Let’s Be Honest about the ComicSkeptic vs Saboor Ahmed Debate

Here’s the debate in case you haven’t seen it.

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

  يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا كُونُوا قَوَّامِينَ بِالْقِسْطِ شُهَدَاءَ لِلَّهِ وَلَوْ عَلَىٰ أَنفُسِكُمْ أَوِ الْوَالِدَيْنِ وَالْأَقْرَبِينَ ۚ إِن يَكُنْ غَنِيًّا أَوْ فَقِيرًا فَاللَّهُ أَوْلَىٰ بِهِمَا ۖ فَلَا تَتَّبِعُوا الْهَوَىٰ أَن تَعْدِلُوا ۚ وَإِن تَلْوُوا أَوْ تُعْرِضُوا فَإِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ بِمَا تَعْمَلُونَ خَبِيرًا – 4:135

O you who believe! Be steadfast maintainers of justice, witnesses for God, though it be against yourselves, or your parents and kinsfolk, and whether it be someone rich or poor, for God is nearer unto both. So follow not your caprice, that you may act justly. If you distort or turn away, truly God is Aware of whatsoever you do. (Study Quran)

One of the most frustrating experiences I recall when watching a debate was to observe the comments section of the William Lane Craig vs Christopher Hitchens debate. This was a debate in which Hitchens was absolutely spanked (dare I say slapped?) and anyone with the least bit of integrity could see it. Yet, hordes of atheists were doubling down in the comments section, claiming that Hitchens had won, or focusing on minor errors WLC may have made, while completely ignoring the major lapses that Hitchens displayed.

It reinforced the idea in my mind that these kinds of public debates are largely exercises in tribalism, and that long-form, uninterrupted, and unstructured discussion is actually a far more effective medium for exploring ideas.

At any rate, I cannot fault atheists for failing to control their base tribal instincts and failing to focus on the truth, if Muslims are unable to do the same. For this reason, I am here to acknowledge the following:

Saboor Ahmed Lost the Debate

That’s the truth. He was not spanked or mopped the floor with, but he lost. The question that was being debated was “can atheism justify human rights?” As far as the debate was concerned, Alex O’Connor (CosmicSkeptic) defended against the arguments that both Saboor and the audience made regarding the alleged incoherence between the two.

Recapping Saboor’s Main Argument

The main point Saboor was trying to make was that if the evolutionary trajectory was different, so too would be human rights. Therefore, the human rights that we currently have or any human rights we could possibly have in the future, is merely a function of chance on the atheist worldview, and not objectively true in any sense. Morality is like having 5 fingers instead of 6, as Saboor so eloquently explained.

Now, this would be a devastating argument if Alex believed morality was objective. Which he explicitly stated, he does not.

So how then does Alex conceive of human rights? The opening statement Alex made was extremely important to listen to carefully.

Alex’s Argument

Alex first of all defined human rights or morality as that which maximizes pleasure and minimizes pain in sentient creatures. Pleasure, in turn, was defined as that which is desired when experienced, whereas pain was defined as that which is undesired when experienced. Therefore, what pleasure and pain are is grounded in the individual conscious being experiencing a given event. One person’s pain may be another’s pleasure. The idea of human rights is that it is a system which allows us to maximize desirable experiences and minimize undesirable experiences.

We can coherently speak about human rights because it is objectively true or false whether something maximizes pleasure and minimizes pain or not. Even if pain and pleasure are grounded in the subjective experience of individual sentient creatures, that creature X is having a desirable or undesirable experience is an objective fact. In the same way that “The Muslim Theist likes butter pecan ice cream more than chocolate ice cream” is an objective fact.

Saboor’s Main Reply

Saboor’s main reply to this was what if we had an evolutionary timeline in which:

a) Pleasure and pain were different than what we have now.
b) There were no experiences of pleasure or pain.

Alex’s response to these was as follows:

a) then on that evolutionary timeline, we’d have different human rights. But the point is, we’re in this evolutionary timeline and so the atheist can speak coherently of human rights (i.e. maximizing desirable experiences and minimizing undesirable experiences) on this evolutionary timeline.

b) Alex could make the same point as he made in response to point A, although he did not do so as far as I remember. Instead, he made the claim that desire is a function of sentience on any evolutionary timeline, because, without it, you could not have action. Action is motivated precisely by pleasure and pain. Therefore, his conception of human rights (or rights in general) is broad enough to encompass any evolutionary timeline; what remains is to fill in the details according to what experience each sentient being desires or does not desire.

I would like to strengthen Alex’s argument further here by responding to a potential objection:

Why couldn’t we have a sentient creature that experiences no desire? This is hardly inconceivable; it could be some kind of blank computer-like intellect that can think logically, observe phenomena, and so forth, but does not experience any emotion, desire, or suffering.

In such a case, Alex could simply respond that absent any other considerations, such a hypothetical sentient being does not have any rights in his framework. I say absent other considerations because he already responded to a similar objection about people in a coma or a vegetative state, who presumably are unable to experience anything related to reality. Such a being, he says, we afford rights because not doing so would lead to a kind of world or social atmosphere which would not minimize undesirable experiences. This is because it causes the rest of society to suffer to see the downtrodden mistreated.

Thus, one might place our mythical sentient being with no desires under the same category as the human being in a vegetative state.

What Saboor Ahmed Should Have Focused on Instead

As you can see from the above, Saboor did not adequately address any of Alex’s main points. So what could he have done differently?

At first, it may be difficult to see the hoodwink present in Alex’s conception. Like the moving cups in a shell game, you have to focus to see where the ball went.

