Showing posts with label moral relativism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label moral relativism. 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:

Sunday, November 29, 2015

An Atheist Reviews The Last Superstition: A Refutation Of The New Atheism (Chapter 4 Scholastic Aptitude - Part 1: The Soul)


In chapter 4, Feser lays the ground work for the soul, the natural law theory of ethics, and the relationship between faith and reason using the concepts he's laid down in the previous chapters. I've decided to break this review into three parts because the review became so long.

In the beginning of the chapter Feser finds room for two more insults on Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris—Dennett for "sheer speculation" on evolutionary psychological explanations of religion, and Harris for apparently being boring in his book, The End of Faith. Certainly there's a lot of speculation in evolutionary psychology, but the argument for the naturalistic origins of over-active agency detection forming the basis of god belief I think are pretty strong and well supported by evidence. Anyway, onto the soul.

The soul

There are a lot of misconceptions about the Aristotelian conception of the soul. It differs significantly from the Cartesian conception where there is a physical body and a non-physical soul that operates the body like a "ghost in the machine." Although many lay people still hold to this concept of the soul, it has severely fallen out of fashion in the relevant sciences and philosophy, and is considered by most in those fields flat out false.

The Aristotelian-Thomistic (or A-T for short) soul is different. The "form or essence of a living thing is just what Aristotle (and Aquinas) mean by the word 'soul,'" Feser explains. The "soul" is "to refer to the nature of a living thing, whatever that turns out to be," adding, "The soul is just a kind of form." (121) But what if it turns out to be that we're just complex arrangements of matter and energy governed by the fundamental forces described by the laws of physics, with no free will of our own? This is after all what science is showing us more and more everyday. It seems to me that terms like "soul" at best are a metaphor, like when we refer to the "soul" of a city, and at worst an outright metaphysical falsehood.

The soul being form and essence means all things have a "soul" on the A-T view. But there are three kinds of souls that Feser describes (121-122) and this means that for you Christians (spoiler alert!), you sadly won't be seeing your cat or dog in heaven:

Nutritive soul: a form or essence that gives a thing that has it the powers of taking in nutrients, growing, and reproducing itself.
Sensory soul: a form or essence that gives a thing that has it both the powers of a nutritive soul, and also an animal's distinctive powers of being able to sense the world around it (by seeing, hearing, etc.) and to move itself (by walking, flying, etc.).
Rational soul: includes both the powers of the nutritive soul and the sensory souls and also distinctively human powers of intellect and will: that is, the power to grasp abstract objects - namely, the forms or essences of things - and to reason on the basis of them, and freely to choose different possible courses of action on the basis of what the intellect knows.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Religion-Table Analogy



Last month when I was visiting my family we got into a conversation about what gives our lives purpose. I mentioned to my mother and sister that helping rid the world of religion gives my life purpose, and my sister, who is not religious in a traditional sense but very spiritual, shot back and said that there is a lot of good in religion. I agreed with her that all religions have some good in them but that the metaphysical beliefs that justify the good things in religion, also justify the bad things in religion, and I came up with what I call the religion-table analogy to try and explain it a bit better.

It works like this. A table is held up by its legs. On the table you can have good things and bad things, like, say, healthy food, and poisonous food. That represents the good of religion and the bad. The legs represent the metaphysical beliefs of religion that support all of its claims. The same metaphysical arguments that liberal Christians like former president Jimmy Carter can use to justify the truth of his god, are also used by the members of ISIS, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, the Westboro Baptist Church, the KKK, and many others, to justify their god and their bad theology. Moderate and liberal theism provides cover for conservative and fundamentalist theism. Instead of just criticizing the fundamentalists, I'm focusing on refuting the metaphysical claims of religion altogether because chopping off the legs of the table takes down everything having to do with the religion. Keeping the legs of the table intact will always allow for the extremist to metaphysically justify their claims. Furthermore, anything good from religion can be justified without it. No one needs to believe Jesus was divine in order to see that helping the poor is good. No one needs to believe Mohammad spoke to the angel Gabriel to see that there is something wrong with charging excessive interest. But many of the bad things that religions have can only be justified with religion. ISIS' despicable theology of rape for example, cannot be justified without a belief in god.

