Guest Post: Matt Dillahunty Doesn’t Understand what Objectivity Is

A Special Guest Post by Outwest

Evolution_MoralsI was reading Cephus’ post the other day, “Problems with Matt Dillahunty’s Secular Morality”.

Here’s the genesis of my post: I wrote a short comment and said that I had a lot more to say, but basically didn’t want to say all of it in the comments. Cephus then invited me to write a guest post. I’m not a blogger, in fact, this is the first time I’ve done anything like this. And, yes, the post above has been out for a little while, but hey, we’re all busy and I’m just now getting around to it.

This is the statement that literally raised my eyebrows:

“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”. “

So what is Matt really saying here? I think you might be able to infer, as I did, that he’s saying that anything a group of people agree upon, goes from being an opinion, to becoming a fact, whether or not there are any facts proffered in the agreement. Why did I get so worked up about this seemingly innocent statement? As an atheist, he just made the case for religion, discrimination, and pretty much anything else!  If we all agree upon something, it must be true(objective). This is just too stupid beyond belief. And this person is supposed to be some sort of “leader” in the atheist/skeptic community? Since more than ninety percent of the world believes in some sort of god or gods, are they right? Well according to Matt’s line of reason, they are. It’s the less than ten percent of the non-believers that must be wrong.

Sure you can say he was referring to morality, but morality is based upon a set of values accepted by a particular group or society.

The above statement  by Matt is telling and it is important that we as atheists understand what Matt is doing here. He is redefining the definition of objectivity. I keep seeing this more and more with atheists. “If you don’t agree with my(our) position you are (insert your own ad hominem here)”.  There was actually a blog post last year by a prominent atheist that basically told people if they didn’t believe in what a small group was proposing, then those people were not one of “us” and should be driven out of the atheist community. These are people that are professed atheists/skeptics!

Believe it or not, the Atheist community is diverse in a lot of areas. First of all, as has been pointed out (here), Atheism is simply a lack of belief in god(s).  No moral constructs involved. So there are atheists that are politically liberal, and, I know it’s going to be a shock, conservative. There are atheists that are pro-life, pro-choice, anti- and pro-gun. There are atheists that have opinions on many political or social issues. Most atheists I know consider themselves as humanists as well, but humanism itself has a very broad definition. We may not all agree on what that definition is. And there are atheists that are just, well, atheists. They don’t profess any particular social values. Not that these people don’t have any values, but they separate their atheism from their values.

There are people in this world that have the opinions that most of us in the atheist community would find absolutely abhorrent. How about those groups that believe racial and ethnic minorities are less than human? Their group(s) believe this, they all agree, so it must be a fact then, right? These people believe that those minorities don’t hold the same values as the rest of “us”. You think it’s a silly example? How about a religion that actively discourages condom use while having sex, thereby having an entire continent ravaged by HIV/AIDS? Or the same religion, where adherents have to get permission from the church to have a vasectomy? Even if they already have a dozen children and are living in desperate poverty? Or societies that tell women that are gang-raped that it’s the woman’s fault? It’s what they agree on, so it must be true. And I’m not referring to just a few thousand people here, but more than two billion.

So when Matt Dillahunty tells us that if we all agree on some moral position, then it becomes an objective truth, I call bullshit. I call bullshit on anyone that tells me they have the truth when it’s only based on their opinion, whether it’s a fellow atheist, or anyone else.

Just because a group accept a view one way or the other does not make it a fact.  It’s only a point of view of the person, group, community, or society.

7 thoughts on “Guest Post: Matt Dillahunty Doesn’t Understand what Objectivity Is”

  1. I think you and Cephus badly misunderstood Matt.

    He wasn't saying, "If we all agree upon something, it must be true(objective)." He was saying that once we agree upon some subjective goals as the basis for our morality (e.g. reduction of harm), then we can objectively determine whether certain actions help, hinder, or do not affect the achievement of those chosen goals.

    You are confusing the part of the equation that is objective. It's not the goal which can can objectively determine if it's true or false, it's the methods of achieving that goal which can be objectively determined.

