Richard Dawkins and the Chimera of “Moral Duty”

Apparently militant New Atheist Richard Dawkins believes there is such a thing as “moral duty.”  In a recent tweet he wrote, citing an article in the Washington Post,

US has as much moral duty to accept Syrian refugees as Europe. If not more.

It’s too bad Socrates isn’t still around to “learn” the nature of this “moral duty” from Dawkins the same way he did from Euthyphro.  I’m sure the resulting dialog would have been most amusing.

Where on earth does an atheist like Dawkins get the idea that there is such a thing as moral duty?  I doubt that he has even thought about it.  After all, if moral duty is not just a subjective figment of his imagination and is capable of acquiring the legitimacy to apply not only to himself, but to the entire population of the United States as well, it must somehow exist as an entity in itself.  How else could it acquire that legitimacy?  There is no logical justification for the claim that mere subjective artifacts of the consciousness of Richard Dawkins, or any other human individual for that matter, are born automatically equipped with the right to dictate “oughts” to other individuals.  They cannot possibly acquire the necessary legitimacy simply by virtue of the fact that the physical processes in the brain responsible for their existence have occurred.  In what form, then, does “moral duty” exist as an independent thing-in-itself?  To claim that “moral duty” is not a thing, or an object, is tantamount to admitting that it doesn’t exist.  In what other form can it possibly manifest itself?  As a spirit?  If that is Dawkins’ claim, then he is every bit as religious as the most delusional speaker in tongues.  As dark matter, perhaps?  If so then Dawkins must know more about it then the world’s best physicists.

We’re not talking about a deep philosophical issue here.  I really can’t understand why the question doesn’t occur immediately to anyone who claims to be an atheist.  (Of course, it should occur to religious believers as well, as noted by Socrates well over 2000 years ago.  However, the response that they have a “moral duty” because they don’t want to burn in hell for quintillions of years is at least worth considering).  In any case, the question certainly occurred to me shortly after I became an atheist at the age of 12.  Then, as now, the world was infested with are commonly referred to today as Social Justice Warriors.  Then, as now, they were in a constant state of outrage over one thing or another.  And then, as now, they expected the rest of the world to take their tantrums of virtuous indignation seriously.  Is it really irrational to pose the simple question, “Why?”  I asked myself that question, and quickly came to the conclusion that these people are charlatans.

The question remains and is just as relevant today as it was then, whether one accepts Darwinian explanations for the origin of morality or not.  However, for atheists who have some respect for the methods of science, I would claim that natural selection is at once the most logical as well as the most parsimonious explanation for the existence of morality.  It is the root cause from which spring all its gaudy and multifarious guises.  If that is the case, then one can only speak of morality in scientific terms as a manifestation of evolved behavioral predispositions.  As such, there is no possible way for it to acquire objective legitimacy.  In other words, the claim that all Americans, or any other subset of the human population, has a genuine “moral duty” of any kind is a mirage.  If anything, this would appear to be doubly true in the case claimed by Dawkins.  It is yet another instance of what I have previously referred to as a “morality inversion.”  “Morality” is invoked as the reason for doing things that accomplish the opposite of that which accounts for the very existence of morality to begin with.

What?  You don’t agree with me?  Well, if “moral duties” are not made of anything, then they don’t exist, so they must be objects of some kind.  They must be made of something.  By all means, go out and capture a free range “moral duty,” and prove me wrong.  Show it to me!  I hope it’s green.  That’s my favorite color.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

18 thoughts on “Richard Dawkins and the Chimera of “Moral Duty””

  1. Moral imperative reminded me of Kant’s categorical imperative of which it is claimed that moral imperative is a subset. Kant defines categorical imperative as: Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.
    In other words it is a categorical imperative if a world where everyone behaved in that way made sense.
    Nothing to do with god or mind. Simply a practical maxim. Well, maybe not so simple, but at least something else to chew on.

  2. Yes, as he put it, ““Two things awe me most, the starry sky above me and the moral law within me.” Like Hutcheson and Hume, he believed in human nature. I give him credit for that.

  3. I definitely wanted to see it. What a hoot! They didn’t really need to drag Ardrey into it at all, but they just couldn’t resist. From little artifacts like this you can see how bitter the Blank Slaters still are about the fact that Ardrey was right and they were dead wrong on the one, unifying theme of all Ardrey’s work, the existence of human nature. The bit about him is a propaganda homily frozen in time, dredged up from the 1960’s as if every bit of it hadn’t been debunked over and over again. I can understand their chagrin. After portraying early man as an amiable vegetarian who occasionally scavenged meat from the kills of other animals in their “In Search of Human Origins” series in 1997, they were forced to do a complete 180 and admit that he was, indeed, a hunter in the “Becoming Human” series a bit over a decade later. Now we find them returning like dogs to their vomit.

  4. I remember now that I mentioned John Gray before, re his use of the ‘Straw Dogs’ title, which of course Ardrey had been credited in inspiring the movie of the same name.
    Well the new book by John Gray is “The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom (2015).”
    So there, Morias is the only person with the titles similar who totally agrees with Gray that we have no such thing if separateness from the know universe if that is a characteristic of said ‘soul’.
    Straw Dogs, of course has the eastern play, the Buddhist enlightenment moment is Anatta, or ‘No Soul’. The Taoists who were the originators of the ‘Straw Dogs’ saying are strong on ‘No Soul’, or no separate soul. The shortest scanning of Buddhist web sites will show how impossible it is for that psyche type to begin to comprehend such a concept/reality.

