Based on the title of this blog post, I am sure you can guess that I am a ton of fun at parties!
It has been said, by various people, of various factions, and of varying backgrounds, that the tenets of morality exist beyond the realm of science. In fact, some have said that morality exists EXCLUSIVELY within the realm of religion. I have been told by those of strong religious backgrounds that atheism, and by extension, atheists have absolutely nothing to say on the topic of morality.
I am here to dispel that notion, because I think it is unfair.
First of all, atheism itself is not a “world view”. It is a view on religion, and there is no reason to extend it beyond that. For some reason, people of religion have said that since religion gives them their views on morality, atheism takes views of morality away, as though atheism covers the same ground religion does. It does not; atheism, while certainly a view on religion, is not a branch of religion as one who is religious might define it. To give a practical example, among Christians, there are many sects. Many of the sects of religions believe different things. Well, atheism, when compared to this form of Christianity, there are atheists who believe any wide number of things.
So where does morality come from? One who is religious might say The Bible, though having read only two parts of it for their reference material (Exodus 20, in which the ten commandments are laid out, or from “The Golden Rule”). These are considered valid forms of reference material because these moral tenets were provided by God, who defines morality.
Why does God get to define morality? I mean, if one reads the full Old Testament, one finds incredible violence, and wanton breaches of the Ten Commandments by those that God himself has identified as Just and Righteous. So, by reading the Old Testament, we find that God himself puts little stock by his own moral tenets. I mean, reading the book of Judges, one finds that God commands (and not just once) that His own people slaughter the men, children, livestock, take the women as slaves. destroy property.
God, the being who (by theistic definition) defines morality, broke… How many commandments? Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods, (presumably) thou shalt not commit adultery (why else would only the women be taken?). To me, this is not OK, but perhaps I am the crazy one.
So I’ve covered Western Theistic Morality. What other types of objective morality are there?
There is scientific objective morality. I will warn you, it is not ‘romantic’. It was not laid down by a loving creator. This is purely fact-based reasoning for why non-theistic persons would express strong moral reasoning.
The reason a non-theistic person might display morality is for reasons of the principle of “reciprocal morality.” This is discussed in some depth by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, and by Sam Harris in The Moral Landscape. The very short version is that I do something nice for someone else in the hopes that someone else will do something nice for me. Like I said, this is hardly a romantic notion, but it works in the form of reasoned morality.
But why might science say we should be moral at all? Well, that comes down to the Biological Imperative. Our entire goal, as living organisms, is to pass our genes onto the next generation, and by doing so survive into immortality through the proxy of our offspring. Let’s give a large-scale real world example, then:
We are on the brink of war, The United States and China are facing off in a Nuclear Standoff. I control the power to press the button for USA, and Tsz-Chung holds the button for China. If I press the button first, I am guaranteed a better outcome than China, and if Tsz-Chung presses the button first, China will come out ahead. The moral option, of course, is for both of us to not press the button, allowing for maximum survival on both sides (holy shit, I just accidentally recreated the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Neat.).
Objective morality states that to maximize my gene’s chances of passing to my offspring is for me to survive, and the same is true for Tsz-Chung. If Tsz-Chung presses the button, there is a chance USA will retaliate, and he will die. If I press the button, there is a chance China will retaliate, and I will die. In either case, there is a chance that the genes of the person holding the button pass on.
What is the best case scenario for me, the button holder? I do not press the button, for that would reduce my chances of passing along my genetic material. The same is true for Tsz-Chung.
Morally speaking, using theistic morality, I should do unto him as he would do unto me. Simple, the Golden Rule, and neither presses the button.
Speaking from a non-theistic morality, I want to maximize my chances of survival, and that maximizes Tsz-Chung’s chances for survival.
Both have the same outcome, but non-theistic morality does not require a supernatural arbitrator.
It will likely never happen, but consider this scenario:
Chuck says “If it weren’t for God, I would kill Mark.”
Science proves that God doesn’t exist.
Chuck kills Mark.
The problem with any moral framework that requires a “soft” (in this case, removable) underpinnings is prone to failure.
Non-theistic morality has a soft underpinning, there is some considerations to make there. If someone does not want to be alive, the biological imperative no longer applies. That is a weakness, but there are religious people who kill or steal, so even the perfect moral framework does not qualify as a prison, forcing adherents to make certain decisions. There is nothing that can FORCE a person to be moral.
The question is this: Do I require objective reasons for morality? Personally, I do not. I know I like to be happy, and do not like to be sad. I assume others, for the most part, feel similarly. If I can be happy without making others sad, and others can be happy without making me sad, everyone wins, because we all get to be happy. To me, it seems simple.
Why is morality such a complicated question?
The thing is that humans are complicated. There might be 50 things that could make a person happy. Some of those might make someone else sad. I’d say, as a moral adviser, that we simply take the things that make us happy without making others sad, and stick to those. We ignore the things that make others sad.
If only the world were so simple…
To be fair, The Golden Rule is a very good moral guideline. I do not have to believe in the God of Abraham to see that. Why should I?
By that same token, I respect the precepts of Jainism perhaps even more. The core of Jainism is basically “You shall not, through action or inaction, cause harm to any other living being.” Yes, that requires vegetarianism (which I obviously am not), but I respect it a great deal as a supreme moral code.