On the basis for morality
Back in March / April, I had a lengthy discussion with commenter Psi regarding my post on Mindless-process Design, with regards to evolutionary theory and intelligent design. Towards the end of the discussion Psi brought up the topic of ethics and morality, to which I responded,
…how does a purely naturalistic methodology, in a purely natural realm, produce an abstract notion (e.g., evil)? And further beyond that, how does one’s mind, built purely by mechanistic forces, not only comprehend that something is evil, but that evil is wrong? For that matter, why would something – anything – be considered wrong? On who’s authority?
Psi responded by referring me to a couple of posts he’s prepared under the subject “Being good without god”. Although I promised to respond to Psi’s posts within “a few days”, it’s been over a month… sigh. Well, here is my lengthy response, albeit passed the “few days” boundary. (note: I encourage you to read this comment in our thread, as well as Psi’s posts, to get a groundwork for my text) Also, I have mined posts that I previously wrote, at New Covenant, which pertain to this topic, although in some cases I have rewritten my original commentary for clarity towards this discussion.
There are quite a few issues that Psi writes on in his posts. Rather than simply address them one by one, I will attempt to comment on them topically. Essentially, I think that Psi is positing that religious belief is inherently irrational, that humans can behave in morally upright ways without the need of adhering to religion or belief in a deity, and that ethical thought and standards for humans came about through the strictly natural processes of evolution.
If you want to skip my lengthy post, and simply get to gist of my point, then here it is: It is my assertion that while humans can be good without [the existence of] god, they have no basis with which to justify why they should be.
Psi comments (on SCO) that “religion seems mostly irrational to me – believing in things despite a lack of evidence seems pretty irrational in most other walks of life”. It seems to me that there are various means by which we can “know” things, empirical evidence being but one of those means. Yet, where is the evidence which establishes that one is limited to rational reasons in order to believe in something? It would be circular reasoning to use the very type of evidence (i.e., empirical) that one is positing as required. Indeed, as Augustine noted, before one can know anything, one must believe something. Exactly how does belief in the abstract relate to this? Is it rational to believe that numbers exist, despite the fact that no one can produce empirical evidence of where the number “1″ resides?
However, we must ultimately accept that our senses give us an accurate rendition of what is actually occurring in the world around us – that such a reality corresponds to what we perceive. Yet, referencing what I mentioned above, does the data from our five senses provide us with all the data we need to know things? Does experience provide us with data? Is there anything that is self-evident?
It is here we move into the realm of ethics and morality, and how such topics relate to a world in which there is concrete and abstract as opposed to a world in which there is simply the natural.
Psi relates a story from his childhood (note, please excuse the ellipsis, one can read the linked posts in full if desired):
I can remember having a conversation with my grandad… In this particular conversation I had fetched home a prize from Sunday School – a bible – he asked me what I thought about the bible.I told him that some of the bits in the ten commandments seemed to make sense but there was an awful lot of other stuff I couldn’t make sense of at all, let alone agree with. I remember he smiled at me and seemed happy with what I had said.
Psi then adds,
…I am fairly sure he was not a religious man and that he was pleased with my answer because it showed that I was thinking for myself…
An interesting story, yet I’m not quite sure what to make of the comment about “thinking for myself”. Why was the example he related an example of “thinking for myself”? Was it the fact that he disagreed with parts of the Bible, and didn’t agree with it completely? What would we say about someone who completely agreed with the Bible? Or what about someone who rejected it wholesale? Could we determine, by those actions alone, whether or not they had thought for themselves?
My point is that whether or not one agrees with what is found in the Bible, for example, that is not a sufficient metric for determining whether or not one is thinking critically. Truth be told, there are parts of the Bible that I don’t particularly care for; parts that I find difficult, if not impossible, to carry through. Yet the primary issue one should address, with regards to the claims of the Bible, is not whether one likes, or even agrees with it, but whether or not it is what it claims to be – the revealed Word of God. You see, if there is a God who inspired his written Word to mankind, then our opinion of what is contained in it is, ultimately, secondary.
It seems that Psi’s approach is to intuit that, since there are humans which exhibit ethical and moral qualities without believing in a or any god, then ethics is possible without God. A corollary to this appears to be that ethics developed before any of today’s religions proclaimed moral codes (that were supposedly handed down from God).
Yet, does simply acting in an ethical manner, whether or not one believes in God, indicate that ethics are possible without said God?
