Moral Statements

“The commenter succeeds in ruling out an absolutism in non-theistic morality which shouldn’t be there anyway. That’s not a huge achievement.”

Question from C.L.H.:
I copied the following excerpt from a reader comments section of an online column titled “Is Atheism Livable?”

I was curious if you could respond concerning the the moral scenario described below…

So the actual question is “do moral statements constitute propositions that can be true or false”. The naturalists answer is that they do not, but rather codify behaviors which increase our ability to survive. For example, the statement “it is wrong to kill innocent people” is not an objectively moral statement, but rather stems from the scientific fact that human society crumbles when people can murder others at will, thus making it difficult for us to survive. Morality, to the naturalist, is redefined to mean nothing more than “what we do to survive”. So to use a less ambiguous language, the naturalist is actually saying that “it is a fact that we won’t survive if we allow murder, and because we have an impulse to survive, we should all agree not to murder”. This type of thought cannot be legitimately be called “morality” because it doesn’t contain within itself any actual standard of what is “good” or “right” – just what is preferred by most of us. Typically the naturalist is okay with this.

The theist, on the other hand, is more of a realist about morality – he maintains that the moral statement “it is wrong to kill innocent people” not only has the propositional/scientific factual content the naturalist maintains, but also that it stems from a deeper, transcendent law that is tied into the nature of the universe itself. In other words, killing innocent people is not wrong *merely* because society will collapse otherwise, but because killing people is simply *wrong*.

This type of moral realism is the default. The other completely flies in the face of our intuition about morality. For example, the statement “it is wrong to rape and murder young children” is wrong in all cases (I hope we all agree on that). The naturalist would argue that if we allow people to rape and murder young children at will, society will collapse and we won’t survive.

But one can certainly make up a situation in which this isn’t the case. Put the adult and the child on an island with no hope of rescue, the child is in a vegetative state with no sensation and no hope of waking up, and the adult will simply live out his days until he dies. Obviously should the adult rape and murder the child in this context, no society is damaged, and ultimately his action will have no negative consequence.
The naturalist is then forced to acknowledge that there is nothing immoral (by his definition) about the adults action in this situation. I have met one naturalist in my life who will concede this and affirm that nothing immoral has been done in this situation, and that one person is not something who I would say manages to function well on a day to day basis.

In any case, are any of the naturalists here willing to either
1) acknowledge that such an action is not immoral (if so I apologize but you are sick), or
2) explain why it is immoral using a naturalistic definition of morality (without resorting to something silly like “well he may be rescued later” – the situation is defined as described above)?

As I said, moral realism is the default position based on intuition and the obviousness of our collective everyday human experience. The burden of proof lies heavily on the one who claims that moral propositions don’t constitute true or false propositions. And the fact that a biological/evolutionary basis for moral behavior does not accomplish this task. All this does is affirm that the universe is such that moral behavior promotes life, and therefore affirms that life is good.

Answer by SmartLX:
Atheists have already answered below the comment itself, but here goes.

In answer to (1), the action he describes is not immoral in the absolute sense he’s looking for, according to the usual non-supernatural view, but then nothing is. It’s immoral according to almost any objective basis you care to apply to it, but none of those count in his reckoning.

Thing is, if you go around saying that such a deed is wrong, the only people who would bother to contradict you are those who object to the absolutism in the statement, not people who actually think the deed is right. It doesn’t actually matter in a practical sense whether or not the universe has an inbuilt moral code which says it’s wrong.

Which is good, because even if it did we’ve got no way of knowing what that code is. Holy texts and philosophical works set rules and guidelines we all seem to agree on, but is that necessarily because they’re deliberately and explicitly instilled in all of us before birth? No, it’s probably just because we’re all human, we were all brought up in roughly the same society and we have many of the same values instilled in us by other people. Not all, of course, because we differ widely on thorny issues like abortion. Intuition only takes us so far.

The commenter succeeds in ruling out an absolutism in non-theistic morality which doesn’t rely on absolutism anyway. That’s not a huge achievement.