    He freely admits that determining the goal isn't an entirely objective thing, so he makes a separate case for why (in a nutshell) reduction of harm should be the goal.

    1. But clearly, we don't all agree. If you go back to the post I wrote on the subject and watch his secular morality video, you can see it coming straight out of his mouth. He's also spoken about it regularly, both on Atheist Experience and Non-Prophets. I honestly don't think I'm misunderstanding him, he is making statements of truth where he cannot demonstrate any actual truth value. He has said, just as an example, that slavery is objectively wrong. Now I can certainly agree with him that I find it personally distasteful, but objectively wrong? There's no way to come to that conclusion rationally, especially since "right" and "wrong" are inherently subjective concepts to begin with. "Reduction of harm?" Who gets to define what harm is? This just keeps moving from subjective concept to subjective concept and all anyone can offer is their opinion. An opinion doesn't make something objectively so.

      1. I think that the problem is that your misunderstanding of what Matt is saying has colored your memory of what he actually said. Just as an FYI, I've already watched the last 100 episodes of The Atheist Experience, plus watched some of Matt's morality debates, but I rewatched TAE episode 795 just for you.

        If you go to 28:09 in the video Matt tries to do a quick overview of objective morality. In it he says, "If morality is about wellbeing, and… it is, if it's not then, you know, why are we using the word or talking about anything, then there are certain baseline things, life is generally preferable to death. I mean, that's not even up for debate. Anything… I mean death is obviously a violation of wellbeing. And you can begin with those simplistic things, and build a system. Which is exactly what I think we've done." If you blinked, you missed it, but he's saying there that if you assume morality is about wellbeing, then we can come up with objective determinations of how to go about achieving that kind of morality.

        At 29:08 he says, "The baselines can be arbitrary and subjective. I'm just talking about the objectivity of making assessments with respect to values." In other words, the values can be arbitrary and subjective, but once you've picked them, then determining how to best satisfy those values can be done objectively (at least in general).

        Matt's baseline is wellbeing, but he isn't arguing that this baseline is objectively chosen, he's arguing that once you pick a baseline, because things follow the laws of the universe, we can objectively determine which things contribute positively or negatively to that baseline. Matt picks wellness as the baseline because he thinks it's reasonable, but that's not the same thing as saying it is chosen objectively.

        I recommend you go back and listen to what he has actually said with a fresh perspective and you'll see you've misinterpreted his words and basically have been arguing against a straw man.

        1. The problem there, and I pointed it out in my post, is that he arbitrarily selects some things that he happens to favor as a model for his moral system. Life is generally preferable to death, etc. Now whether or not I might agree with him on that point, he's still making an arbitrary selection, one that is wholly subjective, which really cannot be applied universally. See, that's the thing, he's making an argument that secular morality is inherently better than religious morality, yet he can produce no objective basis for secular morality. He can only produce his own opinions, with his own assumptions, based on his own preferences, as a model for his own personal brand of secular morality. Whether that is better than religious morality is largely irrelevant, it still isn't a single universal standard by which to judge the actions of people worldwide. He can say "slavery is bad", but that really only applies to him. He can produce no objective reason why slavery is wrong. He acknowledges the values are arbitrary and subjective, yet doesn't recognize that's the whole problem. It really depends on what values the individual picks as to whether their morality is going to be superior. Some forms of secular morality may be vastly superior to religious morality, some may be vastly inferior. The fact remains that there is no single, objective secular morality, therefore there's no basis for making the claim "secular morality is better than religious morality".

          That's the point.

          1. No, that's not the point. The point argued here is "Matt Dillahunty Doesn't Understand what Objectivity Is", and that's wrong. Matt knows what objectivity means quite well, however you've been mistaking the topic of his objectivity and arguing against that straw man.

            When you ignore that and keep saying he's claiming an "objective basis for secular morality" then you're only continuing to misunderstand his point. He isn't saying the basis for secular morality is objectively determined, he's saying that secular morality can be determined objectively on the basis of reaching a subjective goal.

