The New Atheists reject the necessity of an enforcing authority for morals. Dennett, as we have seen, thinks we can rely on individuals making their own choices,69 and Harris thinks we can rely on our moral intuitions (more below) as well as Kant’s other formulation of the categorical imperative i.e. that we must treat others as ends-in-themselves and never as merely a means to another end.70 Hitchens, it is fair to say, speaks for these authors when he writes, “there is no requirement for any enforcing or super-natural authority.”71
There are two problems with this position. First, while it may (or may not) be an ideal to strive for, the practical problem remains that without consequences—without reward and punishment—any ethical system becomes a dead letter, a mere set of suggestions that some will follow and others will not. That is why the Bahá’í Writings state “That which traineth the world is Justice, for it is upheld by two pillars, reward and punishment. These two pillars are the sources of life to the world.”72 Bahá’u’lláh also says, “the canopy of world order is upraised upon the two pillars of reward and punishment.”73 There must be consequences to action in order to encourage obedience.
The second problem is that mere human authority, be it of reason or government lacks the authority to make people accept moral precepts; they lack the inherent authority of a God Who is the author of all that exists. They lack the guarantee of correctness, the certainty, the objective viewpoint and foundation that only God can provide in guiding our actions. Yet this objective foundation is exactly what people need—as the new atheists themselves acknowledge. This is precisely why Kant thought God was necessary as a regulative idea or principle in morals.
As an objective ground for ethics, the new atheists propose either an innate moral sense that exists in all human beings or, in the case of Dawkins and Harris, in biology, i.e. genetics. These provide an absolute ground or absolute reference point needed to make moral choices more than the mere expression of personal preferences. Hitchens tells us that “conscience is innate””74 and that “Human decency is not derived from religion. It precedes it.”75 Harris also asserts the existence of an innate moral sense:
Any one who does not harbour some rudimentary sense that cruelty is wrong is unlikely to learn that it is by reading . . . The fact that our ethical intuitions have their roots in biology reveals that our efforts to ground ethics in religious conceptions of “moral duty” are misguided. . . . We simply do not need religious ideas to motivate us to live ethical lives.76
Dennett’s willingness to trust everyone’s informed choices also implies that we all possess an inner moral standard of reasonableness to which we will adhere. Dawkins tries to ground the innate moral sense in our genetic make-up.77
From the view-point of the Bahá’í Writings, this position is not so much incorrect as incomplete, and, therefore, leads to an untenable conclusion. Humankind has a divine or spiritual aspect,78 that might be compared to the innate moral sense posited by the new atheists. However, the Writings also note that humankind has an animal nature in conflict with our spiritual nature, and may overcome it by force or self-deception. The new atheists have not taken this animal nature into account in the unfolding of our moral lives and, therefore, have over-simplified the issue of innate moral intuitions. As Abdu’l-Bahá says,
The promptings of the heart are sometimes satanic. How are we to differentiate them? How are we to tell whether a given statement is an inspiration and prompting of the heart through the merciful assistance or through the satanic agency?79
Because this question cannot be answered immanently—i.e. from the standpoint of reason or intuition alone—we require an external guide or objective benchmark by which to evaluate our ethical promptings and decisions. This is precisely the role filled by God and the Manifestation of God (i.e. an Avatar or Prophet such as Krishna, Christ or Bahá’u’lláh). “He [man] has the animal side as well as the angelic side, and the aim of an educator is to so train human souls that their angelic aspect may overcome their animal side.”80 However, if we reject God as the ground of our morality, then all moral systems inevitably fall into relativism and conflict as various moral conceptions compete. This is not conducive to the peaceful world both the new atheists and Bahá’í s want to establish.
In other words, the Bahá’í Writings lead us to believe that there is an innate moral sense as part of our spiritual nature but that this moral sense is only potential until it is activated by education from parents, teachers but above all, by the Manifestations of God. The view that this innate moral sense may have biological roots is not a problem from a Bahá’í perspective, indeed, is to be expected given that man is an embodied creature. Thus, Bahá’ís may agree that science can study the biological basis of ethics, without at the same time succumbing to the reductionist view that all ethics can be reduced to biology.
Next time: Faith versus Reason
Footnotes: 69 Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell, p. 327.; 70 Sam Harris, The End of Faith, p. 186; this is another formulation of the categorical imperative in Kant’s Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals. , http://philosophy.eserver.org/kant/metaphys-of-morals.txt; 71 Christopher Hitchens , God Is Not Great, p. 266;72 Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, p.27; 73 Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 126; 74 Christopher Hitchens, God is not Great, p. 256; 75 Christopher Hitchens, God is not Great, p. 266; 76 Sam Harris, The End of Faith, p. 172; 77 Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, Chapter Six; 78 Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p. 118; 79 Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 254; 80 Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p. 235.