Showing posts with label Utilitarianism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Utilitarianism. Show all posts

Saturday, December 12, 2015

An Atheist Reviews The Last Superstition: A Refutation Of The New Atheism (Chapter 4 Scholastic Aptitude - Part 2: Natural Law)

Natural law

I really suspect, at some level, that religion for many people today exists primarily as a means to justify their desire to control other people's sex lives and social interactions. It seems as if all the previous chapters and arguments were really just to lay the foundation for natural law ethics, whose proponents are totally obsessed with sex, as is the Catholic Church historically (and many religions in general). But first, Feser scoffs at Richard Dawkins' molestation incident when he was a boy and the "truly creepy vibes" he gets from a possible secular education standard which might be led by Dawkins' totally normal yet "blasphemous" views on sex that say, in part, "Enjoy your own sex life (as long as it damages no one else)". Oh my! How "creepy" of Dawkins to advocate for guilt-free consensual sex! The horror! No. The truly "creepy" views on sex are of course best exemplified by Feser's Catholic Church, given its obsession with chastity, homosexuality, and its massive pedophilia scandal. But anyway, to the heart of it:

The "nature" of a thing, from an Aristotelian point of view, is, as we've seen, the form or essence it instantiates. Hence, once again to hail in my triangle example, it is of the essence, nature, or form or a triangle to have three perfectly straight lines. 
When it comes to biological organs, we have things whose natures or essences more obviously involve certain final causes or purposes. So, for example, the function of final cause of the eyeball is to enable us to see. But suppose someone's eyeballs are defective in some way making his vision blurry. In that case, to wear sunglasses isn't contrary to the natural function of eyeballs; rather, it quite obviously restores to the eyeballs their ability to carry out their natural function. 
...whether homosexuality has a genetic basis the question is largely irrelevant. For it is quite obvious that the existence of a genetic basis for some trait does not by itself prove anything whether it is "natural" in the relevant sense. To take just one of many possible examples, that there is a genetic basis for clubfoot doesn't show that having clubfeet is "natural." Quite obviously it is unnatural, certainly from an Artistotelian sense of failure to perfectly conform to the essence or nature of a thing. And no one who has a clubfoot would...find it convincing that the existence of a genetic basis for his affliction shows that it is something he should "embrace" and "celebrate." Nor would it be plausible to suggest that God "made him that way," any more than God "makes" people to be born blind, deaf, armless, legless, prone to alcoholism, or autistic. God obviously allows these things, for whatever reason; but it doesn't follow that He positively wills them, and it certainly doesn't follow that they are "natural." So, by the same token, the possibility of a genetic basis for homosexual desire doesn't by itself show that such desire is natural...Even if it is established beyond a reasonable doubt that there is such a basis, with respect to the question of naturalness of homosexuality, this would prove exactly zip. (133-134)

Whew. Couple of thoughts. Why wouldn't a genetic basis for something be natural? If failure to perfectly conform to the essence or nature of a thing makes it unnatural, then almost everything we do and have is unnatural. The whole problem once again is trying to argue what you can do for triangles, for humans. Triangles are simple shapes defined a certain way. Humans are much more complicated and irregular to be compared in such a way. What is the perfect form, essence, or nature of a human being? David Hasselhoff? Brad Pitt? Michaelangelo's David? Joseph Smith? The Islamic prophet Mohammad? Or is it Jesus? He was supposedly celibate. Does that mean all sex is unnatural? No Catholic says that, but it would seem to conclude from the concept. Of course, I reject the whole conception of "natural" in this sense and many of us do too. "Natural" means of nature; it means existing in or caused by nature; not made or caused by humankind. There's a simple logical argument to show how god cannot merely allow natural defects, he must cause it, and whatever he causes he must positively will since god cannot cause something he doesn't will:

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Is God A Consequentialist?

Whenever I come up dry for material for this blog I can always turn to William Lane Craig bashing for inspiration. I get such great pleasure from deflating his dubious arguments. His new Q and A has him arguing that god isn't a consequentialist, when the record clearly indicates that he is. You can see the question here, I will focus on his answer below.

