A Case For Secular Morality
Objective Morality Without God
If you’re a person living without the belief in god you may have at times been challenged that you can’t have any kind of objective foundation for your morality. This is almost always done by someone who believes in god. I’ve personally heard this accusation made over and over again and have noticed that it is one of the most popular talking points of theists. I’ve always been the kind of person who thought that the idea of total moral relativism - the idea that no objective standard can exist to measure morality, was false. To me, there clearly were better and worse morals, but many theists who I was debating with kept to the belief that without god all morality was solely a matter of opinion and relative to cultural norms.
We live in a world of cultural and religious pluralism, and a climate of political correction persuades us to tread cautiously on the topic of other people’s beliefs. Nowhere is this more evident than in the public schools and universities. As a result of this, many argue that a culture of moral relativism has grown where everyone is forced to respect one another’s values and beliefs because to judge or criticize them would be deemed offensive. Political correction therefore coerces us into thinking that every system of ethics is all equally valid and no better or worse than any other, just different. What this constraint does, is it prevents people from engaging in the kind of moral discourse that is necessary to have a complete understanding of ethics.
After having studied philosophy, I began digging into the arguments made for and against objective morality. And over the years I have come to the conclusion that an objective standard for morality exists just as an objective standard for truth exists. My primary goals in this paper will be to (1) define morality and its natural foundations; and (2) provide an objective standard for moral values. I will not be trying to provide a comprehensive philosophy of ethics or to make a case for any specific moral or ethical philosophies. Instead, I will focus on making the case for how without god we are not doomed to total socio-cultural moral relativism.
1. What is morality?
Imagine a universe devoid of all life. In this universe there are stars shining, quasars pulsating, and septillions of rocks smashing into each other, but not a single specimen of life anywhere to experience it. Such a universe would also be a universe devoid of all morality. For if planets collide, stars explode, and back holes devour entire worlds and there is no life to be affected by these events, there isn't a moral component to this universe. So therefore we can say that at some very basic and fundamental level, morality has to concern living things. Living things must exist, because life can respond physically and emotionally where it can either benefit or suffer at the result of actions that happen to it. And the higher the level of sentiment of the creature, that is to say, the more conscious it is to respond and be aware of its environment, the more sensitive it will be to external actions that affect it. Therefore, it would logically follow that if morality depends on life, the more sensitive and consciously aware a living being is, the greater the moral concern should be with regards to actions that affect them.
So a very broad definition of morality can be the distinction between right and wrong as it relates to conscious beings, with right actions being those that intend to positively affect conscious beings, and wrong actions being those that intend to negatively affect conscious beings when it cannot be avoided. When we call something morally wrong, what are we actually saying? We are saying that someone is intentionally negatively affecting another conscious being or that someone is unnecessarily causing harm, suffering, pain, or death to another conscious being. I say unnecessarily because it is very important. Living things must compete with one another over finite resources. If you and I are both trying to get the same parking spot, and I get it and you don’t, I will have technically caused harm in your life. But, since there is a finite amount of everything, we must all compete at some level and this means in order to conduct our lives regularly, we must do necessary harm to one another. Killing someone in self defense when there is no other alternative is another example of a necessary harm. Necessary harm is not born out of evil intention, it’s more like an inconvenience and is not intended to harm beyond what is reasonable. In order for an action to be morally wrong, it must be deliberate and intended to cause harm when there is no threat to yourself. An action that is the result of good intentions that accidentally causes harm is not morally wrong, since we cannot always know the consequences of all our actions. For example, if I offer you some food that I cooked and you eat it and have an allergic reaction and become seriously ill, my intentions were good despite the harmful consequences. So the consequences of our actions cannot be the only thing we consider for evaluating morality, our intentions are just as important.
There was a lot of controversy among theists surrounding the release of Sam Harris’ book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values that among other things he just defines morally “good” to mean "that which supports well-being" and is in effect guilty of some kind of wordplay[i]. Well first, many theists define the word “good” in moral terms simply to mean that which is obedient to god’s commandments. In other words, the actual morals themselves may mean nothing; the only thing that matters is whether god commanded it, even if it deliberately increases suffering. This is itself a kind of wordplay to make morality compliant with divine command theory. Second, I would actually disagree here slightly with Sam Harris' definition of “good” as that which supports well-being. Rather, I say a better definition of good and evil in moral terms would be the one I provided above, that good morals are actions that intend to positively affect conscious beings, and evil morals are actions that intend to negatively affect conscious beings when it cannot be avoided. This way, good morals result in the well-being and flourishing of conscious life, but good and evil are not to be confused with the flourishing itself, as some critics have tried to conflate.
