The Great Big Arguments #7: Morality

“Only humans are aware of having a stake in the moral and ethical parameters within which we live our lives. That’s why we’ve worked so hard to shape them over thousands of years, using various forms of authority from self-contained logic to force to claims of divine backing to support one adjustment over another.”

The argument, as straightforwardly put by the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy:
1. Moral facts exist.
2. Moral facts have the properties of being objective and non-natural.
3. The best explanation of there being objective and non-natural moral facts is provided by theism.
4. Therefore the existence of moral facts provides good grounds for thinking theism is true.

A common opinion of the religious is that a person can’t be good without God. This argument goes a step further and says that because we know what is good and right and what is wrong, there must be a God.

A more widely used name for a “moral fact” is a “moral absolute” or “absolute moral”. It’s a standing judgement that something is either right or wrong, no matter what. In practical terms, it is what it is regardless of what people think. It’s true anywhere in the world, at any time. It’s the moral equivalent of a logical axiom or a fundamental universal constant.

Since the existence of moral facts is the first premise, and the second premise depends on it, the whole thing hinges on whether they can actually be established. So how do apologists go about doing this? Most of the time, they point out moral judgements which nearly everyone agrees on, such as that murder, rape or an event like the Holocaust is/was bad and wrong.

This won’t do, because moral facts or absolutes as described in these arguments are supposed to be independent of human beings. They’re specific properties of the universe like the laws of physics or logic, written into it by a god. If every human being on Earth disagreed with one (from the religious perspective, if all of humanity turned against God), it would still stand. Therefore the true moral absolutes (if any) could be completely at odds with near-universal human opinions, and so the fact that there are near-universal human moral opinions doesn’t make them absolutes. It just means humans have things in common.

A blogger arguing for moral absolutes challenged me to come up with a reasonable way to see the Holocaust (among other horrible actions) as a good thing. The implication was that if I failed, our near-universal condemnation of the Holocaust had to be based on a moral absolute. That’s wrong, as I’ve just explained, but I took him up on it anyway. All I had to do to contradict him was step outside of the human race and consider the Holocaust from the perspective of ants, or termites. Fewer Jews in Germany meant more abandoned houses in the ghettos, so more food and living space for bugs of all kinds. The Holocaust was so obviously wrong to humans, but if it loses its tragedy when exclusively human concerns are ignored then that’s hardly an absolute.

Only humans are aware of having a stake in the moral and ethical parameters within which we live our lives. That’s why we’ve worked so hard to shape them over thousands of years, supporting one adjustment over another with various forms of authority from self-contained logic to force to claims of divine backing. It appears that we’ve done it all ourselves, completely independent and ignorant of what any true absolute moral facts might be.


21 thoughts on “The Great Big Arguments #7: Morality”

  1. W’dup LX

    I think Christians who think “you can’t be morale without God” are missing the point. The question should be “where do morale’s come from”?

    It is to easy to point out all the Priests and Preachers who are involved in sexual abuse and then say you need God to be morale. Or a “godless” person who volunteers his/her time to help those less fortunate.

    So I’d say we don’t need God to be morale, but I also think it’s impossible to say something is morale or not. What do we base it upon? Who has the authority to deem what is “morale”?

    The only way something could be right or wrong is if there is an absolute right and wrong. And the only absolute for something like that is God? We (Christians) believe God has implanted his knowledge inside of us and given us a conscience. That doesn’t mean we need Him to be morale, it means we need Him to know the difference between right and wrong.

    Just my take, feeno

  2. That’s a common argument, Feeno, and it’s also pretty obvious: without absolute right and wrong, right and wrong are not absolute. However, that doesn’t make them completely unreliable. We can base concepts of right and wrong on things which while not absolute are objective and reasonable: the ethic of reciprocity (Golden Rule), the minimisation of harm, human empathy, the law, history and so on. They give us, at the very least, a reasonable basis for our actions.

    This combination must seem to you to be a lesser option, given the choice between that and the absolute basis for morality that God offers. Where the guiding principles above really are one up on God is that they’re actually known to be present as concepts, whereas God as an entity may not exist at all. Crediting God with human conscience doesn’t establish His reality. (Considering how much the consciences of different people conflict on some issues, for instance abortion, it’s doubtful that our consciences were all set up by the same guy anyway.) Even if He is there, there’s no guarantee that current human interpretations of His instructions are anywhere near the mark.

    Absolute morality would be great if we actually knew for sure 1. that it existed and 2. what it said. We don’t, and possibly can’t, so we do without.

  3. SMARTLX – I think it is a mistake for atheists to use terms such as ‘morality’ and ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. I realise that they are convenient short-hands but I do think that they are misleading, even cheating, given what the atheist believes.

    Surely what an atheist actually means when they say that a certain behaviour is ‘wrong’ is just that they don’t like that behaviour or that they would prefer that the behaviour not be done. However the word ‘wrong’ has inherent in it the sense of there being an objective offence, rather than simply there being a dislike or lack of preference for some behaviour.

