Showing posts with label ethics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label ethics. Show all posts

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Without God, does morality mean whatever we want?

A favorite claim among Christian apologists is that, without God, morality can mean whatever we want. That’s what happens when good and evil is not grounded by a divine standard. All we have are individuals with personal preferences judging others with preferences that may well be very different. As best, an individual or group can only impose their rules and judgements on others with a show of force, often referred to as “might makes right.” Those human rules and judgements can not be said to have inherent validity. While I’d love to rebut this claim entirely I can not do that any more than I can grant them that they are fully correct. Language and ethics are very complicated and both are at play here.

At the most literal level, yes, moral terms like good, evil, right, and wrong can mean whatever we want. Why? Because moral terms aren’t special. Any word can mean whatever we want. This should go without saying, but languages are invented and maintained by the population of speakers. If enough speakers evolve English so that evil means good, that is how it shall be moving forward. A single speaker redefining words will find himself unable to effectively communicate with everyone who hasn't adopted his fringe definition. That's why the meanings of good and evil tend to remain roughly the same within cultures, secular or religious. It’s hard to get everyone on board for an arbitrary remapping of terms.

The secular definition of moral good is essentially to behave in a way that is beneficial to others. Regardless of the letters written or sounds made to communicate this concept, it would not change it’s value. In other words, if “good” is renamed “evil” tomorrow, that would just mean that we would start to value “evil” over “good.” Now the question is: do we value the concept we call good because a divine third party made us? There’s no way to know, but we do know that there are reasons for social beings to value the concept we call good independent of supernatural mandates.

  1. Being good to others earns more opportunity for earn friends and make families. (Here I could argue that the odds of finding mates and living longer are increased with this behavior, making the instinct to be good a selected trait, but I think this argument is only additive and not required for my points. Since people who do not accept evolution will likely read this, I will not argue this further.)
  2. Being good allows for the creation of culture and societies that provide benefits ranging from the division of labor to shared resources.
  3. Being good, rather than evil, keeps animosity from others low and makes for a more safe and stress free life.

There are many more reasons to be good rather than evil, but evildoers still exist. Apologists argue that people who do wrong do so because they separate themselves from God or ignore that divine moral compass within them. Some even say that it’s an acceptance of moral relativism that swings open the door to sin. While it is always wrong for the slave to strike an owner, it may be right (in the owner’s mind) for the owner to strike a slave. The rapist isn’t wrong to rape because (in the rapist’s mind) what’s right and wrong are up to whatever we want and, the rapist wants to rape. While there are individual defectors who periodically discard their value of good to serve base desires, they are rarer exceptions. More common are those who maintain their value of good with a more narrow view of equality. The slave owner treats other whites as peers with the same understanding of good as you or I, but define blacks as a class in which the definition does not apply. The same could go for the rapist and how he sees women. It may not be the definition of good that’s a moving target, it could be the definition of human.

There is more to the secular meanings of good and evil after we take into account context, motives, consent, ect. What’s most important to the point is that every culture has a name for this concept and places a high value on it. Apologists who admit this attribute it to the aforementioned God-given moral compass within us. I’ll stick with the alternative that all humans share something else, a desire to not be alone. Don’t underestimate how lonely, and short, one’s life would be if they placed no value on being good.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Grounding Morality in Reason

Religious apologists often overlook secular reasons to be decent to our fellow man in order to make their arguments that morality can only be grounded in God. For them, I present these ten secular incentives to ground one's morality in reason.

Points one and two can be seen as a catch all and that all following points can be seen as subsets of one and two. The truth is, by making one and two so broad was the only way to cover all the ways people can come to what we consider good behavior. The rest are just some specifics that are probably obvious to all but the most religious of apologists.

1. To avoid negative consequences.

Try to kill, rape, or steal from someone and that someone will be pissed. If the person is able to hurt you, he or she is much more likely to hurt you as a punishment of your previous action. The motivation for the retaliation could be revenge or just to put you on notice that if you try that shit again then you’ll be hurt again. If that person is unable to hurt you directly, he or she may have allies who will. Even if the person has no allies, anyone else who witnesses your transgression may make an example out of you in order to discourage such transgressions in there future against them. This is part of the foundational reasoning for enforced laws in societies.

2. To claim positive rewards.

There are a variety of incentives to act positively toward others. Some speak to other items on this list. Safety, camaraderie, freedom, and charity are just some things we can enjoy in a mutually altruistic culture. Hell, even after you do wrong, good behavior may lessen your sentence.

