February 2007

It is good to see you are back and posting all the great conversations. I was sorry to hear about your luck and hope things are going better now.

I was wondering where you stand on the issue of morality. I’m speaking of the classic argument that goes on between absolutist and relativistic views of morality. Typically those who believe in a deity are more likely to favor an absolute morality, stating that is must come from somewhere and that somewhere is God or Allah or whatever.

I got into a discussion with some conservative christians that actually started from me simply commenting on a book Atheists: A Groundbreaking Study of America’s Nonbelievers . The christian quickly took the conversation to morality. Stating basically that I could have no understanding of good or evil , right or wrong because with no God, all morality would be relative and people would just be killing left and right, fornicating with children, etc. I m seriously over simplifying his argument. It was much more lengthy and thought out but that s not really the point of why I was writing you.

This exchange got me thinking about the nature of morality as an atheist which I have not done since my de-conversion . I find myself trying to figure it out. I ve read about the absolutist views of morality (secular & religious) and the relativistic. Both stances give me pause and find problems with each extreme.

One piece of writing that did make a lot of sense to me personally was at www.ministerturnsatheist.org. It just asserts that Social Contract makes the most sense in determining morality. I agree with his argument when speaking of things like murder and torture and theft but feel like it falls short of explaining (or assigning a moral value) to homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, and a number of other issues.

Since you ve been doing this for a long time I was wondering how you feel about this. As an atheist I m sure you ve run into theists who have thrown this argument at you. I m not looking for you to explain your whole moral philosophy but I just wondering if you take a more absolute or relative approach and how you defend your assertion of either.

Thank you for keeping up with the site. It s always enjoyable to read what you post.

Wow — not like this is a big subject! (Not that I mind!)

To start, I’ve certainly heard many versions of the argument that without God there is no morality. Generally, in my experience, this argument falls in one or more of the following ways:

  1. The argument is based on an unverifiable premise. That premise is usually “for there to be good there must be a perfect good” (sort of a Plato’s-cave assumption), or “if you have feelings about what is right, something outside of you must be giving you those feelings.”
  2. The argument assumes that without some external force for morality, people would be sociopathic. I see no evidence for this.
  3. The arguer asserts that there is a morality dictated by God, but can’t define what that morality is. This is the most common problem I run into. Neither “Obey the Bible” nor “obey the Ten Commandments” is a morality, since even believers agree that they cannot be taken at face value (for example, most Christians wouldn’t say that “Thou shalt not kill” means that you should never kill anything, even though that’s what it appears to mean).
  4. The arguer asserts that God is the model for morality but does not agree that we, in order to be moral, should act like God would in a similar circumstances.
  5. The arguer asserts that Jesus is the model for morality, but does not agree that we should behave as Jesus did.
  6. The argument isn’t even an argument — it’s a statement that’s supposed to be taken at face value and the speaker does not know how to back it up.
  7. The arguer doesn’t follow the professed morality, even though it supposedly was commanded by God. For example, if someone who believed that the Ten Commandments are literally the commands of God steals when they can get away with it (say, by not returning a wallet or pointing out when they are given too much change), then I have a hard time believing their religious sincerity.

So, if I don’t buy the morality-from-a-deity argument, where do I get my morality? Good question.

My morality is built on three things (in order of importance):

  1. Reason
  2. Culture
  3. Instinct.

Let’s deal with instinct first because it is both the easiest to talk about and the least important. People, as animals, have certain instincts that have evolved to protect us as a species. These include protecting myself and protecting my loved ones. Other instincts have little impact on morality, but impact moral decisions (such as the feeling that puppies are cute). Instincts are not morally compelling, but they should be examined for moral value.

Culture is also important. I believe that there is an amount of good in respecting cultural values so long as they do not interfere with a higher morality. For example, walking around topless on the beach might be okay for anyone in France, but not in the United States. The only moral difference is cultural.

Reason is the most important factor, and it is also the most complex. I believe that any system of thought should at least obey two rules: It should be self consistent, and it should not condemn those who think as I do. An enormous amount of morality can be derived from these two rules by using them to weed out moral rules that I might like but that do not contribute to a consistent morality.

Some examples:

I think you’ll see that much of this boils down to the same thing as the social contract mode of deriving morality. If I have left any questions unanswered, let me know.

Posted on February 2, 2007 at 12:43 am by ideclare · Permalink
In: Personal question

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