  5. RE: Pinker

    Pinker’s argument is largely based on his belief that our institutions changed. The institutions (and the Pax Americana) he champions are founded on the sand of a credit-fuelled “prosperity”. Of all the gifts the blank slaters gave us, I believe the most destructive will prove to be the massive bubble economy that has been inflated – for over a century, but most egregiously since the 1960s and the advent of liberals like Paul Samuelson in the Kennedy administration.

    We will see what his “institutions” are worth when the bubble bursts.

  6. Furhter Re Pinker,

    It’s with a certain trepadation I mention or enlarge on the ‘Institutions’ you mention.
    It always strikes me as telling that people who can clearly see the church as a shared social construct are unable to see the “Nation State’ in the same fashion. The mentioning of this can lead to great challenges to peoples sense of ‘place’ in the world.

    If we examine the individuals relationship to the church, god or I maintain the Nation State then we see the following.

    They ‘Authority’ vested in all three are clear and profound, they allow for a sense of security and submission.

    People can see the ‘rapture’ that ensues from others belief in the church but fail to identify thier own ‘rapture’ (unconscious) where the Nation State supports their sense of self.

    There is only secondary and tertiary evidence for the emtaphysics, ie buildings (churches) and writings (bible etc),
    There is only secondary for the State, (buildings and war matierial etc) and teritiray laws etc.

    I was guest speaker at a Annual Meeting of a medium organisation once and ran this line down the isle, I was amazed at the quite violent reaction it invoked in one chap who started yelling about the scientific proof for God. He then started re the Nation State, he was shaking with rage, quite amazing. Such is the power of ‘institutions’.

    Re the Bubble, could I suggest that the rise in use of fossil fuels (energy)with technologies, and computers and the advent of other breakthrough, particularily medical have added to your identified bubble.

  7. It’s true that at the moment we run less risk of violent death for many of the reasons Pinker mentions in his book. However, I don’t share his optimism for the future. His nice curve of decreasing violence over time will look somewhat different when nuclear weapons are used again, as they certainly will be. It may be tomorrow, or it may be in 1000 years, but it will happen. It’s just a question of when. Other than that, we have seen several countries buck his optimistic trend thanks to their “institutions.” For example, Cambodia and the Soviet Union virtually decapitated themselves, each killing off a substantial fraction of their population, heavily weighted in each case towards its most intelligent members.

  8. Yes, modern ideologies sometimes become the “established religions” of states, and are very similar to traditional religions. The Scottish philosopher Sir James MacKintosh pointed out in the early 19th century that the radical versions of socialism already being spawned by the industrial revolution that eventually morphed into Communism were essentially religions. He predicted they would eventually fail, because their “gods” and their “paradise” were supposed to materialize on earth, where they could be fact checked. He was no mean prophet.

  9. Re the Nation State/Communism etc

    The writings of the Lorenz/Ardrey/Tinbergen types led me to the following question,.

    What naturally occurring ‘trigger/hydraulic pump/instinct etc is being activated by the Religious/State experience?

    Consider that the natural size of the tribe/band is about 50-150, possibly more but certainly not more than say 800. Now what occurring in the (soul) psyche of the individual will trigger this reflex? I propose authority/alpha/dominance, and that for coherence there must be a far greater % of people in the submissive position.

    This pre existing place within the psyche (of submission/searching for authority) can only be disrupted by the removal of the tribal authority figure. In our society this never occurs as the usurpation of this place is complete and now complies to the ‘super stimulus’ category. Ie figureheads at the apex of these two institutions.

    This results one great frustration, among many, of people expecting the State to do everything for them, they are literally still children.

    In another sense it reminds me of that old line in a movie, (I think), “Just because your paranoid doesn’t mean their not out to get you.)

  10. I don’t believe for a second that being an atheist automatically means you have to cave in to cognitive relativism. Did you read “The Moral Landscape” by Sam Harris? I like his style. But still, Dawkins is mistaken, because they’re not refugees. They’re invaders.

  11. “What naturally occurring ‘trigger/hydraulic pump/instinct etc is being activated by the Religious/State experience?”

    Some who investigate near death experiences think it has something to do with lack of oxygen, however there are also “fear of death” experiences that are quite similar – and both are similar to dramatic religious experience.

    I think they will eventually find a link to shock of the kind you see in an animal under attack by a predator when the struggle ends (a wildebeast standing stock still while lions finish it off, e.g.). How such a reaction evolved is a mystery to me.

  12. Further to the above, and regarding “when the struggle ends”, I think it is no coincidence that Islam means submission, that Christians speak of sweet surrender, and Buddhist enlightenment comes when the struggle to comprehend ends.

    As far as evolution, it has now occurred to me that since aggression and sex are so closely linked in the VMH and ventrolateral of the VMH there may be a link there.

    Link is to the second page of the article, whence comes: “More puzzling was the observation that some neurons were also active, albeit only transiently, in the initial exploratory phases of mating with a female. Conversely, many of the cells signaling during fighting were actively suppressed during mating, indicating an inherent opposition between aggression and sex.”

  13. Further to the above evolution Lorenz’s connection of the pair bond and aggression would be relevant, but most especially the fact that for some species copulation is essentially rape. In these instances the female goes into some kind of tonic trance as she submits (like the wildebeast). This would be an ancient process going back to the beginning of sexual reproduction and housed in the oldest parts of the brain.

    If this pans out then sexual reproduction would have started out as an aggressive act, maybe even an attack.

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