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Why the Prager-Shermer Debate Will Go Essentially Nowhere

Images: Dennis Prager and Michael Shermer, by Gage Skidmore.

Dave Rubin reports that Dennis Prager has agreed to engage with Michael Shermer on the subject of “God, murder, and morality.”

Unfortunately, this discussion is unlikely to make any headway in answering the important question of whether secular, objective morality exists—and, if so, how people can know it.

Here, in essence, is how I suspect the discussion will go down:

Prager will say, as he did in the video that prompted this discussion: “In a secular world, there can only be opinions about morality. They may be personal opinions or society’s opinion. But only opinions.” He will cite atrocities such as murder and rape, and he’ll claim that, in the absence of a God who says such things are wrong, there is no objective standard by reference to which we can say that they are wrong. In short, Prager will argue, without God there cannot be an absolute morality.

Shermer, in turn, will argue that although secular morality is not absolute, neither is God-given morality—which is based not on logic and provable facts but on faith and an alleged but unprovable supernatural lawmaker. Moreover, Shermer will stress, it’s a good thing that there is no absolute morality because, as he puts it in his book The Science of Good and Evil, “Absolute morality generates absolute intolerance,” and this problem “is endemic to all absolute systems of thought, from religious to nonreligious, from libertarian to communist.” Shermer will further argue that “the binary logic of absolute morality” is unscientific and that science supports only “the fuzzy logic of provisional morality.”1

All of this will warm Prager’s heart. And he will remain happily quiet while Shermer elaborates.

In the process of elaborating, Shermer will emphatically distance himself from any and all absolutism. Toward that end, he might mention the black-and-white approach to morality taken by Aristotle and Ayn Rand. As Shermer puts it in his aforementioned book:

The basis of most ethical systems is Aristotelian binary logic: black or white, right or wrong, moral or immoral. Ayn Rand well represents this position: “There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil. The man who is wrong still retains some respect for truth, if only by accepting the responsibility of choice. But the man in the middle is the knave who blanks out the truth in order to pretend that no choice or values exist.”2

If Shermer does cite Rand in such a manner, he will want to ensure that no one mistakes him for an Objectivist. Toward that end, he might say, as he does, that Rand’s morality is “Nonsense on stilts.”3

The problem with Objectivism [writes Shermer] is its contention that absolute knowledge and final truths are attainable. For Objectivists, once a principle has been discovered through reason to be True, there is no further cause for disputation. If you disagree with the principle, then too bad for you—the principle is True anyway. This is more like theology than it is philosophy.4

This will further comfort Prager. Now he can rest assured that Shermer will not employ Rand’s observation-based arguments in support of a secular, objective morality. Phew!

Continuing, Shermer will insist, as he does, that we live in a “very fuzzy world with multiple shades of gray”—but no moral black or white. Real morality—scientific morality—he will argue, is not absolute but only “provisional.” What this means, Shermer will explain, is that “moral principles are provisionally true for most people most of the time in most circumstances”—and that such principles are based on “social and cultural beliefs, customs, mores, and laws that produce feelings of virtuousness and guilt and administer rewards and punishments.”5

At this point, Prager will feel total relief. Not only are Rand’s arguments off the table; but Shermer has conceded Prager’s central premise. “Hallelujah,” Prager will think to himself, “tonight I will celebrate with one of my finest cigars!”

Prager will then remind the audience that—as he said in the video that prompted this discussion—“Every atheist philosopher I have read or debated on this subject has acknowledged that if there is no God, there is no objective morality.” He’ll observe that he can now add Michael Shermer to that (Objectivist-free) list. And the debate will be over.

What will have been accomplished? Approximately nothing.

If you’d like to see a fruitful debate on this subject, urge Prager to debate me.

I’ve offered him $10,000 to engage with me in a public debate on this subject (and I’d be happy to make it an informal discussion rather than a debate, if he prefers that). Moreover, the essential points I will make in my argument are accessible for free in my short essay, “Secular Objective Morality: Look and See.” Not only that, but a fleshed-out version of my argument can be found in my short book, Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It—the first two chapters of which are accessible for free. So Prager can analyze and prepare to counter every aspect of my argument in advance.

Mr. Prager, my offer stands. I’ve made it interesting. Let’s make it fruitful.

Related:

Endnotes

1. Michael Shermer, The Science of Good and Evil (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2004), 241, 244.

2. Shermer, The Science of Good and Evil, 244.

3. Shermer, The Science of Good and Evil, 244.

4. Shermer, The Science of Good and Evil, 240–241.

5. Shermer, The Science of Good and Evil, 252.

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