Thursday, May 31, 2012

Morality Week Reflection

During Morality Week, I tried my best to explain morality from an atheist perspective. I hoped to be able to sum up morality in a tight text snippit. A typographic sound byte. The tagline for godless goodness. I think I failed.

Is this because I suck? Maybe, but I doubt it. Morality is a multilayered issue. It’s more than commandments. It’s even more than the Golden Rule, which is probably the most utilitarian moral cliff-note available. I think the best way to verbalize my view of morality is a set of “best practices” to live by. Let's break it down one last time.

Right vs. Wrong

Let’s rebrand “right” and “wrong” as “better” and “worse.” I say “better” and not “best” because the “best” thing for an individual may be at the expense of others. Morality only makes sense as a term when it's applied to the group. We are moral because we are social. We are social because others enrich our lives.

Objective vs. Subjective Morality

Morality varies across cultures. Even within the U.S., polls show there are many issues that have the population split as to their moral worth. This is evidence for subjective morality. The only "evidence" any one has ever presented for objective morality is asking a question similar to "is murder wrong?" To which I give my answer, "yes." The answer is my belief that murder is wrong. It's subjective. Your belief, which is also likely to be that murder is wrong, is subjective. The argument of common consent basically states that most people believe in God therefore God exists. This argument of common consent seems to be their basis for objective morality as well. Most people believe murder is wrong, therefore it is wrong. Unlike the argument of common consent as applied to God, I am part of the consent in regards to murder, but that only means that we should treat murder as wrong. To say it is wrong, or in fact exists at all outside of humanity's ability to conceive and act upon it, is unfounded. In addition, belief in objective morality is dangerous. The same people who don't just believe murder is wrong, but know it is wrong, also know that homosexuality and other victimless "sins" are wrong. With this supposed infallible knowledge they can enforce what are really just opinions without considering the possibility that they are wrong. Abortion clinic bombers not only know that abortion is wrong, but they know they are doing the Lord's work. To paraphrase MiB's Agent Kay, "Imagine what they'll know tomorrow."

The Argument from Moral Truth

While I don't see any evidence for objective morality, this argument is flawed to the point of uselessness even granting a universal moral truth. The argument states:
  1. There exist objective moral truths. (murder is not just distasteful, but it's actually wrong.)
  2. These objective moral truths are not grounded in the way the world is but, rather, in the way the world ought to be. (Consider: should white supremacists succeed, taking over the world and eliminating all who don’t meet their criteria for being existence-worthy, their ideology still would be morally wrong. It would be true, in this hideous counterfactual, that the world ought not to be the way that they have made it.)
  3. The world itself—the way it is, the laws of science that explain why it is that way—cannot account for the way the world ought to be.
  4. The only way to account for morality is that God established morality (from 2 and 3).
  5. Therefore God exists.
Why did God make murder wrong? Why not make it right? Is there any reason for God's choice or is morality completely arbitrary? If God had a reason, then we should be able to come to the same reason. If God had no reason, then why follow pointless rules? Either God is a redundant middle man or we are still left with no reason moral truths are true. If we feel the need to explain our possible objective morality, then why are we more comfortable with a lack of a supernatural explanation then we are with a lack of a natural explanation? At least we know the natural exists! The whole argument is passing the buck.

The Bible as a source of morality.

Item 4 of the argument leads to where believers go to find God's established morality. The Bible is a popular repository of perceived goodness. Shall we start with the Old Testament that commanded people to keep slaves, slay their enemies, execute blasphemers and homosexuals? might be best to pick and chose which Biblical morals to follow and interpret them to be relevant to our society. The question here is, if you need the Bible to give you your morals, how do you know which morals in the Bible are the most moral? It's, of course, because we already had morality before we checked the "good book." It makes sense, if the majority of people didn't think murder was a bad thing prior to Moses, I doubt humanity would have survived long enough to get those tablets. If you believe that sort of thing.


  1. I just typed in a long comment and it disappeared...I hate when that happens. So here is my second attempt...

    I think the best example that points to the subjective nature of morality is the fact that what is considered "good" and "bad" has changed dramatically as humanity has progressed. There are numerous things that are moral today that were considered immoral in previous generations and vice versa.

    Objective morality cannot exist or we would all still be following the absurd morality of the OT.

  2. Morality varies across cultures.

    I think it's important to distinguish between morality and taboo. When we say "morality varies across cultures", we don't mean there are societies where murder and theft within the society are considered morally acceptable. Most of the variations that look really arbitrary have to do with sex (homosexuality OK or not-OK, pre-marital sex OK or not-OK, etc.), and most rules of sexual behavior are just religious taboos, which is why they vary randomly from one culture to another and even from one era to another within the same culture, unlike actual morality.

    Those rules are more analogous to the similar arbitrary rules that Islam and Judaism have about food (beef OK, pork not-OK, etc.), or even to the arbitrary rules of games like baseball or football. But no one thinks those rule-lists are absolute moral standards. Once we realize that sexual taboos are in the same category and stop confusing them with morality, the latter doesn't look so cross-culturally variable.

    Much of the apparent variation that remains springs from the fact that primitive societies apply morality only within the in-group -- that is, their belief that murder is immoral doesn't extend to not killing foreigners or slaves because those, like non-human animals, are not members of the group to whom morality applies -- so killing them isn't murder. The shift in thinking to where morality applies to all humans is one of the hallmarks of modernity -- and of course now we're starting to extend this to some of the more mentally-sophisticated non-human animals as well.

  3. [continued] The above accounts for why, for example, the Old Testament is full of mass killing despite the commandment "Thou shalt not murder". Slaughtering Canaanites wasn't murder to them.

    As for where real morality comes from, it's increasingly apparent that it's a product of evolution along with most other human behavioral traits. In any large primate social group, such as those chimpanzees have, there are behaviors which would be detrimental to group survival, such that natural selection would favor psychological inhibitions against those behaviors. Morality probably arose from the interface of those inhibitions with our increasing intelligence.

    1. Totally agree, but where I live most everyone considers sexual behavior as part of morality. I include it because the majority seems to define terms. Hell, even PZ Myers included "Stigma" factoring into his personal morality.

      I've addressed the evolution side of morality before. Very true.