Given a definition of morality that concerns what positively and negatively affects conscious beings, what is secular morality founded on? Under a secular and naturalist view, there is nothing transcendent that exists outside this universe that is intelligent and that has control over things that happen in our universe. Ontologically, morality is not grounded in the existence of any spiritual beings, and to the naturalist this very idea seems ridiculous. If the theist thinks objective moral values are founded on the existence of god, he has to explain how moral values and actions like love, kindness, fairness, and generosity would not positively affect beings in a universe with no god, or how these actions would somehow be different. Imagine if there were two identical universes with the same exact laws of physics existing side by side. One universe is created by an omniscient god, and the other came into being naturally. In these two universes, moral values and actions like love, kindness, fairness, and generosity would have the same exact affect towards living things and that of course includes human beings. Therefore, morality is founded in nature itself, in real experiences that affect conscious beings, and where our intentions and the effects of moral actions hold the objective foundation.
So what is it about the idea that god must exist in order for there to be objective “good” and “bad” morals? I see no such need. The theist who says that without god all morality is subjective or just a behavioral pattern conducive to a species’ well-being, is in a way saying that it’s only a matter of opinion or only relative to a particular species. My goal here is to give a fair establishment for an objective foundation and standard of ethics that are not subject to anyone’s opinion. However, our morality is relative to our species. No one is going to argue that our ethical codes of conduct apply to how animals treat each other; they’re only relevant to how human beings treat other human beings and animals. So yes our morals are relative to our species and there’s no reason to think that they must apply to every living being in order to be objective. Even Christians will agree that the 10 Commandments do not apply to animals.
One might say that morality is relative to culture and the time in history. I've spoken with many atheists who believe that right and wrong morals do not even exist, and that all morality is just something that cultures make up. I couldn’t disagree any more. Imagine a culture that decides murder, rape and stealing are good and allows anyone to commit these acts anytime they want. Picture a war-torn third world country employing this, where gangs of young men go around stealing, raping and killing anything they want. There is no way that you can tell me that these moral values wouldn't increase the level of suffering and misery amongst its people. And you cannot say that this society’s moral values would be just as good as ours or anyone else’s. That would be an epic failure of truth over political correction.
If you take the position that your morals are just a product of your environment and are therefore not any better or worse than anyone else’s, and if you’re challenged to justify your moral values, are you actually going to say that they’re justified because “everyone else around me thinks so” or “because my religion says so”? I highly doubt it. In order to justify any set of morals rationally, you have to make a case demonstrating why they’re good, productive or beneficial to conscious beings and whether or not they seek to avoid unnecessary misery. When doing so, we will be able to establish to what degree they increase human welfare and well-being, or decrease suffering and misery. Therefore, there exists an objective standard that can determine any moral code against any other.
Another criticism I have of Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape is that it is not possible with science alone to determine moral values - that requires some degree of philosophy. Philosophy is needed to complete any system of ethics, but those ethics need to be informed by the latest and most accurate data science can give us. Science gives us the “is” because it’s descriptive, and philosophy gives us the “ought” because it’s prescriptive. David Hume’s is/ought dilemma is much understood. It’s not that we can’t derive an ought from an is, we just have to rationally justify it when we do. I think I've made that case by noting that since morality can only exist when living conscious beings exist, morality is axiomatically tied into the well-being of conscious life, and so logically, the greater the consciousness of the beings, the greater the severity of moral concern. From this we can derive that we ought to concern ourselves with the welfare of conscious beings (especially us) since we are capable of moral responsibility.
When I began studying philosophy and ethics I remember one of the first criticisms we were taught regarding the foundation of morality, was how precarious a divine command system operates using a punishment/reward basis to do what’s right. The theist thinks to himself that he ought to do what god says because god will punish him if he doesn’t. In other words, god’s ability to reward and punish gives the theist the basis for what we ought to do. This is more or less how most theists see the “is/ought” problem resolved especially in Islam and Catholicism, while other theists say that god is very paradigm of goodness, and so this “is” statement necessitates that we obey his commands.
