Moral Complexity and Andre Comte-Sponville’s ‘Spiritual Atheism’ – Part 3 of 5

This is the third part of a five-part essay comparing and contrasting the moral systems of the Dalai Lama, Andre Comte-Sponville, and Viktor Frankl with regard to how well (or poorly) their respective moral systems fare against morally complex situations.


Andre Comte-Sponville’s Moral System (based on Spiritual Atheism)

     Comte-Sponville’s moral system, in contrast to the Dalai Lama’s is more consequentialist than deontological. His moral system is more concerned with states of affairs and consequences that affect them than purely motivation/intention. Take, for instance, the fact that he decries certain moral actions such as “rob[bery], rape, and murder” (42). He does this, presumably, because of the immensely harmful consequences that each one brings about. Robbery can shatter a person’s sense of security within their own home or environment. Rape forcefully objectifies a person’s existence, conflating the meaning of their life with the desirability of their physical traits. Murder almost inherently involves pain and suffering, not to mention its permanent duration. As a result, Comte-Sponville’s moral system is more consequentialist than deontological.

     In addition, for Comte-Sponville, a crucial concept to both his moral system and atheist spirituality is that of a “moral or spiritual community” (4). Comte-Sponville provides us with insights into his own moral community by describing the religious faith he held as a youth and how he maintained aspects of it even after he came to be a spiritual atheist. He relates, “Not only was I raised Christian, but I believed in God. My faith…was powerful until around age eighteen. Then I lost it, and it felt like a liberation” (5). The loss of his faith was not the same as the loss of his moral system. Nor, he believes, should it have been.

     Comte-Sponville rejects the argument that some have made to him, that because he is no longer a Christian, he cannot or should not endorse and/or emulate distinctly Christian values and culture. Instead, he pledges his fidelity, a term he coins, to these Greek-Judeo-Christian values and culture stating that “fidelity… an attachment, a commitment, a gratitude…[that] involves [moral] values, a history, a community…[and calls for the collective use of] memory and will” (22). He readily acknowledges his debt to the culture of the Greco-Judeo-Christian world, ranging from his moral beliefs to his political ideals to his cultural expectations and the like.

     Comte-Sponville goes on to reflect that “[w]hat binds believers together…is their communion” (14). (Though his remarks often specific spiritual/religious communities, his comments can be applied to secular moral communities as well.) He further explains that communion is “a cohesion that is more profound, more essential, and more durable, thanks to the fact that it is more interior (or interiorized) and that “to commune is to share without dividing” (15). Comte-Sponville then uses two examples of a group of people dividing up a single cake to illustrate “communion.”

     In the first example, the group is merely a sum of individuals; no one really knows or trusts or understands one another and they are brought together by mere happenstance. As the cake is cut up, each person is wondering about the size of cake they are going to receive and whether it will be enough to psychologically or physically satisfy them. Many of the individuals are disappointed in the size of their cake portion and leave the event both hungry and unhappy. As Comte-Sponville notes, without communion a group of people is just “a series of juxtaposed and competing individualities” (15).

     In the second example, however, there are family and friends all of whom enjoy sharing the cake and the experience with one another. For the family and friends in the second example, there is no such concern about portion size. This resulted in a paradox for the second example since, despite having less materially, they each had more (or gained something) psychologically or communally. This was caused by the communion of their particular moral community.

    One source of communion for a moral/spiritual community, Comte-Sponville says, is: the continuous rereadings and contemplations of shared “myths, founding texts, teachings (Torah in Hebrew), a body of knowledge (Veda in Sanskrit), one of several books (biblia in Greek), a reading or recitation (Koran in Arabic), a law (dharma in Sanskrit) a set of principles, rules or commandments (the Decalogue in the Old Testament),” something that is “a revelation or tradition that is [simultaneously] ancient and still relevant, accepted, respected, interiorized, both individually and communally” (19).

     Children hear the stories or lessons or wisdom growing up, family members and fellow citizens feel the obligation to reiterate their relevant experiences, and cultural exchange carries on. The end-products of this process of cultural repetition are transmitted from generation to generation so that it forms the foundation of the moral/spiritual community. And though Comte-Sponville specifically mentions religious texts, it is conceivable that a moral/spiritual community could achieve such cohesion through the use (rereading and contemplation) of secular texts as well as he himself is promoting.