And that's why religion has to go—all of it. I can't tell you how many times I've been in a debate with a hardcore religious fundie and they've tried to trot out the cosmological argument, or the moral argument, in an attempt to justify and lend intellectual credit to their extremist and absurd ideas. Destroy the legs of the religion table, and you destroy all of religion. This is not to say that I believe religion should be refuted because it can do bad things. I primarily believe religion should be refuted because they're all false. But to be responsible, you cannot just stop there. Since religions provide for many comforts in the lives of people, like giving them a sense of meaning, purpose, morality, community, and so forth, religion needs to be replaced with secular alternatives. When this is done, there is little to no difference in the ethical behavior and well-being of an atheist over a theist. And the lives of hundreds of millions of atheists around the world can attest to that.

Monday, August 3, 2015

An Atheist Reviews The Last Superstition: A Refutation Of The New Atheism (Chapter 2 Greeks Bearing Gifts)


All throughout the preface and the first chapter Feser made numerous extremely bold claims that he promises to back up in the later chapters. By chapter two, entitled Greeks Bearing Gifts, we start seeing some of those justifications come to light. The chapter starts out on a crash course through ancient Greek philosophy leading up to Plato and then Aristotle. I won't summarize Feser's teaching unless I think it is significant for his objective, which is to show that "a certain kind of" religion and god are not only reasonable to believe in, but that it's logically impossible that naturalism is true.

Plato and Aristotle are considered to be two of the greatest philosophers of all time, and I would largely agree. That's not to say that I agree with all of their ideas, especially their metaphysical ones, it's just to recognize the fact that they were both deeply analytic thinkers and widely influential. For example, I regard the Euthyphro Dilemma, from Plato's Euthyphro, as one of the greatest pieces of moral insight. But, I digress. For Feser, he focuses first on Plato's Theory of Forms, which is one of the things I think Plato got wrong.

Take the triangle. Any triangle physically drawn or created will in some way be imperfect, if only by a tiny amount. They will all lack features that perfectly exemplify a triangle - that is, they will have features not part of a triangle's essence or nature. Plato argues from this that the essence or nature of triangularity is not material or known through our senses, and when we exemplify triangles physically they go in and out of existence, but its essence stays the same. The essential features of triangularity are therefore according to Plato, universal, and not particular, immaterial, and not material, and known through the intellect and not through the senses.

Feser is making the case for Platonic realism, and makes arguments against nominalism, and conceptualism. Platonic realism is the view that universals (like triangles, squares, and other geometric patterns) and abstract objects (like numbers) exist independently of minds or physical space and time. Nominalism is the view that these objects do not exist, and conceptualism is the view that these objects exist, but only as concepts in our minds. Feser presents several arguments to try and show that realism is true and that nominalism and conceptualism are false. The reason why he's trying to do so starts becoming clear on page 36 where he writes:

A triangle is a triangle only because it participates in the Form of Trianglarity; a squirrel is a squirrel only because it participates in the Form of Squirrel; and so forth. By the same token, something is going to count as a better triangle the more perfectly it participates in or instantiates triangularity, and a squirrel would be a better squirrel the more perfectly it participates in or instantiates the Form of Squirrel.

This is all leading up to the natural law theory of ethics that many Catholics, like Feser, think forms the basis of our morality. Feser goes on:

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Sexuality In The 21st Century


Random thought about dating in the 21st century. I've never been married, never gotten close to marriage, and have lived, pretty much, the life of a bachelor my entire life. I have had many girlfriends over the years but I've not settled down with any of them. I was just thinking about how dating is in the 21st century, and how my generation handles sex and relationships, a topic I don't often blog about.

I can say, speaking as a man in his early 30s, technically a millennial, that it is fairly easy to get sex today. I think this is in large part due to the fact that our society has progressed to the point where female sexuality is liberated enough where modern women are owning their sex lives and doing it on their terms, and not the terms traditional society wants them to. This has inevitably resulted in it now being easier to have sex than perhaps ever before.*

I think that this overall is a good thing, but I recognize that there are probably genuine concerns and arguments that can be raised about potential negative effects. I'm not against traditional monogamous relationships and marriages, I'm for diversity for those who do not feel that the traditional model works for them. I think we would all agree that cheating is bad, but instead of doubling down and going back to that traditional long-term rigorous monogamy model, instead another view, the one that says making short-to-medium term relationships and polyamory more acceptable would be the best way to handle the fact that many people feel a strong desire to cheat, and often do. That way, we can be more honest about what we want and don't have to all pretend like we're all looking for marriage and kids, which many of us don't want.

