Professor Coyne Struggles with Morality

Ross Douthat points out one of the problem in Jerry Coyne’s thinking when it comes to morality:

Coyne proposes three arguments in favor of a cosmopolitan altruism, two of which are circular: Making a “harmonious society” and helping “those in need” are reasons for altruism that presuppose a certain view of the moral law, in which charity and harmony are considered worthwhile and important goals. (If my question is, “what’s the justification for your rights-based egalitarianism?” saying “because it’s egalitarian!” is not much of an answer.)

Coyne responds:

I want to live in a society where people are treated fairly and in which, if I were disadvantaged, people would try to help me. For it is only an accident of history that has made me more advantaged than others. Acting altruistically is what I consider “moral,” though I’d prefer to use the term “good for society as a whole.” Yes, that is a form of consequentialism, but in the end one has to decide “oughts,” and it’s always a judgment call.

Notice how Coyne’s justification all revolves around him – “I want to,” if I were,” and “help me.” The infantile nature of the justification is itself noteworthy, but it is also rather odd, given that Coyne had previously argued “one” is just an illusion:

Further, as I and others maintain, our sense of agency is a remarkable illusion confected by evolution through the arrangement of our neurons.

If the entity labeled “Coyne” is simply a neuronal illusion, who is the “one” that is deciding? And why are any of its “oughts” supposed to be oughts? Why are these “oughts” and not what he started with – “wants?”

What’s more, Coyne, who insists the neuronal illusion creates real morality, also denies the existence of moral responsibility:

Readers here will know that, being a determinist, I’d prefer to dispense with the term “moral responsibility,” replacing it with the simple idea of “responsibility.” That’s because I don’t think we have dualistic free will that would allow us to decide between doing “right” and “wrong.” If that’s the case, then why add the adjective “moral,” which implies that one does have a choice? –


Indeed, I don’t believe in moral culpability: that term is without real meaning if one denies the possibility of free choice.

Yet, the same brain is telling us, “in the end one has to decide “oughts,” and it’s always a judgment call.” How does one decide oughts when they have no choice in the matter? How do they make a “judgment call” when they have no choice in the matter? And if, in the end, the ought comes with no moral responsibility, why is it an “ought?” What are we dealing with here? A dress code? A statement of fashion?

Finally, why isn’t it also an accident of history that Coyne is in favor of a cosmopolitan altruism? If he was born in and raised in an environment when Ayn Rand was deeply respected, for example, would the atheist have the same sense of oughts? If he was born and raised in communist North Korea or China, or even the old Soviet Union, would he have the same oughts? Given that Coyne admits his sense of morality arises from his “wants,” how is he so sure he would have the same wants if he wasn’t a University Professor living the United States of America in 2014? After all, we have atheist after atheist, all claiming to use their “reason and evidence,” yet all advocating different moral positions (elevatorgate, anyone?).

Atheists like Coyne want to believe their sense of agency is an illusion, but they also want to cling to their beliefs that their purposes and morality are not illusions. Why is this? Because when it comes to attacking Christianity, you need to insist God and our sense of agency is an illusion. But when it comes wanting to impose your values on others, you need to insist the sense of purpose and morality are real. And it’s quite the coincidence that atheist metaphysics just happens to work that way, right?

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3 Responses to Professor Coyne Struggles with Morality

  1. Kevin says:

    So what is his justification for mocking Christians, or anyone who disagrees with him on anything, since under his “logic”, we have no choice but to believe? If our believing in God is simply a matter of how our neurons are arranged, then atheists should consider religious people to be as natural as homosexuals, and thus perfectly acceptable, correct? I state this as a matter of logic, and not the convoluted mess that New Atheists claim is reason.

  2. dph says:

    One of the best things about being a theist is that you can say that we are free moral agents and that we are given a free will supernaturally. End of story (an argument stopper to be sure). You can then watch people like Coyne and Dennett construct Rube-Goldberg models of philosophical woo to try to explain how, in spite of the fact that we are just time-stepping through the universe’s differential equation–choices still matter and are still “real.” Or we can act as if they are. Whatever that means.

  3. cl says:

    Yeah, it’s so obvious it’s just redundant at this point: all these kooks are using the internet to promulgate inconsistent worldviews, all while bashing Christians and whoever else won’t agree with them. Coyne, if you want a world where everyone is treated fairly, why don’t you start treating EVERYONE fairly, theists and Christians included?

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