The divine command system of ethics is problematic for many reasons I don’t have the space to fully critique here, but it is worth mentioning that moral commandments that are issued by god may not appeal to what is in our best well-being at all, and indeed many actually increase unnecessary harm. The belief that it’s a good idea that one should do what god says or else they’ll face the consequences also diminishes the principle of the morals themselves. Furthermore, if reason takes us towards moral truths that conflict with what is believed to be commanded by god, how is the theist to decide what’s best? If the theist is expected to choose revelation over reason, and purposely do what will knowingly result in more harm, less well-being, and a reversal of moral progress because he thinks it will make god happy and offer him reward in the afterlife, then we really should question why we ought to do such a thing. If in the end all the theist is worrying about is avoiding punishment and seeking reward in the afterlife, morality then becomes a mere game where people are only looking out for the pursuance of pleasure, and goodness itself cannot be founded in god.
1.2. Where is the objectivity in the secular case for morality?
Imagine that I’m trying to boil water to make a cup of tea, but I don’t know how. So I ask a few friends for ideas. One friend of mine thinks he knows how. He says, “Take the water, and dump a bunch of ice in it, and if it doesn’t start boiling immediately, continue adding more ice.” Another friend says, “Stare at the water intensely and using your mind, try to make it boil.” Now it doesn’t take a genius to realize that neither of these attempts will succeed in making the water boil, because the laws of physics just don’t work that way. So we can objectively say that adding ice and staring at water intensely are not good ways to make water boil. If I want to make water boil, I have to add heat. I can put the water over fire, I can put it in a microwave, or I can put something very hot in it or near it. There are many ways to make water boil, but adding ice is definitely not one of them. So we can say that objectively, there are better and worse ways to achieve the goal of getting water to boil.
Perhaps we could debate over just exactly what are the best ways to get water to boil the quickest, the easiest and the way that requires the least amount of energy. That also may differ depending on the situation. When it comes to ethical issues, I see morality in much the same way. There are objectively better and worse ways that we can practice ethics that will promote the common well-being and decrease unnecessary harm and suffering. We can debate over exactly what actions, rules and laws will best materialize this, but the fact remains that there are better and worst ways to achieve this goal that are truthful from an objective standpoint and are not merely relegated to the domain of human opinion. And even if we don't know what ethics best suite this goal, they'll always exist independently in theory waiting to be discovered and put to practice.
Imagine again that society I mentioned earlier that decides murder, rape and theft are good. The relativist would say “Who are we to judge their morals? Whatever morals they decide on are just as good as ours. It’s all relative.” Now I would say, that it is simply not a matter of opinion whether a society that embraces murder, rape and theft, is going to increase the amount of misery and suffering. If murder is “good” and allowed, people will murder out of spite or even out of fun. Families will then grieve, people might retaliate, and a never ending cycle of blood and vengeance will ensue guaranteeing misery and suffering for all involved. So I think we can make an objective case that this society’s morals are not “just as good as ours” because moral actions have effects, and we can determine whether these effects increase or decrease suffering and misery.
Now imagine someone who is not concerned with alleviating suffering and misery - imagine they actually want to create suffering and misery because it gives them pleasure. Well secular morality is not going to offer you a cosmic police officer or judge that is going to stop or punish a person like this in some life after death. All we have to do is recognize that a person who wants to harm others is going to violate the other person’s right not to be harmed, and this will increase suffering. The pleasure a sadist gets from harming someone else does not cancel out the suffering that the victim must endure. If anyone says so, they should volunteer to be the next victim of a serial killer. In all practicality, when dealing with people who want to harm others, they will have to be stopped and punished by the actions of other human beings. Even with the idea of god, a person committed to harming others is going to do so regardless in this world, and will ultimately have to be stopped by the actions of other human beings (not considering natural forces and animals).
If you were to define objective moral values as “being valid and binding, independently of human opinion” then we will only partly disagree. I would agree that something objective must be so independently of human opinion, but under the secular terms that I have presented, they are not binding to anyone by any kind of force that exists outside of man or nature. As I said earlier, there is no cosmic police officer that binds you to any particular morals. And if you think about it, neither does theism. A police officer can stop you in the midst of a crime before you actually committed it. But if god were to stop anyone from committing a sin, he’d have to violate our free will which is necessary for us to be judged. So theism cannot offer you a cosmic police officer without contradicting its own necessary standards. What about a cosmic judge? If we are bound and judged according to god’s standards, this would not necessarily say anything about whether those standards increase or decrease suffering and misery. For example, god could command that you can never eat pork for no other reason than because he says so. He can command that you can’t eat meat on Friday, and that you can’t eat fish on Tuesday. He can then change all these rules arbitrarily whenever he wants, rendering the actual rules themselves meaningless as to whether their effects produce harm or not. God could even command you to kill another group of people and take their land and possessions and punish you if you don’t do it. Thus, under this definition of objective morality, the morals themselves mean nothing except whether they are or aren't commanded by god at any given time. All this does is leave you with divine command theory.