I'm not even the kind of person who practices things like polyamory, but the principle here is what matters, and that is a society acknowledging a relationship spectrum where many views are accepted, instead of just the traditional life-long marriage model.

*I could be totally wrong on this and I have no way of telling how easy it really was get sex in all other places and eras.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Things That Keep Atheists Up At Night (According to Randal Rauser)


Here's a list of what Randal Rauser thinks keeps atheists up at night from his blog. Let me provide brief answers.

1. Nobody to thank for all my “blessings” and nobody to blame for the converse.
    This is not a problem for the atheist and I've never heard a single one tell me this keeps them up at night. No one is blessed or cursed under atheism. Our fortunes and failings are due to chance, by way of our genetics, our families, our environment, and innumerable other contingent factors. We accept that based on the evidence. We're thankful to the things that have actually mattered in our lives, which in most cases are other human beings.

    2. Implications of nihilism.
      If you view nihilism as there simply being no objective meaning or purpose to life, then the atheist is fine with that. It's only someone who feels that life is required to have objective meaning or purpose that is bothered by the idea of not having it. That's one of the reasons why religions try to make you emotionally dependent on them. They try to make you feel as if you need these things and then they try to offer you them. I explain this in my religion/heroin analogy. Atheism doesn't imply that there cannot be any meaning at all. Meaning and purpose in life are subjective, and many of us atheists find this a lot more comforting.

      3. Failure to rebut moral relativism. 
        Some atheists are fine with the idea of moral relativism, but those who are not have plenty of moral philosophies to choose from that address the issue. But the question is, what kind of moral relativism are we talking about? Is it cultural relativism? Situational relativism? Even most theists acknowledge situational relativism. Also the Euthyphro dilemma addresses the claim that god gives us objective morality quite well.

        4. Classical theism makes the strongest case for (what I would label) objective morality. 

        If you define objective morality (which Randal didn't do on his post) in such a way that it can only be served by theism, then perhaps. The claim that only theism can make a strong case for objective morality is again challenged by the Euthyphro dilemmaIs something good because god commands it, or does god command it because it's good? The first part makes morality arbitrary, and the latter makes god irrelevant to what's good. The standard response is that god is the good – god is the ontological foundation of goodness because he is intrinsically loving, compassionate and fair, etc. But then we can ask, is god good because he has these properties or are these properties good because god has them? In order to avoid compromising god's sovereignty and admitting that these properties are good independently of god, the theist who wants to hold to the moral argument must say that these traits are good because god has them. But how is love, compassion, fairness or any other positive attribute good only because god has them? They would be good irrespective of god's existence, as would be evident by their effects. The theist would bear the burden of proof to demonstrate that they wouldn't be good without god, which I haven't yet seen anyone successfully achieve. Thus it's clear to me at least that objective moral values - if they exist at all - exist independently of god.

        5. Relationship with God is transformative in the life of a believer in ways that the atheist will never experience. One example is the hope believers have in the face of death. 
          Plenty of false gods and false beliefs transform people in ways a Christian will "never experience." The way belief in god effects you is not an indicator that the god you believe in is real. Hope for an afterlife is just false conciliation, and most atheists reject this belief for exactly that reason (and because there's no good evidence for it). Atheists live in the here and now. We live for this life, not some fairy tale existence promised to come. Belief in an afterlife often devalues this life. 

          Tuesday, October 7, 2014

          Islam, ISIS, Ben Affleck, Bill Maher, And Sam Harris, Oh My


          I can't believe that I haven't yet written a single post about the radical Islamic militant group ISIS, although I've tweeted plenty about it. ISIS, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or simply just the Islamic State, are a band of radical Islamic militants who, through a campaign of violence and terror, have gained control of many parts of eastern Syria and western Iraq and seek to establish a new Islamic caliphate based on a strict interpretation of Islamic law, known as Sharia. They've been accused of beheadings, crucifixions, and mass killings, and are considered even too extremist for Al Qaeda.

