Why Should We Care?

Richard at Philosophy Et Cetera has a post here, were he cites The Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan saying:

Any kind of fundamentalism, be it Biblical, atheistic or Islamic, is dangerous.

Sarcastically Richard notes that “Islamic fundamentalists fly planes into buildings. Christian fundamentalists blow up abortion clinics. But most frightening of all is the atheistic variant:”, and there he quotes BBC, “He said it led to situations such as councils calling Christmas “Winterval”, schools refusing to put on nativity plays and crosses removed from chapels.”

While I agree with Richard that those actions of the “fundamental atheists” don’t sound dangerous, I wonder why is flying planes into buildings a big deal also? Or blowing abortion clinics? We are merely very specific configurations of molecules – why should we care if a particular configuration ‘disconfigurate’ today, tomorrow, or after 50 years?

24 thoughts on “Why Should We Care?

  1. Hi Tanasije, I think it’s a bit misleading to say that humans are “merely very specific configurations of molecules”. I mean, that description obviously leaves out the bit that matters, i.e. that this specific configuration of molecules happens to constitute a living being capable of pleasure, pain, rational agency, and all sorts of life goals and projects. We matter because of what we are as a whole, and not what our smalled parts are made out of.

    – I’m hungry.
    – Want a sandwich?
    – Why would I? It’s just a specific configuration of molecules; what would I do with such a thing?

    (See also my old post: Humans, Matter, and Mattering.)

  2. Hey Richard, thanks for the comment!

    This specific configuration of molecules happens to constitute a living being capable of pleasure, pain, rational agency, and all sorts of life goals and projects. So what? Why do pleasure, pain, rational agency, and life goals and projects matter? Just counting in what ways this specific configuration is different from others, doesn’t really say WHY it matters or WHY should we care about it.

    Also, I’m not sure what the example with the sandwich is supposed to show.

  3. Hey Peter Rock,

    Well, they do to me, but I’m ‘irrational’ and believe that rationality, morality and justice are fundamental principles of the world.

    I just want to hear why those things matter for ‘rational’ atheists ;)
    Do they have some actual reason, or do they just follow their emotions and intuitions there?

  4. It seems to me that by asking “why do pleasure and pain matter (if all we are is molecules)?” you are implying that if we were something more than just molecules (i.e. an immaterial soul, or some similar religious doctrine) then pleasure and pain would matter. Is this a correct interpretation?

    If so, I must say that this is a tired objection to atheism/naturalism. The question can just as well be asked of a non-naturalist or religious person. Why does the existence of a god, or some other religious principle make life any more meaningful? What is the logical connection between the existence of a god (or karma, etc) and meaning to life?

    I might just as well turn the question around and ask, if there is some sort of afterlife, why do pleasure and pain matter? This, after all, would be only a fake, illusory world, so why should we care about temporary pains and pleasures?

  5. Hey Mat. Thanks for the comment!

    I wasn’t trying to imply that pleasure and pain matter in any case. It is really simple question for the naturalists/atheists… Why should we care about people, about buildings… about us?

    It is not objection BTW. I’m asking the atheists why is it bad to e.g. kill people? Why should I eat sandwich when I’m hungry? Why should I care what is true and what is false?

    Are those things based on your intuitions/emotions, or is there some rational argument behind this?

  6. Ultimately, all value judgements (whether you’re atheist or theist) seem to be intuitive at their core – there’s no rational explanation for why pleasure is better than pain, it just is. No matter what you’re trying to argue: life’s better then death… Good’s better than evil… alertness is better than tiredness… etc. you’ll eventually come to a statement that you can’t defend in rational terms – it just us.

  7. Hey Matt,

    When you say “it’s just us”, do you mean that those judgments ultimately are a product of the evolution in which this kind of stance (of valuing ourselves, others, pleasure over pain, etc…) was evolutionary advantageous?

    If so, do you agree there is no real reason to value other people lives, ourselves, pleasure over pain, and so on, as our tendency to judge those values thus, is not based on any rational reason, but on some contingent evolutionary development?

  8. I’d take issue with the term “real reason” – as the fact that I want to is perfectly real. But aside from that I’d agree that (assuming a naturalistic account of the universe) the most likely reason we tend to value other people is because it’s proven advantageous in evolutionary terms. It’s hard to see how civilisation could function without it – if we had no qualms about killing each other than co-operation would be pretty much impossible.

  9. Thanks, I meant the real reason for having that intuition would be THAT (that it is something that was evolutionary selected for), and not rational/direct intuition of some transcendent truth. (So, I wasn’t saying that the intuition is not real, was talking about the reasons of having that intuition).

    Anyway, it seems to me that if we go that way, it follows that there is no rational reason behind saying that people shouldn’t fly airplanes into buildings.

  10. Tanasije, I guess I’m a little puzzled by your question. Given that people do, in fact, have certain values and interests, in what sense is it even prima facie more ‘rational’ to disregard these? Faced with an option between satisfying one’s interests or not, there doesn’t seem anything at all to be said in favour of the latter option. If we are going to partake in the project of practical reasoning at all, it is surely these sorts of facts that we are going to have to take into account.

    Maybe it would help if you clarified what you take the alternative position to be. For example, do you wonder whether atheists should perhaps not recognize any practical reasons at all, and so just act arbitrarily at all times? (That doesn’t sound very reasonable to me.)

