Saturday, November 27, 2010

More on Morality from an Atheistic Perspective

I still haven't forgotten religion, oh no no no. It is still a near constant on my mind. And while I may dabble in other topics, religion to me and Atheism is and always will be, the cornerstone of this blog.

I feel like I am almost writing the same things over and over again. I don't want to be repetitive, or redundant, but I do however, want to make sure that with this blog, I tackle every angle from the Atheist perspective. While continuing to watch debates on religion, and argue religion to all those that wish to challenge me on it, or any other aspect of my philosophy, Atheism and morality is one sphere I wish to dwell on a bit more.

The origin of morality is one area that many Theists believe to hold the moral high ground. They claim, that without an objective moral provider, all morality is a matter of opinion. For example, if person A thinks that killing and eating person B is morally right, than person B is in no position to assert that person A is wrong. It is only person B's opinion that person A is wrong. Without an objective, external source of moral authority, let's say person C, who says that person A in this case is morally wrong for wanting to kill and eat person B, than we are only left with subjective, and often self-serving morality. Meaning, person B thinks it's wrong for person A to kill and eat him only because he doesn't want to die, and person A thinks it's right to kill and eat person B because it would satisfy his desire.

This is a basic scenario used by many Theists to explain the importance of having a God, represented by person C, to provide clear and defined objective morality. I've never been too persuaded by this argument, for the following reasons. First, the idea of an objective moral provider makes me cringe, because it is really, when you think about it, just another opinion. It's god's opinion, and doesn't necessarily lay claim to the best possible moral decision regarding the situation. For example, in the hypothetical scenario above, if god (person C) sided with person A, in that killing and eating person B was indeed morally right, would that suddenly be true? Would it abruptly be moral for person A to kill and eat person B, because god said it was so? Would we as a society embrace such an act, because a very powerful and opinionated god sanctioned it? Or would we, in spite of the opinion of an angry and jealous god, condemn such an act? In the most simple terms possible, what do we do with do with an immoral moral objective authority?

It seems to be that the Christian, Islamic and Judaic perspective, has basically taken the position that yes, god is not always fair, and not always moral, but he's the boss and he makes the rules. Therefore, we must obey god's command, even if it doesn't always make sense, or if we have difficulty discerning the moral outcome. Atheists reject this idea and make it one of our key arguments against religion. Why embrace a moral that seems immoral, simply because it is believed to come from a powerful god? Why cancel out commonsense or scientific truth because a book says otherwise? Religions are filled with examples of morality coming from god, that if practiced today, would be so far removed from contemporary moral norms. Was it moral for god to command the Jews to exterminate all their rival tribes, keeping only the marriageable girls? Christians and Jews think it was because the objective moral authority said so.

So, as I've explained, I have some serious thoughts on the idea that the objective moral provider is the best explanation for the origin of morality, and deciding morality in general. Then, you might ask, how do I explain morality from the Atheistic perspective? Well, after giving the issue some thought, and hearing in person Sam Harris' lecture The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values I've come to mold my argument for morality.

Let's revisit my earlier scenario and run through what I think Atheism has to say about it morally. There won't be the objective moral authority, person C, in it now. God is out of the picture, and we are only left with person A and B. Imagine person A and person B are the only two people on Earth for a moment. You can see now how it would be foolish for person A to kill and eat person B. Let's say person A and B are a man and woman. Once the other is killed and eaten, the species is doomed. Nature, is the moral objective provider. That is to say, the natural effects of an action performed are the source of objective truth. It may not be perfect, for example, to commit an immoral act to suite someone's immediate needs, will help that person in the short run. But, a society based on everyone committing immoral acts to suite their immediate needs as a norm, will fall apart.

