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Moral Clarity and Richard Dawkins

Moral confusion is a common problem. When a conversation begins about the difference between right and wrong, everyone can feel the tension, because admitting you’re wrong isn’t just about saying you have bad reasons, but can become about whether or not you are a bad person. Sometimes we argue past each other because we’re using the same words to mean radically different things. Sometimes we agree with each other, but we don’t even recognize it. This article is an attempt to offer conceptual clarity so we can have fairer, more intelligent conversations with one another about the pressing moral issues of our day.

For the sake of further clarity, I’ve divided this article on ethics into two parts. In the first part, using the metaphor of a house, I offer a brief overview of the categorical differences between behavior, ethics, and meta-ethics. The second half of the article explains the implications of this metaphor for the ‘New Atheist’ worldview, as exemplified by Richard Dawkins.

Part One: The difference between behavior, ethics and meta-ethics

Generally speaking, there are three different levels, or kinds, of ethical statements: meta-ethics, ethics, and descriptions of our actual behavior (or descriptive ethics). In any case, one way to visualize these differences is by thinking about a one-story house with its roof and foundation.

Let’s look at our “house of morality” from the top down:

In this metaphor, the roof of the house is how you behave, your actual actions. For instance: I tutor a child from a disadvantaged school or I embezzle money.

The first or main floor of the house is your ethical theory, that is, what you believe is right and wrong to do. For instance: I believe volunteer service is morally good or theft is wrong. You might also turn these specific ethical statements into general principles like “do not harm others without good cause (e.g., for the sake of a medical operation).”

The foundation of the house is your meta-ethical position, what you believe to be true about ethics and morality. For instance: Moral beliefs are an expression of personal preferences or moral truth is based upon God’s holy character.

To summarize:

There’s our actual behavior – our morally significant (or insignificant) choices and actions There’s our ethical system – what we believe to be right and wrong There’s our meta-ethical position – what we believe about the nature of our ethical system

In daily life, the common understanding is that personal integrity and logical consistency come from an alignment between the foundation, the first floor, and the roof of your ‘moral home.’ For instance, if you believe that “moral truth is based upon God’s holy character” (foundation) and that “theft is wrong” (first floor) but you also embezzle money (roof), we see this contradiction as glaring hypocrisy. In this case, the supposed foundation and first floor of the home don’t properly support the roof.

Clarity about the difference between meta-ethics, ethics, and behavior is essential. When these issues get mixed up, angry disagreements arise. For instance, when Christians claim that “the atheistic worldview cannot support the existence of moral truth” (discussing the foundation), sometimes atheists hear this as an attack on the roof (“you are saying we are immoral”).

Similarly, sometimes atheists point out immoral behavior among Christians and say “this behavior is inconsistent with your (and our) ethical system, which makes you a hypocrite.” Christians can respond by saying, “Yes, that is bad behavior, and we resolve to change our lifestyles.” But if they respond, “But our ethical standards are the same here, so really, we agree” then they’ve missed the point.

Read on



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