In October of 2004, I wrote a post titled, The hypocrisy of absolute morality?, which dealt with the existence of moral codes. Here is an excerpt,
In criticizing atheism I have used the argument that the atheist who adheres to some form of morality, albeit relative morality, is not being logically consistent with the implications of the idea of a world without God.
Essentially, I have stated that if an atheist truly believes that there is no God, then everything that exists must have come about through strictly natural processes. If that which is real is only that which is empirically verifiable, then abstract concepts, such as one’s love for their child, or an understanding of meaning to the universe, are merely illusions. While an atheist may point to empirical evidence as so-called proof of love for their child, they have no way of demonstrating that the abstract concept of love itself truly exists. Yet you’d be hard pressed to find an atheist who does not truly love his child. Hence, I argue that such a dichotomy illustrates a fatal flaw within the naturalistic atheist worldview.
However, there are those who argue that it is the concept of absolute morality, particularly that of Christianity, which reeks of hypocrisy. Their arguments, as best I understand it, posit that for a Christian to claim they are aware of absolute morality is no different than a relativist claiming that morality is relative – each is making their own truth claim so… who’s to be believed? Furthermore, they claim that since certain actions by the Christian God have varied over time, with regards to His administering of violations to His moral law, then regardless of whatever else His moral law is – it is most certainly relative.
To properly respond to this argument one must understand the difference between the concept of absolute morality and the application, or enforcement, of moral laws. When the Christian claims that absolute morality exists he is not claiming that it has been specially revealed to him and him alone. The Christian believes that the innate knowledge of right and wrong resides within every human being, and that such an innate knowledge is due to the fact that God has created human beings in His Image (the Imago Dei). The knowledge that right and wrong exists implies that there is a morality which we must all adhere to. While it is true that all cultures have had varying applications of moral laws, it is also true that they have all inherently understood the concept of right and wrong. Every culture’s response to the knowledge of right and wrong, regardless of how incorrect such a response might be, indicates the existence of this transcendent and abstract concept. This is not a minor point, for it has implications with how we address the second part of the criticism levied against Christians.
The second part of the criticism has to do with the enforcement of Biblical moral laws and is usually tied to some Old Testament law, the violation of which results in the death of an individual or group of individuals. For example, since God required homosexuals to be stoned to death in the past, why do Christians ignore this command today? The answer, so it is surmised, is because the so-called absolute morality presented in the Old Testament is, in fact, relative. Again, the error here has to do with how the general concept of absolute morality is confused with that of a specific application of punishment. Note that, in the example given, the sin highlighted has always been considered sin by God. Homosexuality is a sin in both the Old and New Testaments. In this specific example the issue isn’t how we treat the homosexual sin but that we understand that homosexuality is a sin. Do you see the difference here? Regardless of how the sin is dealt with, it is still sin.
Critics will counter with the apparent fact that other cultures in time have had moral laws that varied greatly from that of the Judeo-Christian ethic. For example, we find instances of child sacrifice, wife swapping, bestiality, etc., throughout history. That various cultures have had varying morals, however, is of no use in addressing the fact that these same cultures have had an inherent knowledge of right and wrong. Consider the adventures of Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery, as they traveled from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean and back, from 1803-06. It is interesting to note the variety of customs they ran across among the many Indian tribes with whom they made contact. The Indian men of one tribe, for example, offered their wives to sleep with the Americans in the hopes, that through their own future sexual relations, they would receive some of the power the Americans possessed. That we would consider such actions wrong, even though those particular Indians did not, is inconsequential to the argument that both the Americans and the Indians understood the concept of right and wrong. This concept transcends the specific applications that both the Corps of Discovery and the Indians may have attempted to follow.
There are implications from the argument that the idea of right and wrong transcends human history. Where does an idea originate, if not from a mind? If an idea is transcendent, then does that not imply that it has come from a mind that is transcendent? If so, we have moved from acknowledging that the concept of right and wrong exists, to admitting that it is transcendent, and because the idea is transcendent, it originated from a transcendent mind. But… which mind?
The Christian argues that the God of the Bible is the mind which has provided us with the knowledge of right and wrong. The Christian also posits that God has been working through human history and has provided us with a written record through which we can better understand His plan. Contained within this written record are clarifications to the inherent knowledge we all possess – aspects that J. Budziszewski writes about in his book What We Can’t Not Know. Two points should be noted here:
1) because God is the Author of absolute morality, violations of His moral law are transgressions against God and,
2) specific enforcement of God’s moral law is separate from the moral law itself.
