Friday, October 2, 2009

Mr. Hitchens on morality

The famous journalist, author and neo-atheist Mr. Christopher Hitchens said the following, among other things, when he spoke to The Sydney Morning Herald for a story in today’s issue:

''Most [believers] believe that without religion their children, and even they, would not know right from wrong. I have two arguments to which no answer has yet been received. One: Name me a moral kindness or action that they can do because of their belief but that I can't. Two: Can you think of one evil action done by a religion person? You can, and you can think of another, and another.''
[square-bracketed interpolation in the original]
There are three things to say about this. The first is in regard to his point one: it misses the mark, because there is no question that the unregenerate can (albeit usually with difficulty) perform acts of “moral kindness”, as Mr. Hitchens calls it. See, for instance, St. Robert Bellarmine, Doctor of the Church, writing in his magnificent Treatise on Civil Government:

… But this justification from sin is said to be a certain liberty, for he who is in sin cannot, until he is freed by grace, will that good which is ordained for eternal life; he has, indeed, free will, since he can choose one evil from among many, and he can even choose moral good, but he cannot choose salutary good unless he at least begins to be freed by the ... grace of God, since he is held captive by the Devil according to his will, as it is written. [Tim. II.]
So infidels can choose moral good—that is, they can choose to perform acts which suit human nature—but this choice avails them nothing towards salvation, which one can only merit in union with Our Lord’s Passion.

The second thing to say is that Mr. Hitchens’s second point is also ill-conceived, because the contention which Mr. Hitchens is supposed to be refuting is that the irreligious cannot behave morally; whether or not the religious will necessarily behave morally is another matter. Furthermore, abuse does not detract from use: that religious folk do evil in defiance of the tenets of their respective religions does nothing to detract from the fact that the ‘ought’ of moral obligation can issue only from the will of a superior, usually enacted in law.

And that brings us to the third thing, and the most important thing, which needs to be said here. Now Mr. Hitchens says that

''Most [believers] believe that without religion their children, and even they, would not know right from wrong.
Perhaps he is right, and most believers think that without religion (however Mr. Hitchens defines that term) one is incapable of telling right from wrong, though I haven’t seen any data to support this contention. What matters, though, is not whether believers subjectively think that one cannot know right from wrong without religion, but whether, objectively, one can know right from wrong without religion. And one can indeed know right from wrong without being religious; one knows it by an intellectual consideration of the respective natures and ends of things. But the problem for Mr. Hitchens is not knowing what good is but, rather, knowing whether one ought to do good. And, as they say, one cannot derive an 'ought' from an 'is'. An ‘is’ imposes itself by the force of reason, but the ‘ought’ of unconditional obligation can only be imposed by the will of a superior. (I say “unconditional” because one can impose on oneself a conditional obligation—if I want to be good then I should do such-and-such—but a purely self-imposed obligation is not a true and proper obligation, and can be revoked at will.) An obligation obviously cannot be imposed by an inferior, and nor can it be imposed by oneself or one equal in authority to oneself, for reasons just mentioned. Without some being with authority over man who (the authority-figure) can impose upon him (man) the obligation to do good and avoid evil, we just have people following their tastes and preferences—those who have a taste for good do good, those who have a taste for evil do evil, and the two sides can only agree to disagree. (Now an atheist might retort: so only a superior can impose true and proper obligations. Well and good. But why would the superior necessarily impose an obligation to do good? If his authority is absolute, then is he not free to bind his subordinates to do evil if he so wills? The answer to this objection is: not if the superior is good by nature and all-perfect, in which case he would never abuse his freedom and authority by obliging his subjects to do evil.)

The Herald article was in connection with the so-called Festival of Dangerous Ideas, which begins tomorrow and whose opening address will be given by Mr. Hitchens. It will be interesting to see what he has to say. I would be fascinated to see how he elaborates on his moral philosophy.

Reginaldvs Cantvar
Feast of The Holy Guardian Angels, A.D. 2009


matthias said...

Forgiveness of a perpetuator by a victim that goes deeper than just formality. that is the moral kindness that Christians have that a bitter atheist like Hitchens-saw him on Q&A and he looks like an old debauchee- can never know

Anonymous said...

I would be fascinated to see how he elaborates on his moral philosophy.

Do you mean in the same way that people can be fascinated by train wrecks? Because his arguments are so ridiculous that I'd hate to see where any development of them would take him!

And I speak as one who has no formal training in philosophy or logic, but even I can see that his two arguments are completely irrelevant.

Nicely rebutted, Pole.

Cardinal Pole said...

"Do you mean in the same way that people can be fascinated by train wrecks?"

He he he, something like that, Louise!

"Because his arguments are so ridiculous that I'd hate to see where any development of them would take him!"

Ethics is definitely the Achilles Heel of the New Atheism, and of any atheism, for that matter. One simply cannot derive an 'ought', (an unconditional 'ought', at least) from an 'is'. (And in any case, I suspect that Mr. Hitchens and his fellow-travellers have got their 'is' messed up as well.)

"Nicely rebutted, Pole."

Thanks, Louise.

Cardinal Pole said...

And it's good to see you back here, Matthias.

Anonymous said...

One simply cannot derive an 'ought', (an unconditional 'ought', at least) from an 'is'.

