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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Sunday, May 29, 2011

D'Souza on callousness and compassion, atheism and morality

Dinesh D’Souza goes badly wrong when he describes bioethical views such as Peter Singer's (and, for relevant purposes, mine) as lacking in compassion. Nothing could be further from the truth. He writes: "It may seem strange to see all this callousness toward human life in a society whose primary social value in compassion." Then he goes on to claim that we need to be pretend to be virtuous in public because we are so "awful in our private lives" (What’s So Great About Christianity, 271).

But he has all this backwards. At this point of the discussion, his primary example is abortion, but it is nonsense to suggest that compassion, of all things could lead to an anti-abortion stand. It is most certainly possible to feel compassion for a woman - perhaps a frightened teenage girl - who needs an abortion for any of a vast range of reasons. It is not possible to feel compassion for an entity that may have developed the beginnings of a human morphology but cannot experience fear, psychological suffering, or in most cases even physical pain. If you imagine that what you feel here is genuine compassion you are deluding yourself - your compassion is for an imaginary being with properties that the entity you're supposed to be thinking about simply does not possess.

If we are going to balance our impulse to feel compassion, we will side in almost any conceivable case with a woman who needs an abortion and we will certainly not support laws that attempt to prevent women having abortions. It is, in fact, the anti-abortion position that lacks compassion. This is, indeed, why many of us reject what D’Souza and other Christian conservatives hold out as Christian morality: it is arbitrary, irrational, and cruel.

The same can be said about another of his examples, euthanasia, by which he seems to have in mind physician-assisted suicide. But how can this be described as callous? Euthanasia in the relevant sense usually relates to the suffering of patients who face inevitable death in the near future ... brought to them from horrible diseases such as cancer. If a contemporary discussion of euthanasia extends at all beyond that context, it is only to include other situations of patients whose situations are so miserable that they prefer death, or whose situations have caught them in a state of permanent unconsciousness, with no prospect of ever again leading an ordinary human life.

Many people find themselves experiencing what has become a living hell, yet are too debilitated by the same disease that makes it so to be able to end their own lives. Is it "compassionate" to require them to live on against their own wishes, knowing the ongoing suffering that they must endure, and no matter what legislative safeguards might be put in place to deter abuses and obviate fears? To many atheists - and others who support regulated access to euthanasia, since atheists don't have a monopoly on compassion or good sense - it is the policies of the churches that appear cruel. The latter are driven more by supernaturalist concepts that human lives are in the hands of an inscrutable God than by concern for the welfare of fellow human beings in awful situations.

From that point of view, D'Souza’s complaints about callousness and compassion seem like a sick joke. The religious morality that he espouses detects a kind of misplaced holiness in suffering, helplessness, and misery.

 I could go into a whole raft of issues with a view to working out which standards and which social policies are more compassionate or more callous. This applies to gay rights, divorce law, the treatment of anencephalic and other severely deformed infants, or whatever else D'Souza wants to talk about. I acknowledged that atheists don't have a monopoly on compassion but it's very plain that conservative Christianity does not have such a monopoly. In fact, it has a lousy claim to exemplify compassion at all.

D'Souza appears to be led by his own sense of righteousness to a thoroughgoing misunderstanding of the relationship between the moral standards advocated by many atheist thinkers and the widely-accepted value of compassion.
He sees atheism as a rebellion against Christian morality, especially Christian sexual morality. That is wrong, since atheism is usually a sincere intellectual position backed by arguments. But does his analysis contain no grain of truth at all? 

Perhaps there is some truth in the vicinity, but again D'Souza gets it exactly wrong. Far from people trying to fool themselves that God does not exist so that they can reject certain strictures of traditional morality, they are more likely to begin with a strong intuition that those strictures are irrational, arbitrary, and cruel. Thinking about it rationally is likely to confirm the intuition.

This is not a direct reason for them to believe that God doesn't exist: we could consistently postulate that God exists while also holding that there is nothing wrong with such things as contraception, abortion, and homosexual conduct. After all, much contemporary theology rejects conservative Christian views of these things.

But the problem is likely to be more indirect - as long as churches and sects issue moral edicts that appear largely irrational, judged by secular standards, their credibility is undermined. For many of us these do not look like the edicts of a superlatively wise and benevolent being, but like relics from a less enlightened era. At best, some of them may be excused as standards of behaviour that made sense in earlier social circumstances, but make little or no sense now. Once we reach that point, holy books, traditional teachings, and official pronouncements from religious organisations appear unlikely to be divinely inspired. They look very much "man-made", very much like merely human constructions.

That, in turn casts doubt on the churches' and sects' authority in other matters such as claims about the existence and nature of character of supernatural beings. It's not conclusive by itself, but it converges with other considerations to make religious views of the world less likely to be true. The most powerful arguments come from elsewhere - among them, of course, is the Problem of Evil - but the cruel, arbitrary, irrational moral norms found in religious traditions do nothing to bolster the intellectual authority of religion. In fact, quite the opposite.


Darrick Lim said...

Hear hear.

Laurence said...

That was beautiful, and I couldn't have said it any better myself. The Christian morality that D'Souza subscribes to is anything but compassionate. Thanks for writing this.

Sean said...

Wonderful post Russell. The basis for religious moral authority should be consistently challenged. Under closer scrutiny, claims made by people like D'Souza tend to fall apart.

David said...

I really have very little to add to this, really enjoyed your post Russell :)

Roi des Faux said...

"He sees atheism as a rebellion against Christian morality, especially Christian sexual morality. That is wrong, since atheism is usually a sincere intellectual position backed by arguments. But does his analysis contain no grain of truth at all?"

I can comment on that. I rejected Christianity for moral reasons, largely centered on sexuality. I finally sat down to read the Bible, and discovered that it did not speak of the good god I beleived in. Once I was no longer part of a church, it didn't take long for me to realize that the only reason I believed in god was because I had been told to my whole life.

Anonymous said...

Hi - I am definitely delighted to find this. great job!

Chrys Stevenson said...

I agree totally, Russell. I see the atheist position as driven by ethics, compassion and a commitment to the truth and I certainly see those attributes in my atheist friends (including you).

Svlad Cjelli said...

Well, wasn't it out of this compassion that heretics in various places were coerced to convert before execution?

Dick Alstein said...

I get the suspicion that any religion worth its salt needs to have some moral rules which, to an outside observer, will seem irrational. And thus, when such rules are truly put into practice, that religion will seem cruel and incompassionate.

Or, to paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke: Any sufficiently compassionate morality is indistinguishable from humanism.

Secular Dentist said...

Great Post, well said. It's incredible how many people judge others and exert their opinions, on which they have no experience or no say on the matter. Then, start calling others immoral because they do not see their same points of view. Total lack of compassion.

Anonymous said...

"Any sufficiently compassionate morality is indistinguishable from humanism."

Love it!