Craig starts out making a point he often makes in his writings and in his debates:

... on my view God has no moral duties to fulfill. Moral duties arise in response to imperatives issued by God. Since God does not issue commands to Himself, God has no moral duties. Rather God’s acts must simply be consistent with His perfectly good nature. So consequentialism cannot apply to God, having as He does no moral duties. His actions, such as permitting some evils in view of overriding goods, must simply be consistent with His being all-loving, punishing evil, etc.

If god's actions must be "
consistent with His perfectly good nature," and god's nature is perfect goodness, then why is god admittedly jealous and wrathful? Why can he essentially do what he wants and cause suffering and take life as he pleases? It seems to me that theists like Craig admit that their god is a god who can do whatever he wants because he "does not issue commands to Himself." In that case, if god's actions can violate his own commandments to us - commandments which are supposed to reflect his "perfectly good nature," then god cannot logically be perfectly good and all-loving. In other words, if my commandments are perfect, and I violate my own commandments, I cannot be perfect.

This upends the core of divine command theory since according to Craig, "it grounds objective moral values in God as the paradigm and source of moral goodness." If this supposed source of all moral goodness can act in ways contrary to his own commands of perfect moral goodness, the source cannot be perfectly good. Hence god plays a sort of "do as I say, not as I do" ethic. 

But it seems Craig fails to get this. He says:

God’s having no moral duties does not imply that He can do just anything; rather His actions must be consistent with His own nature.

Let's see what god can do. He can command child sacrifice, genocide, slavery, the killing of adulterers, witches and homosexuals, and he can take his anger out on people for not worshiping him properly and for offering inadequate sacrifices. Sounds to me like god can pretty much "do just anything." If all those things I mentioned above are consistent with "good nature," then I'd hate to see what bad nature is.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Meta-ethics: Moral Realism Vs. Divine Command Theory

Meta-ethics is the branch of philosophy that is concerned with the metaphysical, epistemological, semantic and psychological presuppositions and commitments of moral theory and practice. It can be nicely described visually in the following chart:

I personally lean heavily towards moral realism and so my ethical theories fall under cognitivism. The divine command theory of ethics, which in some ways is the antithesis of moral realism, also falls under cognitivism, but is actually sub-categorized under subjectivism, despite its claims to be universal. Let me quickly compare and contrast the two.

Cognitivism is the thesis that moral statements are propositions in that they express beliefs that are either true or false. Let's define moral realism and ethical naturalism along with subjectivism and divine command theory.

Moral Realism:
  • Moral realism is the claim that there are objective moral facts.
  • Ethical naturalism states that moral facts are knowable through and reducible to non-moral facts about the universe and can be determined or understood through empirical observation. 
  • Moral subjectivism states that moral facts exist but they are dependent on subjective minds. 
  • Divine command theory states that moral facts are determined by the commandments of god.
Each of these theories has their pros and cons, as do all ethical theories. Let me highlight some of them for each.

Ethical naturalism:
  • Pro: Provides an objective foundation for morality
  • Con: Needs to solve the Is/Ought dilemma and the open question argument
Divine command theory:
  • Pro: Tries to establish moral facts without the problem of moral realism (Is/Ought and the open question argument)
  • Con: Epistemic problem (who can know for sure what god's commands are?), the Euthyphro dilemma, and god's existence is not observable. 

Moral Realism

OK. So now that we've defined each ethical theory and outlined some of their pros and cons we can compare and contrast the two. Under the ethical naturalism branch of moral realism, in order for a moral to truly be objective, it must be based off of facts that are independent of anyone's opinion. So no one's opinion, whether it come from a human mind, the mind of an advanced species of extra-terrestrial alien life, or god's mind, can determine an objective moral fact independently of the motives and consequences of the moral in question. Morality is founded in nature itself, in the real experiences that affect conscious beings, and where our intentions and the effects of our moral actions hold the objective foundation.