3. To conform.

Conformity is sometimes colored as a negative, but not here. If most people are violent, you need to conform to violence to defend yourself. However, if most people are generally peaceful except toward violent defectors, you’d do well fit in with the generally peaceful majority.

4. To collaborate.

The division of labor allows for some people to specialize in certain tasks and other people to specialize in others. The result is that each task is performed using less resources and time. Trade comes from collaboration, which is why we can barter or buy food rather than needing to grow or hunt it ourselves-an activity that would otherwise take up most of our time with less net nourishment. All this is possible only if you don’t scare or alienate your community by doing what we consider immoral-especially in excess.

5. To not be alone.

There is a reason long-term solitary confinement is among the worst treatments of prisoners. Everyone I know values some amount of socialization.  It should be obvious that one needs to ingratiate themselves to others to avoid this treatment occurring. At the very least, your actions need to not offend others, as immoral actions often will.

6. To be left alone.

Even if you want solace, you will not find any by being immoral. Act against others and they will naturally act against you. To be alone you need to be neither moral or immoral. You need to be isolated.

7. To realize a winning game theory strategy.

Cooperation may seem like a bad idea when you can cheat to achieve a short-term win, but even if you ignore the other listed reasons, you’d still know that’s a bad idea with a little experience or foresight. Game theory shows that groups that don’t screw each other profit more than groups that defect from cooperation. Caring only for yourself as an individual means gaining less in the long run.

8. To protect oneself.

One, even the strongest one, will never be able to defend himself or herself from a group. I don’t care if you’re Batman, a large enough group will prevail. Being a dick to everyone ensures you will have no allies because everyone will either actively want you to fail or passively stand by while you do. Sure, you can be a dick to some and not others. That happens. In fact, that explains most of the world. Absolute dickishness, however, is a horrible life strategy.

9. To explore emotions.

If you resist acting immorally toward people long enough, you might start to like some of them. Love and other emotions are some of the most valued aspects of life, whether you want to say they are from chemicals in the brain or deities in the sky. Either way, a deity in the sky isn’t needed to explain why we might refrain from acting a fool in order to explore these emotions.

10. To live out one’s indoctrination.

How many of the beliefs that inform our behavior are taken for granted because their source was our first authority figures: our family. You probably know someone who acts in a way different from you because of their different upbringing. To that person, the same applies to you. The things my family told me to do and not do are informed by the other items on this list, but even if they weren’t, I would have still listened, at least when I was young.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Sin or Die

Is incest a sin? If you are representative of my primary audience you are probably saying “no.” Nothing is a sin. Sin isn’t a thing. However, think about it from a believer’s incest a sin? I did a small, informal poll and 9 out of 10 Christians believe incest is a sin. That means one of two things to the Christian faith in particular. Let’s look at the possibilities.


God has set up at least two situations in which his creations had to sin in order to not go extinct. Of course, I’m referencing Adam and Eve giving birth to children who then had to have sex with either each other or their parents and Noah and his nuclear family who faced the same choice. The only moral thing to do for our ancestors, from the Christian perspective, was to let the species die off. In fact, since both times the need for incest applied to all but the most asexually reproducing creatures, they all had to sin or die.


Incest is a sin now, but wasn’t in Adam’s and Noah’s time. This gets God out of the position of creating something that he either wanted to die or disobey, questionable motivations for a loving father, but it means that sin is variable. It means that morality is not always constant. This notion throws a wrench into the apologetic premise that moral facts are absolute and moral values are objective.

Christian apologists tell me that certain things are morally right while others are morally wrong not because society defines them as such or even that they conform to God’s whims--but because they are facts of the nature of things. To them, God’s nature informs reality’s nature and God is unchanging. Assuming Christianity is true, incest switching values is profound. Does it mean God’s nature changes? No, it logically cannot. A “nature” is the way one is, without the subject deciding to be that way. If God’s nature changed, who are we saying changed it? They aren’t likely to say a greater deity and if they did, it would move this conundrum to that God. No, it means that the Christian God really does arbitrarily decide good and evil and, at least in this case, flipped the script. Why? Mysterious ways, man. Mysterious ways.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

When Life Gives You Objectively Good Lemons

The moral argument for God is very convincing to Internet apologists because they believe in something called transcendent morality. It comes up by many names including objective morality, absolute morality--and as I prefer, cosmic morality and magical morality. Regardless of the name, it is seen as a moral standard that exists somewhere independent of the minds of mere mortals and supersedes alternative judgements.

That’s the claim. Is there proof? No. Is there evidence? No. The defense for the claim is essentially finding a moral value agreed upon between the apologist and the non-apologist, such as “murder is wrong,” and using that shared common ground to say all other assessments aren’t just wrong from their perspective, but wrong independent of perspective.