Now what if a god uses the same standards by which I am measuring morality, and commands morals that are maximally designed to decrease suffering and misery and increase well-being and happiness in every situation? First, this would be a much better god than the one described in any religion made up so far. Second, if you are familiar with the Euthyphro Dilemma by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato in his dialogue The Euthyphro, it poses the moral question, “Is something morally good because god commands it, or does god command it because it is morally good?” In this case, god commands these morals because they are good - they positively benefit the beings affected by them. As such, god is completely irrelevant as to whether these morals are right and wrong - they are either right or wrong independently of whether god exists or not.
To make the case that objective morals must be grounded in the existence of god, you have to show how the same morals would not produce the same effects without god, given the same set of axioms. The only logical reason why we would say any moral is right or wrong, would be in assessing the motives, principles and consequences behind them. To say god’s commandments determine objective moral values reduces you into believing that “might” makes “right”, and that the actual morals themselves can be meaningless. Thus god’s existence is not necessary to ground morality or to have objective morality.
But since this is the most important distinction between theistic and atheistic disagreements on objective morality, let me expound a bit further. A common response to the Euthyphro Dilemma above by theists is to try to sneak in a third option and say that god is good. In other words, what they’re trying to say is that the “Good” Plato speaks of in The Republic, is not independent of god, “Good” is god, and since goodness flows from god, his commandments constitute what is right and wrong. This is problematic on so many levels. Let me explain.
- First, defining god as the source of “good” is mere theological wordplay. It doesn't demonstrate that “good” cannot exist independently of god. Even if goodness is an essential property of god, it is a property that can apply to other things independently of god’s existence. Just think of how being hot is an essential property of fire – fire must be hot, it cannot be cold. But “hot” can apply to many other things independently of fire. For example, microwaves cause things to be hot and so does friction.
- Second, why call something good? Epistemologically, we know in the moral sense that certain things are good because they positively benefit beings affected by them. Moral actions like love, kindness, fairness, and generosity positively benefit all beings affected by them, not just physically but emotionally as well. That’s why they're morally good. If the theist thinks objective moral values are founded on the existence of god, he has to explain how these moral actions would not positively affect beings in a universe with no god, or how these actions would somehow be different enough that their goodness could be considered subjective. All things being equal, in a godless universe the affects of morally good actions would be exactly the same. Therefore, these morals are good in and of themselves and do not require the existence or the commands of a deity to make them objectively good.
- The theist cannot escape the Euthyphro Dilemma no matter how hard he tries. Take for example the biblical story of Abraham who god commands to sacrifice his son (Gen 22:5-12). Most Jews, Christians and Muslims agree that it would have been immoral for Abraham to have decided on his own to sacrifice his son for god and what made it moral was solely determined by god’s command. Also in the Old Testament, god commands the Jews to exterminate the Midianite peoples (except for the young virgin girls) and he awards the Jews their property (Num 31:2-18). Most Christians at least think it would have been immoral if the Jews had decided to take upon this genocidal conquest on their own, but here again god’s commanding of it makes it moral for the Jews to physically commit these acts. What these two examples illustrate, is that if something is immoral on its own and only becomes moral if god commands it, or vice versa, then the sole factor separating the morality or immorality of the action, is god’s command. This also means that god cannot be following an absolute and non-arbitrary morality: If something is morally good because god commands it, it must also be morally good if you do it on your own, because otherwise if performing these morals on your own wouldn’t be good unless god commands it, it means you take the first horn of the Euthyphro Dilemma - that something is morally good because god commands it. One objection I've heard to this is that god himself is actually physically doing the killing vicariously through people when he commands it. But believing that god is doing the killing when he commands it to people, as deplorable as that is, still doesn't get you out of the problem of why killing (or anything else) becomes justified or morally right for people to do when god commands it. For the people who act because they believe god is commanding them, their justification for committing what would otherwise be considered immoral acts, is justified to them because they believe god gave them that authority. Hence, they are appealing to the authority - given by god's commands.
