Thursday, July 24, 2003

No ethics can be derived from naturalism

In his column urging his fellow atheists to unite under the more attractive name of Brights, Richard Dawkins offered an example of how a bright might explain his world view to the uninitiated:
"A bright is a person whose world view is free of supernatural and mystical elements. The ethics and actions of a bright are based on a naturalistic world view."
Mr. Dawkins is mistaken here, however, as there are no ethics in naturalism. Naturalism is an acceptance of what is, and ethics is the domain of what should be. There is no way to bridge the is/ought gap without referencing an extra-natural source. If a Bright accepts moral absolutes, such as "it is wrong to kill Jews for being Jewish," he does so by faith. Naturalism cannot take him there. It cannot show him that it is wrong to kill Jews for being Jewish.

Other atheists and agnostics take naturalism seriously; they believe there are no moral absolutes, there are no ethics. Morals and ethics are merely social constructions. To these people it isn't wrong to kill Jews for being Jewish, it's just that some people think it's wrong to do so. Though I spoke with many atheists and agnostics in college and law school, I never found one who adopted this view. None of them could give up the element of faith inherent in moral absolutes. None of them could come to grips with the conclusion, required by the view that ethics are socially constructed, that slavery was moral when people thought it was moral. Each of these people believed that slavery is immoral regardless of what people think. Which is of course the position of the moral absolutists and contrary to naturalism.

Either way, Dawkins was wrong when he said his ethics are based on naturalism. His religion, like all others, ultimately rests on non-rational faith.


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