Ali Oops

Readers will probably be familiar with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born Muslim apostate and political writer. You may have heard of her in connection with the film Submission, about the opression of women under Islam — for which she wrote the screenplay, and for which its director Theo van Gogh was murdered in an Amsterdam street by a Muslim zealot.

Ms. Ali has not only renounced Islam, but all religion as well; she declared herself an atheist in 2002. She sees Islam as incompatible with reason in that it brooks no skepticism, and she says that there are in fact no “moderate” Muslims — rather, she argues that to the extent that Muslims question or refuse to be bound by Islamic law, they are only “partial” Muslims. In this way she sees the current global struggle not as a war against “terror”, which she rightly points out is merely a tactic, but as a war against Islam. It ought not to be seen as a war against Muslims, she says, because the goal is to get Muslims to learn to question (and hopefully, to abandon) their religion, as she herself has.

In a recent post, H.J. Hodges, the Gypsy Scholar, links to an interview with Ali in which she is asked about her conscience. Dr. Hodges focuses on the following exchange:

OK then, you talk about your conscience, and how your conscience was pricked by 9/11. But if there’s no God, what do you mean by a conscience? And why should we obey it?

‘My conscience is informed by reason,’ says Hirsi Ali, surprised I should ask. ‘It’s like Kant’s categorical imperative: behave to others as you would wish they behaved to you.’

There is a tremendous amount to unpack in this brief snippet, and Dr. Hodges does indeed set about the job, reminding us that Kant’s categorical imperative — which exhorts us to “act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” — is a “secularizing and sharpening” of the “Golden Rule” teachings to be found in the Gospels.

But I’d like to focus on two assumptions implicit in the remarks quoted above, because of the extent to which they appear to be, to so many people, simply axiomatic.

First, the interviewer (Mary Wakefield, of the UK Spectator) asks: “…if there’s no God, what do you mean by a conscience?”

To a nontheist like me it is really quite startling that this should be seen as a pointed question. Our conscience is that moral force within us that goads and impels us to act in accord with its intuitions, and which bites at us with remorse when we fail. That we have such a cognitive apparatus is a plain fact, clearly apparent to everybody but the most psychologically anomalous sociopaths; surely Ms. Wakefield needed no clarification as to what the term for this universal feature of the human inventory refers to. So her assumption must be, then, that this ubiquitous psychological feature could only exist if it were put there explicitly by God — although I doubt that Ms. Wakefield would have pressed the same sort of inquiry about other human features, by asking something like: “if there’s no God, what do you mean by a pancreas?” (Or if that’s too physiological for you, then perhaps we might substitute a “sense of literary style”.)

The more interesting question is the next one: “And why should we obey it?” — but unfortunately for the theist it leads straight into the quicksand of the Euthyphro dilemma. Assuming that our moral instructions come from God, do we obey them simply because they come from God? Or does God command them because their moral “rightness” is logically prior to God? In the first case we are unsatisfied because a God unconstrained by pre-existing moral truths might command us to do all manner of awful things, and in the second case it’s hard to see what God is bringing to to the party — we might as well just cut out the middleman and do what’s right for the same reason that God commands it: because it’s right. (This topic has come up often in our little blogging circle, most recently here.)

Next there is the response by Ms. Ali, who, looking for solid ground and unable to prop her conscience on God’s shoulders, uses Immanuel Kant’s instead: “My conscience is informed by reason…”

Frankly, I doubt it. This is a common move by atheists, faced as we are with the fact of our consciences and the extent to which their contents seem irrefutable — but trying to establish a “rational” foundation in this way is very much like the old story about the Earth resting on the back of a great cosmic turtle: when pressed about what the turtle itself stands on, the best one can do is to shrug and say “it’s turtles all the way down.”

Ms Ali does get at least one turtle down the stack: her conscience, she tells us, is constituted (by reason alone!) so as to run according to the eminently rational precept known as the Golden Rule — or in more academic style, the Categorical Imperative. But upon what turtle of ratiocination, then, does the Golden Rule rest? Why is it the most “reasonable” policy to do unto others as you would have them do unto you? Wouldn’t things work out even better, for instance, if we could get others to do unto us as we enjoy, while behind their backs we’re screwing them at every turn?

No, I’m afraid that our consciences, our moral intuitions, are logically prior to any such top-level reasoning on the subject, and Ms. Ali’s blithe response is simply an attempt at post-facto justification (and on closer examination an inadequate one, at that). This doesn’t mean that there aren’t sound, solid rationales for why we have the consciences we do. It’s just that they aren’t our rationales, but rather the “free-floating” rationales of design by natural selection, about which the relatively new fields of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology are just beginning to build a coherent and consistent theoretical framework.