     As a result of these emphases on unique and various moral communities and ‘fidelity’ to one’s own cultural milieu, Comte-Sponville advocates for moral relativism. He believes that “ethics are human and relative” and that “all value judgments” are too (24, 180). To be slightly more specific, Comte-Sponville’s moral system is what is known as Metaethical Moral Relativism (MMR). MMR is the moral system that has, at its core, the belief that “the truth or falsity of moral judgments, or their justification, is not absolute or universal, but is relative to the traditions, convictions, or practices of a group of persons [or an individual]” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).


Some Objections to Comte-Sponville’s Moral System

     An intractable problem with Comte-Sponville’s moral system is that he applies it inconsistently, demonstrating dissonance between his deep-seated moral beliefs and those he publicly proclaims. He declares that morals are relative, depending on factors such as time, place, and culture yet throughout his book he admonishes moral values such as love, justice, and fidelity. These are moral values that he personally holds dear and seems to want to universalize among all people.

     Yet Comte-Sponville seems to balk when confronted by the logical conclusion of his own moral system throughout the work. One example is when he asks rhetorically, “Who would want to go back to the days before Heraclitus or Confucius, Buddha or Lao-Tzu, Zoroaster or Isaiah?” (27). What is problematic is his tone; if he genuinely believes that morals are relative, then he ought to understand that, even though there may not currently exist a moral community which utilizes or seeks to utilize a pre-Heraclitus et al. moral system, if one were to come into existence, such a moral system would be equally morally valid as his own. Comte-Sponville must keep in mind that from one group to another, at least in his moral system, torture is as valid as nurture, death as life, hatred as love, and so forth.

     But this is not the only time such balking occurs. Take, for example, when he is describing two moral views that he abhors: sophistry and nihilism. “I call sophistry any and all discourses that hinge on values other than truth or claim that truth hinges on something other than itself” and “I call nihilism any and all discourses that recommend the overthrow or destruction of morals…on the pretext that, as Nietzsche claims, they are nefarious and hypocritical” (45-46). Sophistry, then, is a moral system which ultimately prizes something other than truth, be it pleasure or emotion or beauty or something else entirely and nihilism, then, is a moral system that seeks to destroy moral systems altogether. In exploring nihilism, Comte-Sponville rightly recognizes that “[i]f everything is allowed, then so are terrorism, torture, dictatorship, and genocide” as well as that “If nothing is [morally] true, no one is either innocent or guilty of anything, and we can formulate no reproach” against anyone (47).

     Yet, from a (MMR) perspective, both sophistry and nihilism are potentially valid moral systems for a moral community to endorse. The conception of relativity within MMR is not just limited to particular aspects of moral systems such as social customs or moral values. Rather, the conception of relativity within MMR envelops even truthfulness and falsity, the epistemic worth of moral statements. It is as though Comte-Sponville wants to say that certain moral values or principles are relative from one moral community to another, but that moral truth somehow transcends this relativism, a view that makes little sense and is seemingly indefensible for its arbitrariness.

     Another objection to be raised against Comte-Sponville’s moral system is that moral discourse between two or more moral communities with different moral systems, say Hinduism and Christianity, for example, is that much worse off. Under MMR, the endorsement of a particular moral value (love) or moral principle (do not rape) from an individual belonging to one moral community to an individual belonging to another moral community is no different than recommending a particular dish or food item from a restaurant’s menu (try the sushi). Moral imperatives and moral value judgments, especially moral condemnations, lose their gravity under MMR unless applied within a shared moral community.

     Because of this inability for moral discourse, it, ironically, leaves Comte-Sponville unable to convince or persuade others to use his moral system or join his moral community. One option would be to bribe an individual of another moral community to choose your moral system/community rather than theirs. Bribes could come in the form of material goods or different services. But in this sense, morality would be reduced to economic concerns. Morality is more multifaceted and less economic-oriented than that though. So what else is left?

     The use of force is what is left if an individual is trying to convince/convert others to their moral system or moral community; might makes right, what Comte-Sponville calls “fanatical barbarism” whose advocates are “filled with certainty, enthusiasm, and dogmatism” (25). But, again, this reduces morality, this time to a simple contest of brute force. Surely, Comte-Sponville does not which to see morality devolve in such a manner given that he condemns it so openly.

     But if these are the only options available to him for convincing/persuading others to adopt his moral system, neither of them is appealing. The first enslaves moral communities and the functioning of moral systems to predominantly an economic matter. The second eliminates the possibility of discourse, replacing truth with force. Either way, moral truth is no longer a shared endeavor but a concept fragmented by the plurality.