          ISIS's brutality is once again reigniting a debate that we never actually finished having which became part of the national conversation after the events of September 11th, 2001. The debate is over whether Islam is a religion that condones violence and oppression, and whether the problem with terrorism and violence among Muslims is caused, at least in part, by the Islamic religion.



          Recently, on Real Time with Bill Maher, Ben Affleck got into a scuffle with Maher and guest Sam Harris over this very issue. What ensued was a classic failure of liberals like Affleck to understand the argument. Affleck did exactly what Harris says liberals do when he said, "We have been sold this meme of Islamophobia, where every criticism of the doctrine of Islam gets conflated with bigotry towards Muslims as people and that is intellectually ridiculous." Almost right after that Affleck does exactly what Harris just said people do by calling it "racist" to criticize Islam, which is a fucking religion! What Affleck fundamentally doesn't understand is that Maher and Harris are criticizing the religion of Islam, not the followers. They're criticizing the Koran and what it says, and you can criticize the Koran without saying all Muslims are violent or sexist. The Koran has many violent and sexist verses in it (as I will get to), but we all fully acknowledge that most Muslims are not violent. They're not all trying to blow themselves up to get 72 virgins, or cut the head off of the nearest infidel. Critics of religion like Maher, Harris and myself, can recognize this important distinction that far too many liberals like Affleck fail to see.

          Friday, November 22, 2013

          Saving Silverman


          Obligatory David Silverman meme
          I'm not a huge fan of American Atheists president David Silverman, but in general I like the guy. I like, for example, his style of firebrand atheism that I think is needed to balance out the accommodationists. I also like that he's really great at pointing out how ridiculous and harmful a lot of religious beliefs are, especial those of the Abrahamic strain. But the man has some major flaws that I think he would be wise to correct.

          First, Silverman knows next to nothing about cosmology or biology, and in the debates I've seen him in (like his horrible debate with Frank Turek recently) he claims total ignorance on how the universe or life got started. Now I don't expect him to be a genius in either field, heck I'm not, but shrugging your shoulders and basically saying, "I don't know" isn't going to cut it if you're going to fashion yourself as a public face for atheism and make your rounds in the debate circuit. I mean, at least learn a few of the theories out there (e.g. quantum fluctuations as described by physicists like Lawrence Krauss, or learn about the B-theory of time, or RNA world models - something.) You cannot jump in the atheism/theism debate arena and be totally ignorant on cosmology and biology - it's unacceptable. Silverman is making a fool out of himself every time he does so and he's making a fool out of atheism in the process.

          Second, Silverman knows next to nothing about ethics and seems to support a kind of total moral nihilism. Then, he accuses the god of the Bible of being evil! As you can imagine he gets called out on this over and over again, and rightly so. He needs to define what he means by "evil" (which is actually quite easy to do - lacking empathy or compassion) and he needs to define what meta-ethical theory he is subscribing to as an alternative to divine command theory. In the debates I've seen of him, Silverman simply just announces that morality is relative and just keeps repeating that over and over again. But relative to what? What ethical theory does he espouse? He offers us nothing! Silverman needs to sit down with a philosopher, someone like Massimo Pigliucci, or maybe A.C. Grayling, and learn a few of the basics about ethics so that he doesn't continue to look like a damn fool and make atheists look bad. Atheism does not entail moral nihilism, but Silverman is doing a great job making it look that way.

          That being said, I think his recent speech at the Oxford Union debate, Religion Harms Society, was pretty decent. See below:





          Sunday, October 27, 2013

          A Christian Admitted To Me That The Holocaust Could Have Been Moral


          Technically he's a Jehovah's Witness, whom some Christians do not consider "real" Christians because JoHos don't believe Jesus was god, just the son of god. But anyway, over on the Patheos blog, The Secular Outpost, in a post about the problem of evil, a known trouble maker posed the following question in the comments section to try to challenge the atheists/secularists who regularly comment there:

          How woul[d] a a neo-Aristotelian ethical naturalist answer the following: 
          "If the Neo-Nazis were to attain world domination and exterminated everyone who thought racism was wrong, would that suddenly make racism and bigotry moral?"