If you really want to be rational about this inquiry, then, I’d say this is the right horse to back: it’s the only account on offer that avoids both the logical regresses of moral rationalizations on the one hand, and the Euthyphro dilemma, theodicies, and invisible gods of theism on the other. Prominent atheists take note.

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  1. bob koepp says

    Hi Malcolm – Please note that Ms Ali claimed that her conscience is informed by reason — not that reason is its foundation, nor that conscience is constituted by reason. Also, do you think the only role of reason in ethics is to construct post-facto justifictions? I think, rather, that a creature lacking reason can’t possibly be either moral or immoral.

    Posted December 3, 2007 at 3:12 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob,

    Well, I’d be interested to know what particular value Ms. Ali is suggesting reason is adding to her conscience, then, if it isn’t providing the foundation — and also why, in that case, she would think her answer to the interviewer was sufficient. If she meant this the way you suggest, then “informed by reason” is simply an evasion. If reason isn’t the foundation of her morality, then what is? She’s already eliminated God, with which I agree, but it seems to me that she is stopping short of the real problem.

    Generally, yes, I do think the role that reason plays in our consciences is to construct post-facto justifications and modifications for a moral framework that is largely built-in.

    I think, rather, that a creature lacking reason can’t possibly be either moral or immoral.

    Well, that’s interesting. Why do you think that? Perhaps the idea is that lacking reason we would be in some way less “free”. Is that so? But mightn’t an “unreasoning” animal still have a conscience: a set of drives and valuations that dispose it to act in certain ways toward other members of its group? (That’s all I think “conscience” is.)

    We are talking about two different pieces of our machinery here, it seems to me: our moral instincts and intuitions, which are what I think constitute “conscience”, and our faculty of reason, which may or may not give assent to what conscience recommends.

    Posted December 3, 2007 at 3:50 pm | Permalink
  3. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – Maybe Ms Ali is one of the many thoroughly modern moralists who thinks morality/ethics can get along fine without a foundation. Reason could still be a necessary condition for morality.

    As for why I think morality presupposes the capacity for reason, well, there’s the virtually universal practice of not holding brutes and babies morally responsible for the nasty things they do. But I also think that the “impersonal” or, as I prefer, the “universal” nature of ethical precepts is a product of reason. (i.e., reason doesn’t care who or what proposes a principle, only what the content of the principle is).

    Of course, you seem willing to view almost any system of “valuations” that influence behavior toward group members as at least part of a morality. I think there’s more to it than that. My own sense is that it’s only after reason gets hold of such value systems and begins to critique and refine them that they become part of a morality.

    Posted December 3, 2007 at 6:15 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Hi Bob,

    I think we are actually more on the same page here than it seems, and that we simply need to clarify our terms.

    It seems that the area most needing clarification is the distinction between a “conscience” and a “morality’, or a “system of ethics”. I see the conscience as the part that is built in by evolution; to me it is the underlying set of valuations and dispositions toward others that is so deeply rooted, at a level far below our conscious awareneness, that it makes some people think that its voice represents “objective moral truth”. I think things like the Golden Rule, our aversion to cruely to children, and so forth, are written in at a very deep level, and are activated in social animals in the course of their normal development. Even non-human species exhibit complex “altruistic” behaviors of this sort, and have social patterns of mutual reward, ostracization for cheaters and slackers, and so on. So I think reason in the human sense is not required for what I consider to be “conscience”. We don’t hold babies and idiots responsible not because they lack advanced powers of reason, but because they are incapable of assimilating properly into the complex behavioral network of human society – the triggers of conscience are not activated because of an inadequacy of raw social perception. They “don’t know right from wrong.”

    Reason does indeed come into play in human ethics, however, because we alone are sufficiently rational to make continual, conscious modifications of our social arrangements. I think the essential message of conscience changes very little, resembling always a Golden Rule that applies to members of one’s group — but who is in the group, and what position they occupy, can vary a great deal, even to the point, say, of turning in your brother for betraying the Party. So we might say that a “moral/ethical system” is a particular tuning — and this is where Reason joins in — of the instincts of conscience to a particular social arrangement.

    I’m about as “modern” a moralist as you’ll find, but I still think it is sweeping the problem under the rug to suggest that our “oughts” can exist without any foundation at all. Even Reason needs a moral axiom or two to prime the pump, something I doubt even Ms. Ali would deny, if pressed. And I think those moral axioms are grounded in conscience (as defined above), which is, I believe, prior to reason.

    Posted December 3, 2007 at 7:00 pm | Permalink