Sunday, September 4, 2011

Are There Universal Morals?

It's true. I haven't wrote a decent blog in months. Too much has been on my plate to even sit down for an hour or so and write on a topic I am passionate for. I work way too many hours, and I am forced to spend a lot of time concentrating on work related issues that I have no real passion for. That being said, it doesn't mean that I haven't been engaging in intellectual discussions of which my true passion lies.

I have a saying that an intellectual conversation is the only conversation worth having. I often steer the going topic at hand towards one of my many passions in social situations. That is of course, religion, politics, philosophy, science, history, and a few other noteworthy side passions I have like architecture, music and art.

Lately, I have found that the morality debate is one of the most interesting debates to be engaged in. I recently watched a panel of philosophers speak about morality without god, at an event hosted by the Center for Free Inquiry, of which I am a part of. All four of the panelists agreed for the most part that there is no such thing as a universal morality, or moral truth. I have been struggling internally with the notion that there is no universal moral. I believe that there has to be some, at least one, although I am not completely committed to the idea.

A universal moral is one in which there are no exceptions, that is true regardless of the culture, location or time in which it takes place. Take for example of the idea of human rights, quite radical for its time. Is it a universal moral that all human beings are entitled to a basic set of rights that cannot be abridged by any other human beings or acting authority, and if so violated, would be wrong regardless of the time, culture or circumstances? Or is the concept of human rights, along with every other moral position, simply just relative to whomever says it?

We all know that total moral relativity results in some problems. A society can for example, develop a moral code in which to live by, dependent on their collective circumstance, and turn it into their culture. It will then be wrong to do "A" in this society, but right to do "B". And children growing up in this society will be inculcated accordingly on what is right and what is wrong. Now, when someone from another society, where they learned that doing A is right enters this culture, the newcomer will have to learn to adjust their behavior or face consequences. They may still believe that doing A is morally right, but their new society had deemed this wrong and set up rules to prevent it.

This is usually where religious folks come in and say that if there is a god who has the ultimate decision on whether A is right or wrong, and that this transcends and one particular society. Psychologist Steven Pinker eloquently said that if god were to believe that a particular moral is wrong, then he (or she) must have sufficient reasons for believing it. Even if god suddenly changed his mind on the moral, the moral's original truth would then still hold to be true. And if you were to believe that god would never change his moral position, we can then appeal to the reason and skip the middleman (god) altogether. This effectively eliminates god as the moral authority giver. Dr. Pinker was actually reiterating an argument from Plato given over 2 thousand years ago, that he and I consider a knock down argument against divine command theory.

So, with god out of the way, we are left with conscious forms of life, namely human beings, but not only. It is because we consider ourselves capable of the having the most conscious awareness of ourselves and our surroundings, that we mainly consider moral implications dealing with human beings to be the most important. Morality then, must depend on its effects on conscious creatures. Two rocks smashing into each other cannot, by itself be morally right or wrong. Neither rock is aware that it is being pulverized or that it is even a rock to begin with. If a rock were to be thrown by a person and hit a woman in the stomach, now we can begin to consider possible moral implications. We can begin a discussion over whether it was morally wrong or right. Would we consider the moral implications even greater if that woman happened to be 9 months pregnant at the time?

I recently read Sam Harris' book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. In it he makes the argument that science can indeed be used to determine morality. He imagines a landscape with peaks and valleys that pertain to moral highs and depths. In his book, what is morally good is what maximizes the well being of conscious creatures. So cooperation is morally greater than fighting, and sharing or morally greater than selfishness because they will result in greater conditions.

Dr. Harris appeals to a basic moral code, that is innate in human beings that I as well as many others recognize. I do believe that there is a basic innate moral code that our species carries. Yes, I believe it is the product of socio-biological evolution. And I also think had a different course of biological evolution taken place, perhaps a very different set of innate morals were to have developed. This does not, in my opinion, cancel out any idea there there cannot be moral truths. It does say that perhaps those moral truths could be different, given an alternative operation of conscious life. For example, if we were a species that normally gave birth to a dozen off spring, but we were not designed biologically to ensure that all offspring would survive to adulthood, then maybe it would be moral to allow some or even the majority of the offspring to die while investing in a few of the most healthy ones. This is common in many species of birds. The moral implications here would follow a very different set of criterion then if we were a species that normally gave birth to a single offspring. We may now cringe at the idea of allowing human babies to wantonly die off, given our current moral considerations of human life. But if it was normal for women to give birth to more babies than they could ever realistically raise to adulthood, we may consider this different.

So, the question is still at large: Are there universal morals? Do they exist? Or is all morality subjective on at least some terms? I like to believe that there are at least two universal morals. One, that it is wrong to kill for no reason, and two, that slavery is wrong. It is hard to defend a universal moral with out an objective truth to it. God as I mentioned does not suffice, since he would be just another opinion on the matter. And the reasons for god saying that it is wrong or right must be grounded in some truth beyond even him, (if you decided that if god changed his mind and made a different decision on the moral, it would not change whether it is morally right or wrong.

A moral absolute must then be addressed scientifically, and philosophically. We must consider its practical biological effects, scientific affects and its affects in principle. Perhaps no human generation will ever solve this dilemma and it will always plague us. I am in no way claiming to have solved one of society's greatest questions. I am merely asking questions to which there are no easy answers. I wouldn't be closed off to the idea that there are no universal morals, and I do not think that it would necessarily weaken the position of morality in absence of god. It is a topic that needs more discussion and research.

Perhaps, one of man-kind's greatest endeavors was to ask in the first place.

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