A Common Question Done Quick

Question from James:
Quick question. How can you say something is bad without some sense of morals? Where did said morals come from?

Answer by SmartLX:
The quickest answer is that we’ve answered this a lot. This link searches the site for articles on the same subject, and finds four pages’ worth of titles. Read a few and see if you get the idea.

A quick actual answer is that the definition of “bad” and “moral” in general can be constructed in objective and practical terms using different things as the “object”. For example a simplistic approach might be that something is “bad” if it hurts people unnecessarily, but on that alone you get a long way towards doing what most people would consider “good” by preventing “bad” actions.

Claiming an absolute basis for your morality is all well and good, but if your basis is a god that might not even exist you’re on shaky ground. That’s just a way of concentrating all the uncertainty into one point so you can defend that massively uncertain point like a bulldog and keep things simple for yourself.

So how do you differentiate between right and wrong?

Question from Meg:…well, see title. That was the whole question.

Answer by SmartLX:
In much the same way as you do from day to day, Meg. I have various ways of identifying events or actions which match my broad, generally unspoken definitions of “right” and “wrong”. I can use different objective criteria to analyse them intellectually, or it could be subconscious; I might just get a feeling and “know” when something is right or wrong. What you’re really asking is where all of this comes from, and the full answer is too big to cover in a short piece.

The intellectual aspects of moral judgement come from all over the place – lifelong cultivated ideas about fairness and justice, almost universally agreed-upon precepts such as that harm is to be minimised and people protected, ancient bits of philosophy such as the Golden Rule and ad hoc decisions when nothing else seems to apply.

The emotional side of morality, the conscience if you like, is partly instilled into us as soon as we gain the capacity to socialise with other people. We see what other people judge to be right and wrong, and we internalise some of those judgements. There’s also the simple human instinct of empathy, which has fairly clear roots in the human race’s long prehistory of precarious survival in close-knit tribes, where people really did help themselves by looking after others. (It reaches even farther back than that, to the earlier social primates from which we evolved, but I don’t know what you think about evolution so the tribe idea will suffice.) On an instinctual level, we see all other humans as our tribesmen and women even if we’ll never see them again, so the urge to help often extends beyond its pragmatic uses.

Christians tend to see it all differently. Not all of them subscribe to all of the following ideas, but they’re all widely accepted or at least known.
– Morals are absolute entities baked into the universe by God, and exist independently of human beings. What’s wrong is wrong, and nothing can change it.
– What we know about them was taught to us directly by God through the concept of sin, then the Ten Commandments (and the 600-odd other commandments that make up the Mosaic Law) and finally Jesus.
– Our own consciences are God himself telling us what’s right and wrong.

All three are entirely dependent on the existence of God. Now, when Christians try to comprehend atheism, unfortunately they often end up simply visualising a Christian worldview with a God-shaped hole cut out of it. Without God, of course, the whole thing collapses and they wonder how we manage to think about anything.

It can take them a while to understand that there are objective, earthly rationales for morality. Without belief in any godlike entity there’s no basis for thinking there are moral absolutes, but robust moral systems can be and have been created using very small, very simple assumptions that the whole human race can live with (even if philosophers like to argue over them).

This isn’t the whole answer, like I said, but I’ve already written a lot on the subject because the same basic question keeps coming up. Just put “morality” into the site’s search field in the top corner, and you’ll have a lot more to read.