     A third objection to be raised against his moral system is that Comte-Sponville seems not to understand that all individuals are members of more than one moral community. In an increasingly interdependent world, every individual simultaneously belongs to a plurality of moral communities. These moral communities may be organized by profession, by religious association, by culture, by language, by gender/sex, by educational level, by socioeconomic status, by familial relationships, and numerous other possible criteria.

     As such, the membership of our moral communities is continually changing and our different moral systems and their related components are conflicting with one another more often, resulting in the creation of what can be called a heterogeneous moral community. A heterogeneous moral community consists of members of different moral communities occupying the same cultural, physical, and political space at the same time. This may look like many modern cities in the United States in which there are people of different races, religions, language groups, and overall cultures all co-existing together.

     It is this matrix of moral communities that Comte-Sponville does not pay sufficient attention to. As a byproduct of these simultaneously overlapping moral communities, we are not quite sure how to discern the moral system of a heterogeneous moral community. Is the moral system of a heterogeneous moral community determined by what is included in its formal laws? That can’t be since there are many actions that are legal but that are immoral, actions that the different moral communities may reject as part of their own moral systems. Take adultery for instance. Committing adultery is immoral to many moral communities, but it is not punishable by law. And there are also things that are illegal that are morally praiseworthy according to some moral communities.

     So if law is not responsible for the moral system of a heterogeneous moral community, what other source could it be? Could it be the religion/religious values of a heterogeneous moral community? That is also problematic as it is highly likely that in any given society, there is a heterogeneous mix of adherents of different religions, even different denominations of the same religion, that endorse or deny various moral systems with differing methods, assumptions, principles, rules, and obligations. This doesn’t even consider the fact that there are non-religious people living among the various religious groups who could possibly have even more divergent various moral systems with differing methods, assumptions, principles, rules, and obligations.

     The list of potential sources for a heterogeneous moral community’s moral system goes on and on (perhaps we look at the social customs or the most cherished books or the leaders and heroes of that community?), yet they all run into this same problem. Within the framework of MMR, it is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to determine the true moral system of a heterogeneous moral community.

     Finally, let’s look at another morally complex situation and see how Comte-Sponville’s MMR would handle it. We can distill an example from some occurrences based on relatively recent real life events. A religious couple refuse to take their teenage daughter to the doctor, despite obvious signs that she is sick and in need of professional medical help, because their moral system claims that they ought to trust God and pray for healing to supernaturally occur (whether or not the healing occurs is often interpreted as a judgment for or against the person’s faith level).

     If the daughter’s healing did not occur, the parents simply had too little of faith for God to act. Seeing as their daughter continued to get worse, they thought they were simply lacking faith rather than believing that, in reality, she was suffering from internal bleeding. The teenage daughter is now at a critical threshold – if she does not receive medical treatment in the next 12 hours, she will certainly die.

     With this sense of urgency in mind, how would Comte-Sponville’s MMR convince the parents to take their daughter to the hospital?  Under MMR, there can be no way of settling such a moral disagreement. He could not hope to use a common moral discourse since his moral system clearly differs from theirs and, if each moral community is acting within its autonomy to develop its own moral system, there can be no claims made that one is better or worse than another.

     So if there is no morally objective truth and thus no way to non-arbitrarily assert that one is better than another, how are we to make a decision between our conflicting moral systems and moral communities? He would simply have to accept that they had different moral systems and the couple’s actions were equally morally valid even if he disagreed with them. The consequence would likely be that the teenage daughter dies and the parents undergo a crisis of faith, likely believing that their lack of faith or their sinful actions (or intentions) caused the death of their child.

     That Comte-Sponville’s moral system would allow needless suffering is, along with the fact that it does not so much handle moral complexity as it does generate it, a serious blow to its legitimacy. A moral system’s principles and rules are meant, among other things, to prevent unnecessary pain and suffering, as well as promote pleasure and joy of its members and non-members alike. As a result, Comte-Sponville’s MMR is seemingly incoherent and does not handle moral complexity so much as it makes such complexity intractable.


Works Cited

“Animal Ethics: The Ethics of Speciesism.” BBC Ethics, BBC, 2014.

Comte-Sponville, Andre. The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality. Penguin Books, 2008.

Frankl, Viktor, Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy. Simon &      Schuster, 1984.

Gowans, Chris. “Moral Relativism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 19 Feb. 2004.

Lama, Dalai, and Rajiv Mehrotra. In My Own Words: An Introduction to My Teachings and Philosophy. Hay House Inc., 2011.

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