In a civilization with 6.8 billion people, the result of a gradual process moving from isolated tribes, to kingdoms, to empires, to countries, let's look at the scenario once again. We do actually, have moral external authorities. While they may not be objective, if person C was a police officer who stops person A from killing and eating person B, then person A is forced to submit to a moral authority that is not subjective to him. Imagine a society that believes murder is morally is right. "Thou shall kill". A society with such values would literally destroy itself. It wouldn't be able to flourish. Kids would kill parents, parents would kill kids, and strangers would kill strangers, with all of them thinking they were performing a moral action. In order for us as a society to have reached the level of civility where we are today, we would have to have learned to not slaughter one another. We would have to have come to the mutual agreement, that senseless murder must not be tolerated. So are you telling me that without Moses and the burning bush, we wouldn't know that murder is wrong? Do we need an objective moral provider to tell us everything we know to be right or wrong? Or is it possible that mankind, in our epic journey towards truth and knowledge using reason, evidence and the scientific method, can grasp the lower reaches of moral truth?

As I've said, the natural effects of an action performed are the source of objective truth. What are the affects of murder and rape for example? To the murderer or rapist, he might get gratification and a sense of relief. To the victim, they are either dead or emotionally decimated. In the animal kingdom, many mammalian males will kill the young of a female, to bring her back into heat, so that the male can spread his seed. Why have we decided that it is wrong for us to do this? Doesn't it give advantage to a man to spread his seed anyway possible? Part of our moral evolution has been the gradual recognizing of the rights of minorities, the weak, and the ones not in power. It took us a while to see this, too long in my opinion. It was the hard work of many enlightened secular humanists, ancient philosophers, as well as many Theists who were going against their religious ethics. For example, the abolishment of slavery in the 19th century was progressed by many Christians in spite of their religion condoning it.

Without an objective moral provider, morality is not as simple as my opinion versus yours. Actions have effects, and those effects are the only source of objective truth. Think of any moral situation at an individual level, like for example cheating. Cheating on one test, will not spell doom for a society, but a society that condones cheating as a righteous way to avoid the time it takes to study will certainly have a big problem. That's why laws were passed on cheating, and stealing and murder and rape.

Now what about universal morality? That is, a moral that is true no matter what time, and place it happens to be in. The problem religion has with this is that many of the so-called moral truths of Christianity, such as slavery, and allowing 50 year old men to marry and have sex with 6 year old girls, are considered no longer moral. No Christian today defends slavery, except for a tiny and racist few. Stoning to death adulterers was once morally right, not any more. How can any religious people expect me to take them seriously on their idea on moral truths, when religious institutions have changed their opinion so often? It is as if to say that yes, morality does indeed change with time.

So am I a moral relativist? Not exactly. I don't like the idea of total moral relativism and I actively argue against those proponents of it. Is some morality relative? I suppose a strong case can be made for that. I mean some morality is as simple as a tradition or custom that a culture has developed over time. The big issues get more complex. Is killing always wrong? Is freedom of speech a universal right? Is it ever justified to take the live of one to save many? These are not easy questions and not easy answers. I've never tried to hide my desire to spread secular humanist, and Western values around the world. It is mainly because I think the values that I embrace are morally superior to the ones that oppose it, namely theocracies and dictatorships. At least with secular humanism, morality isn't legislated from an unchallengeable dictator.

So, just to recap, I feel that an objective moral authority is not needed in order to have a moral law, or discussion. Many of our modern day laws are not derived from a holy book, but were instead passed by human beings, that were working under the studied affects of passing it. The idea of an objective moral provider also introduces other problems, such as, what to do if the moral provider is immoral. The easiest real example is the issue of slavery. All 3 of the monotheistic religions fully condone human slavery. Is slavery therefore moral, because the objective moral provider says so? Or are we the ones who are wrong, for abolishing it?

Finally, I feel that science does indeed have a say as to what is and should be morally right and wrong. The only objective authority on morality I think is nature itself. Nature will show us the affects of an action performed and whether that action has positive or negative results, for the parties involved, and of course for the environment in which it takes place. True, I need to elaborate further on this subject, that will come at a later time, but for now I have my basic talking points. I shall end this post with a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche, who I've never been a huge fan of, but nonetheless, “Morality is the best of all devices for leading mankind by the nose”.

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