the rot has set in. People will defend Christian morality as universal while claiming they are not Christian. They enact the ritualistic defense. “This is a universal moral code. Altruism is a virtue. Wealth is an evil we should be skeptical of. It is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.”
Yes, religions like Christianity were an improvement over warring tribes. If all the warring tribes come together under one common religious banner then at least some internecine violence can be quelled. What an advantage. But this is the first step, surely. This is just a first approximation. We had to get rid of the tribe. We had to get rid of violence between small groups. But the first solution was just “make a bigger group”.
Another solution loomed: tend not towards the group but the individual. Tribal hostility can end when there are no tribes at all. When we act instead as individuals motivated not by group identity but by our common individual drives and hopes and dreams.
Altruism - self sacrifice - is an evil. It says: do for the other and if you hurt, then you are even more virtuous. And that is the morality of socialism. Work for the other - for the collective. Pay heavy taxes to help the least of us. And wealth? Be skeptical of that. Give away your wealth. Be like Bill Gates: gain great wealth, earn scorn but then give it away to charities and earn acclaim. That is the moral thing. And no one needs to consider it is actually the Christian thing to do.
Gates helped billions with Microsoft and made the world an amazingly better place. It was extraordinary work unprecedented in human history. Is his malaria work good? Of course - but it pales in comparison to what he did without regard for others. He feels some sense of guilt with his worth - so he gives it away.
But what can morality be if not about the other? It is about yourself. It is about pursuing your own values. It is about not coercing others and promoting freedom for others. And it is about benevolence and kindness. Because together we can achieve more than we can achieve alone. We should aim to make the world a better place - and that takes working with others but it never entails sacrifice. It entails doing deals - finding common humanity with people of like mind and pursuing your interests when they align with those of others. Anti-altruism does not mean anti-kindness or anti-benevolence or anti-compassion or anti-cooperation. What it means is be kind and kindness will come to you. Be benevolent and benevolence will be shown to you. Cooperate and people will cooperate with you. What a beautiful win win situation that is.
But the Christian idea - the entrenched Christian and socialist idea is zero sum. You must lose a little so others may win. You must sacrifice so others may rise. And the more you sacrifice the better a person you are. This evil ideal has become a virtue in mainstream society and only because of religious precepts. It had to be invented. Religion invented this old idea. But there is a new morality - a modern morality. A morality of individual kindness without coercion. A compassion without sacrifice. A concern for all of humanity without losing sight of the centrality of you yourself in your own life. We must be rational. We can look upon our fellows now and feel pity or even sympathy. But we are not mere animals driven by primitive urges. We are different. We are thinkers - users of reason. The pity and sympathy we all feel signals a problem of some kind in the world. We want to help others so they too can solve problems and help us to help them and the cycle continues and together we all rise. But if, as the Christians and socialists say it is virtuous only when there is no thought for yourself there is no cycle. There is a one-way street.
There is a zero sum. It’s win-lose.
It’s time you thought it though. Is it received wisdom on morality that drives you? Are you a Christian thinker even if you reject God and Jesus and all of the prophets and Saints? Are you driven by emotion and skeptical of wealth? You remain trapped in a mindset, caged by religious orthodoxy. You may call it socialism. You may call it altruism. But that is the trick of religious memes. Forever repackaging themselves with a simple change of label. A new font, a colour change to the logo. But unwrap it an peek inside: and there’s Jesus.
Cast it aside. Look instead to your brothers and sisters as truly capable of reason as you are. As able to contribute as you do.Look on them with kindness and encourage them not to sacrifice themselves but to work to better themselves and to solve their problems so they can generate more wealth so they can go on to do greater things. To pursue their passions and be inspired by flying free of bad ideas about “giving up” for the other or for the “common good”. When we all work for ourselves we quickly find common cause, make friendships that are not coerced but built on bonds of mutual advantage. No one loses. Everyone wins. Not at any cost: at no cost ideally to yourself or anyone else.
“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages” - Adam Smith
And so it is. We can all rise by reminding each other how much we can do for them. Not by sacrificing ourselves but by meeting our own necessities. Necessities to live, survive, thrive and genuinely feel alive.
The Kingdom of Heaven must resemble something like the worst depravities at the worst times of the most failed states for whatever it is like if it is hard for the rich to enter it, we may all do well to avoid it.
The most valuable thing you can offer to an idea