If God is the Author of the His moral law, then He has the authority to decide how to address a violation of that law. This should not be surprising for we see the same principle all the time in our own legal system. A criminal is found guilty of breaking the law and then is handed a sentence. Regardless of the severity of the sentence, the fact remains that the criminal broke the law. In other words, the criminal did something wrong. Although Timothy McVeigh was executed, and Charles Manson still sits in a prison cell, they were both found guilty of murder. The question of why God may have used multiple means of addressing violations to His law at specific times in history is certainly a valid question, but that He acted in more than one manner does not, in and of itself, indicate that the concept of absolute morality has been violated.
Mere Christianity, by C. S. Lewis
I would take the view that ethics is an autonomous field of inquiry, that ethical judgements can be formulated independently of revealed religion, and that human beings can cultivate practical reason and wisdom and, by its application, achieve lives of virtue and excellence. I take the view that ethics should be based on the human experience.
It’s very interesting that Psi uses the words: ethics, judgments, reason, wisdom, virtue and excellence. I would imagine that he attributes meaning to those words. But… where does that meaning come from and how does he justify the meaning? If ethics is truly an autonomous field of inquiry, based solely on human experience, then is it not possible to envision a society in which those who lived the most virtuous were the ones who murdered their best friends? If Psi disagrees, I would imagine it is because he holds to a different ethical standard than our fictional society.
I would argue while ethics is not derived from the individual, individuals still have the ability to choose whether or not to follow basic ethical principles (e.g., torturing infants, for pleasure, is wrong). Thus, the issue isn’t whether or not a society (or individual) could act in a different ethical manner, but whether or not an ethical standard exists. If such an ethical standard exists, then it seems proper to ask where such a standard came from. Was the standard invented by humans or is it self-evident? If invented, was it through some evolutionary process or simply thought up by some creative individual in times past? If self-evident, how?
Psi states that a commenter to his site, by the name of Paul, asserted “that it isn’t possible to know right from wrong without some external absolute”. C.S Lewis posited that a man cannot call a line crooked unless he has some idea of what straight is. It’s not so much that it isn’t possible to know right from wrong without an external absolute, but that we know right from wrong at all (another issue that Lewis addressed in Mere Christianity).
As such, studies which analyze how religious and irreligious people react to moral quandaries are irrelevant to the underlying notion that they understand that moral values exist.
A common misconception among atheists (and Christians) is that Christianity posits that those without a belief in God are incapable of acting morally upright. This is simply not true (due to the influence of the Imago Dei mentioned above). Such an assertion falls in line with the results of the study Psi references (regarding the comparable moral actions of both religious and irreligious humans) in that Christians believe that every human has the stamp of God’s Image on their soul. We are, in effect, without excuse. The point of Christianity is that an atheist (or, a believer in pure naturalism) has no authoritative basis, within nature, for justifying his claim on ethics.
Okay, so why can’t people who don’t believe in God simply disagree with what Christianity claims, and construct their own set of beliefs? Well, they can! History, and the Bible, are full of such examples. So… who’s right?
It seems fairly straightforward and obvious to me that because human’s evolved from social primates over millions of years, a sense of morals, ethics, group need’s and basic Golden Rule-ish principles would have evolved as a survival mechanism. Indeed, the Golden Rule would appear to be the simplest distillation of this kind of thing.
Of course, I would take issue with Psi’s assertion that humans evolved from primates. However, what is the basis for the claim that a sense of morals, ethics, etc., all evolved over time? It may seem obvious to Psi, but it doesn’t seem obvious to me, and it certainly isn’t obvious to the scientific community (at least, the part about what occurred, how it occurred, when it occurred, why it occurred, etc.). It is nothing more than an evolutionary just-so story which has to be accepted if one is limited to the naturalistic paradigm. Also, note that the ideas thrown about here seem to posit that the Golden Rule is a good thing. Why? Says who? Why not the Self-Importance Rule in which my clan wipes out every other clan, and then dies off? Is that “wrong” like “torturing infants for pleasure” is wrong?
You see, if abstract notions, such as right and wrong, good and evil, and moral and immoral, are nothing more than the result of natural process evolution, then there is ultimately no difference between the man who sacrifices his life for his family and the man who tortures and then eats his family. C.S. Lewis wrote,
When men say “I ought” they certainly think they are saying something, and something true, about the nature of the proposed action, and not merely about their own feelings. But if Naturalism is true, “I ought” is the same sort of statement as “I itch” or “I’m going to be sick.
For me, ethical conduct is, and should be, judged by critical reason – cogita tute. Look around you, see what is right and wrong, look at what other think and ask them why, make up your own mind in a rational way. Follow the Golden Rule.
