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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Kenan Malik on morality without God

As I said yesterday, I'm returning to this interview with Kenan Malik. Malik discusses five books that illuminate the issue of morality without God, and his choices are not exactly what we might expect - they shed their light from very different angles and offer us bases on which to think for ourselves. None of them set out a comprehensive secular alternative in the manner of, say, Peter Singer's Practical Ethics.

Malik's five choices are:

1. Plato, Euthryphro.
2. Abul Ala alp-Ma'arri, The Epistle of Forgiveness.
3. Jonathan Israel, Radical Enlightenment.
4. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov.
5. Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus.

He briefly describes and discusses each of these, and I found the discussions of Plato and Dostoevsky especially penetrating.

I've read only three of these five books (Plato, Dostoevsky, and Camus), but all three belong in my own canon of works that have great significance for me personally. I haven't read the book by Jonathan Israel, though I'm broadly familiar with its thesis, and I confess that I'd never heard of The Epistle of Forgiveness. I'll try to get hold of these, though it seems that the last does not have a complete translation into English (or at least one that is readily available).

Do have a look at what Malik has to say. I find his approach very congenial. Here's a nice quote with which I'm in broad agreement:
In truth, morality, like God, is a human creation. Even believers have to decide which of the values found in the Torah or the Bible or the Quran they accept, and which they reject. What God provides is not the source of moral values but, if you like, the ethical concrete in which those values are set. Rooting morality in religion is a means of putting certain values or practices beyond question by insisting they are God-given. The success of religious morality derives from its ability to combine extreme flexibility – just look at the degree to which religious morals have changed over the centuries – with the insistence that certain beliefs, values and practices are sacred and absolute because they are divinely sanctioned.
The only point that I'd want to add to this is that religious morality is not flexible enough. While it does adapt and change over long periods of time, it also tends to resist change at any given time. One result is that religious moralists will often claim that certain kinds of conduct are "just wrong" without looking to such questions as whether they are really forms of conduct that must be deterred for the sake of social peace or to avoid suffering.

If we see such worldly goods as social peace and avoidance of suffering as providing the point of moral rules and virtues, we'll often come to quite different conclusions from religious moralists who typically ground morality in the will of God or some kind of universal teleological order, or in something else that is otherworldly or esoteric. This can set us in opposition to religious morality, which can seem, as it does to me, a force for bad in the world.

Indeed, as Malik suggests, religious morality diminishes us: the idea of religion as guardian of our moral values "diminishes what it means to be human." Contrary to the claims of religious moralists, we do not require any kind of supernatural source in order to address how we are to live together successfully as social beings, and to do what we reasonably can to ameliorate the burden of the world's suffering.

As always, religion tends to belittle and disparage humanity, as it does so many other good things. I'll return to that theme later today.


Steve Zara said...

It's not correct to say that morality is a human invention. We have an evolved moral sense that is shared to some degree with many different species. The human situation involves a combination of that moral sense with self-awareness. That self-awareness means we can moderate and adapt our innate morality.

Charles Sullivan said...

Can I print this out and tape it to my refrigerator?

"Contrary to the claims of religious moralists, we do not require any kind of supernatural source in order to address how we are to live together successfully as social beings, and to do what we reasonably can to ameliorate the burden of the world's suffering."

Kenan Malik said...

Many thanks Russell, that’s very generous. I would urge everyone to read the Jonathan Israel’s trilogy – it is outstanding, the most important study of the Enlightenment for a generation and transforms our understanding of the period (and most specially of the influence of Spinoza). On al-Ma’arri – the extract in Classical Arabic Stories is the only commercially available one that I know of. But it is a short, edited extract. Better, I think, to dig out in a library earlier, fuller translations of al-Ma’arri’s work.

cassanders said...

While I probably agree in the central points in Malik and Blackford's thesis, I would also like to second Steve Zara.
(And like Russel, I realise I have missed a number of books)

Anyway, an expression like "human invention" could be a non-biologist's (quite misleading)shorthand for: the result of an evolutionary process.

But if the expression means deliberately dismissing all the data indicating a substantial "hardwired" biological component of "morality", I would disagree strongly.

Here is a review of Patricia Churchland's recent take on the issue.

In Cod we trust

Russell Blackford said...

I do actually think that morality as we know it is human invention. That's quite consistent, Steve, with the claim that some of its building blocks are instinctual. I think that any complete theory of the phenomenon of morality is going to have to deal with both of those claims. Obviously I can't defend such a theory here, but the phenomenon of morality goes far beyond the kind of proto-morality, or whatever we want to call it, observed in other animals.

At the moment I'm reading the new (well about-to-be-published) book by Philip Kitcher, which has a lot to say about these things.

cassanders said...

Well, the difference between Steve, you and me doesn't seem to be very large, but I am still not convinced that the concept "invention" is a good one.

I would think you are partly conflating/confusing the languagal aspects of morality (where our tacit moral urges are uploaded and becomes externally codified and shared) with the "hardwired" morality.
I do of course not deny a significant "cultural and flexible component", the empirical evidence are overwhelming.

In Cod we trust

Russell Blackford said...

Well, what seem to be hardwired are certain sympathies, certain desires, perhaps some basic unintellectualised sense of fairness, etc.

I do agree that when we look around us and see the phenomenon of morality, then start investigating it, one of the things that we are likely to find out is that it has building blocks in our evolved psychology (though we don't currently have a well-established theory as to just how much of it is covered by our evolved psychology). But I don't think people like Kenan Malik are denying that general claim. When theorists of morality describe it as invented, they are not denying thst it's invented out of evolved psychological characteristics; they are (mainly )denying that the "true" morality comes ready made from some kind of supernatural or metaphysical realm, or that it can somehow be inferred from a process of pure practical reason. Though the theories differ, they postulate that the moral norms that societies have are a cultural product of human beings, as the evolved psychology that human beings have responds to the circumstances faced by certain societies operating in the natural world.

This connects up with the claim is that moral claims are not straightforwardly true. The claim that such and such a norm exists in such and such society may be true, of course. Even the claim that such and such a moral norm serves human needs in certain circumstances better than such and such alternative moral norm may be true. But moral norms are more like technologies than like ordinary truths about the world - they are things that we adopt and develop to meet our needs, particularly our need for social cooperation if we are going to survive.

In theory, other animals could also do this, but there's not much evidence that they do so in any like the elaborate way that we do. Chimpanzee "morality" for example, as its described by people like Frans de Waal, looks fairly rudimentary and inflexible, sufficiently so to put scare quotes about the word. But it's not difficult to imagine that other animals could have a ohenomenon of morality much like our, with all its elaboration and variation, and its cognitive content. If they did (and if some actually do, either on earth or elsewhere) then morality is also an invention of those animals, and again no doubt it is built from their evolved psychology, as they face the problems of the world including problems of how to cooperate in their material circumstances.

All of which you may agree with - this may be partly a matter of semantics.