You see, he conceptualizes ethics on a subjective basis (which is to say that morals don’t objectively exist.) Given that he concedes this premise, while it is true that he can consistently speak of human rights (now based on subjectivity), it also becomes worthless like discussing my subjective experience of ice cream. Yes, it is objectively the case that my subjective experience of butter pecan ice creme is much more pleasurable than strawberry ice cream. Yes, I can consistently speak about my subjective experience of ice creme. But so what? You see on Alex’s view, human rights become like traffic laws, not a moral imperative that is binding on each and every human being.

Human rights talk on Alex’s worldview becomes like this. Saboor tried to make this point when he talked about “enforceability” but he didn’t do a very good job. He framed it in terms of a standing army, but this distracted from the point. The main point is, Alex is not even speaking about a morally binding system; rather he is speaking about a kind of pleasure calculus, no more morally significant than a chess match. The “feeling” of right and wrong on Alex’s worldview is nothing more than a subjective illusion based on our evolutionary history. Yet, for most people – notably Alex himself, this feeling is exactly what they mean when they say something is against human rights and therefore we must force people to act differently by law.

Furthermore, Alex’s conception of human rights is so broad that it leaves wide open the possibility of Islam (or Marxism for that matter) actually being the correct system for maximizing desirable experiences and minimizing undesirable experiences. You see, we don’t have nearly enough information to actually fill in what objectively would maximize desirable experiences and minimize undesirable experiences, and so any system of human rights is really a massive generalization based on little data. How you conceive of reality also drastically changes your inputs into the pleasure calculus. For instance, if the soul is real, then surely pleasures of the soul take precedence over the pleasures of the flesh, as the medievals had thought.

Alex could respond that the best we can do is act based on the data we have available (where data, of course, is reduced to what fits the preconceptions of the atheist scientific framework.) The problem here is that because Alex grounded the pleasure calculus in the experience individual sentient beings, he cannot ignore the testimony of billions of religious people as to what their subjective experiences are like. Subjective experience now becomes a massive part of the data set.

Once again, Saboor tried to make this point by asking Alex why atheists should not believe in God in order to maximize their pleasure in the same way they abide by human rights. His development of this point was stifled by his insistence that this should be something binding rather than expedient. Alex correctly pointed out that the question of God’s existence is one of truth and falsehood, which makes it different than the question of moral expediency. Saboor did respond by asking something along the lines that even if God doesn’t it exist, wouldn’t it still be expedient and thus an imperative of the pleasure calculus (which remember, just is human rights on Alex’s conception)? However, the point was lost due to a lack of clarity on Saboor’s end, and the fact that he thought his opponent was advocating for a system of objective morality.

Another argument against Alex’s view is one made by Willaim Lane Craig during his debate with Sam Harris. If human rights is a function of the pleasure/pain calculus, then we can conceive of a possible world in which the pleasure that sadists receive from inflicting pain upon people who do not desire this pain, is greater than the pain they themselves receive. On Alex’s view, he would have to claim that human rights is, therefore, the freedom for sadists to inflict suffering upon the innocent.

One might respond that Alex’s conception of rights extends only to this evolutionary timeline. But even then – what if the pleasure I receive from squishing an ant – or perhaps even killing a fetus – is greater than the pain experienced by the receiving party? After all, an ant dies nearly instantly if I stomp on it; so what’s the problem?

Furthermore, the mere possibility of such a world existing is enough to show that human rights (defined in terms of the pleasure calculus) are not identical to right and wrong. For surely we would think that inflicting pain upon the innocent is wrong, even if the pleasure experienced by the agent inflicting the pain is immensely greater than the pain experienced by the innocent. It follows, therefore, that right and wrong are not identical to the outcomes of the pleasure calculus because identity is a necessary property – which means there can be no possible worlds in which they are not the same thing.

Disrespect During the Debate

One other thing I think it’s important to call out was the fact that Saboor repeatedly would talk down to Alex and belittle him. There were constant and slights on Saboor’s end which made him appear arrogant and condescending. This is unacceptable, as Muslims we are supposed to have the best of manners especially in debate, and it is a shame when the atheist is the one bringing the better manners to the table.

I don’t claim to be better than Saboor in this regard, but it is important for Muslims to call out their own and so this was an obligation for me to fulfil.


The fundamental issue here is that Alex’s conception of human rights is based on the subjective, whereas Saboor was arguing primarily against an opponent who was arguing for an objective moral system. Had Saboor clearly seen the shell game that was played and then argued accordingly, I believe he would have done better against Alex. I don’t think that Saboor was wrong in the main points he was making, but he was not clear and he was not on point. He did not pursue the lines of reasoning he should have, in the way that he should have to really press the point home.

Ultimately, I believe the atheist can speak coherently about human rights if he redefines it from a morally binding system to something like traffic laws which are so broad that even Islam could be the correct system of human rights in principle. Furthermore, every “right” is really just contingent on the available data we have, since perhaps in the future we may discover that not having liberty actually turns out better for sentient creatures as per the pleasure calculus. In fact, it may even be possible to argue that with the data we currently have! Excessive choice leads to anxiety, does it not? Social mobility causes more suffering for the losers than does a pseudo-caste system where people remain in their stations, does it not? Thus the atheist does not succeed in justifying human rights in anything like the universal declaration that we currently have. His conception, while coherent, is therefore vacuous. Lastly, as per William Lane Crag, even the very identity of right and wrong with the pleasure calculus is incoherent.