          He's a guy I've debated many times before (see here) and so I'm familiar with his tactics. He basically likes to copy apologetic arguments, often from my favorite punching bag William Lane Craig, and paste them on various secular blogs and websites. He tries to challenge skeptics with such ingenious and highly original arguments as the cosmological argument and the moral argument, as well as many other staple apologetic ineptness, but he can't really defend any of them other than to repeat plagiarized apologetic talking points. It's so annoying. So I challenged him back with this question below:

          How would a Jehovah's Witness answer the following: 
          Suppose god wanted to pass judgement on the Jews, and so god commanded Adolph Hitler to exterminate the Jews, just as god had commanded the Jews to exterminate the Canaanites, Amalekites and Midianites. If god commanded the Nazis to exterminate the Jews, would the holocaust then have been not only moral, but a moral obligation?

          Wednesday, September 11, 2013

          To Ought, Or Not To Ought?


          Arguing morality with a theist, you will almost always inevitably be accused of not having an objective foundation for your moral values, or you will be accused of not being able to provide an objective foundation for moral duties. Some theists think that if we just adopt the divine command theory of ethics, we'll all be provided with an adequate foundation for what is objectively right and wrong. But the problem I've always had with it, is why should I believe something be objectively right or wrong, or a duty for that matter, if it is merely commanded by god? I see no reason to think that god merely issuing a command makes it right, especially when considering that all the religions in the world contain within them bizarre commandments that obviously reflect the ignorance of the people living at the time they were written down. If I am to remain true to being a critical thinker, I must critically examine every such moral command with the knowledge we have of the world and assess whether or not it is designed to achieve some moral goodness or emphasize some kind of moral virtue.

          And why think that all of life's moral dilemmas can be answered by a single book? For example, does Christianity give us objective moral answers on everything? Like what is justice? And how do we best build and sustain a just society? What's the best way we can handle healthcare? Immigration? The economy? Civil rights? How we should best conduct ourselves when it comes to war? Jesus said, “Render to Cæsar the things that are Cæsar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Essentially, that means submit to your earthly masters as you would to god, even if they are cruel tyrants. That's hardly the kind of advice I would want to live by and it obviously doesn't make for building and sustaining a just society.

          Moral obligations can stem from one's self in adherence to principles, in addition to our various social contracts. They say you cannot get an ought from an is, but how can you even derive an ought without knowing what is? Why ought I do my laundry if it is not the case that my clothes are dirty? Why ought I fix the leak in my kitchen sink if it is not the case that my kitchen sink is leaking? We all intuitively do what we ought to do from assessing the situation for what is all the time. Some theists think that moral obligations can only stem from competent authorities, such as god. But does that also mean that every German in the Wehrmacht was morally obligated to carry out the commands of Adolph Hitler, in the same fashion Jesus envisioned of - rendering unto Hitler the things that are Hitler's? What commands take precedence: Jesus' command to submit to your earthly master's will, or Jesus' command to not kill and turn the other cheek? Christians have to make a calculation in situations like this, and they have to weigh the moral severity and outcome of each and use the same basic moral calculations we all make when confronted with a moral dilemma. 

          Monday, July 8, 2013

          How To Destroy Any Theist Making The Moral Argument For God


          I just debated a very incompetent opponent on debate.org over whether the moral argument for god is sound. I hit him with the very well known Euthyphro Dilemma to see if he could handle it—and apparently he couldn't because he almost completely ignored it.

          Now when making the Euthyphro, you absolutely must preempt the most common response that theists are going to use—that god is good. If you cover that before they make it, as I have below, then you leave your opponent no room to get out of it, and they're logically backed into a corner.

          So the following passage from my debate below is how to do that properly, in case any theist pulls the moral debate on you:

          One counter argument to the moral argument is called the Euthyphro Dilemma. It was posed by Socrates 2,400 years ago. It asks, “Is something moral because God commands it, or does God command it because it is moral?” 
          The person who believes objective morality is founded in God here has two options. If something is moral because God commands it, then morality is arbitrarily decided by God. God could command that we murder our children or own slaves and it would be good – merely because God said so. The actual commands would be meaningless and we’d have no way to gauge whether something is morally good or not except on whether it was commanded by God. This would be a “might makes right” ideology.

          In the other option, God is merely a messenger who alerts us to what is right or wrong independently to whether God exists or not. Morality is not decided by God, God is simply the enforcer of what is naturally right or wrong.