    So, to be consistent I believe atheists should say things like, ‘I don’t like children being raped and would prefer it didn’t happen’, rather than saying, ‘Rape of children is wrong.’

    Of course the former way of putting it sounds much weaker than the latter, but if atheists want to be honest, if they have a preference for being regarded as honest, then they should use language correctly.

    Further, I don’t think this changes no matter how many people may be of the same opinion. It still remains the case that it is just a whole lot of people saying that they don’t like something. If you want to claim that a majority of people not liking some behaviour that therefore makes the behaviour ‘wrong’, I think that still distorts the usual meaning of ‘wrong’.

  4. Only if you think that’s all “wrong” means without a god.

    I agree that “right” and “wrong” in the moral sense are a kind of shorthand (in the mathematical sense they’re quite concrete), but they’re shorthand for more than just personal preference or group preference.

    Depending on context, “wrong” can be shorthand for:

    – “This act is against the law for a good reason and a court would happily imprison you for it.”
    – “This act harms more people than is necessary, for no additional benefit.”
    – “This act is purely an act of vengeance; it serves no other purpose.”
    – “This person wouldn’t want it done to him/her any more than I’d want it done to me.”

    Similarly, “right” means more than “preferred”, for example:
    – “This willing act of sacrifice has benefited many.”
    – “If everyone did this, there would be less suffering in the world.”
    – “A great wrong was undone, or at least balanced out, by this act.”

    Though some are subjective, most of those would be statements of fact based on objective criteria, and would justify the use of “right” or “wrong” to anyone except those who demand an absolute authority on such matters. Further, the intended meaning is perfectly obvious in most cases. Therefore the words “right” and “wrong” make extraordinarily good shorthand, which is what makes them worth using.

    I don’t think it’s dishonest for an atheist to use them, because the fact that it’s an atheist tells you that they’re not meant to imply the power of divine authority. I wouldn’t presume, or bother.

  5. The flipside of this has just struck me.

    When believers say something is “right” or “wrong” and they really do mean nothing more than that God said so, they’re making statements which are as unsupported and are as unconvincing to non-believers as the existence of God himself.

    So when believers feel the need to convince non-believers that something is wrong, for example same-sex marriage, how do they do it? Solely by getting people to dislike the idea of it? No. They argue from objective platforms like the welfare of children, and use secular terms like “slippery slope”. Even if you’re not religious, they conclude, you have to admit this is wrong.

    There you have it, really. The religious right know very well the meanings besides personal preference which the non-religious ascribe to the words “right” and “wrong”, because they use these meanings to get their points across to the world at large. So the only meaning which is exclusively for the use of the religious is that God said so, and you’re welcome to that one. The words, however, are for everyone.

  6. You say that ‘wrong’ can be shorthand for “this act is against the law for a good reason”.

    Are you suggesting here that there is an equivalence between the law and morality? Surely not. There are many behaviours that many people regard as being wrong yet there is no law against them, eg. greed, selfishness, lying, adultery, etc and there are laws that many people regard as being wrong, otherwise there would never be any push for law reform.

    You also say that ‘wrong’ can be shorthand for ‘this act harms more people than is necessary . . .’. But again, ‘this harms more people than is necessary’ is only an expression of a preference. Some, perhaps most people, would say that they prefer that more people should not be harmed than necessary. But just because that may be their preference does not make harming more people than necessary, ‘wrong’.

    The same is true of acts of vengeance – yes, some people may prefer others not do acts of vengeance but that does not somehow make vengeance objectively ‘wrong’. Also, people prefer that certain things not be done to them, but if those things are still done, that doesn’t make the doing of them ‘wrong’.
    You refer to “objective criteria” for morality – could you please specify just what those criteria are?

    You seem to disparage the notion of “absolute criteria” for right and wrong, but if that notion is disbanded, how do you avoid collapsing into complete moral relativism? So far in what you have written I don’t see that you have been able to establish any of your “right” and “wrong” claims as being anything more than preferences.

  7. Morality and the law are not equivalent, as you say, and breaking the law need not always be wrong, but many laws have been enacted to prevent or punish certain wrongs. Murder is wrong according to almost any ethical system going, not just the religious ones, and surprise surprise, it’s usually illegal too.

    “This act harms more people than is necessary…” is based on the principle of minimisation of harm, and that’s one objective criterion of many.

    Objective criteria are what we actually know we have to work with, as opposed to absolute criteria. They need not be perfect or unchallengeable – which is good because they aren’t -merely reliable to some extent. By definition they’re based on “objects” – minimisation of harm uses the amount of harm going on, the law is entirely codified and binary (either you’re breaking it or you’re not), the ethic of reciprocity (and, more generally, “fairness” and “justice”) compares the merits of different acts, history supplies us with innumerable acts and their consequences.

    To minimise harm, using anaesthetic for surgery is right and using an industrial chainsaw is wrong. Harm is an object, a quantity to be specific, which is affected by one’s actions and can therefore be controlled.