So as I've repeatedly argued, goodness and its counterpart, evil, would exist in the absence of god because they are naturally founded in the real experiences that affect conscious beings. All that is needed is the same given set of axioms that our universe contains such as the same laws of physics, and conscious life like human beings. And if you try to arbitrarily conjure up hypothetical possible words with different laws of physics where they somehow make what positively affects conscious beings in this world turn out to harm them instead, you'll have to rationally justify why god would apply the same morals that benefit us, in this other world too. The divine command theory of ethics that many theists subscribe to neglects the unnecessary harm it can cause in some situations, and it can turn morality into a mere game of seeking reward and avoiding punishment in some promised afterlife. It can also cause its adherents to fail to recognize the best reason to do what is morally right - which is for it's own sake. And finally, even if all of god’s commandments were perfectly conducive to promoting everything good for our individual and collective well-being, this morality would still exist independently to god. Objective moral values therefore, exist independently of god.
2. Objective Morals vs. Absolute Morals
Having established a definition of and objective foundation for morality, it’s important to address some common concerns regarding it. A lot is discussed contrasting objective and absolute morality. Although I make a case here for objective morals, I don’t do so for absolute morals. First let’s take a look at some definitions of moral absolutism:
Moral absolutism is an ethical view that certain actions are absolutely right or wrong, regardless of other circumstances such as their consequences or the intentions behind them.
In moral philosophy, such a position maintains that actions of a specific sort are always right (or wrong) independently of any further considerations, thus rejecting the consequentialist effort to evaluate them by their outcomes.
Given these definitions, I don’t argue for moral absolutism for the following reason. To better explain, I will make use of my earlier analogy of trying to make water boil for a cup of tea. Imagine if I had a stove nearby, then the easiest and most convenient way to get the water to boil would be to put it in a pot on the stove, but if I was outside in the woods and had no stove, I might have to make a fire and boil the water that way. If all I had was a microwave and no stove, putting the water in the microwave would be the best way to boil it. So as we can see, the best way to get the water to boil depends on the given circumstances of the situation. There is no absolute rule that says I must always use one method over another no matter the situation. The same is true when it comes to morality: Different circumstances will lead to different ways to prevent unnecessary harm and increase well-being and happiness.
What this means is that morality is situationally relative and the theist who disagrees and believes in moral absolutes, I would say, hasn't really paid attention to his religion enough. For example, Christianity and Islam both have internal contradictory morals. Christians and Muslims try to explain away these contradictions, by saying god abrogates morality as he sees fit whenever it is necessary to do so. That means that a particular moral isn’t really absolute, since god can modify or command the opposite moral at anytime. When I point out the cruel and gut-wrenching morals in the Old Testament, many Christians will say that those morals were relative to those people at that time and those places mentioned, and that these morals no longer apply to anyone alive today. In other words, what they’re saying is that morality is relative to people, time and place. Most theists would also say that killing has some exceptions, at least in the case of self-defense. This means most theists are actually saying that morality is relative to people, time and place and situation. Most theists don’t really like to admit this because I think they know it makes their morality look like relativism on paper. But in truth, I rarely ever meet someone who actually believes that there is a strict absolute morality that must be followed regardless of the situation and even if it will knowingly increase suffering and harm to others.
2.1. What is moral progress?
If we can recognize that the basis for morality is concerned with what benefits and unnecessarily harms conscious beings, we are set to develop a moral code. Moral codes have changed with time, and differ from culture to culture. In almost every society it was once considered moral to practice slavery, now every society officially condemns the practice. This is an example of moral progress. Progress is the continued improvement towards a goal or destination. To have moral progress then, it is necessary to have a stated moral goal that you wish to move toward. The problem here, is that many moral philosophies have different moral goals. In Islam for example, the moral goal might be to eventually have everyone living according to Islamic law or Sharia. In Islamic morality, there is no stated goal to have everyone acting in accordance with producing the least amount of harm and producing the most amount of good. Islam, like many religions, contain within it morals that do unnecessarily produce harm and that are also considered morally good by its followers.
So given these opposed moral goals, is it possible to even have moral progress? I can only argue that from an objective standpoint, a moral goal that seeks to maximize good, and minimize harm, will be more apt at maximizing good and minimizing harm, and all opposing moral goals will not. So for example, the United State’s founding documents the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, outline individual liberty championed by such enlightenment philosophers as John Locke, because it was recognized that a society where the king, the government or the ruling class constricts the individual freedoms and liberties of its citizens, is a society that is not maximizing the well-being of its people.
