Problems with Matt Dillahunty’s Secular Morality

Matt Dillahunty

In the most recent Atheist Experience, they had a very long call from a theist who claimed he could prove that God is necessary for human morality.  He started off essentially challenging Matt Dillahunty’s workhorse lecture, “The Superiority of Secular Morality”.  I’ll link to one of his talks below, in case you haven’t seen it.  While I think this caller is completely out of his gourd,  both on his claim for the necessity of God and his eventual admission that he’d do what he believed was the will of God, no matter how heinous the command actually was, it reminded me of some of the problems I’ve had with Matt’s position on secular morality over the years.  This gives me a perfect place to take a closer look.

Now don’t get me wrong, I absolutely think that secular morality is infinitely better than religious morality, simply because it comes from reality.  It may not have the feel-good, emotionally-comforting, lie-to-yourself quality of religious morality, the sense that you don’t have to think for yourself because some imaginary father figure in the sky is doing all of the hard work for you, you just have to mindlessly accept it, no matter how absurd it might be.  No, secular morality, like all of secular thinking, is much more difficult, much less emotionally-pleasing, but it is superior because it actually makes rational sense.  I think that’s the problem though, we shouldn’t expect secular morality to be presented in a nice, neat package, bottled and sanitized for your protection.  In fact, secular morality is messy, just like virtually all human thought processes.

Matt defines morality as the “evaluating an action with respect to some standard or value”.  Then he goes on to say that once you have your  standard, regardless of where you get that standard, “the assessment with regard to that standard becomes objective”.  That’s where we come into disagreement.  He says that once you agree with a standard, that standard becomes objective, yet that assumes that you have a single standard upon which people agree.  I think it’s clear, that’s simply untrue.  How do you achieve that standard objectively?  You simply cannot, any conditions you wish to apply to it, any goals you wish it to accomplish, those are all subjective, they come from people.  Even religious standards are subjective.  It was largely the religious who, through their reading of the Bible, decided that slavery was a wholly moral practice.  It was also largely the religious who, through their entirely different reading of the Bible, decided that slavery was evil and needed to be abolished.  Which one is correct?  The answer is both.  Or neither.  What makes one potentially true also makes the other the same.  What invalidates one invalidates the other.  The idea that someone reads a book and adopts a set of standards from it is invalidated by the fact that someone else can read the same book and draw an entirely different set of rules from it’s pages.  This is equally true of someone who chooses to apply a particular political ideology.  Just because you like those ideas doesn’t make them objectively better than any other ideology out there.

The problem is, he says there is an objectively best moral course, I have to ask how he comes to that conclusion?  Objectivity is defined as “judgment based on observable phenomena and uninfluenced by emotions or personal prejudices.”  I’m sorry, but everything Matt points to is wholly influenced by emotion and personal prejudice.  There is a serious difference between subjective and objective measures.  When you are driving, your car is moving at a particular rate, this is entirely removed from your feelings about your speed.  When the cop pulls you over and asks you how fast you think you were going, he doesn’t tear up the ticket if you happen to pick the speed limit.  No matter how fast you think you were going, you were actually going a specific speed.  Matt has chosen a series of values which appeal to himself and to the audience most likely to hear his talk.  If he gave the same speech in an area where liberal atheism was not the norm, it certainly would not be as well received.  Imagine him giving the talk in the deep religious south or on the streets of Tehran.  He’d certainly be booed, he might be lynched.  He espouses typically Western values, like freedom of expression and equality that simply would not fly for a second in places in the East.  If we’re going to start talking about objective moral standards, standards that are simply true and correct and beyond emotions and personal prejudices, then we need to have them recognized as true everywhere.  Exactly how likely do you think that will be?

Then he starts talking about modification and alteration of the secular system, however, he states that it encourages change and that it’s primary purpose is in the improvement of the participants of the system.  However, this again can vary from person to person and group to group.  He brings up the idea that if one’s value that men are better than women or whites are better than blacks conflicts with people within the group, then the rule ought to change.  So what’s stopping them from changing the rules against, say, pedophiles?  After all, there are certainly groups out there like NAMBLA who insist that they deserve equal footing with non-pedophiles.  Why isn’t the rule changing?  I would assume that Matt would say something about harm caused to others by allowing NAMBLA to be accepted in society, but earlier in the talk, he said he supports legalizing marijuana.  What if I assert that such results in harm to society?  I pointed out my views in a previous post that drug use, even drug use that doesn’t cause serious physical harm to the user, still causes harm to the individual and to society as a whole.  As it was pointed out in the Q&A, Matt is somewhat overweight, something he freely admits, that’s certainly harmful to the individual and to society, through an increase in obesity-related disease, etc., why shouldn’t that be banned?  How do you balance freedom with responsibility?  I’ve given my views on that, I don’t see his spelled out in any detail.