    The initial choice to minimise harm is, as you say, a preference. The objective basis is, therefore, itself based on a subjective choice. That doesn’t stop it from being objective, because there’s still an “object” there. Call it a supported preference. This is why ultimate subjectivism in the absence of anything absolute is not necessarily a “collapse”. We humans feel a lot better about the choices we make if we’ve based them on something solid, so there will always be agreed objective constructs to inform these choices.

    Back to your initial point, you don’t think preference has merit with respect to right and wrong no matter how many people agree, but what if nearly the whole human race does? Rape, for example, is wrong to just about everyone except those who engage in it. There’s no practical difference between this state of affairs and an absolute pronouncement against rape by a deity, as far as the human race is concerned, unless the deity actually does something about it. The human-only version is ultimately subjective, but it still works. Is this a collapse? Hardly. Rape is wrong to humans, and who cares what the rest of the universe thinks.

    Another issue, such as abortion, divides the human race bitterly. That means there is no obvious position for a human being to take, and its merits must be considered carefully. That’s the dangerous thing about a perceived absolute judgement: it doesn’t invite careful consideration in the slightest. What if it’s not the right one according to any other objective system?

  8. You say that “many laws have been enacted to prevent or punish certain wrongs”, but in the context of this discussion that is simply to beg the question. Is something wrong just because the law says so, or if not, how do the lawmakers know something is wrong in order to pass a law against it?

    You say that the principle of minimisation of harm is one objective criterion of many. Who says it is? Obviously you do, but without wanting to be rude, who are you to say so?

    You say that “Objective criteria are what we actually know we have to work with”. How do we “actually know” these criteria? You seem to be making unsubstantiated assertions which do not establish your case.

    You say your objective criteria are “merely reliable” – what does that mean? Reliable according to whose or what standard?

    There may be some objectivity in measuring the amount of harm experienced, but that is not the point here – what is needed is a determination that causing harm, of whatever amount, is objectively wrong. The same goes with fairness and justice – you have to show that it is objectively wrong to be unfair or unjust, rather than just assume it.

    What do you say to the person you believe is being unfair or unjust? Is it, “I think you are being unfair, therefore you are wrong”? Why shouldn’t they simply say in reply, “I disagree with you.” Where do you go from there?

    Your position ultimately seems to boil down to one of, the majority rules, might makes right. If just about everybody says rape is wrong, it’s okay to call it “wrong” – because we have the power of numbers, we can say that our shared preference attains the apparently more exalted status of being called a moral norm.

    You say that “The human-only version [of morality] is ultimately subjective, but it still works”. Again, this is to beg the question. What does it mean it “works”? You seem to have some unstated ultimate standard you are measuring things against. Hitler would have said his moral code “worked” as would the slave-owners, but I’m sure you would disagree with them. Why though is your assessment any better than theirs?

    You refer to abortion and say that “its merits must be considered carefully”. But what criteria are you going to propose for judging its merits?

    It seems to me that you are presuming that your moral intuitions, in conjunction with like-minded people, are morally correct. The only grounds you appear to have for presuming that to be true is that you think most people agree with you. But just because we may be able to force others to abide by the rules we make up, by our laws or by the strength of our numbers, does not mean that we have established moral truth?

    Do you believe something could be morally wrong even if the great majority of people say it is not wrong? If so, on what basis?

  9. You want to argue point-by-point? Fine.

    Is something wrong just because the law says so, or if not, how do the lawmakers know something is wrong in order to pass a law against it?
    Other objective criteria. Different objective criteria back one another up and increase one’s confidence in a moral choice. The law is a set of agreed rules based on (mostly) secular constitutional declarations of equality, ownership, etc.

    You say that the principle of minimisation of harm is one objective criterion of many. Who says it is?
    Google “harm minimization” and you’ll find it applied all over the world to drug programs trying to keep junkies from killing themselves while using. More generally, it’s an objective criterion because physical harm at least can be measured in relative terms: this drug kills you faster than that, losing the sight in one eye is better than going completely blind.

    How do we “actually know” these criteria?
    We know there are objective criteria as much as we know anything, without getting too philosophical about it, because objects and quantities exist and affect us. Resources, pain, life expectancy and, more subjectively, happiness and social status. We behave as if the latter two exist as much as the former three.

    Reliable according to whose or what standard?
    By “reliable” I mean 1. consistent, and 2. beneficial when applied. Using the Golden Rule predictably involves doing the same kinds of things (help, give, share, respect) and results in similar rewards when others are using it too.

    You have to show that it is objectively wrong to be unfair or unjust, rather than just assume it.
    No you don’t, because we DO assume it. “Unfair” and “unjust” make up some part of the agreed non-religious definition of “wrong”, and “wrong” can be shorthand for either. Once we’ve shown something to be objectively unfair, for example by comparing individual work to rewards, it can be categorised as wrong. You could then challenge this categorisation, but you wouldn’t get far outside of an abstract discussion. it’s normally only the fairness itself that’s challenged.

    Why shouldn’t they simply say in reply, “I disagree with you.” Where do you go from there?
    Think again of the anti-gay-marriage campaigners, who can’t use their scriptures to convince the non-religious. How do they try? By finding other common ground with them, for instance the welfare of children. The fact that we’re all human means that we have common ground somewhere, and this is borne out when different cultures interact. They don’t fight all the time.