I saw a you-tube presentation of a Christian philosopher who was asked if atheists can be moral people.

He said that it was possible for an atheist to do good, but not possible to have a coherent rationale for it.

matthias said...

Thank you Cardinal i will try and get here more often.

R J Stove said...

I did not see the recent telecast in which Trotskyite Chris Hitchens appeared, but I am told that it was marked by the presence of banshee-imitating heretic Anne Henderson, a textbook case of the "Catholicism-wasn't-good-enough-for-MEEEEEEE-so-I-founded-my-own-church-while-still-pretending-to-Catholic-culture" syndrome. Any further details about Mrs Henderson's antics would be appreciated, in the train wreck sense.

Cardinal Pole said...

Thanks for your comment, Mr. Stove (and I'm pleased to see you here, by the way). Are you thinking of the episode of the A.B.C.'s Q&A programme? I didn't watch it, but there's a transcript here:

I had a skim through it; here are some highlights (lowlights?):

Mrs. Henderson espousing Modernism:

"ANNE HENDERSON: Well, where I come from, I can't take too much of the God is a person or a thing or a human creation. I mean the idea of religion is a human creation. I grew up a Catholic and we had heaps of that little pictures of what God was. But God is meaning beyond meaning and the reason so many human beings have kept on believing in a God is because so much of ordinary material existence here doesn't explain things enough. And whether God had anything to do with natural disasters, I'm really not very interested. It's a question of when people can't understand something they give a force a place in their understanding which is usually something spiritual or beyond the material. And to me what God is is not so important but what God - that idea of God leads people to do."

Bullseye from Mr. Hitchens:

"CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: People who take their faith a la carte and cafeteria style don't impress me very much on the points of principal and conviction that we're supposed to be talking about."

What happened to intrinsic evil, Fr. Brennan?

"FRANK BRENNAN: No, homosexuality is not a sin. It's a disposition. If you want to argue - if you want to argue about whether particular homosexual acts are appropriate for an individual in a moral context, that would require a pastoral discussion with that individual."
[my emphasis]

Cardinal Pole said...

More high/lowlights:

Mr. Aly, a Muslim, unwittingly proves the absurdity of a revealed religion without a living, Divinely-guaranteed teaching authority:

"WALEED ALY: I'll get to that. The thing I want to say - no, no. But there's an important distinction here and I get often frustrated with this discourse of lumping the Islamic tradition in with the Christian tradition, particularly the Catholic tradition, because they're structurally so fundamentally different. The Catholic tradition has a church which has a kind of divine imprimatur and authority. The Islamic tradition is a far more anarchic tradition in a sense. There is no centralised authority, especially in the Sunni tradition. So to say the Islamic teaching on anything is X is a position that immediately becomes contestable. You can try to verify it statistically or otherwise but the point is that, at the very least in theory, if not in practice, any position that you take is a position that you take that may or may not - that may be fallible and is open to being contested by other Islamic theologians or other Muslims and so on."
[my emphasis]

"WALEED ALY: your repository of a list of Islamic conclusions? There is not book called Islamic Law. There is no Islamic body that says, "This is what Islam teaches." It has, for 1400 years, been an ongoing conversation. So and what was..."
[my emphasis]

"WALEED ALY: Yeah, and - but that's my point. If - if there is a criticism I would make of the Muslim world it is this: it is that particularly in the post-colonial era, as religion has become an identity movement, rather than something that's actually anything to do with spirituality and faith, in my view, particularly in the post colonial world, that religiosity, Islam has become instrumentalised as a list of conclusions, as a political ideology, as though there is some manifesto you can just download from a computer and install into a society. It doesn't work that way, certainly not in the classical tradition. The classical tradition was one of constant debate. That's why it was very difficult to get something like an inquisition going. We managed it at some point but it was not terribly successful and it ultimately crumbled because you can't ultimately centralise authority to make definitive statements on behalf of God in the Islamic tradition. That's an act of policyism to do that in (indistinct)."

If Islam is really all about "constant debate" and “ongoing conversation” then it looks like they're even more bedevilled by 'dialogue' than us poor post-Vatican-II Catholics are!

Cardinal Pole said...

One last thought: imagine if, instead of 'Father Frank', the darling of 'our' A.B.C., as the token clergyman they'd invited a priest from the S.S.P.X. instead! Now that would have been worth reading (and watching)! At least then Mr. Hitchens's dominance over the episode would have been seriously challenged.

Schütz said...

Thanks for the transcript link, Your Emmynence.

BTW, the real non-sequitur in Hitchen's argument is that he begins talking about "knowing" good from evil and then goes on to ask questions about "doing" good or evil.

Or to put it another way, he tries to prove that religious education is not necessary for knowing the difference between good and evil by showing that non-religious people are able to do good acts and religious people are able to do evil acts.

It just doesn't follow as an argument. Sounds good though, which is why people like to have their ears tickled by him.

Cardinal Pole said...

"Thanks for the transcript link, Your Emmynence."

You're welcome, Mr. Schütz.

"BTW, the real non-sequitur in Hitchen's argument is that he begins talking about "knowing" good from evil and then goes on to ask questions about "doing" good or evil."

Good point; I didn't notice that at first.