What do you think, is murder wrong independent of perspective? In my experience, “wrong” means different things to different people. It is like saying not murdering is better than murdering. “Better,” like “wrong” in this case, is imprecise language that the apologist can leverage during these exchanges. Analogy time. What if I said lemons are an objectively better fruit than blueberries? This seems laughable because we understand taste preferences are opinions. However, we can say something is objectively true here if only I use a clear metric. I value sour flavor. Lemons are objectively more sour than blueberries. This isn’t a matter of taste, we can actually compare pH levels and know for a fact that lemons are more sour and are therefore objectively more appealing to one who values sour flavor.

Apply this to morality. Instead of saying something imprecise like not murdering is better than murdering, which could be subjective or objective depending on the metric used to judge something as “better,” let’s say not murdering allows for a safer world than murdering. This specification allows us to say not murdering is better for those who value safety. That is an objective fact and an instance of an objective moral.

I cannot say anything about one’s morality without saying something about one’s values. Because the majority of us value human life, safety, and equality (at least to some degree) the discouragement of murder is near universal...but transcendent? No, that is neither justified nor demonstrable.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Rebuttal: Part Three

For this to make sense, please check out my post exchange with Dr. Luke Conway here and here. You might as well check my Rebuttal, Part One and Rebuttal, Part Two also.

I’ve covered the moral argument for God multiple times on this blog and consider it the worst argument in the long, sad history of apologetic arguments. The only way I can address this again and remain sane is if I break up Dr. Conway’s post and address it in segments. The bold bits are the words of The Apologetic Professor. Here it goes.

Theism provides a more coherent view of morality than atheism.

No, it doesn’t. It doesn’t. It. Does. Not.

If you are an atheist, you believe in a universe that has absolutely no moral will.

This part is true. I believe the universe has no will, moral or otherwise.

The materialist must assume that I have a moral will for the same set of reasons that I have blue eyes or a love of the Indigo Girls, or that the sky appears blue or rocks are solid substances – they are the result of a long chain of purely physical events guided by physical laws or chance or what-have-you. I presume none of you believe that, at the Big Bang (or whatever), the atoms there assembled in the way they did so that someday they could produce the thought I should not kill my neighbor for fun inside my head. Such a thought exists because of chance physical processes.

This harkens back to Rebuttal, Part Two talking about instincts. It could be said that we have a moral instinct brought to us by the very same long chain of physical event that which Dr. Conway takes issue. Think of aspects of morality as adaptions that are selected for survival. The survival of the altruistic can be simplified to a generational game theory. Like the famous prisoner’s dilemma, two socially interacting creatures share a larger net gain by cooperating, even at the cost of personal loss by not defecting and claiming an individually larger gain for themselves. This defection could get the creature killed or made an outcast--taking it out of the gene pool either way. In addition, by leaving the increased gain on the table by continuously acting selfishly ends with the result of less resources than those held by cooperating creatures.

This is an example of how everything from instinctual sharing to general empathy could have evolved. I also find it difficult how one couldn’t see that cooperation is the best policy from the experience of just a single lifetime. This is, in part, what apologists argue when morality comes up.

Now, if the professor is saying that thought in general couldn’t have evolved through “a long chain of purely physical events,” that is a actually a better argument than saying moral thought specifically could not. Still, that is an entirely different debate. I’d like to know that he admits the moral argument is bunk before delving into cognitive sciences.

The atheist universe isn’t an immoral universe, as some have claimed. It’s an amoral universe. Morality isn’t bad in the atheist universe; morality doesn’t exist in the atheist universe. Morality has no meaning in that world.

Dr. Conway, I don’t think morality means what you think it means. Seriously, this is a fundamental conflict of definitions that is an insurmountable hurdle in every atheist/theist debate I’ve ever had. Morality as defined by God’s nature is invalid in my book and morality as defined by human culture is invalid in theirs.

Pretty much every atheist I know actually believes in morality (including all of the “new” atheists, e.g., Dawkins, Harris, etc.). And they don’t just believe in it in a “well, that’s nice” kind of way; they don’t believe that it’s wrong to kill people for fun is just a chance-y neuronal deal and they’d be fine if it had turned out the other way around. No; they really believe in it – like it matters that it turned out this way. In fact, they believe in it so much that they often use moral arguments against theism, as a reason to get rid of it.