I wonder. Would the atheistic naturalist accept or condemn the people living in a neighborhood in which they all accepted the following standard?
For me, ethical conduct is, and should be, judged by purely irrational behavior. Ignore what is around you, especially ignoring what others think, and make up your mind only after you’ve dropped some acid. Make sure you do unto others, before they do unto you.
In quoting a secular humanist site, Psi demonstrates why an autonomous ethical standard is, in reality, impossible. An excerpt from the site he quotes,
Although we believe in tolerating diverse lifestyles and social manners, we do not think they are immune to criticism. Nor do we believe that any one church should impose its views of moral virtue and sin, sexual conduct, marriage, divorce, birth control, or abortion, or legislate them for the rest of society. …We are opposed to absolutist morality, yet we maintain that objective standards emerge, and ethical values and principles may be discovered, in the course of ethical deliberation.
Yes, they believe in tolerance, yet they are not about tolerate the diverse neighborhood referenced above get off scot-free. They impose their notion that they do not believe any one church should impose its views on matters ethical. And they believe that objective standards can be discovered, not unlike diamonds in a mine in South Africa, I suppose.
Herein lies one of the fatal flaws of such belief – that of accepting the existence of objective ethical standards, yet providing no basis for the means of their existence. The objective standards are there, the atheist must admit, but the reason for their existence is just… because. Oh certainly there are argumens put forth which attempt to connect the existence of ethics with the mechanisms of natural process evolution; yet such arguments remain woefully lacking of any compelling evidence that evolution actually did what is claimed.
Psi makes an astute observation regarding how it appears that moral standards have changed over time. However, as referenced above, and as C.S. Lewis noted, there seems to be throughout time, over all cultures, a standard ethos – what Lewis referred to as the Tao. He wrote,
[The Tao is] the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are.
This is one of the problems I have with religion, it teaches people to be irrational. It says being irrational is good, and from irrationality can come evil.
I’m not exactly sure why he makes this statement.
In discussing “faith”, in terms of having reasons to trust, Psi states,
I am happy and comfortable with this uncertainty at the foundation of my world view and I certainly don’t feel that I need to switch to anything which more certain and absolute by deciding to have a religious faith which in its own dogma claims such absolutely positively categorical certainty about how and why we are here.
Faith, in the Christian sense, certainly doesn’t mandate that one have absolute categorical certainty about how and why we are here. In fact, the faith of the New Testament can be rightly described as that of having reasons to trust. Psi seems to place a large, if not complete, emphasis on empirical evidence as a means of knowing. Truth be told, there are various ways in which we know things, empirical evidence being but one (with experience, revelation, and self-awareness being others).
Why is there something instead of nothing? Why, if we are merely the product of unthinking natural forces, do we think? How did the universe get here? Why are we here? What’s wrong with us? Why do I love my family? Why is it wrong to do something immoral? Is the love I have for my daughter real? How do I know this? What is the love I have for my daughter? What happens after I die? What’s the point? If the universe has no ultimate meaning, then how is it I am aware of that? These are all big questions that empirical evidence alone is incapable of answering. Truly, the data we gather can help us to understand much of what these questions touch on, but they cannot provide us with a plausible answer to the things that we consider most important in life.
Psi responds to a similar comment with,
I think it has as sound a foundation as we yet know exists. Given my (nearly) blind faith in reason I am happy to look at the Golden Rule itself and give it the thumbs up, look at the evidence of how humans get along when I live by the Golden Rule and give it another thumbs up and listen to hearsay evidence of other people’s experience with it and say “good enough for me”.
Again, the atheist is forced to borrow terms and definitions from a realm in which they have no basis with which to work. Psi observes how humans get along (i.e., are good) when they follow the Golden Rule, and concludes that it works (i.e., the way it should be). Great! What’s “good”, and why “should” I accept your definitions?
Any appeals to pragmatism as the means of determining which rules to follow also fall into the trap of relativism. Who decides what is best and most efficient?
In November of 2004 I wrote, Do the right thing; Or… should we?, in which I addressed the should predicament of naturalism.
In recent discussions regarding the existence of transcendent morality I have brought up the issue of “ought,” or “should,” and how it relates to the choices made by humans. For example, in my post critiquing the National Geographic article Was Darwin Wrong?, I conclude by examining the current research being performed to find a cure for TB. My argument is that if nature is all there is, and that our existence is merely the result of natural events, then there is no reason why we should expend effort on helping other, albeit weaker, humans. My closing question was:
Has he [the author of the article] not considered why we humans should even care whether a weaker member of the species dies off?
