Chasing Davis: An Atheist’s Guide to Morality Using Logic and Science by James Luce

I bought this book because I had read many philosophical discussions and justifications for the ability of atheists to have morality without religion, but little with and practical help for how to live one’s life. Not because I necessarily desire any dictates on what to do in specific circumstances, but general advice on how to be more objective about interactions with people and dispassionate about my own thoughts and biases.

Chasing Davis is not the book I was looking for, its guidance is limited. It pays lip service to being that sort of book, so I think I am justified on reviewing it as such, rather than just complaining that it did not meet my expectations.
Luce’s suggestions focus more on choosing and justifying which position to take on various political issues based on an atheist and liberal outlook, with the occasional slip into amusing paranoia (e.g. Sharia law will be imposed on the U.S. by 2025). The arguments used rely on common sense pleas, logic and occasionally science, but these seem to be to support a pre-decided position rather than reaching that position after a dispassionate assessment of the facts. That Luce provides such background makes it painfully clear he’s using motivated reasoning rather than the logic and science promised in the title. Two thirds of the book could have been stripped out; so much is pre-amble or tangential. And while the goal of scene setting and ground clearing is admirable, it is long-winded and poorly done, dismissing interesting arguments too quickly and making some odd choices of what to focus on. For example utilitarianism as a practical philosophy is put down in one sentence and yet is used in his number one rule around which he bases his advice for living a personal moral life, ‘your rights end at the tip of my nose’, which includes repeated referral to an actions effects on society and others. His other imperative to do no harm to others contradicts this rule when individual needs come into conflict with societal ones.

Most of the evidence presented is anecdotal, coincidental or based on armchair deductions rather than proper examinations of the causes. The little scientific or historical data that we are presented with is taken from secondary reports without looking at contradictory evidence to show why the author’s pet theory best explains the facts.

There are a handful of interesting proposals for the running of society, such as the idea of making the right to vote based on merit of some sort (intelligence or qualifications) but Luce does not go far enough in discussing how these would work or examining the consequences.

The result we are left with is a lot of philosophical pondering, the sort that Luce himself denigrates, discussions of science that likely adds nothing new to anyone who would be interested in reading this book and a series of diatribes about the author’s grievances and things he has an almost conspiracy theorists level of distrust for. These anecdotes are of varying levels of entertainment and interest, mainly for shedding light on where Luce’s biases come from and why he cherry-picks research to support them. He might be right on any of his claims (except climate change being caused by sunspots), but not as a result of his review of the evidence.

Ultimately, this book does what it says in the title, but not in the subtitle. It is a subjective guide from a man looking to replicate the good old days of his childhood in Davis.

Hugely disappointing, then, do any readers know of any good books about the use of practical, non-religious moral philosophy that I was looking for?

– The Spiritual Materialist


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