He criticizes non-secular morals as being non-changing, yet he insists that they’re welcome to come on over to the secular side, assuming they’re willing to change, and adopt an entirely different set of moral standards.  Funny, isn’t that what the non-secular people have been saying all along?  Come over here, change your worldview and you’ll be accepted!  Further, Matt has gone on record quite clearly in the past saying that slavery was always immoral, even when the majority of the nation thought otherwise, based on his beliefs today.  That’s the definition of subjective.  Certainly, I think you can make a case today, based on some of the subjective assumptions and beliefs we have today, but you certainly  can’t turn around and apply that to another point in history when none of that was true.

In his section on constructing secular morality, he immediately starts to show his biases.  Remember, earlier on, he said that secular morality was generated from within, yet now he’s saying that there are some people whose ideas, generated from within, are clearly not worth listening to.  He says that they can be safely ignored because it’s “our” moral system.  Guess what?  It’s “their” moral system too!  Who are you to decide, based on your own personal biases, which parts ought to be listened to and which parts should not?  Shouldn’t that be left to the group?  Maybe your views are in the minority?  Apparently yes.  Groups like NAMBLA or the KKK, that do not share a widespread popularity, would be shoved out the metaphorical airlock.  What Matt’s really talking about here isn’t morality, it’s group-think and majority rule.  Those things that fall outside of majority approval have no voice, those things that do get preferential treatment.  We do what we want to do because we want to do it and we stamp a “morality” label on it to make it look positive to people who disagree.

Matt talks about being able to reject the views of the KKK out of hand.  Why?  Because what they say doesn’t create a society that “we” want.  Who is “we”?  Clearly, the members of the KKK want that kind of society, so “we” is just another betrayal of Matt’s personal subjective values.

He starts talking about “core values”.  Life is preferable to death.  Pleasure is preferable to pain.  Says who?  Again, this is catering to his own personal biases.  Certainly there are many cases that I, and I know Matt, could come up with where life is not preferable to death.  How about living in agony with untreatable, terminal cancer?  Pleasure isn’t always preferable to pain, in fact, the whole reason the pain response exists is to warn us that something bad is happening.  If we never felt pain, we’d be like the poor kids that have anhidrosis and often injure themselves seriously because they cannot tell they’re being harmed.

So what kind of a world do you want to live in?  Who cares?  I thought we were talking about objectivity here, not subjectivity.  That’s where this entire argument falls down.  He says that secular morality is clearly superior because WE say so.  We who?  It’s not hard to point to all kinds of cases through history where really awful things happen because WE say so.  Why was there slavery?  Because the majority of people in power supported it.  He’s not talking about objective valuations here, he’s talking about mob rule.  We who?  We, the secular?  We, the religious?  We, the slave-owners?  We, the clergy?  We, the liberals?  We, the neo-conservatives?  Who is this we?  Why do they get to decide what everyone does?  The answer is obvious, because his audience are largely liberal atheists who are unhappy with the way the nation is running under a religious majority and who want a chance at running things their way.  Not at all objective, sorry.

In the Q&A section, he gives it all away when he says that people agree to follow the rules when they choose to live within a society, but why doesn’t that apply to atheists when they agree to live within a largely religious society?  We get to change the world, we fight for it every  day, but nobody else has the right to fight against us?  We are in the minority.  Why do we get to decide what the majority have to do?

See, I’m a skeptic.  I’m not a skeptical atheist, I apply skepticism to everything no matter who says it.  Matt gets the same critical treatment as anyone else and, in this case, he just doesn’t live up to the hype.  Yes, I agree that secular morality, in general, is better than religious morality, but I don’t think for a second that we can make a case for a single, worldwide, time-insensitive moral code, based solely on objective precepts.  Not everyone wants the same things out of life and therefore, the idea that we can all collectively agree on a single set of standards is absurd.  We need to allow people to live the lives they want to live, not the lives we want them to live.  If freedom and self-determination is a criteria that we value, then how can we demand that people in other cultures who choose to live a particular way are wrong?  Are they not free to pursue their own ways?  Who says our standards are right?

Before people start declaring that one way is the right way, they need to discard their personal subjective biases from the mix and examine the proposition on it’s own merits, not how the proposition makes them feel.  Like it or not, just throwing out religion isn’t going to make this world a better place to be.  Getting rid of faith isn’t going to make a person rational or moral.  Religious morality is only as good as the people who believe it, secular morality is only as superior as the people who practice it.

That’s a fact of life we all need to live with.

33 thoughts on “Problems with Matt Dillahunty’s Secular Morality

  1. Yes, morality is subjective. I find it frustrating that people often confuse subjectivity with objectivity.I've been saying the same thing for years. There's a difference between ethics (an objective approach) and morality. Morality is societal/culturally defined. I could go on and on about it, but I won't in the comment section.

