Saturday, 13 October 2007

The Golden Rule Attack!

I am going to continue my theme, started yesterday, of examining responses to "how can you be moral without god"? I am also pursuing this in less obvious ways than normally taken and with a different intent. When I find myself in a debate I want to achieve something and I already know that in such a situation winning - for either side - is simply incredibly unlikely. However there are other things that can be achieved and which permit further debate rather than immediate termination of the conversation. I certainly would not want to attempt to convince them that their belief in god is false and hence their morality argument is unsound. What is possible is to actually answer their question by taking it in the spirit of Plato's Principle of Charity. That is to show them that one can be moral without god. I am not even wanting them to openly admit this, but simply for them to get it. For my purposes here I will use the Golden Rule.

Now there are many ways such a debate initiated with such a morally repugnant question "how can you be moral without god" can be sidetracked. What I want to do is avoid changing the subject and achieve some communication at the same time. It is all to easy to go down the path of explaining how it is possible to be moral without god but there are many problems here, starting with inadvertently accepting the burden of proof - it is their moral failing that has been highlighted by their own question and we need to make them realise that. They have already told that they are intellectually naive so do you really think, whatever your actual theory or approach is, that points such as non-naturalism, relativism, subjectivism, cognitivism, emotivism, expressivism, prescriptivism, the naturalistic fallacy, the fallacy of deriving ought from is, the fact-value distinction and your elegant solutions to all these and moral dilemmas is going to work here? If you do, you are on a hiding to nothing. So whatever your actual moral approach I would suggest that you impose a lightweight moral framework on it namely "do not do to others, what you do not want done to you". I will leave it up to you to see how that can be made compatible with your own theory but as far as I can see this can be done with most moral approaches. Is it too blunt and simplistic, well remember the moral capacity of the person you are dealing with as revealed by their statements.

The value of the Golden Rule here is that you have some common ground that you can both agree to. This is the first thing to achieve once you know you are in a debate with a morally naive bigot. You don't know if they are and will remain committed to that position yet, give them the benefit of the doubt. So when the question of your morality comes up again say you follow the Golden Rule. Or something like "My morality is based on the Golden Rule, and yours isn't?". Throw the hot potato they keep on trying to give you back into their lap. Of course I can't predict what they will say but it is likely to fall into roughly three responses.

They will claim the Golden Rule as their own, given by their god and without their god you would have no morality and without god you would neither apply it nor know how to apply it.

First, the Golden Rule is a near-universal principle discovered in a wide variety of culture throughout history secular, polytheistic, monotheistic and non-theistic, such as Buddhism. Given the latter which explicitly rejects their type of god, it is difficult to show it needs such a god for its origination. Regardless it is a genetic fallacy to claim that since their god, via some person, contributed it to the world, that it requires such a god to continue to exist. Anyway you have already achieved implicit agreement that you both follow the Golden Rule.

Secondly, you don't need to god to apply this rule. It is a self-standing rule. You follow it because you want to, not because you seek god's approval or to avoid god's disapproval and punishment. You would follow it regardless of whether you believe in god or not. An example of my point yesterday about "atheistic morality" (a term I suggest you avoid using in this conversation) not being affected by a belief in god.

Finally, you don't need god's guidance in executing this rule. It is, almost by definition, making you the judge of what you don't want to happen to you and thereby guiding your actions with respect to others.

Now here is the catch. If they do endorse the Golden Rule then what were they doing acting as a bigot, condemning you via an externally imposed, by them, member of a group they pejoratively judge as being immoral? I would suggest, and it is a point in this series, that you don't respond in kind. If they endorse the Golden Rule and treat you with bigotry, are they not asking to be treated in turn as victim of bigotry too? This is both a more subtle and effective way of making the point that they, at the very least, appear to be a bigot. Rather than it being an accusation and judgement by you, you have now made it a self-judgement by them, indeed their position is self-refuting, and they have taken taken moral low ground. Don't join them there. The burden of proof remains with them and you have not changed the subject.

If they think they are in fact the victim of bigotry then use the the Golden Rule as an argument that they need to stop doing it to others, in order for it stop happening to them. (It is also highly likely that they do not, in spite of claims, follow the Golden Rule, as once you have divine exceptions -especially over who those "others" are - it is no longer a Golden Rule that is being followed. I suggest you don't go there)

I would be surprised there will be much agreement, amongst their likely histrionics but you made a point that might sink in after this debate. By emphasising the Golden Rule, you have shown them a way to be moral without the crutch of god.

My next post will complete this mini-series and discuss the more obvious objections to this question.


Anonymous said...

The golden rule as you quote it is actually superior to the affirmative version usually quoted by Christians. There is a big difference betweeen not doing something to others they do not want done to them, and doing to others what you would like them to do to you.

For instance, the "do unto others" rule can be called upon to justify all kinds of enforcement of your own rules.

martino said...

We are in violent agreement here! If you follow my Golden Rule link in the first paragraph of this post, this is exactly the point I make where I talk about Proscriptive and Prescriptive Golden Rules.

In the context here just talking about the "Golden Rule" without going into details is hopefully sufficient. To delve into this topic as you commented and I have previously posted on would be, as I put it, changing the subject, which I am trying to avoid.