          Friday, June 7, 2013

          Philosophy & The City



          The other day I went to a philosophy Meetup group in Manhattan to mingle with other philosophy-lovers. It always guarantees good conversation, especially when enhanced with strong drink. The topic was "The Big Three - Socrates, Plato and Aristotle". It lead to some interesting conversations about the Euthyphro Dilemma - my favorite one-liner and I think the single most useful bit of philosophy that the ancient wisdom of the Greeks have left us.

          What amazes me however when conversing with philosophically minded people in a big, secular, liberal city like New York, is how deeply permeated moral nihilism is. With this one guy I was talking to on morality, I simply asked him what would be morally good. He responded by saying "I don't know. I couldn't tell you that." I pressed further asking him to just give me his opinion of what would be morally right, and again he said, "It's what anyone does, there's no such thing as right or wrong."

          Sunday, April 14, 2013

          Natural Born Skeptic: My Atheist Journey Part 3


          The Atheist Goes to College

          When I first got to college I immediately took some courses in philosophy. The philosophy of ethics really attracted me in particular. Unfortunately, at the time I was still in my late teens and was entering the beginning of a heavy party phase, and so my grades were sadly not as good as they could’ve been. However, the seed had been planted, and I began to think more deeply about questions of philosophy and ethics than ever before. I remember being in philosophy class one day and the professor asked everyone to raise their hand if they believed in god. To my amazement, almost everyone in class raised their hand. It turned out that I was one of the few, if not the only atheist in the class. Even with this newfound recognition of my minority status, I never felt any serious pressure to conform to those around me when it came to religion or god perhaps because New York is such a secular city. Even though many people in New York believe in god, they generally aren't religious about and it keep it to themselves.

          College is traditionally when we truly grow, and as I started making new friends and spent time with a more diverse crowd of people, I learned that religious belief and concepts of “god” were about as diverse as people’s tastes in food and music. I learned that no two people quite believe in the same concept of god. Many friends I made who called themselves “Catholic” were really only Catholic in title. They had premarital sex, used birth control, were pro-choice, they never actually went to church, and on the outside conducted themselves almost indistinguishable from any other secular nontheist. These kinds of people are what I like to call non-religious theists. They technically believe in a god that perhaps intervened a long time ago, but they more or less accept that events that happen in the world are natural, and they aren’t at all religious about their beliefs. I don’t have that much of a problem with these kinds of theists as quite a few of them I have called friends during my life; they’re more like the benign tumors of theism. It’s only if and when they cross the line of secularism that my alarm goes off. So many of those students who raised their hands that day in philosophy class and affirmed their belief in god really just believed in some sort of vague spiritual force or energy that exists somewhere out there, or they believed in some kind of powerful anthropomorphized being they call “God”. It’s another form of relatively benign belief in the supernatural that I can live with, as long as that line of secularism is respected.

          Some theists say that colleges are just atheist and secular factories designed to transform good natured god-fearing kids into godless moral relativists. I’ve argued with quite a few of these types over the years, but as I recall, there is a bit of truth to this claim. In my introduction to ethics textbook, which I still have, it does ask the reader to question the source of their morality and we had a few class exercises that challenged the idea of grounding your morals in religion. For example, if you believe that you should do what god says because otherwise he will punish you, we learned in class that in a sense it would turn morality into a mere obedience system whereby the actual “morals” themselves could be meaningless and all that would matter is what you believe god commands you. God could command you to plunder and kill, and you would be obligated to do so unless face his punishment. This was my first introduction to what I would later learn is called the Euthyphro Dilemma and it was the first time I had thought about morality in such a way. Most college students who came from religious backgrounds who were confronted with this dilemma I’m sure have had to reconsider why they believe it’s good to obey god. These kinds of courses do force the theist to reexamine their beliefs and I suppose that is why many theists think colleges exist only to churn out godless secularists. As a non believer, was never challenged in college on the metaphysical grounding of my beliefs, but I was challenged often as to why I hold certain ethical views – but that was the whole point of the class. Contrary to what many theists presume, we were never taught the idea that moral relativism was the solution to all of the world’s problems.