            Once the goal is picked, then the results are not merely "his own opinions" as you claim, they can actually be objectively determined by measurements of whether or not it helps head towards or away from that goal. If the goal is preventing harm, then we can objectively determine that slavery is bad because it causes more harm than good and there are systems without slavery that produce less harm and more wellbeing. If you accept the wellbeing as the basis for morality, then anyone can produce objective reasons why slavery is wrong.

            Think of it like this, if you say, "If you accept A then B can be determined objectively," and then I argue that you don't know what objectivity means because A can't be determined objectively, then you'd have to admit that I missed the point because you weren't arguing that A could be determined objectively. This is the same thing.

            There are three parts to what Matt is saying here. You're blurring the first two parts together and missing the point, then getting so caught up in attempting to point out what you mistakenly think is an "error" that you miss what you needed to understand for the third part to make sense. The first part is that you have to pick a basis for your morality, and he picks wellbeing (determined by health, longevity, happiness, etc…) for logical reasons, not objective reasons. The second part is that once you have that basis, you can objectively determine a system of morality because you can objectively determine what things tend to promote wellbeing an what things tend to reduce wellbeing. (Obviously it's more complicated than that, but I'm answering in broad strokes here.)

            Once you understand that, then the third part, that a secular morality based in wellbeing is better than religious morality is easily demonstrated. Religious morality is based in ancient prejudices, doesn't cover many modern situations, leaves much up to personal interpretation, and has many other problems. On the other hand, a system objective morality based upon promotion of wellbeing rejects prejudices as preventing wellbeing and gives you a basis to solve moral dilemmas logically even in new situations. It doesn't merely tell you to follow rules X, Y, and Z, it tells you how to figure out moral rules on your own. Furthermore religious morality promotes many things that promote harm: slavery, misogyny, bigotry, genocide, etc… On the other hand, this secular system of morality promotes empathy, fairness, cooperation, and reciprocity.

            I honestly don't see how you can't see how you can fail to admit that a secular moral system based in the promotion of wellbeing is better than any religious moral system. (And whether there's more than one possible system of secular morality is yet another straw man. We're talking about this particular system of secular morality. Matt never argued that all systems of secular morality are better than religious morality, so don't pretend he did.)

            If you want to argue with Matt about his chosen basis for his secular moral system, fine, do that. But don't attack him for not knowing what "objectivity" means, because that has nothing to do with it.

          2. This isn't even my post I'm arguing over, I'm honestly not sure if you're disagreeing with what I said or with what Outwest said. However, I will continue to point out that, for example, where you say: "If you accept A then B can be determined objectively," that requires that you accept A in the first place. It's no better than stating "if you accept God, then you can draw objective conclusions based on that". That does not make the existence of God objectively valid however. So long as any part of the process is subjective, the entire process is subjective.

            In fact, Matt's hypothesis doesn't tell you how to figure out moral rules on your own, it requires that you already have some idea of what moral rules you want to achieve, it requires you to set your own ground rules and then build off of them. It doesn't allow you to start from a complete vacuum and achieve anything via logic. We keep going around and around, the fact still remains that secular morality is not an objective system, there is no way to get to actual moral values without starting with an entirely subjective, self-defined boilerplate. Two people, starting at the same point, but with different initial axioms, will come to two entirely different moral views. At the risk of Godwinning the whole thing, I'm sure Hitler had his own preconceived notions upon which he built his moral structure. Is anyone going to claim that his morals are workable and valid or in any way objective?

        2. Where I think you've gone wrong here is applying objectivism to morality. Morality is subjective, not objective. Objectivism is based on reality, not some amorphous standard that you, or your friends decide. That was the point of the post. Different societies/cultures have their own views of what is moral and immoral. In fact, you can find that in the west. When you say "I believe" it's a point of view, it's not a standard necessarily everywhere. It's okay that you believe something. I may not believe the same. Is my belief invalid?

          So when Matt makes a statement that if we all agree on a standard, it becomes objective, it makes me think that Matt is trying to redefine objectivism.

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