Yeah, for two reasons. One, most of us have a high degree of empathy--a trait selected for survival (see above.) And two, because morality works. What’s the alternative? Killing fellow humans on sight? Most of us are intelligent beings who can see that would result in living in fear and constant danger. The Golden Rule is the best thing in the bible, yet pre-dates it. If you see moral acts as those that benefit others and immoral acts as those that harm others--pair that with reasoning to weigh the scales of a given situation fairly and our desire to be benefited and avoid harm, ta-da! Morality. I really don’t see why this is so hard. Yes, it allows for some things to be morally ambiguous, which it distasteful, but some things are morally ambiguous. That’s why we are constantly debating things like capital punishment and abortion. It’s objectively clear that at least some moral issues have no objectively clear answer. Saying that you believe you are right on a divided issue is fine, but saying that you are absolutely right because it was written in a book in another language from a less civilized culture over a thousand years ago is crazy. Doesn’t it sound crazy? I think it’s crazy.

My philosophy says that God built morality into the fabric of the universe.

Do rocks have morality then? Do tornadoes strive to be nice? Or is this only evident in intelligent, social beings who have a vested interest to act civil, all things being equal?

Theists attempt to show that morality without God is arbitrary. On the contrary, I can think of multiple reasons why any given moral choice is right or wrong. To apologists I ask, does God have reasons for what is right and what is wrong? Is there a reason His nature is how it is? If so, let’s say we can come to the same reasoning and cut out the middle god. If not, then it’s the theist's morality that is arbitrary. Even if the Christian God exists, we face the exact same pointless morals...except, y’know, my perceived source of morality doesn’t occasionally commit genocide.

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Morality of Babes

“Objective morality is revealed to us by God” --this is as close to a Christian universal as I can get. A question I often ask is: how do we know what actions are objectively right and which are objectively wrong. I get one of two answers: (a) that the Word of God is spelled out in the Bible and we should follow it’s guidelines for morality, or (b) that we are born with a moral compass that shows us God’s Nature. The first answer is an assertion that their holy book isn’t just a good idea, it’s the law--and that’s all it is. Claims can be made about anything when there is no expectation to back them up. The second answer is more interesting, and one in which I have gained extra insight in the last couple years.

I’m the father of twins, a boy and a girl. It certainly seems like they were not born with morality. They are born to suck. It’s wired into their little brains to find a boob or bottle and suck vigorously. When they get a little older, their nature is to crawl. Before they have any business crawling, I saw them constantly attempting to flip over and push themselves up. The first moral act I witnessed was decidedly immoral by adult standards. The boy hit the girl and the girl quick returned fire. There was escalation until it became an arms race mired with theft and snitching. I can chalk up a lot of what I observed to instinct, but I never observed a sense of right conduct.

Granted, this is hardly scientific. An anecdotal account with a sample size of two shouldn’t convince you of anything...but my wife specifically said no experiments on the children, so it’s all I got. This is my experience. There is going to be a long road ahead teaching my kids to morally socialize. I imagine I could use the good bits of the bible as examples of good behavior, but why cherry pick? I’d much rather draw on my own experience. Wish me luck.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Deity-Free Moral Challenge

The debate about the origin of morality has been beaten to death by a dead Calvary of horses. They aren't recently dead either, rigamortis set in long ago. Anything you or I can say about the merits of grass roots societal goodness or objective moral truths, has been said before--and I hate being unoriginal.

In an effort to avoid rehashing the claims of people far smarter than I, even though I came to said claims completely organically, I have two options. First, I could hang up my argumentative guns and ride into the sunset confident that I'm right while unwilling to engage the opposition--but I run a freakin' atheist blog, so obviously that's not going to happen. I'm left with option two. Much like Kirk and the Kobayashi Maru, I must alter the parameters of the argument. Instead of debating why we have morality, I'd like to debate why we share (or don't share) specific morals.

The Challenge

If you believe the only way to explain common morality is by appealing to a higher power, it must be that you can't think of natural, human reasons to be good. If you could, then those reasons should be all the explanation you need. To defend your position, I ask you to submit a moral situation for which only God can be the explanation for why a reasonable person would do the right thing. In return, I will offer an entirely human answer for the moral choice I, and likely many others, would make.

The moral situation should be fairly straight forward to best make your point, if, of course, you can stump me. An ambiguous moral situation is more likely to draw different choices from different people, and would only contribute to the idea of subjective morality. If you think your choice for the ambiguous moral situation is the objectively correct choice, that's only you elevating your opinion to the status of truth and there is likely no way to prove your moral high ground without referencing the Bible, which I don't accept. So, to sum up, I'll accept situations where one pushes an elderly convict into a child, thereby pushing the kid out of the way of an oncoming train and dooming the old fella, but...let's try to stick to scenarios both likely to happen and without too many moving parts.