    Your position ultimately seems to boil down to one of, the majority rules, might makes right.
    The requisite isn’t majority, it’s near-unanimity.

    If the majority of Americans vote Democrat, the majority might vote Republican the next time so that’s a bad indicator of which policy is really best.

    Rape is different; there is no self-declared minority which thinks it’s right, merely aberrant people who do it regardless, often without trying to justify it until caught. That’s how we can be confident it’s best for people everywhere if rape is permanently branded “wrong”.

    If a view only has support from enough people to make a mere majority, it is not a foregone conclusion and we can’t happily call it “right” or “wrong” forevermore. It needs to be a clearer choice than that.

    Hitler would have said his moral code “worked” as would the slave-owners, but I’m sure you would disagree with them.
    Godwin, I win. Anyway…

    Hitler and the slave-owners imposed their will (not necessarily their morality) on people by force. Only those in power benefited, for a time, while those who worked for them (willingly or otherwise) suffered. One criterion by which we measure whether a group’s morality “works” is whether all parties and most individuals are happy or at least content with it, and the society remains stable. Otherwise you get uprisings, revolutions and war.

    You refer to abortion and say that “its merits must be considered carefully”. But what criteria are you going to propose for judging its merits?
    The welfare of the child, and of the mother, are obvious choices. The sticky bit when considering the child is deciding at what stage there is a child, or a “person”, as opposed to mere tissue.

    But just because we may be able to force others to abide by the rules we make up, by our laws or by the strength of our numbers, does not mean that we have established moral truth?
    The sign of good morals is that you don’t have to force them on people. Again, they’re adopted unanimously rather than forced in by a majority. They do still need to be enforced when individuals go against them in ways that harm others, but that’s because people often do things they know are “wrong”. When they appear in court, they challenge the morality of the law far less often than they claim they didn’t do it. Punishment is the price such people pay for living in a society under a willing social contract.

    Do you believe something could be morally wrong even if the great majority of people say it is not wrong?
    I’m an atheist, Graham. I don’t think the universe itself has been imbued with an opinion on morals, so nothing can be morally wrong in an absolute sense. If the whole human race thinks something isn’t wrong, and no animals, computers or aliens object, then it isn’t wrong as far as we’re concerned. Again, when you say it all falls short of assured “moral truth” you’re looking for an absolute which we have no evidence is there.

    If a minority of people think it is wrong, it’s up to them to convince the rest of the world to apply that label (and again, it is only a label or shorthand). It’s also up to everyone else who’s motivated to challenge that minority.

    Vegetarians are an example of such a minority. Eating meat is wrong to them, but not to others. Without an ultimate arbiter, vegetarians and omnivores must find common moral ground (e.g. the welfare of living animals) if they’re ever to reach agreement. Until then, omnivores don’t use their majority to force meat upon vegetarians and vegetarians don’t poison cattle. Either of those actions, it would be generally agreed, is “wrong”.

  10. SmartLX – what do you say to the person who asks, Why should I be moral?

    Since I do not know all your beliefs I do not want to presume too much, but I would think it is reasonable to say that the following positions are typical of atheists. I’m sure you’ll let me know if you differ on any point!

    The universe has not been intentionally brought into existence; it is something that has just happened to come into being.

    There is no ultimate goal or purpose to the universe; it just is.

    Human beings have just happened to come into existence and there is no ultimate purpose to the existence of human life.

    The reason I draw attention to these points in this discussion of morality is that I don’t think your position takes these fundamental truths of atheism sufficiently into account.

    Back then to my opening question, Why should I be moral – in such a universe?

    Humans just happen to be alive. As artefacts of a universe which just happened to throw them up, humans would appear to have no intrinsic responsibility to anything. In a very broad sense the universe could be said to be our “creator” but it did not intend our existence and it would appear it does not know or care about our existence or non-existence.

    So, somehow some clumps of matter have happened to become “alive” and some have somehow become conscious of the universe around them and some of these we call humans. For a period of time each human being is conscious until he/she dies and then their atoms are scattered and there is nothing but oblivion. During that period of life though, humans usually interact with other humans.

    Some things which other humans do, we like, while other things they do we don’t like. It is evident to us that we can exert considerable influence and control over each other’s behaviour so as to try and reduce the amount of things we don’t like happening to us. This can be achieved by a range of means including by making up the idea that some behavious are “wrong” and therefore shouldn’t be done.

    Since the stuff of the universe does not appear to have generated any “moral rules”, it would appear that humans are free to generate whatever moral principles they like. Therefore if some people prefer that behaviour A not be allowed, and they can get most other people to agree with them, then that behaviour can be declared to be “wrong” or “immoral” and perhaps be made illegal and punishable if committed.

    What needs to be recognised here is that the notions of “wrong”, “right”, and “immoral” are nothing but social constructs. Of course certain behaviours can be declared to be “wrong” but that behaviour is actually not wrong in an absolute sense because ultimately there is nothing that is right or wrong.