  2. It's been quite a while since I watched matt's talk on that subject and I don't remember the details terribly well, but I do recall being quite disappointed. Have you read the moral landscape? It's also been quite a while since I read that, but I remember thinking that Harris' thoughts on morality were much more to my liking.
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  3. Well done Cephus. I am not familiar with Matt's lecture, so don't want to comment too much on that. I do think that you are correct in pointing out the confusing nature of subject/objective morality. Morality cannot be solely objective, it must change as humans change. As you point out, we cannot apply a moral standard of today to centuries past. That past age must be judged on its own.

    The issue is further complicated from society to society.

    All of that being said, I am not sure there are not some objective moral ideas that are a product of evolution. As a species are we not evolved in some way that informs us that doing "harm" to others is not beneficial to our success as a species. I know that there is some academic work regarding that idea, but am not well versed in it enough to offer any serious commentary. It is similar to what Harris wrote in the book Hausdorff mentioned. If I recall correctly, he doesn't advocate for objective morality in the sense we normally think of it, but rather alludes to the idea that we may be hard-wired to "not do harm" or to "promote the well being" of other humans, even if those terms themselves are redefined over time. (I may be wrong on attributing that to Harris).

    Either way, I think this is an interesting topic and well worth discussing.
    My recent post Atheism Plus, Drama, and The Atheist Community

  4. My apologies, I just realized that the talk I had linked to somehow vanished from my final posted version so I have replaced it as well as providing a direct link at the top of the page.

  5. My only problem with Matt is that he loves to lead complete morons into losing arguments and play power control games with them via their crappy phone system. "What's that? Oh, you didn't hear me tell you to shut up because the phone lines suck. Good Bye!". All with the smile of that says, "I'm the biggest jerk on the planet and I love it." He seems to have fun picking on people who are intellectually inferior to him. Some of them deserve it because they are just as big of an ass as he is, but you can tell the other hosts are annoyed by it. However, because of him being an asshole draws lots of viewers they allow him to continue with his antics. I like him, but I don't think he is right for THIS show.

  6. i have to admit that i haven't extensively read / listened to matt's morality lectures, i've vaguely heard him talk about it before. i tend to lean more towards an objective view of morality: here in the states we typically believe that men and women should be treated equal. in the middle east, they typically do not. we can objectively (through statistics, physiological study, economic analysis, quality of life) determine that western morality is superior to eastern morality in this way.

    in the case of christians and slavery, we can objectively determine the 'wrongness' of slavery, so it doesn't matter which christians were accurately interpreting their religious beliefs, it matters which christians were being immoral by owning other humans as property. i can agree with you in that matt's definition of morality is flawed (i didn't think that was his actual definition of it, but i didn't read his lecture) but if you define morality as what is best for quality of life and human progress, it becomes quite objective.

    p.s. smoking / using marijuana is not bad for society. in weighing the cost and benefit, you'd be VERY hard pressed to prove that with any kind of certainty, and given the medical and therapeutic benefits, it'd be pretty easy to prove the opposite. marijuana and most "drugs" are two completely different things and it is a huge mistake not to make a distinction between the two.

    all that being said, i think you're a great writer and your subject matter is of utmost importance. awesome

  7. Hi,

    One thing I'd like to point out is that the abolition of slavery had nothing to do with religion, and everything to do with the British government.


  8. Regarding Matts call in show. Its the reason why people call in. Matt is not calling these "intellectually inferior" people. They call in, the majority of Christians that call claim they know everything just because of what they been told to believe in / its in the bible therefore it must be true. Matt cannot control the amount of stupid people that call in.

    A common trend with most Christians is that they disregard OT but concentrate on NT. Fact! OT and NT are the same God. You'll find that a lot of Christians have not read the entire bible…no matter how much immoral/questionable things in there.

    The saying goes "the faster way to be an Athiest is to read the bible cover to cover."

  9. "We need to allow people to live the lives they want to live, not the lives we want them to live."

    Even if the life they want to live is destructive of the lives of others?

  10. Matt believe in an OBJECTIVE morality that is applied SUBJECTIVELY. The moral position is always (for example) that which causes most happiness and least harm. That will be a different action in each circumstance and therefore it is subjective in its application but it will always remain objective in its definition. He also states that there is always a correct action by that above definition (Which there is but we wont be able to measure it) which demonstrates its objectivity.
    Pain is not preferable to non-pain almost by definition. in fact "highly unpleasant physical sensation caused by illness or injury".

  11. I like listening to TAE and Matt's discussions most of the time, but often-times it's clear that he's so wrapped up in his particular beliefs about things that he won't even consider another viewpoint. The slavery topic is one. I'm pretty sure the moral standards of the Hebrew God are quite different and would astonish most Humanists (eg. Matt D.), which is one of the reasons he's unable to accept the existence of such a God. What makes him so certain that humanism is the correct world view?

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