In this piece I discuss some comments made in this recent blog piece concerning the alleged inability of any atheistic worldview to provide a ‘rational basis’ for valuing moral life over chicken life. I argue that this piece fallaciously argues that because humans and chickens are comprised of the same fundamental substances, that therefore they must share the same moral value, explaining how this is an instance of the fallacy of composition. I then address the claim that atheism cannot provide a rational basis for human value, arguing that neither atheism nor theism can provide the sort of bootstrapping ‘value from reason alone’ that this piece seems to seek, and indeed that reason is simply not capable of doing so.
I wish to begin this piece by just very briefly remaking on this strange assertion found at the beginning of the article in question:
The other day I ate a chicken sandwich. The chicken was killed, dismembered and cooked and placed on a bread roll that I had for lunch. Yet there was no outcry, no police enquiry, and no news reports. Millions of people eat chicken every day and it is completely morally acceptable.
While I don’t doubt that there was no public outcry or policy enquiry, I am curious on what basis the author asserts that millions of people eating chicken every day is ‘completely morally acceptable’? I know a lot of philosophers and intelligent people generally who would not agree that eating chicken in this way is always ‘completely morally acceptable’. I myself do not eat chicken, in large part precisely because I do not find it ‘completely morally acceptable’. I will not defend this view here, I merely wish to raise the point to forestall others from doing so (and so distract the discussion from more central issues), and also to highlight that discussions of these sort involving morality and rationality are fraught with danger, given how much moral disagreement exists about even comparatively simple matters as eating chicken. What to one person is a totally innocuous act of no moral consequence to another is tantamount to murder (not that I think eating chicken is as bad as murder, but some people do). Enough on such things however. I will now move on to the meatier (haha) aspects of the article.
The Fallacy of Composition
“Now my question: in the atheist universe, why is cooking a human different to cooking a chicken? There appears no fundamental difference. A chicken is matter and energy and a human is matter and energy. Both are the same, neither has any intrinsic value. Hence it seems inconsistent and unjustified within an atheist system for there to be an outcry at the murder and cooking of human DNA.”
Let me attempt to paraphrase the argument I think is being made here in the following syllogism:
- A chicken and a human are both fundamentally comprised of matter and energy
- If two things are comprised of the same fundamental substance then they have the same moral value
- Therefore, chickens and humans have equivalent moral value
Premise 2 seems fairly obviously suspect. There is little reason to suppose that the fundamental substance out of which something is made is what determines its moral value. As Carl Sagan said of beauty, but which could equally well apply to moral value, “The beauty of a living thing is not the atoms that go into it, but the way those atoms are put together“. In particular, an atheist defending the greater moral value of humans compared to chickens could appeal to the greater human capacity for consciousness and self-awareness, their ability to experience higher forms of pain and pleasure, their greater potential for intellectual and social engagement with the world, and any number of other morally significant differences between humans and chickens. To put it another way, there is a vague collection of properties, the more of which are possessed by some entity, the more moral value it has. A rock has essentially none of these properties, a chicken has more, and a human has more still. The appeal to the face of being comprised of identical fundamental substances is of no clear relevance at all.
Indeed, this argument seems to be an instance of the fallacy of composition, in which it is falsely asserted that the whole must share the properties of its parts. For example, a puddle of water has a temperature and the property of being wet, but no individual water molecules of which the puddle is wholly comprised have such properties. Conversly, while the protons and electrons comprising the puddle are electrically charged, the puddle itself is electrically neutral. To give another example, in some random group of ten people, each person has a hair colour, but the group as a whole does not have a hair colour. Examples can be given ad nauseam. In this case, it is argued that because (in atheistic universe) humans are made up of nothing more than matter and energy, and because matter and energy of themselves have no moral value, therefore humans have no moral value. This is fallacious because, as illustrated previously, a whole need not share its properties with its parts. This is the fallacy of composition in action.
A Rational Basis for Morality?
“If a child is simply matter and energy, as are rocks, stars, chickens, computers and trees, there appears to be no rational basis for valuing human ‘matter and energy’ over chicken ‘matter and energy’. There appears no fundamental difference between cooking a human and cooking a chicken.”
Here I want to focus on the use of the phrase “no rational basis valuing human ‘matter and energy’”. I must admit it is not entirely clear to me what is meant by this. What is meant by ‘rational’ in this context? Does it mean that someone who was only interested in holding true beliefs about the external world would not come to value human matter and energy? If so, then I agree completely. I do not believe there is any such thing as value ‘built in’ (the word ‘intrinsic’ is often used, though I often find that more obfuscatory than enlightening) to the world, such that mere recognition of a fact necessitates some kind of attribution of value to something. Nor do I think this is a product of an atheistic universe – I think it is just as much a fact about any possible theistic universe as an atheistic universe.
For consider a hypothetical person who is fully rational, in the sense of caring only about holding true beliefs about the way things really are. Suppose such a person follows the evidence and arguments, and comes to the belief that God exists, and furthermore that God has given mankind various commandments and laws. Does it follow from any purely ‘rational basis’ that this hypothetical person should therefore value God’s commandments, or believe that they have a moral obligation to follow them? I contend that it does not. They have merely discovered a fact about what God commands, which by itself provides no ‘rational basis’ for valuing God’s commands. This idea is not mine; it is simply an application of Moore’s famous Open Question Argument.
An atheist most certainly can rationally defend human dignity and value. We, as individuals and as a society, care about the suffering, the joy, and the flourishing of self-aware, conscious, intelligent creatures such as humans (and possibly other species too, maybe even chickens, but let’s leave that aside for now). What’s that you say? What if our interlocutor claims not to care one wit about such things – what can we say then to convince them? The answer, of course, is nothing. Just as the theist has nothing to say to the person who claims to believe in God and his commandments, but feels no compunction or desire to follow them. ‘Rationality’ cannot bootstrap itself from nothing – it has to start somewhere. Just as the theist cannot give any deeper non-question begging reason deriving from rationality alone for why God ought to be obeyed or why his commands constitute moral laws, likewise the atheist can give no deeper non-question begging reason from rationality alone for why human life has value: the situations are symmetric.
The trouble here is not the dearth of reasons, but the desire to both reasons and rationality further then they can go. Rationality can get you from one belief to another without falling into falsity, but it cannot tell you what beliefs to start with, or in this case what things to ultimately care about. It is our mistake to expect that it would ever be capable of such a feat.