    Amorality is the true state of things in the universe and all moral claims are pure fictions created simply for purposes of convenience.

    Now such moral fictions may “work” quite well in terms of generating an environment where most human beings can live with less hassle and longer life-expectancy. However, it is the case that the use of moral language is in itself a deception.

    This deception could be ameliorated somewhat if before any moral statement a preface such as, “according to me/us (whoever ‘us’ may happen to be) behaviour A is ‘wrong’”. But of course we don’t want to talk like that because that would give the game away. We want people to think that certain things are really wrong so that they won’t do them and make life difficult for us. So we maintain the moral charade – and of course there is nothing wrong with maintaining that deception anyway because there is nothing wrong with anything!

    But if we have the nerve we can pull back the curtain of deception and see the reality:
    Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot (I’ll avoid H this time!) did nothing wrong and Lincoln, Churchill and Mandela did nothing right.
    We deprive people of their freedom and lock them in jail not because they have done anything wrong (except on our own invented terms) but for our own convenience.
    There is no basis for assuming that one culture’s moral values are more superior than another’s: Africans can as meaningfully say that female genital mutilation is “right” as westerners can say it is “wrong”.
    There is no possibility of genuine moral progress as there is no goal (apart from any we happen to choose to make up) for us to progress towards. Cannibals, slave traders, torturers and modern liberal democrats are ultimately morally equivalent in an amoral universe.
    It makes no difference in the end how much we choose to comply or not comply with the made-up moral code of our particular culture, we all end up in oblivion anyway.
    If we can get away with it (whatever ‘it’ may be – theft, murder, anything), there is no logical reason not to do so.

    As Dawkins put it in River Out of Eden: “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”

  11. Firstly, go here and read what I wrote to a woman who actually did ask why she should be moral. I made a case for the practical benefits of altruism to demonstrate that acting “moral” makes sense in a godless world even if you don’t care about anyone but yourself, let alone if you do care about others. It was apparently well-received. (Scroll down to find my piece.)

    Your three points from the atheist position are correct, except that the possibility remains that the universe has always existed in some form and has never “come into being”. What’s relevant to this discussion is the lack of intention.

    I’ve agreed with you from the beginning that “right”, “wrong” and morality as a whole are in reality mere labels, conventions, shorthand or, as you now put it, social constructs. They can never be more than that until some absolute moral authority is established as real. The fact remains that they’re extraordinarily effective social constructs which help us to live our lives in relative peace and co-operation when we apply them to ourselves and others.

    Your argument appears to be three-fold. Likewise I’m sure you’ll tell me if I’ve misrepresented something. Your position, according to me, is in italics.

    1. An intrinsic part of the definitions of the words “right” and “wrong” is that they are absolute and universal, so it’s deceptive and dishonest to use the words without qualifying them unless you believe in absolute right and wrong.

    I don’t define “right” and “wrong” in those terms. I’m not trying to trick anyone into believing that earthly reasons translate into ethereal morality. I’m not pretending to be supported by a god. I’m open about the fact that the universe does not share my views on things, and prepared for my judgements to be challenged. If there’s a good reason why I’ve actually misjudged something, I want to know about it.

    I’m not the only one who, by your logic, should be required to qualify the words. Where I would say “wrong according to these people, or this principle” you would say “wrong according to what I think my particular supposed God’s take on it would be”. The basis that may not exist at all is not, in my mind, more deserving of a free pass than the basis which may be subjective.

    2. Atheists can’t condemn even the worst deeds in history as wrong, because to them nothing really is.
    If there is no absolute right and wrong, it’s a trivial revelation that atrocities aren’t absolutely wrong. What they are, in the cases of much of what the dictators did, is wrong according to every system of ethics ever devised by humans, and any objective criteria you care to apply, so there’s no practical difference. My reaction is the same as yours.

    What’s more, since Pol Pot, etc. were not religious, criticism of their deeds based on secular criteria as opposed to religious might actually have meant something to them, had they been inclined to listen. In Hitler’s case (Godwin only applies to the first mention) German priests were recruited to preach state policy, so religious condemnation didn’t help. Even now, many neo-Nazis are fiercely Christian, and convinced that their aims are morally right.

    Slavery, torture, cannibalism and female genital mutilation go against simple, near-universal principles of freedom, authority over one’s body and avoidance of unnecessary harm, so they’re easy to condemn in these terms. Again, at least three of the four have occurred (and at least one still does) under religious auspices. Torture was a staple of the Spanish Inquisition. Slavery was defended to the end by Confederates with Bibles.

    I’m not saying that what you would probably call “true Christians” condone these things. I’m saying that even when people accept that absolute right and wrong exist, no one can say exactly what they are and whether they apply without being challenged, so secular judgements are at least as worthy and defensible.

    3. Without an absolute moral authority, and consequences for our actions in an afterlife, there is no reason not to take whatever selfish actions we can get away with.
    Then why aren’t millions of atheists running riot all over the world? Because there are plenty of reasons to behave.

    Selfish, pragmatic ones out of the way first. Getting caught in selfish acts has serious consequences, and one can never be sure that what we think we can get away with is an accurate assessment. Altruistic acts are often rewarded, and thus have a certain selfish worth.