When it comes the is Is/Ought dilemma we do have to grant an extra premise to come to the conclusion that an action is moral. For example, consider the following syllogism:

P: Torture is harmful
C: Therefore, torture is wrong

The premise states a fact about the action of torture that it is indeed harmful. That is the non-moral fact that the conclusion is founded on. But how can we conclude that something is morally wrong just because it is harmful? To address the Is/Ought dilemma, we must rationally justify the conclusion by positing another premise. In this case, to conclude that torture is wrong because it is harmful, we must grant that harming someone is wrong. This goes without saying, but you can reach the conclusion that harming someone is wrong by knowing whether or not that person consented to being harmed and whether it will negatively affect them. So now consider the following addition:

P1: Torture is harmful
P2: Harming someone is wrong 
C: Therefore, torture is wrong

The open question argument says that moral facts cannot be reduced to natural properties (i.e. torture is harmful) because any attempt to conclude morality with a set of observable natural properties will always be an open question. So for example consider the syllogism:

P1: If X is good, then the question "Is it true that X is good?" is meaningless.
P2: The question "Is it true that X is good?" is not meaningless (i.e. it is an open question).
C: X is not (analytically equivalent to) good.

The objective morality found in ethical naturalism is not necessarily known a priori, it requires meaningful analysis. The open question argument assumes that "X is good" is knowable by definition. So for example, let's replace "X" with "kindness". 

P1: If kindness is good, then the question "Is it true that kindness is good?" is meaningless. 

I disagree. We cannot know if kindness is good without a meaningful analysis of its intentions and effects. Therefore the first premise of the open question argument might be analytically equivalent to good, and asking whether it is good can be meaningful. 

Divine Command Theory

Now let's turn to divine command theory. According to the theory, god, existing outside time and space reveals to us his moral commandments that determine what is morally right and wrong. Although this theory is classified under subjectivism, proponents claim that it provides a clear objective foundation for moral values and duties that bypasses the Is/Ought dilemma and the open argument dilemma. But it does have several of its own problems. Let's examine them.

The first problem is the epistemic problem. How can we know for sure what god's commands are? There are many competing religions each making their own truth claims, and there are many ways to interpret religious scripture. Also, texts were transcribed through many languages and many bare contradictions and signs of editing. People also claim to hear revelations from god all the time and we have no empirical way to validate any of them. 

Divine command theory proponents would all say that their religious scriptures are the only true messages of god and the others are either partly or wholly fabricated. It is possible to assess a probability factor to all religious texts based on their internal consistency, their metaphysical claims compared to current scientific knowledge, and their historicity compared to archaeological records, but all religious texts essentially fail a validity test on this standard.

Then there's the Euthyphro dilemma. A modern iteration of it asks, "Is something good because god commands it, or does god command it because it is good?" Neither the former or the latter are particularly welcoming to the theist. The former implies that good is arbitrarily determined by god, and the latter implies that good exists external to god, and god is just a mere messenger of the good. 

The most common response to avoid either horn of the dilemma is to say that god is good. The problem with that is that it fails to demonstrate that goodness cannot exist independent of god. For example, an intrinsic property of fire is hotness, but hot can exist independently of fire (i.e. microwaves, friction). Likewise, if goodness is an intrinsic property of god, that doesn't prove that goodness cannot exist independently of god. Also, if god can command something that would otherwise be wrong (i.e. to sacrifice one's first born), then the only factor determining the action's rightness or wrongness is god's commandment at that moment. That would mean that goodness is arbitrarily determined by god's commandments. 

There seems to be no way out of the Euthyphro dilemma, no matter how hard one tries.

Finally, god's existence is not observable and not verifiable. We must take his existence on at least some amount of faith. Unlike moral realism, which is based on observable and analytically verifiable facts, divine command theory might guide us towards values that are not corroborated with facts, and may even run counter to what we know benefits us. And we will be asked that we obey them essentially on faith, which we all know is fraught with problems. 

There seems to be no way to reconcile these problems when judging morals on a case-by-case basis under the divine command theory.