2 thoughts on “Moral Statements”

  1. The youtube user TheoreticalBullshit has around 3 videos on morality which pretty much sum up my views on the issue. Here’s the first one.

    But i’ll also respond in my own words. The statement that morality is defined by philosophical naturalists as “what we do to survive” is completely false. I don’t think anybody defines morality that way (even if they think they do).

    Morality can be roughly defined as a combination of treating others the way you want to be treated and promoting happiness/ limiting suffering. That’s not a comprehensive definition, but it’s roughly what atheists mean by “morality”. Christians have a much harder time defining “morality” because they want to balance my definition with the definition “whatever God says”, and they end up with the Eurythro dilemma.

    So lets get to your question. If one uses my definition of morality, then killing and raping a child is immoral. And most ppl believe they should be moral (according to my definition) because of evolutionary forces which shaped our human mind, because of their upbringing and culture, and for other psychological reasons. However, even though they should refrain from rape and murder if they want to be moral… and even though most ppl think they ought to be moral… the belief that they should be moral is only a subjective belief. Thus, humans have a common morality, which acts like an objective morality, but isn’t. I think “objective morality” is a contradiction in terms.

    To make one final point, lets say i was wrong and there really is such a thing as objective morality, that still wouldn’t mean that a God exists.

  2. I’d like to say that morals are definitely not absolute, and are defined by the society in which they are questioned. I believe humans are animals, not some special god mirrored creation that are the destined rulers of the earth. No, we are just smarter, and crueler than other animals. That’s how we made it to the “top”. So when looking at morality, why not look at how dogs behave, and cat’s, and wolves. Even wild animals don’t kill for no reason. They are hungry, or defending their territory, or scared.

    Think back to slavery. That was perfectly moral. is it moral in the context of most modern societies today? No.

    In my anthropology class I read about a culture where the men ate the dead bodies of their brethren in order to obtain more wisdom. Do we think that’s immoral? Yes. Did they? No.

    Another culture took their teenage boys to the top of a hill for their coming of age ceremony where the boys would drink the essence of adulthood (semen) from the adult males in order to become an adult. Immoral to us? Yes. To them? No.

    Also note that a high number of cultures consider it normal and very moral to have multiple wives. You might find that pretty immoral, but to those cultures it is their way of life. Similarly many animals have several mates.

    My point is that morals change based on social context. Believing your morals are the only morals is part of being ethnocentric. Believing that the biblical sense of morals (as contradictory as they are) are the only correct morals is an even deeper example of being ethnocentric.

    To your question about raping and killing a child. Several animals force sex upon each other, and even have sex with their own children. Several other animals eat their children when left alone with them. But like I said, we are smarter than animals. The reason we have come up with generally accepted morals for industrialized society is that we weigh the consequences of our actions. Not just on ourselves, but those around us. The original poster of the question did NOT mention that sympathy and empathy have come along with our intelligence. We feel sorry for others when misfortunate happens to them because we imagine how we might feel in that position. So how do you define your morals? Is it not a combination of what your society (including your religious circle) says is “right” and “wrong” mixed with your own feelings of sympathy and empathy? So yes, morals have evolved to keep societies intact, and under order. There are logical reasons for our morals, to prevent the destruction of our society/avoid the penalty of breaking them, but there are also emotional reasons (sympathy and empathy).

    So to rape and kill a child or to not rape and kill a child? Logically, raping and killing the child would cause unneccessary deaths and fueds in society, so of course it is immoral (illegal). If you take it outside the context of a society, then you still have the sympathy and empathy that should cause you sadness doing something to somebody that you would never want done to you. So it shuold still be immoral to you. If you take it to your island story then it would largely depend on how you were raised. If the adult were a lone wild human, that somehow grew up without ever seeing other humans, then they might lack a sense of compassion, and have no “morality” as we would know it. They could rape the child because it felt good, and then kill the child and eat it. Morality has no meaning if there is no group of people that adhere to it.

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