The Morality Post(s)

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.

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14 thoughts on “The Morality Post(s)

  1. I define objective morality slightly different:morals that remain constant regardless of circumstance. One of your examples – Is it objectively immoral to kill children – does not fall under that category, in my humble opinion. For instance, if the child has a bomb strapped to his chest, etc. The utilitarian in me begs the question: Which action renders the greatest positive moral outcome? If in killing the child we save two others, it seems logically immoral to do otherwise.

    That is not to say that there aren’t objective morals. Rape for instance. I can’t think of a circumstance where rape could be considered moral. Murder on the other hand seems to be subjective.

    Your conclusion is on point though – when a theist asks this question, he is really asking, “is there an ultimate conscious entity outside of humans that determines what is right and wrong?” To that we both answer, “I don’t know”, which is the only intellectually honest answer one can give.

    I hope this comes off as constructive rather than an attack, and I’d be interested if you agree/disagree. At any rate, it was a very interesting and well written post.

    Neminem Laede, Immo omnes, quantum potes, juva

  2. Define ‘children’ for me. I like having freshly killed children of cows and chickens. Now define rights for humans as different than those for other animal species.

    Empathy did not evolve in humans. it evolved long before modern human apes as it is present in many other mammalian species. Empathy cannot be a source of humanist reasoning by means of being a ‘human’ trait. It is a mammalian trait if not even other types of species. It is therefore a trait of life on this planet in general terms. Remember that universal or near universal agreement on something does not make it objective. It only makes it a widely held subjective value.

    Evolution has given us a strongly typed pre-condition as to how the chemical balance in our bodies works. We nearly universally are repelled by somethings, and attracted to others. Empathy pushes all the right chemical buttons and we’re off. Like the hormones that push us to sexual activity other chemicals push us to seek rewards by performing other actions. You can’t force your body to joyfully eat something which you despise the taste of. LIkewise, you feel guilt, shame, or some other ‘downer’ feeling when you see a situation for which you have empathy for the victim and cannot do anything about it. To avoid that downer feeling or pain we seek to right what empathy tells us is wrong. Not every human has empathy, but most of us do and most of us have it in generally the same quantities. Our subjective feelings and actions are based on common levels of chemical drive (empathy if you will). Because all machines of a given type act the same way does not mean that they are controlled from some external guidance.

    There are no objective moral values, they just sometimes seem that way.

  3. Yes, your comment is an excellent addition to my post. I left out of my post the whole idea that there are a lot of complexities involved in moral questions, the “trolley problem” being a famous example. You bring up a good one, and to be honest I hadn’t thought through my example enough and had incorrectly thought it was impervious to complexities. However, if we remove such complexities such as balancing the death of others against the killing of a child it seems we could objectively reason that killing a child is wrong given certain foundational building blocks of moral values as I described. Does this seem right? This was what I was trying to get at at least – that we could objectively conclude that certain things are wrong given basic foundational beliefs.

    Also, since my post is really aimed at the popular theist questioning, the truth of the matter is that trolley type problems of morality are difficult and complex in exactly the same way whether or not one is a theist. Any ideas here?

  4. Very good points myatheistlife. My main point here was that if we were to start from foundational statements about goals of contentment and happiness that are common to humans then from that we could objectively build our way up to rules that end up by definition fitting into the category of morality (although then we could go on a tangent in trying to define what the word morality really means, but I’m not sure that would be productive).

    We could certainly question the objectivity of the goals of contentment and happiness (just as you have rightfully questioned the validity of empathy being a common goal of all humans), although it would be tougher to say that rational humans wouldn’t desire those goals, but nothing is foolproof and we can certainly question absolutely any premise that we make (as I have alluded to in some of my initial posts). At some point we run into impracticality, and again my main point here was to say that if we start with a very basic foundational set of statements then we could build objectively from there to moral rules.

  5. Yes, I would agree that if we remove the complexities, murdering a child is objectively immoral. Which leads to the “why”. I think it’s rather obvious that murdering one’s future is counterproductive, and therefore could be the psychological motive behind rendering this action as objectively immoral. And I’m sure there are many more reasons.

    I think your argument was very clear and well presented; I understood what you were getting at. I always think it’s nice to point out something that could make the argument more robust, even if it’s for my own self-development. I encourage this on my own posts, recognizing that we rarely cover all of the bases.

    I see no difference between the standard at which we measure objectivity, with respect to a theist and an atheist. That said, I think the theist does. However, history shows us that morals are not static – even some that were once considered to be “objective” have reversed their bearing. So if a theist wishes to make an argument in support of objective morals, they have a tough road ahead of them, but not an impossible one. The only thing that has been proven impossible so far, is demonstrating that a supernatural entity is the cause behind it.

  6. Think of an overlapping sort of quilt. There are questions on morality which have the same answer in all cultures. I consider those objective. Everything else is subjective relative to culture.

  7. I once read somewhere that morality was created in human’s minds as a result of identifying favorable circumstances as opposed to unfavorable ones. For example, if stealing and killing was not helpful in trying to build a peaceful community, then they were considered wrong or evil. However, I personally believe that there is an outside source that has given us the sense of morality. I don’t think we create morality, but it is actually manifested and discovered in our actions.

  8. R.L. – I really appreciate you taking the time to comment here. I also highly encourage comments which add to and even correct things I say. I felt all of your comments here as well as everyone else’s on this post has been very constructive.

    My day job has nothing to do with these kinds of discussions (I’m an engineer), and I’m truly a layperson to these things so the comments help clarify things for me as well as for anyone who might be reading.

    I plan on adding a little more to some of the things discussed here in my next post as well. Short and skinny is that I have never really been totally convinced of the whole morality being objective statement (although again I feel the question could be interpreted in different ways), but I wanted to note in this post some interesting perspectives I had read and heard that caused me to realize that if we do define assumptions and agree to those then certain things can objectively follow – both the complexities involved as well as the questioning of the assumptions is where I feel subjectivity might leak in. I’m probably repeating myself but just trying to summarize quickly.

  9. Think of an overlapping sort of quilt. There are questions on morality which have the same answer in all cultures. I consider those objective. Everything else is subjective relative to culture.

    I like your analogy here to the overlapping quilt. I’ve also thought about this idea of morality which is the same across all cultures being those which are objective. Although a couple of other commenters here have rightly suggested that just because there is universal agreement doesn’t necessarily imply objectivity – a good example R.L. Culpeper noted was that history can sometimes change consensus. However that doesn’t mean that consensus (especially given reasoned thinking along with the consensus) doesn’t sway me in any way. It certainly causes me to put a higher level of certainty in adopting that same consensus view, again especially if good reasoning comes along with it.

  10. Noel: I have to admit I’m a lot less convinced of this – but frankly I’m not really sure that we have good ways of determining whether or not that outside source exists or not. My reasoning for why I am less convinced is a bit of a tangent and I do intend to discuss this in future posts. Either way, I certainly welcome your opinion. Thanks for commenting.

  11. Pingback: Morality Posts – Part 2 | Truth Is Elusive

  12. Pingback: Morality Posts – Moral Nihilism | Truth Is Elusive

  13. Pingback: Learning in Conversation | russell & pascal

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