Now is this a totally fair and unbiased analysis of these two ethical theories? No, of course not. I admitted right from the get-go that I'm a moral realist. I've addressed the problems of moral realism and presented some arguments for divine command theory but my conclusion is that given the arguments against each theory, moral realism fairs better overall.

So in conclusion, we must all admit that every ethical theory contains its pros and cons. I certainly believe that moral realism faces challenges, but on analysis, I think its problems are more easily reconcilable than those of the divine command theory.

*I want to give special thanks to Nykytyne2 who made the following video here that helped inspire this blog posting and whose work I based much of this posts information off of, along with the help of Wikipedia and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Ontological Argument: Putting The Absurd Where It Belongs

Continuing with my refutations of the most popular arguments made for the existence of god, I thought I'd conclude with the ontological argument. The reason why I've never addressed it before is because I never even thought that the ontological argument was even really an argument. It’s really just an attempt at brain trickery through wordplay. What it surreptitiously tries to achieve is to trick the skeptic into agreeing that it’s possible that god may exist, and once having made this deal with you it moves on to try to “prove” god exists through the logical conclusion of its premises. Many agnostics and weak atheists who haven’t considered the paradoxical nature of god may actually fall for it, but when I first heard it, my bullshit alarm immediately went off. It is generally stated a bit more complex than many of the other arguments for god and there are many versions of it. The version here that I’m going to use is a derivation of philosopher Alvin Plantinga’s Modal Ontological Argument.

1. It is possible that a maximally great being exists (i.e. God).

2. If it is possible that a maximally great being exists, then a maximally great being exists in some possible world.

3. If a maximally great being exists in some possible world, then it exists in every possible world.

4. If a maximally great being exists in every possible world, then it exists in the actual world.

5. If a maximally great being exists in the actual world, then a maximally great being exists.

6. Therefore, a maximally great being exists.

When I first heard another version of the ontological argument I thought to myself, “Wait a second! You can’t define god into existence!” But that’s exactly what theists were trying to do. Another objection I have is what is meant by “possible world”. From a theistic perspective, a “possible world” might mean any other world god chose to create besides this one which we live in. But that definition presupposes god’s existence in the first place. In logic, a possible world really means possible scenario in our world, but not the existence of another physical or dimensional world. For example, I could say, “There’s a possible world in which I’m rich.” It need not necessarily be another physical world where I’m living the good life, but instead could be an alternative history to this world. I personally like the idea of a possible world being an alternative universe, perhaps in a level 3 multiverse, but for the sake of argument, I will define a possible world as another possible scenario of this world, one in which a hypothetical situation or thought experiment can be conducted.

Friday, February 15, 2013

A Case For Secular Morality: Objective Morality Without God

A Case For Secular Morality

Objective Morality Without God

It is commonly believed especially by those of religious faith that any form of secular morality is doomed to total cultural and moral relativism where morality is regarded as nothing more than a cultural byproduct and a matter of opinion. It always seemed obvious to me at least that morality was more than just a mere convention of culture and the purpose of this paper is to make the case that in the absence of god, a simple case for objective morality can be made. 


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.

A Case for Secular Morality

Part I

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.

1.1. What is morality founded on?

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Part II

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.

Part III

3. Conclusion

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.


[i] Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (New York: Free Press, 2010), 12.

[ii] Epicurus, "Letter to Menoecues," 

"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

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Epicurus On God

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? 
Then he is not omnipotent. 

Is he able, but not willing? 
Then he is malevolent. 

Is he both able and willing? 
Then whence cometh evil? 

Is he neither able nor willing? 
Then why call him God?

Many theists say that the unwillingness of god to prevent evil is done for sufficient reasons. Evil, many of them say, is necessary in order to have good and in order to draw believers towards acts that are good. Some even claim that the existence of evil proves god's existence.