    Besides that, it feels good to be kind to others, either actively through donation or sacrifice or passively by not taking advantage. That good feeling, once experienced, is powerful motivation.

    Finally, the reason many people don’t act selfishly is that they are not selfish. You seem to think that everyone is just dying to take what they want from the world and leave it bleeding, but most people are quite content to be a productive part of it. As for those who are supremely selfish and sociopathic, good luck getting to them by any means.

    Your problem when trying to understand the non-religious, Graham, is that you impose a religious mentality on them and then cut a god-shaped hole in it. You imagine that we rely on the illusion of an absolute, and everything collapses without a supposedly real one. We don’t count on this invisible means of support. We make the best of what we can observe, measure, deduce and agree upon, working towards various ideals but never really expecting to match them. If it doesn’t do the job we keep at it.

  12. I was intrigued by what you wrote on that other post you directed me to (and I think it was a man not a woman you were replying to – a woman raping another woman won’t cause a child to come into the world!).

    That man was saying he was considering committing kidnap, rape and murder, yet in your reply to him you didn’t once say directly that you thought such actions would be wrong. I wonder why? Rather you encouraged him to be altruistic so as to try and get the most out of life.

    I must take strong issue with your use of “altruism” in this way – I know it is not just you who does this but all those who try to see an evolutionary role in ethics.

    By definition, altruistic behaviour is behaviour that is not carried out for our own interests but rather for the benefit of others. Indeed, it is arguable that for behaviour to be genuinely altruistic it must be done at some significant cost to ourselves. Of course it may be the case that we do feel good for having helped others but it is not altruism if we are doing the action for our own benefit rather than simply to help someone else.

    So unless the traditional meaning of the word altruism is corrupted to mean something else, far from making sense in evolutionary terms it is the exact opposite. The person who jumps into the sea to try and save the drowning child, but who ends up drowning themself, gains no material benefit. And the person who helps a slave escape, but who gets caught doing so, may spend years in jail and the rest of their life shunned by their community for their action.

    No, what you seem to be suggesting to this person is, help others so that you will in turn feel good about yourself. That sounds like dressed-up self-interest masquerading as altruism.

    Yes, you have correctly identified my position at point 1and I believe that is how people generally understand these terms. That may be changing though because it is not so unusual now to hear people say things like, that be wrong for you but it is right for me. But even though it may be more common to hear that said I think most people still feel uncomfortable with such claims.

    You say you are not trying to trick anyone by failing to explain that your use of “wrong” is completely relativistic. I am willing to accept that that is not your intention then, but nevertheless I believe that people are still being misled by you.

    Try for a while, whenever you use a moral term, to explain just what it is you mean by it, and see how people react. Something like, “When I say that murder is “wrong” what I am saying is that, murder is not actually wrong in an absolute sense because there are no absolute moral values, but rather, I call it “wrong” because I, and other like-minded people, have a preference to not be murdered or to see others murdered. So we use the word “wrong” simply as a strong way of indicating that we don’t like such behaviour. Of course the person who wants to commit murder has as much “right” as I do to make up a “moral code” and in their code it could be “right” for them to commit murder. In fact their code would be just as valid as mine, given that there are no absolute values. However because my code is supported by more people than theirs, I can be confident that my code can be enforced. So if they commit murder, even though they will not have done anything wrong in an absolute sense, most people seem to prefer the code I advocate and so they will say that the murderer has done “wrong”. And we can pass a law and lock that person up for life even though they have simply gone against our preference.”

    When it comes to making moral judgments in an atheistic universe, a person cannot be mistaken. Whatever one person decides is “right” is as good as anyone else’s judgment, even though another person may say the same behaviour is “wrong”.

    For some reason you seem to think that simply having most people agree about a moral value somehow transforms it from being a relative value to something more weighty. No, it doesn’t – it remains nothing more than a mass preference, whatever they may choose to call it. In a universe without absolute value, if one person says that a particular behaviour is “right” that is no more or less a valid claim even if everyone else in the world says the same behaviour is “wrong”.

    So I would disagree with you on 2. – that is not my position. Of course atheists can condemn any behaviour they like. My whole point though is that they have no principled basis for saying that those who disagree with them about the morality of an act are wrong.

    Again you refer to “objective criteria”. I don’t think you really responded to my comment about that previously so I’ll try again.

    Yes, we can measure to some extent the amount of suffering experienced and so there may be some objectivity about that, but in the absence of absolute values there is no objective way to measure whether causing any level of suffering is right or wrong. Saying that causing suffering is wrong is a completely subjective claim.

    There are no objective criteria for establishing moral values in a universe without absolute values. “Near-universal principles of freedom, authority over one’s body and avoidance of unnecessary harm,” are not objective criteria. They are totally subjective, made-up criteria, no matter how near universal they may be.

    Re 3. – in no way have I suggested that atheists ought to be running amuck, not at all. All I am saying is that if atheism is true there is no principled basis for atheists to say that any behaviour is “wrong”, as per everything I’ve said previously.

