Thursday, January 23, 2014

Morality and the Definition Divide

Search “morality” in Merriam-Webster and the first definition you’ll see is “beliefs about what is right behavior and what is wrong behavior.” That’s beliefs, plural. This implies that what I believe is right and wrong isn’t the only belief out there, which should be obvious. Add the word “objective” in front of a word with a definition like this and the result is an oxymoron. Morality, by definition, is subjective. Case closed.

Well, of course the case isn’t closed. I can’t cite Merriam-Webster and expect millennia of philosophy to buckle.  Honestly, it isn’t even justified. Merriam-Webster has four definitions for the word “morality,” and MW is hardly the only dictionary in circulation. Should I go with the terminology of Google? Wikipedia? Who is the linguistic authority here?

Few theists will deny the reality that different beliefs of right and wrong behavior exist, they just believe one in particular belief is true in an absolute and objective way, conveniently, it’s their own. Digging deeper we need argument on more definitions. What does right mean? What does wrong mean? According to the first entry of Merriam-Webster, right behavior is that which is morally or socially correct or acceptable. Apologists reject any definitions of right and wrong in terms of what is acceptable because those definitions are subjective. They say, “what if people find rape acceptable, then is rape right by this definition?” That is true, by this definition. Finding it distasteful doesn’t strike it from the vernacular. If it did, we likely wouldn’t have a word for “rape” to begin with. Still, they want another definition. Lucky for them, there are 15 other definitions in MW alone, some of which tell us little. Right behavior is defined as what is moral, what is moral is defined as good behavior, and good behavior is defined as right behavior. Thanks. Zero help.

Apologists also don’t like definitions that are relative. This means defining right behavior as that which benefits others or causes no harm is a no go. They don’t see morality as a social contract, they think it exits independent of those capable of moral choices. In other words, rape was wrong in some transcendent way even before living creatures existed to rape or be raped. Where does that leave us?

It leaves the majority of us using relative and/or subjective definitions while apologists demand words with meanings that are absolute and objective. Words like...okay there are no words like that. Language is a human invention that at some point paired concepts with arbitrary strings of letters. I’ve spent the last couple weeks trying to understand how apologists arbitrarily paired their words.

I tried asking apologists to define “right” behavior. They did their best not to, but when pushed I received the following responses.

  • “The right thing is what we ought to do.”
  • “The right thing is part of God’s nature.”

There is something interesting about each of these apologetic definitions.  “Ought” implies obligation. Ought to according to whom? The answer is, of course, God. The second answer explicitly mentions God as part of the definition. It’s clear from this that many religious apologists frame their understanding of morality with God as a fundamental prerequisite. Given this understanding, they are completely correct to say morality requires God, but not by logic or deduction, rather by definition. The perceived validity of the moral argument for God then is a product of indoctrination. Any outsider with a secular understanding of the terms, should see the moral argument for God as entirely circular. The conclusion, that God is required for morality, is assumed from the start.

5 comments:

  1. You had me chuckling when you said "I tried asking apologists to define “right” behavior. They did their best not to" This is for me the biggest problem that apologists don't want to define anything, as they know that definition can come and bite their butt in a later debate.

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  2. " It’s clear from this that many religious apologists frame their understanding of morality with God as a fundamental prerequisite"

    So who do Atheist's and Agnostic's get their moral compass from and what can they give credit to if they are good, kind, and socially moral human beings? Themselves?...of course.

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    1. What do you mean by moral compass?

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    2. "Moral compass's are mental processes that point a person in a particular direction in life. These processes are consistent and true indicators upon which personal belief and action can be based.

      The concept of morality is also relatively simple at its absolute core. It denotes conduct or duties based on what is right and wrong. Morality is considered to be the basis of character and is wrapped around ethics.

      But while both the concept of a moral compass and the definition of morality are simple and clear, the concept of what constitutes morality is not. One person’s moral compass may not point in the same direction as another’s as far as right and wrong conduct and belief are concerned."

      That is why I surmise if religious apologists claim their moral compass's come from
      God....I wonder where the rest of us who do not believe in their God, but strive to do what's right and socially acceptable get their moral compass from?

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    3. A lot of psychological and sociological research has been done to uncover the hidden moral calculi that people use. Most people operate on competing moral intuitions that sometimes create conflicting impulses.... To resolve those conflicts, some people think more systematically about morality than others. But what we actually do under pressure doesn't necessarily follow our carefully reasoned beliefs. We're a complicated and diverse moral species, and religion doesn't play the deciding role in determining how people behave.

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