I don't respond well to this sort of conjecture for the following reasons. First, I think what we consider good and evil, are a natural occurrence in a world where beings evolved the ability to respond and to employ free will, even if that free will is an illusion. Under naturalism there would also exist the imperfection of a world that is not designed. This means natural disasters exist and will sometimes harm beings caught at the wrong time and place. Also, naturalism permits the evolution of beings to evolve that harm other beings such as diseases and other microbes.

Second, the idea that there exists this grand designer who made things this way, who designed the virus and the harm it does, who designed the tectonic plates of the Earth's crust knowing it would cause earthquakes and tsunamis that kill millions of people and animals, is to say that evil and tragedy are also designed and masterminded. The reason why I say this is because if something harmful occurs naturally, it is not evil, it is just a rather sad set of events. But if something harmful occurs because it was designed that way, then it becomes evil because it was intentional.

If the allowance of human evil and the creation of natural evil are all somehow justified by god because it is all to fulfill some sort of grand scheme in the end, then god you can say is just a utilitarian, in that the evil he intends today is just a means to an apparent positive end.

Either way I think that the notion of god the designer and the existence of evil, are confusing at best to the greater notion that we are all created in order to come to know and love god. I think Epicurus more or less got it right when he accused god of being malevolent, because to intentionally create conditions that cause harm and be unwilling to prevent the resulting harm is to be evil.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Moral Hypocracy of Religion

Debating with fundamentalist theists is always entertaining, especially on the issue of morality. It is my contention that on morality, no where is there a worse basis for moral absolutes then there is with religion. When cornered, many believing theists admit they disagree with the "absolute" morals of their own religions and struggle with the reconciliation between them and what they believe is moral in their hearts. Yet they still proclaim, often proudly, that through their religion's absolute moral stance is the best and only way to think critically of moral issues. Let's examine this issue in detail on several points.

First, what is moral absolutism?

Moral absolutism is defined as "the ethical belief that there are absolute standards against which moral questions can be judged, and that certain actions are right or wrong, regardless of the context of the act."

Moral absolutism and relativism can get us into some murky waters here so we have to be careful what we are talking about. Theists of many faiths will reluctantly admit that some moral relativism exists. I recently had a very conservative theist argue that Old Testament morality "was relative to a particular time and place." Thereby he admits that some moral actions are right and wrong, depending on where, why and how they were committed. That is moral relativism.

I would agree with this considering the virtually infinite number of possible situations where a moral choice must be made. The questions of where, why and how they were committed is often a determining factor to calculate its morality. However, this does not have to force you to dive head on into total moral relativism. The standards by which you calculate an action being wrong or right can be the same and apply across all cultures and time periods equally, even if different situations result in different determinations as to whether something is right or wrong.

No religion gives us a complete moral code. We are always going to be debating what is or is not moral, whenever new issues arise. Just think of the invention of the internet and how many new laws and regulations needed to be debated and passed as to what would be moral or not with this new advance in technology. No holy book will decide that, for this we must use our brains.

I further argue, that no religion really gives us the standards by which to calculate moral actions. In ethical philosophy, there are three main branches of thought to calculate morality: utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics. Religion uses a divine command theory of ethics. That means god commands it to be right or wrong, period. So if you're a Muslim, eating pork is wrong, because god said so. If you are a Christian, you cannot suffer a witch to live, because god said so. You are required to accept these moral commandments and thinking for yourself and reconsidering what is right or wrong is strictly off limits: The boss has already done the thinking for us.

The atheist's problem with this is the source of these ethics. We are told that we just have to accept that these commandments were revealed to people years ago, from an all knowing god, and perfectly translated through many languages and many generations to the present. What the atheist insists upon, is questioning everything, and every moral, so that nothing is accepted by blind faith. And if we can consider a better moral based on the moral calculations of utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics, guided by the latest science, then we should be perfectly right to discard the moral we derived from religion.