A critic of mine responded with, There is no should. Note that besides not answering my question, such a statement attempts to explain away “should” with… should (i.e., the contextual meaning of the statement “There is no should” is no different than, “One should understand that there is no should.”). Upon my questioning why one should believe that “there is no should,” my critic answered with, You believe it, or you don’t believe it. There’s still no should. Perhaps I don’t fully understand such a statement, for I find it to be nothing more than an irrational, baseless assertion (not unlike stating “There is a Santa Claus.”). It appears to attempt to link up the act of belief in the oughtness of helping other humans with, say, the act of belief in the law of gravity. However, choosing to believe or not believe in the law of gravity has no bearing on its existence. Similarly, whether I choose to believe or not believe that I should help others does not tell me if “should” exists.
In an attempt to take the “there is no should” thinking forward to its logical conclusion I proposed that I call my critic’s “bluff” and posit that instead of advocating the helping of TB patients, I would advocate that we forcibly enlist them into scientific research programs. After all, so the reasoning would go, if there is no should, then what reason could there be to oppose such an action? My critic responded with, Please feel free to call the bluff. Perform the experiments, get put in prison or put to death. That’s your choice. I think the error in this reply is that he still considers “choice” to be an integral part of whether or not “should” exists. It does not. I’ve never questioned whether he, I, or anyone else has a choice in the matter. What should be quite evident from the answers he gives is that his worldview is powerless in providing compelling and objective reasons why one should consider the actions of Hitler were wrong and those of Mother Theresa were right. The logical conclusion of the “there is no should” line of reasoning is that there is no reason why we should value Mother Theresa over Adolf Hitler, or vice versa.
I want to be very clear on this point – To advocate that there is no “should” – in the sense of “should” we help another human in need? – logically mandates that there is no difference between that of helping the needy and that of cannibalizing them.
Can there be no greater banner with which to promote Naturalism?
The problem with atheistic naturalism, as I see it, is one of hopelessness – indeed – a hopelessness with no logical means of justifying abstract claims of meaning. From my October 2004 post, Pragmatic Nihilism: How a naturalistic worldview renders our existence supreme,
Consider, for a moment, that naturalism posits that nature is all there is. If that is true, then when we die… we die – no heavenly existence, no beautiful afterlife, just nothing. So, if there’s nothing after this life, then one possible conclusion (and, I would argue, the most satisfying conclusion) is: How this life plays out, in the here and now, must be our ultimate concern (indeed, there is no other). The nihilist will tell you that since the universe has no ultimate meaning, it’s better to live your life to your best advantage – regardless of the impact on society. There’s a bit of a problem with that line of thinking though – there is meaning in our lives. Whether it be through a spouse, child, mother, or friend, we are all acquainted with the existence of the abstract reality of love. In addition, I would argue that even nihilists are well aware of how living their lives as nihilists, at the expense of those they love, would be inherently wrong. Yet, suppose there does exist a nihilist who cares not for his “loved ones”? Try abusing said nihilist, in the name of nihilism, and see if he attempts to defend himself, or if he allows you to do as you please. Interesting, isn’t it, how the idea of a common understanding of right and wrong always seems to show up? Think about the notion of some objectively discoverable set of ethics. What drives the intense conviction that such a thing exists? I think it has to do with the limited options available to a believer in naturalism. They believe that this life, here and now, is all there is… or all they think they can be sure of. If you don’t choose to admit to the total hopelessness of such a position, then all you are left with is the task, pointless as it may be, of making this life as meaningful as you can. The atheist Michael Shermer exquisitely illustrated the hopeless position of his worldview on the PBS broadcast, The Question of God. He stated,
I don’t believe there’s an afterlife at all — this is all there is. For example, when my mother was dying, she had these brain tumors. They kept taking them out, they kept coming back. And this went on and on for 10 years. You know, I felt from the moment this started happening, that since I’ll never see her again and she’s not going anywhere and neither am I, this is it — every single moment I could have with her, everything I could say to her that was loving, all that just to me was incredibly enhanced by the fact that there is nothing else.
You see? This life becomes so important that, eventually, Pragmatic Nihilism becomes our god.
The ultimate reality of our existence manifests itself in many ways, not the least of which is love. Such a reality continues to be the deadly poison afflicting Naturalism. Although there are many people who have allowed themselves to be steeped in Naturalism’s brew, the poison of love has not left their bloodstream.
Further reference several posts I made regarding Religion and meaning:
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