So given a moral goal to maximize well-being and minimize harm and suffering, what tools can we use to aide moral progress? For one thing, we can employ the unrestricted use of reason, logic and science. We won’t always know exactly what does maximize our well-being, and we might have to try many different methods and see what works best. But given this truth, using science, along with our critical thinking faculties will help us discover the best moral codes to live by that produce our stated goal.
2.2. Will we ever have a perfect morality?
In order to have a perfect moral code given our stated moral goal, we would have to have all the knowledge of the laws of physics, biology, and know the full outcomes of every action we make. Such knowledge may always be out of our reach, and therefore any moral code will in some very basic way, be always in need of continued improvement or progress. This is why moral progress is necessary and beneficial towards a proper moral code. Moral codes that forbid any progress, or any reconsideration or reinterpretation of their morals, such as the moral philosophies of religions, are defective right from the start. This is why it would greatly increase the harm of a society if any one religion’s morals were followed in a literal fashion according to the scripture.
2.3. How do you define well-being?
“Well-being” is not as simple a concept as you might think, but we all intuitively feel that we know what is. We might say that having good health, a home, economic mobility, basic fundamental freedoms, a family, a network of loved ones, and a feeling of accomplishment constitutes general well-being and leads to happiness. But consider also that what makes us happy is not necessarily what’s good for us. For example, we might feel happy binging on fast food and shooting heroine, but we all know this is not good for us in the long term. Even the ancient Greek hedonistic philosophy of Epicurus maintained that only seeking short term pleasure should not be life’s goal because of its obvious self-destruction and neglect of the more pleasurable long term goals[ii]. In other words, it is best that pleasure is sought in moderation with long term goals in mind, that way it can last as long as possible. Also, pleasure can be obtained in seeking wisdom and in acts of compassion towards others.
Imagine living in a strict authoritarian State where you’re only allowed to do what contributes to good health and longevity. You can only eat healthy foods; smoking, alcohol and all vices are banned and everyone is required to exercise an hour a day. Failure to comply with these laws will result in severe punishment. Now in such an Orwellian state we will have no freedom to live our lives the way we want to, we won’t be able to make any lifestyle choices – the State will have made all of them for us. We can see that what may indeed be good for us, should largely be a choice we make on our own. The best governments promote well-being by allowing free access to information that the people use to make their own free choices in life.
Systems where government acts like “big brother” and forces the people to do what it thinks is best almost always fail. When one’s freedom of choice is so severely restricted, freedom ceases to exist at all. We need only to look at the contemporary example of North and South Korea to see two widely different governmental systems and their effects on the well-being of their people.
I’m not particularly worried about establishing exactly what well-being is, because in some ways it’s subjective to the individual. One man’s sense of pleasure is another man’s pain. I am more concerned with how we allow people’s ideas of their own well-being to flourish. Therefore, promoting well-being can take the form of allowing free access of information and lifestyle choice regarding the consequences it will have on one own's health and condition. If people make bad choices, they suffer the consequences themselves but they were given the freedom to do so. As long as their freedom of choice doesn't infringe on the equal freedom of others, the principle of freedom and equality are justified. To live in a society where the State or religious authorities decide what’s best for you, such as in the theocracies of the Muslim majority world, is to surrender your freedom to choose what’s best for yourself and have someone else decide for you. Considering the limitations in such a strict society, the problems with well-being are evident in the people’s desires to be free.
There is a huge difference of course with how one treats themself with how one treats others. With morality we're mostly concerned with how we treat each other, not ourselves. As such, how do we know what positively benefits others? Everyone's needs and responses are slightly different, so we can never know what benefits everyone in every situation. However, our biological similarities are enough for us to know what is most likely a benefit or a harm to other people's well-being.
So regardless of what theory of well-being you subscribe to, what allows any of them to be followed through is having the freedom to make that choice for yourself. What helps people make the right choices in life is met with having free access to the most accurate information regarding health and lifestyle options. Freedom of information and choice therefore are both necessary for overall well-being.
2.4. Who or what should have its well-being maximized?
When we consider a moral goal towards maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures, how do we decide who or what creatures should be worthy of this consideration? Well earlier, I mentioned that consciousness through the senses is an important factor when considering the ethical treatment of a living creature. Given this standard, it logically concludes that since human beings have the greatest cognitive faculties concerning consciousness, emotion, reason, empathy and compassion that we are aware of, the greatest ethical considerations should be with the treatment of human beings. And from this, through scientific inquiry we can learn to the best of our ability the same levels of consciousness in all other living things and categorize the ethical treatment of animals, fish and insects accordingly.