The Cherry Pickers of Morality

I often enjoy accusing theists that they are merely cherry picking their morality from their holy books to suit their personal beliefs, while they discard many of the other "absolute" morals. In Christianity, the Bible condones a host of "absolute" morals that include various forms of slavery, fathers selling their daughters into slavery, indentured servitude, forcing underage girls into marriages with older men, stoning to death all homosexuals, adulterers, witches, unruly children, those who worship false gods, those who work on the sabbath, allowing the rape of female captives in war, and throwing war captives off cliffs. There are certainly more that I do not have the time to mention.

Now if a theist adhering to a moral absolute standard believes that these above mentioned morals were relative to a certain time and place, that is hypocricy. You can't have all morality to be absolute and relative at the same time. This puts the theist into a bit of a conundrum.

So a theist could ask, "Does admitting perplexity about the Bible’s teachings in one area, while strongly affirming its teachings in another area, make me a hypocrite?"

Well it would certainly make the theist a selective literalist. I personally do reject the Bible on account of several things. First are its contradicting, and fallacious moral teachings, that are the product of an angry, jealous and superstitious tribe, bent on justifying the harm they committed by believing it was divinely sanctioned. Second is the historical and scientific inaccuracy when compared to modern science.

As an atheist I do not accept the authority and validity of the Bible. So how then should Biblical morality be interpreted? If one must continue believing in the god of the Bible, they should take from the Bible whatever morals are beneficial, and disregard whatever is no longer relevant. This is pretty much exactly what almost all theists do anyway. Most logical Christians today know the Bible in its entirety is not meant to be taken literally, and a strict literalist interpretation of the Bible will only continue to shave away adherents as a result of the torrent of secular criticism. The best hope for religion is to reform itself to include what modern science and philosophy provide us. If not, religion, much like the republican party, will continue to see its numbers of adherents decline with time.

The theist could counter with a comparison, "Should we reject science and its findings because it is not entirely amenable to our understanding?"

There is simply no comparison of the practice of science and the practice of religion. First, as I've written before, science is just the method by which we build and organize natural explanations for everything based on testable evidence and predictions. Science is an activity, it is not a set of faith-based beliefs. No one who uses science is forced to commit themselves to one particular scientific theory or not. There is no hell for not believing in string theory. Although when the evidence for a scientific theory is overwhelming, scientists will sometimes look down upon those who deny it (just think of how ridiculous flat Earth proponents look today).

Religion is a set of dogmatic beliefs surrounding a deity that requires faith to believe in, and skepticism and doubt about these beliefs are frowned upon. Comparing science to religion is to compare apples to oranges. They are two different camps. The scientific understanding of matter at the subatomic levels, however perplexing, is not tantamount to our understanding of morality from a Biblical perspective. Scientists are not "revealed" scientific truths from an absolute authority that they then have to reconcile with contradicting testable results. In religion however, we are "revealed" not only moral truths, but scientific "facts", that we then see are contradicted by our moral intuitions and the natural world.

The Role of Science in Morality

When Europeans first encountered black Africans, they didn't even consider the Africans to be human beings. They thought of them as some kind of sub-species, without the same intellectual and emotional capabilities as Europeans. This falsely held belief lead to centuries of slavery and colonization that they helped justify with the Bible. Today with modern genetic science, and the unraveling of the human genome, science has proved that all human beings share a common ancestor and that all human beings came from Africa. In effect, science has shown us that we are all Africans. With this new found scientific knowledge, one cannot justify the inferiority of African people with their previously held beliefs.

Having scientific knowledge about ourselves and our world is necessary for making the best possible moral choices. The reason why I don't regard Biblical or religious morality with any serious regard, is because they were decided at a time when humans lacked the most basic scientific understanding of the nature of reality. We used to be a people who believed in the powers of alchemy, sorcery, witches who could control the weather and disease; we believed that the world was flat, and that it was the center of the universe, that being left handed was a sign of wickedness, and that children should be buried beneath the foundations of buildings to ward off bad luck. Why would anyone seriously consider believing forever, moral cues derived from a time when this ignorant nonsense existed?

The problem with religion is that it is philosophy frozen in dogma. Just as we shouldn't have considered permanently freezing all of our beliefs when we were ten years old, the ignorant "wisdom" of the Iron-age should not be our permanent guidelines on how to live and think morally.

