Common Atheism: Richard Carrier’s Moral Theory

| by Luke Muehlhauser

I'm blogging my way through Sense and Goodness Without God, Richard Carrier's handy worldview-in-a-box for atheists. (See the post index for all sections.)

So far, we've discussed a wide range of topics:

...and more. What's left in Carrier's one-volume summary of naturalism? Morality, beauty, and politics.

And now it's time to discuss morality.

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I'm not going to cover Carrier's comparison of Secular Humanism and Christian Ethics (pages 293-311), some of which is covered here. Instead, I'm going to jump ahead to the beginning of section V.2 Morality in Metaphysical Naturalism.


Carrier begins:

I have critiqued Moreland's arguments and shown that he has nothing better to offer than Secular Humanism, and that Secular Humanism may even be better than alternatives such as Christian [Ethics]. Now I shall develop what Moreland claims to be impossible: a complete theory of natural ethical value... built and defended from the ground up, which is empirically testable and rationally justified.

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How exciting! Such a task is rarely undertaken. Even today's foremost defenders of moral naturalism have not written many from-the-ground-up defenses for their moral theories.

Carrier's Moral Theory

Carrier's section on morality was the most difficult for me to understand of his entire book, and I suspect it's precisely because I'm better trained in moral theory than in many other subjects of Carrier's book. Perhaps when Carrier discusses epistemology or abstract objects, the intended meaning came through to me, but when I came to his section on morality my training made me aware that there are at least two ways to interpret every third sentence in the section! This made it very hard for me to be sure exactly what Carrier wants to argue.

As such, I will not comment on Carrier's theory, but instead try my best to summarize it. Remember that as with almost everything in Carrier's book, other naturalists may have a different perspective than Carrier does. This is only one possible way of seeing the world.

Actually, I found this chapter so confusing I will not even attempt a summary. Instead, I will quote the highlights of Carrier's chapter on morality, verbatim:

...all 'normative' really means is 'true for everything' (in other words "something we [i.e. everyone] ought to desire")... For example, funding a court system for administering justice is normatively valuable, but not in and of itself; it has value because justice has value. So the value of a justice system is both normative and derivative [as opposed to intrinsic]...

In the simplest parlance, a value is a latent, ever-present desire, to be distinguished from fleeting, momentary, or incidental desires... When anyone harbors in their character an enduring desire for something... the object of this desire is then said to 'have value.' So when everyone ought to hold such a desire for something, that desire produces a normative value, a value that everyone ought to have...

On close analysis, I believe there is only one core value: ...a desire for happiness. I believe that all other desires are derived from this, in conjunction with other facts of the universe, and that all normative values are what they are because they must be held and acted upon in order for any human being to have the best chance of achieving a genuine, enduring happiness...

I believe this core value entails two particular values... compassion and integrity, which are essential to a genuinely happy life... How people come to have these values ingrained in their character is a different matter from why they ought to ingrain them. The first story involves human psychology, socialization and parenting... The second story involves the logical and factual connection between having those values and achieving happiness.

This is hardly a sliver of Carrier's moral theory, which is sketched throughout pages 313-348 of Sense and Goodness Without God. Further clarifications are available in these debates on morality between Richard Carrier and Alonzo Fyfe.

Honestly, I spent a lot of time trying to connect the dots between Carrier's many, many assertions about morality and value and I just couldn't do it. That is what delayed this post for so long. If anyone thinks they understand Carrier on morality, please do explain it to me.

For now, I move on to section VI. Natural Beauty. Hopefully my complete ignorance of aesthetic philosophy will allow me to catch Carrier's meaning in that section!