Francis Beckwith on Hitchens
Friday, December 23, 2011
The Catholic philosopher Francis J. Beckwith, writing "The God-Haunted Atheism of Christopher Hitchens" for The Catholic Thing, inquires about the source of the ethical values affirmed by Hitchens:
Hitchens writes that he and other atheists "believe with certainty that an ethical life can be lived without religion," thus implying that he and others have direct and incorrigible acquaintance with a natural moral law that informs their judgments about what counts as an ethical life.I wouldn't have chosen the image of nature spitting out human beings since that manner of speaking likely denigrates the way in which Hitchens would have referred to the process of nature by which human beings came into existence. No need to cast aspersions on the universe!
But to speak of a natural moral law -- a set of abstract, immaterial, unchanging principles of human conduct that apply to all persons in all times and in all places -- seems oddly out of place in the universe that Hitchens claimed we occupy, a universe that is at bottom a purposeless vortex of matter, energy, and scientific laws that eventually spit out human beings.
But Beckwith has a point. Note that he does not accuse Hitchens of being some sort of moral reprobate. What he argues, instead, is that Hitchens implicitly appeals to moral purpose:
[T]o speak of an ethical life is to say that morality is more than rule keeping, that it involves the shape and formation of one's character consistent with a human being's proper end. But proper ends require intrinsic purposes, just the sorts of things that a theistic philosophy of nature affirms and Hitchens' philosophical naturalism denies.Taking as a given that Hitchens does appeal to philosophical naturalism -- and let's infer that he does, since Beckwith is a scholar who ought to know what he's talking about -- then Hitchens was inconsistent in arguing both for philosophical naturalism and the ethical life, if he meant that both affirmations are objectively true.
This is the sort of problem that I was getting at in yesterday's blog entry. For better musings than my own on this issue raised by Beckwith, see what my friend Bill Vallicella has to say about ethics and philosophical naturalism.
As for me, I now have a lot of editing to do . . .