We may never have all the scientific knowledge of ourselves and the universe to guide our moral thinking. What we should do then, is make the best moral decisions given the (always) limited knowledge that we have and continue to improve them as new information is derived. This is called moral growth and we all do it, whether theists like to admit it or not.

By What Basis Is Biblical Morality Unethical?

Theists claim that an atheist is in no position to critique Biblical morality since he doesn't have his own absolute standard to judge it by. To this I respond in two parts. First the theist has no absolute standard, since all theists reluctantly admit that morality is at least in part, relative. Imagine a world with no human beings. Who would the ten commandments apply to? Lions? Dogs? The ten commandments are only relative to human beings existing. We cannot expect animals to behave to our moral laws. So all morality is at least relative to the human species. Furthermore, think of lying. It is considered generally wrong, but who would argue against lying to save a life, such as if Nazis came knocking at your door to ask if you were hiding Jews and you were. This is situational relativism which the Christian theist also reluctantly agrees is true.

Second, in what sense is morality objective? Any argument made for whether something is moral or not, has to be justified for a reason. So for example, kindness, love, compassion and fairness are good in and of themselves for justifiable reasons. It doesn't help us any better at all to believe there is a god who says these things are also good. Would kindness, love, compassion and fairness be any less beneficial to the beings affected by it if there was no god, or if god didn't agree that these actions were good? Of course not! No one's opinion, not even god's, makes any difference as to whether kindness, love, compassion and fairness are good things. They are naturally good in and of themselves and do not require to be backed up by authoritative power.

We get our moral intuitions from the sociobiological evolutionary process. As a species of social primates, human beings had to learn to get along and live civilly with one another. Living in small tribes for hundreds of thousands of years, everyone was dependent on each other for survival. Collectivism reigned supreme. In the modern world, we've had to adapt this tribal way of thinking to a world where we largely don't personally know our neighbors. The great struggle of humanity has been to look past race, ethnicity and differences to recognize all fellow humans beings as extended members of the same tribe. The tribal and ethnic warfare of the Old Testament is indicative of our early failures to understand this. That is another reason why the validity of absolute morals from this era should be disregarded.

In Conclusion

I'd like to summarize my points:

  • Religion and theism cannot provide an absolute basis for morality. Every religion created has relativistic morals for different situations and morality is only relative to human beings.
  • Divine command theory of ethics is a "might makes right" reasoning to understand moral truth.
  • The religious all cherry pick their morality. Furthermore, since some morals contradict themselves, the theist is often forced to cherry pick morals. 
  • There is no way to compare the endeavour of science with the dogmatic practice of religion. One uses the scientific method to find natural explanations of our world; the other asks believers to frown upon doubt and skepticism and to accept "revelations" as fact. 
  • Scientific knowledge has greatly helped our moral understanding and the morality of religion came largely before the scientific era, that is why many of its teaches seem ludicrous.
  • Some actions are naturally good or bad in and of themselves regardless of anyone's opinion of them.  The effects of actions are objective regardless of what someone's opinion of it is. Introducing a deity to the situation merely adds one more unnecessary opinion.

Finally, on morality the theist should consider these questions:

  • Couldn't it be possible that the counter-intuitive morality of the Bible is largely a product of our Iron-age superstitious thinking, which lacked the most basic understanding of science and human nature?
  • Isn't trying to reconcile Biblical morality so that it all fits into modern morality simply a futile waste of time? 
  • If Biblical morality is indeed right, why is it right? By what basis is this justified? 
  • If Biblical morality is indeed right, shouldn't we still be practicing it now? What are the justifications for doing so or not doing so?
  • Is something good because god commands it, or does he command it because it is good?
  • If something is good because god commands it, then couldn't he command murder to be good?
  • If god would never command murder because murder is inherently bad, then murder must naturally be bad in and of itself, and couldn't this be recognized by human beings without the requirement of god? 


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...