A reader, let’s call him Constantine, forwarded to me a transcript he made of a youtube video by “Scott Clifton” in which Mr. Clifton shares his views on morality. Clifton’s 31 minute speech has been viewed over 64,000 times. Okay that is not quite as high as the latest Bieber video (or even “Ducks blown off their feet by the wind” which features, er, ducks blown off their feet by the wind). But it is nonetheless impressive. Clifton’s monologue has apparently generated some discussion. And it impacted Constantine enough that he labored to compile the above mentioned transcript of the complete presentation. I have worked off that transcript in formulating a reply.
While many people believe you need theism to have objective morality, Clifton disagrees (in a rather saucy way it must be said). But his argument is not simply that we don’t need theism to have morality. Rather, it is that theism is completely useless when it comes to morality. Where morality is concerned, adding theism to your worldview is about as useful as putting a Band-Aid on your forehead when you get in the car to supplement the airbag and seatbelt. The Band-Aid adds nothing to automotive safety and God adds nothing to morality.
Clifton’s view, boiled down to essentials, seems to be this:
Moral ought facts are rooted in reasonable reflection. And that reasonable reflection is itself rooted in observed facts about the world including the fact that most people, most of the time, recognize that acting in a way we broadly recognize as moral is the best way to secure individual and corporate happiness, wellness, health, pleasure, and overall well being. So moral oughts are simply derived from the observed facts of the best way to achieve what we want. And positing a god adds nothing to that picture or those facts. Time to take off the Band-Aid and recognize the seatbelt and airbag are all you need.
While there’s a lot I could say (including the embarrassing way that this opens us up to the possibility of heinous actions being the best way for most people to secure what they want) here’s a quick response focused on the theistic dimension of the question. (Perhaps we can go into more depth later. Perhaps not.)
Scott (if I may; if I mayn’t then Mr. Clifton) wants to help himself to normative concepts like “health”. He constantly refers to health as an objective description of a state of being that is good for an organism and species irrespective of whatever one thinks of it. Hence, it is the objective factual standard on which we derive our subjective ethical facts of how best to achieve that desired state we call health.
But let’s shift gears for a minute. I’m driving my VW down the road when smoke starts billowing out the rear and the car starts lurching. My mechanic friend looks at me concerned. “This isn’t good,” he says. “This is one sick car. I better get it up on the hoist to take a look.” When he calls the car “sick” he means it isn’t running as it is supposed to, as it is designed to. Health is a normative concept.
The same is true when we apply health to human organisms or their component parts. A body rife with multiplying cancer cells is not healthy because things are not running as they should: unrestricted cell growth is not the way the organism should function. A heart that can no longer pump blood is not healthy. Nor is an eye that cannot see or an intestinal tract that cannot break down food.
Minds, like bodies, can be sick or healthy. A person who has success, fame, good looks and a supportive and loving family but who is suicidally depressed is not a person who is mentally healthy. Nor is a person who has to wash his hands until his fingers bleed for fear of being infected by germs. Nor is a person terrified of open spaces.
When we talk about health we are talking about a normative concept which traces back to the design of an object or system of working parts. The VW is sick because its component parts are not working properly (i.e. as intended). And so it is for the human person who has cancer, or blindness, or depression, or agoraphobia. To deny this is to claim that the concept of health is a mere facon de parler. And to do that is to surrender the supposedly objective fact on which your morality depends. To have objective morality you need an objective concept of human flourishing which depends on a concept of health which depends on a teleology which depends on a creating mind of the organism in question.