    Or is your curiosity more meta-ethical in nature, perhaps wondering what it is, precisely, that we see as grounding our practical reasons? Personally, I’m inclined to go ‘constructivist’ on such matters: I should avoid causing gratuitous pain because this value is part of the most coherent desire set; it is a value I hold that cannot be rationally faulted (e.g. by an imagined ideal spectator).

  11. Anyway, it seems to me that if we go that way, it follows that there is no rational reason behind saying that people shouldn’t fly airplanes into buildings.

    I’d agree that there’s no rational reason for intuitive judgements. As Hume puts it: “It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.”. Only once we’ve made that initial – pre-rational – judgement does reason come into the picture.

  12. Hi Richard,

    Answering to my question “Why do pleasure, pain, rational agency, and life goals and projects matter?”, with “Because they are things which matter to us” is not much of an explanation. And that is how I read your “people do, in fact, have certain values and interests”. What I ask is why SHOULD they hold those values and interests.

  13. Matt,

    Would you agree then that it is not a rational argument, when the atheist attacks a person who believes in God that he is basing his actions on beliefs which are not grounded in rationality? (Given that the atheists does the same himself)

  14. Yep. “Rational fundamentalism” is fairly irrational.

    I have no real problem with people who intuitively feel that there’s a transcendent force in the universe. That kind of fideism/deism is as justified as any other value judgement in my opinion.

    Reason is probably one of the most important tools our species has in the box, but it can’t provide the answer to absolutely everything.

  15. Tanasije, “because it matters to them” is a perfectly good answer to the question why one ought not to go about causing pain or killing people. Now, you could instead ask why we desire the things we do rather than their opposites (say), but that’s a different question. Note especially that even if we could reasonably have different desires, it doesn’t follow that there’s no reason to care about murder – that it’s not an objectively bad thing – given that it thwarts the desires that people actually have.

    But in any case, I don’t think the opposite desires would be just as reasonable, and I told you why: because they could not fit into the maximally coherent desire set. (More detail here.)

    P.S. The question is not whether one’s desires and beliefs are “grounded in rationality” (I don’t even know what that means), but rather, whether they are open to rational criticism. The atheist thinks that theistic belief is open to rational criticism, i.e. that it is positively irrational. You haven’t shown anything remotely analogous to hold of the atheist’s aversion to murder.

  16. If “Because they are things which matter to us” is perfectly good answer to my question “Why should pleasure, pain, rational agency, and life goals and projects matter?”, then it follows that there isn’t anything wrong with people that fly airplanes into buildings, because that is according to their values and interests. Other have values and interests that make them take weapon, go into the the school and kill their schoolmates. Other have such values and interests that they choose to get whole countries into war, and bring lot of suffering to people.

    You speak of “maximally coherent desire set”, but why would I care if my desires fit in maximally coherent desire set? WHY? You say that theistic belief is positively irrational, and let’s say that even it is so. But… So what? Why does truth or falsity, rationality or irrationality matter? You didn’t give me any explanation why given that I’m atheist this should matter to me, except saying that it might in fact matter, and if it turns out that it matters it will matter. But that isn’t an argument.

    You might have any desires that you have, I might have any desires that I might have. So what? Why should I do what I desire?

  17. First, to correct a misunderstanding: I did not claim that people should act according to their own interests/values only. Rather, the claim is that we ought to take into account the interests of all affected by our actions. (So no, murderers cannot get off the hook that easily!)

    On the broader point: it is not fair play to ask for reasons, and then whenever an answer is given, demand further reasons for that. That way lies infinite regress. If I can show an option to be irrational, then that is all that one could possibly ask for, to establish that one shouldn’t choose it. (As Raz says, “What is amiss with failing to conform to reason is just that.”) If you are unsatisfied with my answers, perhaps it would help if you offered some indication of what it would take for an answer to satisfy you. Otherwise, further conversation seems pointless.

    (And again, I must emphasize that merely asking ‘WHY?’ at every turn does nothing to show that one’s interlocutor has made any rational mistake. So I’m losing track of what you are trying to establish here.)

  18. Hey Richard,

    It wouldn’t be fair for me to keep asking for further reasons, if you gave the reasons which *I asked* for :). It isn’t infinite regress, if you keep answering questions which I haven’t asked, while the original question stays unanswered, so I need to keep rephrasing it in different ways to get the point through.

    And the point is simply that me as an atheist/naturalist don’t have any reason why I should value pleasure over pain, value rational agency, or value my or others’ life goals.

    Let’s check the facts: First, there was a Big Bang, and then the first particles started to form. Much later, due to evolution on one of the planets, very specific configurations of molecules formed, which live aprox. 80 years and die. Their civilization will eventually perish. I’m one of those.

    Why should I value pleasure over pain? Why should I value truth over falsity?

  19. Why should I value pleasure over pain? Why should I value truth over falsity?

    It seems like you see this as a problem for naturalistic accounts of the universe. But any system of explanation you come up with is suffers the same fate – if we were created by the Flying Spaghetti Monster for the specific purpose of building shiny yellow houses, we’d still be able to ask exactly the same questions you’ve posed here.

    There doesn’t seem to be any ultimate answer.

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