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This is part 4 of my “Think! Of God and Government” debate series with Christian author Andrew Murtagh. Read my latest post and Andrew’s reply.

Hi Andrew,

It’s been a while, but it’s good to hear from you again. Of course, I’m looking forward to our next in-person matchup on Memorial Day weekend. This time I’ll be the one with home-court advantage!

Just as we agree that morality is a real phenomenon with both rational and empirical components, I think there are moral skeptics among theists as well as among atheists. The theistic moral skeptics would be the people who believe that goodness consists solely of doing God’s will, as interpreted by them at any given moment, even if it starkly contradicts what they previously believed. I’m sure you can come up with your own examples.

When it comes to atheistic moral skeptics, as I said, I’m aware that I can’t convince someone who disagrees with me on first principles. The only answer I can give them is the same answer anyone can ever give to any kind of philosophical skeptic: namely, a practical answer (“I refute it thus!”). Whatever we might say about the unknowability of reality, no one in their right mind ever jumps off a cliff because they believe the law of gravity is just someone’s opinion. Similarly, whatever anyone says about how morals are subjective, no one really wants to live in a world where everyone else acts as if this were true – as if the way a stranger treated you was based entirely on their whim, and not on rules of conduct we all respect.

Then again, this is probably overstating the case. I think most self-proclaimed moral skeptics are perfectly good and decent people, and most of them even make moral decisions the same way as I do. Our disagreement, I’ve found, is mainly a disagreement over language, not ontology – much like the question, “Are numbers real?” Depending on your definition of “real”, two people may disagree quite fiercely about this, yet they can both still calculate and arrive at the right answer.

And I think that provides a good segue…

In our discussion of utilitarianism, you brought up an “Eskimo thought experiment” (I believe the people themselves prefer the term Inuit) about a tribe living in harsh conditions that’s facing starvation, and whose leader has to decide whether some people, like the elderly who can no longer help with the hunt, should be sent out into the wilderness to freeze so that there’s more food for everyone else. You suggest that in that scenario, you’d refuse to consign an elderly person to death, even if it means that more people will starve, and that doing anything else seems “radically disjoint” to you.

Daniel Dennett calls these kinds of thought experiments “intuition pumps”, and when you encounter one of them, he he suggests “twiddling the knobs” – changing some of the parameters to see if it’s some underappreciated feature of the scenario itself that’s doing the work. So, let’s try that!

Let’s say you’re a doctor in a hospital emergency room, and two people with severe injuries are brought in at the same time. You have enough units of blood to save one of them, but only one of them. What do you do?

In the Inuit scenario, you said, “I would rather starve to death than feed my infant to dogs or throw my grandfather into the tundra to freeze to death.” Would the analogous logic of the trauma doctor dictate that you do nothing, rather than be forced to choose who lives and who dies? Or would you ineffectively divide the available blood supply among both patients, knowing that it wouldn’t be enough to save either from death by blood loss? I would suggest that either of those options are less moral than saving one person. If you find it unbearable to make that choice, you could flip a coin or do something random. But when you can’t save everyone, at least save someone, for goodness’ sake!

If the Inuit scenario seems radically disjoint to you, I’d suggest that that’s because you (and I) have never had to make choices like this. Speaking for myself, I know my life has been greatly privileged: I was born to a middle-class family in a wealthy, industrialized nation, and I’ve never gone hungry, much less had to seriously contemplate the prospect of starvation. Assuming your background is similar to mine, it’s natural that we’d recoil in horror at having to make such a stark decision, in conditions of deprivation so unlike what either of us is used to.

To be clear, I don’t think this scenario applies to our society, which has ample ability to care for the elderly and the disabled. But across most of history, the vast majority of people wouldn’t find this scenario unrealistic at all. Poverty and deprivation have always forced people to make terrible sacrifices. For instance, I once wrote about a woman who had to choose which of her children would sleep under their family’s only anti-malaria net.

Morality doesn’t dictate that there’s always a good option. Sometimes, there’s only a least-bad option. But I’d argue that part of what it means to be moral is that we do what good we can, save as many people as we can, rather than throw up our hands and surrender to fatalism if a catastrophe can’t be entirely averted. (To tie this back to the overarching theme of our debate, another part of what it means to be moral is working together and pooling our efforts for the common good, so that we don’t have to face choices like this quite as often.)

I think morality is “innate” in the sense that human beings are born with both a capacity for benevolent cooperation as well as a capacity for prejudice and violence. In that sense, good and evil are both equally innate in us. Our upbringing and circumstances have a lot to do with which one predominates. And again, this is why it’s important to design good governmental systems to bring the good to the fore more often! Individual moral virtue is obviously something to be encouraged, but it’s also unrealistic to expect everyone to display it all the time, just on their own strength of character, regardless of their circumstances. It’s much better to create an environment where goodness can more easily flourish.

If you’d like to talk more about morality, I’m up for that. Otherwise, there’s something you hinted at that I’d like to follow up on. You said that one’s choice of religion is an irrational leap of faith, yet you also maintain that Christianity is in some way a distinctive religious worldview. I’m curious to hear how you reconcile these statements.

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...