Richard Dawkins’ Moral Bankruptcy and the Roots of the Minimalist Ethic


I recently came across this interesting article on the famous atheist and Darwinian advocate, Richard Dawkins:

This is the same Dawkins who teaches that we are the bearer and product of “selfish genes,” whose only concern is replication and survival. In his words, “We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.”

With that in mind, it was interesting to see him say this in the article regarding childhood bullying:

“I cannot even begin to imagine how human beings could be so cruel, but to a greater or lesser extent we were, if only through failing to stop it. How could we be so devoid of empathy?”

He says that about an unattractive and awkward schoolmate of his. But by his own standard we are nothing more than animals driven by our “selfish genes” and instincts. Dogs have a way of picking on the weak and the runts, and other species go so far as to kill them and eat them. From whence comes his view that we should rise above our material natures to be noble creatures who care a whit about inferior genetic stock?

In his book on this very topic his conclusion is that we should “try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are all born selfish.” If we are indeed born this way because it has material value, then to what higher standard does he expect to appeal in order to rebuke our nature? If it is some inherent altruistic urge, then that and our selfish urges are in curious conflict. Who is to say which should be given deference without a third, superior moral standard upon which to appeal? Perhaps Dawkins’ empathetic feelings toward the inferior are in error and to be rejected, as Friedrich Nietzsche thought.

If evolution is our creator and master, as Dawkins proclaims, then how can we deny the selfish ethic with which it has invested us? We certainly could survive quite well by killing and eating the genetically inferior among us, and survival and reproduction are really all evolution could be said to “care” about. We need something higher than nature to assert that no matter what quality of genes we bear we are all intrinsically valuable, equal in rights, and worthy of respect. Atheism lacks the philosophical tools to make such a distinction.

This moral ambiguity is on display later in his article when Dawkins discusses his school’s pedophile headmaster, whom he is at a loss to condemn. His only criteria for letting him off the hook is that he doesn’t think “he did any of us any lasting damage.” In the relativistic void of Dawkins’ atheism, where all actions are merely a byproduct of “selfish genes,” it makes sense that his ethics would be based upon “selfish” considerations: “I won’t harm you if you don’t harm me.” This minimalist ethic pervades our secular culture and is raised in defense of many issues. For example, pot smoking “isn’t hurting anyone,” and homosexuality supposedly can’t be compared with pedophilia because the pedophile is “hurting” the child.

Harm is both an anemic tool with which to build an ethical model and it’s also a shifty foundation upon which to build it. Why is that? First, because you’ll need something more than just the general idea of harm in order to call certain things wrong. For instance, is a Peeping Tom hurting anyone, and what about hurting people in self-defense? Second, because the word “harm” can be defined however one likes. “Harm” could be anything from beating someone with a baseball bat to advocating social policy that causes certain long-range effects on society. Who gets to define the term “harm” and how deeply we can explore any given issue to find the end of it? You can’t just assert that behavior X isn’t hurting anyone and assume that’s the end of the discussion.

The atheist not only must offer a meaningful definition for the term “harm” that can be used as a criteria for ethical considerations, but must also offer an explanation for the mystery of why that definition should depart from strict evolutionary concerns — why it should not be selfish, just like our genes. Even worse, why is harm, in any sense, a moral disqualifier? As they say, “nature is red in tooth and claw,” and in the world of natural selection, someone’s going to get hurt… by definition.

Where the atheist may be able to make a place for harm in his ethic through a self-serving utilitarianism, the theist has reason to think it includes that and more. The idea of God brings with it the possibility that there are rich moral principles replete with obligations and goal-oriented considerations. If there is a God, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that there’s more to justifying one’s own behaviors than simply the fairy dust of “I’m not hurting anyone.” Leave that to the atheists, who already have little enough to work with.


Posted on February 18, 2014, in Ethics and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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