          While cleaning my apartment I came across some old college term papers from one of my philosophy classes. There was an assignment where we had to create a mock trial whereby we were to imagine ourselves being accused like Socrates was in The Apology of blasphemy or some sort of thought crime and we were to write a transcript of the trial’s proceedings. So (naturally) I imagined myself living in a world where atheism was a crime and I was put on trial and asked to justify my lack of belief in god. In it, I explain to the prosecutor why I’m an atheist:


          I myself am an Atheist, I don't think religion is evil, I understand it has many good aspects of it, but I just do not have a place for it in my life. Let us say for example I didn't live in this era and place of religious freedom. I probably wouldn't be an Atheist, but lets [sic] say I was in a time and place where Atheists faced punishment or even death. I am accused by the authority for not believing in God. My devotion to Atheism is so that I am willing to [face] whatever punishment they have for me, even death.

          Pros [Prosecutor]: So you began to question the very existence of God. Was there a particular moment in your life when you began to question God, such as a traumatic event or was it a gradual process?
          Me: It was a gradual process. I didn't wake up one morning and say "I don't believe in God." I guess as I got older I just didn't except the explanations religion gives you. I mean it's so vague.
          Pros: So you weren't convinced from what you were taught as a child. And I’m assuming you have your own theory and beliefs of how the world was created. What is it that you believe in?
          Me: Evolution.
          Pros: Evolution. I see. I've heard of this theory. Something about how we humans, are descendents from Monkeys.
          Me: Yes, and it was the Apes not the Monkeys.
          Pros: And this is what you believe in? You are positively sure that evolution is true.
          Me: From the evidence I have see, yes, and it makes a whole lot more sense to me than religion had.

          It's funny how I justified the world's existence through evolution, which not only does it not address the origin of the universe, it doesn't even address the origin of life itself! At nineteen, I wasn't as knowledgeable about the cosmological arguments or any of the other ones which theism uses. (That didn't stop me from getting an A on the paper though.)


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          Tuesday, February 26, 2013

          Multiculturalism And The Failures Of Moral Relativism


          "Should we tolerate the intolerant?" someone asks.

          "No," I reply.

          "Our toleration of others should only go so far as it is being reciprocated. This would mean for example that the Islamic extremest who wants to destroy our values and restrict our freedoms should not at all be tolerated. He should be opposed and if necessary, destroyed."

          Multiculturalism forces us to address these kind of issues. There are an increasing number of critics of multiculturalism that say it's a failure, especially in many European countries like France, England and Germany. I agree with at least some of this criticism because although I'm a "liberal" on most issues, the bleeding heart tolerance and political correctness of those on the far left asks us to sacrifice our principles because it might offend Muslims when they immigrate to the West. This is because people on the far left are total moral relativists. They've been brainwashed by political correction into thinking all moral values and cultures are equally valid and no better or worse than any other. So the Muslim countries that are now executing homosexuals are no better or worse than ours, they're just different. "Who are we to judge their morals?" says the relativist. "Who are we to impose our morals on theirs? Their morals are just different."

          The problems of multiculturalism are exacerbated by the problems of total moral relativism and nihilism, and this is why multiculturalism has failed in the West. I've spoken to a lot of liberals who support such things as gender equality and gay rights, while also supporting intolerant Muslims who stand against nearly everything the liberals hold dear. Even moderate Muslims tend to be against homosexuality and gay rights in larger numbers. A 2009 Gallup poll found that 0% of UK Muslims found homosexuality morally acceptable, compared to 58% of the general UK population. The same poll found that the numbers from other European countries were not as extreme but mirrored similar trends that showed support amongst Muslims for homosexuality, sex outside of marriage, and pornography to be much lower than the general populace.


          Given these facts, what is the future of multiculturalism if attitudes don't change? We can expect to see a growing minority of people whose values are at odds with the culture they are surrounded by. This can only spell long term trouble. Countries should therefore be in the business of assimilating immigrants to embrace tolerance, or they should be stopping or limiting immigration based on how tolerant potential immigrants are. It is my view, that immigration should be based in part on how well one can assimilate to the culture. The growing problem of the Islamification of Europe only highlights this problem. The solution to this problem, as I prescribe, is to embrace the kind of ethical realism and naturalism that I subscribe to and reject the relativism and nihilism that leads to these kind of problems produced by multiculturalism. Theists know how to do this but their divine command theory of ethics is wrong on epistemology and ontology. They base their ethics on ancient scribes, not in the unconstrained use of science and reason.

          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. 




          Introduction

          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.

          References


          [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

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