    You say there are pragmatic reasons for not doing things deemed “wrong” but there are likely to have been very many, many occasions where people have done such “wrong” things and never been caught. So if the odds are very favourable for getting away with it, there goes your pragmatic reason not to do it.

    You say, “it feels good to be kind to others” but some would say it feels good to be mean and cruel to others. Presumably you would try to denigrate such people by using a label such as sociopath for them. I would suggest though that the truest thing you could say would simply be that they are different. In a universe where people have come into existence completely unintentionally, without any purpose, and without any absolute values, no person is better or worse than another, whatever they do – they are just different.

    So I stand by 3.

    In conclusion then: I am not saying anything about how atheists ought to behave. I am just encouraging you to be consistent according to your own beliefs. I say “encourage” and not anything stronger because if atheists are correct then there are no things you or anyone else ought to do.

    If you want to be inconsistent then there is nothing “wrong” with that in an absolute sense in your universe. But neither is there anything “wrong”, in an absolute sense, with a person murdering your mother, in such a universe.

  13. You’re right, it was a man. Re-reading it after a while, I had thought he was referring to himself when he talked about 40-year-old women.

    Anyway, the first thing I did after addressing his druidic beliefs was to warn him of the physical consequences of his planned deeds, referring to that which he still seemed to find valuable: his own remaining life and opportunities. THEN I talked up the rewards of altruism. If someone’s seriously considering doing something that awful, calling it wrong won’t have much effect no matter how you back it up.

    Regarding altruism itself, you fail to realise its original evolutionary benefit. We evolved the instinct to help those around us, because for most of our evolutionary history all those around us were our own close relatives and we were assisting in the survival of our own DNA. Even giving our lives for others was good for the genes of the family, then the tribe.

    That instinct hasn’t changed with the times, so we find the urge to help those around us transferred to strangers when we’re not with our kin. True altruism, as you see it, has possibly outlived its Darwinian application in the modern, mingled world, but it still makes us feel good.

    The urge to be altruistic does indeed spring from a desire to serve one’s own interests, whether to help those one cares about, to achieve the good feeling itself or to please one’s god. Therefore it’s not entirely altruistic, but it is in most cases of more benefit to others than it is to oneself. If that’s selfish, it’s a better type of selfishness than some.

    Try for a while, whenever you use a moral term, to explain just what it is you mean by it, and see how people react.
    I’m not actually in the habit of using moral terms in everyday life; it’s really only when I’m challenged on them here. If I did so just for the hell of it, and explained my moral concept from scratch each time to boot, people would think I was mad even if they agreed with me. Likewise, see if you don’t get people tearing down your god (or at least your understanding of your god) if you lay out your divine moral foundation after a judgement. Unless in everyday life you only, literally, preach to the converted.

    I did mean that you think atheists have no basis to condemn acts, and thus can’t condemn them in a way that means anything.

    If nearly everyone agrees on a moral issue, it’s still technically relative and subjective, yes…but nearly everyone agrees on it. That has a practical weight if not a conceptual one. It means it’s either right or wrong as far as anybody is concerned. It means that people can confidently behave as if it is absolute, knowing that it isn’t, and the world will still function.

    If you achieve that unanimity, which has now happened with a great many issues like murder and rape, the only way this is a problem is if a larger authority overrides it, e.g. a god. And the funny thing is, religions too happen to agree on these universally judged issues such as murder and rape.

    So yes, despite your admission that there is “some objectivity”, even universally accepted criteria are ultimately subjective. And it doesn’t matter unless you can establish not only that there’s a higher power but that it disagrees with everybody.

    On #3, there are principled bases on which atheists can and do base their morality, though the principles themselves are subjective. But does actual behaviour mean nothing to you? If an atheist behaves well for what you see as a false reason, that doesn’t change the fact that the atheist is behaving well. What is morality for if not to inform behaviour? It’s not there for its own sake.

    No given reason not to do a bad deed will stop everyone from doing it, and that includes divine morality. The risk of getting caught isn’t perfect, but it’s there and you don’t have to wait until you’re dead to discover the consequences.

    My usual word for sadists and others who revel in the suffering of others isn’t “sociopath”, though they can be identified; it’s “aberration”. This literally means deviation from the norm, the norm being nearly everybody else. Sheer weight of mathematics is on my side here, as there are at most 5% clinically certifiable sociopaths about. And if you’re judging a moral system for its lack of effect on such people, have you tried preaching the Word to one lately?

    Look, I’ll say it out loud, so you don’t still think I’m in denial. In this universe where we live, there is nothing “wrong”, in an absolute sense, with a person murdering my (lovely if you meet her) mother. My point is, so what? Firstly, it’s still wrong in enough subjective but well-accepted ways that I continue to feel justified in using the word “wrong” in front of other people. Secondly, would the lack of an absolute stop the one who did it from feeling remorse, from being pursued and arrested, from being convicted, from spending his or her life in prison? No, that would depend entirely on the type of murderer, the skill of the police, etc. Absolute morals, if they do exist, are irrelevant until they are revealed and enforced.