But even this does not get us around the concept of speciesism. Speciesism is having a bias in favor of your own species. Humans naturally care about fellow humans more than other species, horses naturally care about other horses more, and dolphins naturally care about other dolphins more etc. When we are threatened by another species, or must compete with another species, and when our survival is at stake, we will all naturally adhere to speciesism and will consider killing the another species that threatens us. For example, most people will give no second thoughts to killing a dog that seriously threatens their lives or the killing of millions of rodents that are known to be spreading harmful diseases. When a species’ very survival is threatened by another, it is justified to kill members of that other species in self defense, just as it would be justified to kill another human being in self defense.
So when we consider the well-being of conscious creatures, we must take into consideration several things. The first is the level of sentience or consciousness the species has, and second is whether or not this species is a threat to our survival and well-being. Recognizing the species’ relationship within the intricate web of the ecosystem is also necessary so that if we have to eradicate significant populations in order to ensure our survival, we do so only to a degree that is necessary without a disruption of the natural order. This means that the ethical consideration and treatment of animals will be paramount even when we eat them.
2.5. What is evil?
Evil can be scientifically defined to be a quality that lacks empathy or compassion. In every evil situation you can think of, there will be a living being demonstrating a lack of empathy or compassion towards another. The living being lacking empathy and compassion must have the ability to empathize and be compassionate and the rationale to apply it. So when a lion tears apart a zebra, it’s not being evil because the lion doesn’t have the cognitive capacity to empathize with the zebra’s plight; the lion merely acts from instinct (and hunger). Since it’s recognized that human beings have the greatest capacity for empathy and compassion that we know of, it means that when we’re wantonly cruel and lack empathy and compassion towards the beings at our mercy, we are committing an act of evil. This also concludes that human beings have the greatest capacity for evil of all known species and thus the greatest moral responsibility.
2.6. Moral Values
Defining morality and its natural foundation does not get us out of the values dilemma. That is to ask, “Why should we value human well-being, or any well-being? Why shouldn't we just look out for our own selfish interests?” A value denotes something’s worth. Moral values are the moral codes and principles that we consider worthy. Moral values are pluralistic, meaning different people hold to different sets of values that may conflict with other people’s values. For example, one society may value things like liberty, freedom, and individual rights, and another may value adherence to a certain set of strict prohibitions with no freedom to do or say otherwise.
If it’s evident that one value system leads to greater overall well-being, why should we value this system more than another? Since our biological nature is that of a social species, it’s in our best interests that the society around us is healthy. It was said that no man is an island unto himself. Individually we are usually better off if we also are better off collectively, but that's not always the case. Why should any one individual of any values system conform to values that go against their personal interests? When dealing with people like this we must appeal to reason and explain that the competing personal interests of others might harm them and prevent even their basic interests from being met. Therefore we can maximize the common interests when we all behave in such a way conducive to bringing this about, even though that may mean we have to sacrifice some of our personal interests. If an appeal to reason doesn't work, if the person is unreasonable, we will not be able to convince them that they should do what is in the common good. But simply because everyone isn’t convinced to behave in a way that supports the greater well-being doesn't mean we have failed. To say as a last resort that the selfish must behave in accordance to the common good because god commands they do, is just an appeal to authority. This may also not convince everyone to behave accordingly. So it seems that between atheism and theism, arguing why we should embrace moral values will either need to be administered with an appeal to reason or with an appeal to authority. Considering this, the non-theistic approach I dare day is more attuned with maturity.
2.7. Isn’t this just consequentialism?
For those of you who are philosophically trained, you might be thinking that all the points on morality I’ve thus far made are basically just consequentialism or utilitarianism, whereby the rightness or wrongness of an action is solely determined by its consequences. While there are strong elements of consequentialism in the case for objective moral standards I’ve made, I’m not asking you to commit yourself to any one particular theory of ethics. I like to think of ethics using the tool box analogy: no one tool is going to fix every problem, so it’s best to have an array of tools at your disposal.
Consequentialism certainly has its problems. For example, if torturing suspected terrorists could get us information that might save the lives of hundreds, thousands or millions of people, a strict consequentialist would say it is moral then to do so. And if torture is not enough, then why not torture the suspect’s family? If that’s not enough why not start killing his family members one by one until he gives up what information we need? As you can see, if you think about morality only in terms of consequences, you will be willing to do anything to anyone as long as there is a potential to benefit more. Most of us know this can lead down a slippery slope towards a possible system in which your organs are taken from you without your consent to save the lives of several people who are each in desperate need of one of them. And no one wants to live in that world.
