So here’s the most popular morality question which is asked of atheists by religious believers – is morality objective? Seems like a very simple question, but it turns out that the many different ways of interpreting the wording of the question makes this a very difficult question to have a precise answer to. Am I dancing around the question? You may think so, but what I am trying to do is be very clear because this question can be and is the cause of so many confusing debates that could leave your head spinning and feeling like you haven’t learned a thing. This often results in everyone simply continuing to believe what they originally did about this question. I’m not going to say that I’m going to clear things up (chances are I won’t), but I’ll at least give it my best shot.
One important thing to realize here is that a lot of people (whether theist or not) have in their minds that morality is defined overall by some kind of golden rule statement or something like “do not harm people, but help them”. So with this definition in mind when someone is asked “is it objectively immoral to kill children?” the very obvious answer is that of course it is objectively wrong to kill children, because it clearly falls under the category of “harming people”. So if we begin with a certain definition of what morality is, then many things will objectively follow as being immoral from that definition.
However, we seem to be hit once again here with a problem very similar to the problem of infinite regress that I discussed in my post about foundational beliefs. Here in the case of morality, if we end up breaking down our beliefs about moral questions until we get to the basic building block of “do not harm people” (or something similar to that), then we are still left with the question of “why not harm people?”. A simple answer to this question is that since we all want to live lives of peace and contentment, it follows that we want to create an environment such that we can all come as close as possible to attaining that goal and thus not harming each other helps us achieve that. Furthermore, for myself (and I’m sure this applies to others as well) seeing other people feel bad causes sadness within me. We all know this as “empathy”, and whether this is a trait which has evolved in humans or it is something put there by supernatural beings is one of those big questions which for me simply has to be answered “I don’t know”. But either way that doesn’t take away the fact that I have that feeling, and so for me it is yet another reason to want to follow humanist reasoning – whether a God exists or does not exist.
So it seems there are objective reasons that we can have for acting in ways that people would define as moral. But there still can be questions raised here – the reasons for acting morally I’ve described above are simply reasons applied for the express purpose of achieving a goal (in this case the goal of peace, contentment and happiness for humanity). Many people are still uncomfortable with this answer, and while they might see the reasoning behind it, they would much rather have a belief that things are morally wrong not because they prevent humans from achieving goals, but simply because they are wrong outside of ourselves…. in other words there is something ultimate and outside of humanity that sets rules of right and wrong. Without this they feel there can be no good reasons for being moral. I don’t agree there are no good reasons, but I see why the reasons I’ve given above might leave people dissatisfied – they left me dissatisfied for many years and again this was one of the reasons I fought so hard to stay with the Christian worldview in my last year or so as a Christian.
So this last paragraph above is where I believe the crux of the question “is morality objective?” arises from when a theist asks this question. I believe they are really asking “is there an ultimate conscious entity outside of humans that determines what is right and wrong?” My answer to this question should not surprise you: “I do not know!”. But if the answer is no it still does not change the fact that I feel very strongly and passionately about following moral and humanist reasoning as I’ve described in this post and the previous one.
Once again I’ve written way more than I thought I would. I originally wanted this to be one post on morality, but there is more to come.