  14. Ah well, SmartLX, I don’t think we are getting very far. I don’t feel you are really getting the points I’m trying to make and you probably think the same about me. Maybe though if any third parties read our discussion they will find it helpful.

    I can’t resist making a few last comments though. It seems to me that what I believe is loose and misleading use of language seriously hinders helpful discussion. I believe that has been done with the way that words like “altruism” and “right” and “wrong” have been used, as I’ve already outlined.

    I think it happened again in this last reply. You referred to “evolutionary benefit”. That is a very loaded expression and given your base views about the universe it must be wrong or at the very least highly misleading. It has implications of there being some sort of goal and of there being intentional movement toward it. But there is no goal and things merely happen.

    You say that having nearly everyone agree on some moral issue has practical weight if not conceptual weight, and perhaps that comment sums up our primary difference. I am concerned to establish what, if any, is the conceptual basis for morality in an atheistic universe, whereas your position appears to me to boil down to one of simply asserting that might makes right – if most people agree on something we can force our view on the dissenters, regardless of the fact that our majority view has no fundamental conceptual support.

    You say that atheists have principles but they are subjective. I don’t doubt that but the thing is with subjective principles is that they can be whatever we like, we can change them whenever it suits us, and we have no meaningful basis for saying that one person’s subjective principles are better or worse than another’s. Yet you are willing to enforce your subjective principles on others solely on the grounds that you have the numbers to do so.

    You say, “If an atheist behaves well”, but if your principles are subjective then there is no definable way of establishing what behaving well is. One person’s principles may allow for theft, another’s may not. That is all that can be said – they have different subjective principles and neither has a basis for saying the other is right or wrong.

  15. Yeah, I realised a while back we’re on very different wavelengths. Certainly doesn’t stop us from broadcasting. Here are my last comments on your last comments.

    By “evolutionary benefit” I meant that the altruistic instinct has or in this case had effects which assisted in the survival and procreation of its hosts, and therefore conferred an evolutionary advantage over those with less of it. No goal, no intention, just better living and more genes passed on.

    When you boil it down, Graham, the conceptual basis for atheist morality, whatever specific form it may take, is practicality. We find the things that are so practical, so intuitive, so compatible with universal human desires that they don’t have to be forced on anyone who is at all concerned with ethics. As I explained earlier, if might has to make it right, it’s not right.

    “Right” isn’t the first choice of words anyway, because life isn’t binary; according to simple criteria like harm, benefit and fairness, we do what’s “best”. Having done the work in deciding that, we can defend our choices in practical terms applicable to anyone. On the other hand, whether someone accepts your basis for morality depends entirely on whether their interpretation of your scriptures matches yours, and if it doesn’t you’re reduced to proselytising to bring them round. You don’t have to be an atheist to see where an atheist is coming from, though apparently being a Christian doesn’t help.

    Regarding enforcement, in the case of those who endorse and facilitate female genital mutilation, I would stop them if I could. I base this on concern for the welfare of the women at risk of undergoing the “procedure”. Thing is, I’m not basing it on anything the perpetrators don’t already accept as important. They think the mutilation is good for their welfare, because it’ll keep them out of a life of sexual desire. Since it’s irreversible, I’d rather stop it or slow it down as much as possible while I’m convincing them of the opposite based on the common ground we do in fact have. That’s what injunctions are for in the legal system: prevention of harm while these things are thrashed out.

    My principles may be subjective, but subjective as they are they’re awfully close to yours. In fact, in any ethical matter not somehow tied up in religion there’s a tremendous chance that we and millions of other Christians and atheists agree. If there is no basis for an atheist’s morality, but it’s almost the same as a Christian’s nonetheless, what does that say about both our moralities?

    Longest exchange in a while, that was. Thanks for it.

  16. And I thank-you for the civility of the discussion – unlike those I’ve had with others!

    By the way I sent in a question to the main page about a week ago and then resent it yesterday – but so far no response. I was just wondering if it had been received and when I could expect an answer.

  17. I’m sorry, I get the questions in my email and I’ve answered everything I’ve received recently, so if yours isn’t one of the last few then it hasn’t come through. The email is working, because I’ve received questions within the last week. Did you actually remove the REMOVE4SPAM part?

  18. Yes, I did remove that and each time it has indicated that it has been sent successfully and has not bounced back. I’ve tried again just now and once more there has been no indication of a problem. It is odd.

    Anyway, in case you don’t get it again I have pasted it below as this connection obviously works.

    SmartLX: If atheism is true then it would seem that materialism – physical matter is all that exists – is also true. If that is so, is it possible for there to be free will?

    Materialism would seem to imply that everything functions in a purely mechanical way, with molecules simply interacting according to the laws of physics, and that would seem to leave no room for free will.

    If there is no free will then it would seem to be impossible for us to engage in rational discussion. After all, the product of our “minds” would be determined entirely by a long chain of molecular interactions rather than by non-physical reasons.

    Atheism implies materialism: materialism implies a mechanistic universe: a mechanistic universe implies no free will: and no free will implies non-rationality.

    Do you agree?

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