If we were to have to violate individual liberty and well-being to save the larger number, we would feel that our individual lives mean nothing but as a means to justify someone’s end. Individual freedom and the right to life (as outlined in the Declaration of Independence) makes us feel that we are not just another brick in the wall; it means we are each unique individuals and are recognized as such. The reason America’s founding fathers are recognized to be so great, is that they knew when they inscribed America’s founding documents that the rights and dignity of the individual, which had been so thoroughly oppressed under the monarchies of Europe, was absolutely necessary to individual and collective well-being.
2.8. The Practical Application of Morality
Another popular criticism of secular morality is that different cultures practice different moral values, and when they conflict with other cultures, there is no clear way to resolve the problem. Although it’s certainly true that in practice, moral relativism exists, it’s also true that people who ground their morality in the existence of a god also disagree with others who do the same, and because of this, it’s often more difficult to reconcile disagreements when you feel that god is on your side. Religious morality sometimes doesn't appeal at all to pragmatism, reason or to rationality. Instead, its morals quite often are believed to be true simply because they are believed to have come from god[iii]. Therefore, systems of moral values that appeal to reason have the best chances of compromise when in conflict with others that disagree. The knowledge of an objective moral standard aligned with what best reduces unnecessary harm and what positively benefits the conscious beings affected by it will be available to all who are willing to use reason. Those who are beholden to ideology and divine command and are not willing to do what is most rational and what makes best moral sense, are often those who are the most religious.
It’s often hard to sum up arguments made about morality that fit sound byte formats when put on the spot. Even though I am not trying to make a complete case for a theory of ethics here, there is simply so much that could be written on the topic that I couldn't possibly detail every aspect and nuance without having to write an entire book. I hope that I have provided enough arguments that justify why moral value systems are not all equal, and that we can compare them using an objective standard bereft of any reference to god. And I hope that I’ve convinced you, if you weren't already, that grounding morality in god via a divine command theory of ethics is fraught with problems that often lead to irrational and unjustifiable morals. So let me summarize for the sound byte era, my main arguments.
- Morality is the distinction between right and wrong as it relates to conscious beings, with right actions being those that intend to positively affect conscious beings, and wrong actions being those that intend to negatively affect conscious beings when it cannot be avoided.
- Morality is founded in nature itself, in the real experiences that affect conscious beings, and where our intentions and the effects of moral actions hold the objective foundation. Good morals like love, kindness, fairness and generosity would have the same exact affect towards living things without god and are therefore good in and of themselves.
- In order to justify any set of morals rationally, you have to make a case demonstrating why they’re good, productive or beneficial to conscious beings and whether or not they seek to avoid unnecessary misery. When doing so, we will be able to establish to what degree they increase human welfare and well-being, or decrease suffering and misery. This becomes part of the objective standard.
- Evil can be scientifically defined to be a quality that lacks empathy or compassion.
- Different circumstances will lead to different ways to prevent unnecessary harm and increase well-being and happiness, therefore moral absolutism is not the same as objective morality and is not necessary to have an objective moral standard and can even be counter.
- Since morality can only exist when living conscious beings exist, morality is axiomatically tied into the well-being of conscious beings, and so logically, the greater the consciousness of the beings, the greater the severity of moral concern. From this we can derive that we ought to concern ourselves with the welfare of conscious beings since we are capable of moral responsibility.
- The divine command theory of ethics that many theists subscribe to neglects the unnecessary harm they can cause in some situations.
- Moral commandments that are issued by god may not appeal to what is in our best well-being at all, indeed many actually increase unnecessary harm.
- If the theist is expected to choose revelation over reason, and purposely do what will knowingly result in more harm, less well-being, and a reversal of moral progress because he thinks it will make god happy and offer him reward in the afterlife, morality becomes a mere game where people are only looking out for the pursuance of pleasure, and therefore goodness itself cannot be founded in god.
"When we say, then, that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some through ignorance, prejudice, or willful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not an unbroken succession of drinking-bouts and of revelry, not sexual lust, not the enjoyment of the fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest tumults take possession of the soul. Of all this the beginning and the greatest good is wisdom."
[iii] J. L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism (Oxford University Press, 1982), 240-262
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