Ep 30 – On Morals
The other day I was on the Faith and Skepticism podcast to discuss morality. If you haven’t listened yet, head over to faithandskepticism.com and checkout episode 31. The two host, Jason the Christian and Nathan the Atheist invited me on to discuss this topic with another Christian Matthew from Scotland. I want to thank Nathan and Jason for putting on a great podcast and for having me on, they were very gracious host. Now typically my podcast are scripted and this allows me to better formulate my arguments and gather my thoughts but this format was a live interaction with two theist and to be honest, I was a bit nervous going into it. Add to it the fact that we were going to be discussing morality, an extremely complicated topic, I was hoping just to survive the conversation and not stammer over my arguments.
After listening to the final edit, I was pleasantly surprised with my performance but I still feel like a lot was left unsaid, mostly because of the time restraint. I am sure the four of us could have gone on for hours but Nathan and Jason like to keep their podcast around the hour time-frame which is more than reasonable.
When Nathan approached me via twitter to be a guest, I was thrilled but I wasn’t too confident on the topic of morality. I’ve contemplated morality but I never really dug deep into it so I went to the only place I knew where to find information…Google. I had about a week to prepare so I searched, wrote notes and looked up arguments from Theist and Atheist alike. Going in to the conversation, I felt I was able to hold my own and I think I did.
The specific topic was: Can objective morality exist without God? I wasn’t prepared for this specific question so I had to wing it with my opening statement. But, what this conversation allowed me to do was reflect on this after the fact. After the conversation was over and I had time to think back on my position, I feel like I have to clarify and expand on some of my statements and positions. This is what I am going to do here. I don’t want to directly respond to the claims of Jason or Matthew because they’re not here to defend their position; instead I want to make my position clearer.
Before we get to that though, I want to point out a few things I noticed after listening to the episode. These were hard to catch during the conversation because I was listening and thinking of responses but when listening to it after the fact I noticed a few inconsistencies in Matthew’s arguments. Again, I don’t want to directly counter his arguments but I just want to point out a few things I noticed.
First, when I gave my opening statement on objective morality, he responded by saying how he doesn’t understand why I don’t think objective morality can exist? He said that atheist Shelly Kagan says objective morality can exist without God and that I should too. Hell, even fellow atheist Nathan stated that objective morality can exist. Well, I’ve never heard of Shelly Kagan and last time I checked, I am not her, so I am unaware of her argument for objective morality. I’m an independent thinker and I came to the conclusion that objective morality does not exist based on my own research and understanding. I think Matthew is a victim of his Christian mindset in that he thinks all atheists have to agree on a subject, like we are a unified movement. I don’t care what Shelly Kagan says about objective morality. You’re not debating HER arguments, you’re debating MY arguments.
Second, he kept using the term internet atheist. He used it in a derogatory way by saying that internet atheist don’t know Christian theology so they have no business commenting on it. Well, it appears Matthew is creating a little person made of straw. He kept referring to the arguments of these internet atheists and how they say this or that. At one point, he presented the moral dilemma question that we’re all probably pretty familiar with and that is the one about the train tracks and pulling a lever to kill one person or 5 people. He said an atheist presented this question to him and assumed Nathan and I had to defend that question. Again, creating a straw-like-person. I think Nathan and I did a pretty good job at countering his claims and then steering the conversation back on topic.
Before I go on, I want to share some thoughts on this moral dilemma question. I think Matthew misunderstood the question or the person presenting it misunderstood the question. This isn’t about objective morality. It is about how humans react to ethical situations. The study actually shows how changing the context can affect the person’s reaction. What is most interesting about this study is that the reaction is the same across different cultures. When presented with the situation of pulling a lever to save one or five people, the majority of people said they would pull the lever because saving fives lives is better than saving one. Next, they were given the same situation but instead of pulling a lever, they had to physically push the one person in front of the train. This time, the majority of people said they would NOT push the one person to save the five people. But why? The first scenario requires an indirect action and the second requires a positive action. When asked to explain their answer, they could not come up with a defensible position like in the first scenario. This experiment says a lot about human psychology and morality. The fact that the results are the same cross culturally gives hints to our universal human moral intuitions. It shows that these intuitions are deep seated and probably resulted from our evolution as social animals.
The point of the questions is not whether utilitarianism is the correct moral philosophy, which Matthew trying to get at but it was designed to explorer how humans would react within the context of direct or indirect actions to saving lives. Matthew tries to stretch the questions out even further by adding stipulations like this: the one person is a world renowned scientist and will cure cancer and save countless number of lives. The five children will grow up to be murderers and rapist. Which one do you save? Before I answer that, I think what Matthew was initially trying to get at is that we don’t know the whole picture as in what God has planned for us, so we can’t judge God’s actions or inactions. I think this is a copout because if we don’t know God’s plan, than we have no choice but to judge his actions, which are deplorable given our understanding of morality. So, in this situation, it’s assumed the person pulling the lever is a stand in for God. Since God knows the lives of each individual, the choice is clear, kill the 5 children right? Well, by doing this does it violate the free will of the children? If God knows the outcome of each of these individual lives, does this limit their freewill to change in the future? See the contradiction there? Going even further and looking at the situation in the first place, the train and the choice, what kind of person would even setup this situation? You have a person acting as God with the choice to kill or save lives but let’s step back on more position, the person that setup the experiment in the first place. What’s the moral responsibility of that person? To me, that person is the stand-in for God. That person is amoral because if they had some sense of morality, they wouldn’t have setup this situation at all. This experiment does more harm to the objective morality of God then the morality of atheist, this demonstrates the arbitrary nature of God’s morality, which by definition cannot be objective. This means God can’t be the source of objective morality, even if objective morality existed. Don’t believe me? Go read the Book of Job again to see God’s arbitrary morality on full display.
Third, he brought up Dan Barker and his argument on utilitarianism and something about raping a specific amount of children for the betterment of humankind. Again, he is equating Dan Barker’s argument with the arguments Nathan and I were presenting and that we should somehow have to defend Dan Barker’s position. Besides misrepresenting Dan’s position, it’s not on us to defend Dan Barker. You’re debating us, not him.
And fourth, he says that objective morality can exist with or without God in his opening statement and this is done by using human reason and logic but throughout the conversation, he says that human reason and logic cannot determine objective morality and even in his closing statement, he says objective morality cannot exist without God. Well, which is it?
Matthew is a very intelligent man but I felt like he wasn’t consistent with his position. I am anxious to hear the feedback to this episode and what the listeners have to say. Now, let me expand upon my position on objective morality.
Here is my opening statement: Morality is relevant to social beings of a certain type and morality has evolved in a particular species in a particular environment. There is a lot to unpack here so let’s begin with evolution. When questions of morality arise, we really only have one data point to go on and that one data point is human beings living on this planet. Any attempt to expand beyond us as humans is based purely on speculation. We evolved within a specific environment over a specific amount of time and we acquired specific traits to survive that specific environment. We know certain things to be true when it comes to human nature. We are social creatures and as social creatures, we need certain rules to ensure our survival. We didn’t have the sharpest claws or the strongest muscles but we had bigger brains and when in groups, we were able to defend ourselves. Any threat to that group cohesion would lead to our extinction. This premise is based on the Theory of Evolution so if you don’t accept that, we have to have a whole other conversation. This is the context for which the human race evolved and this is the context that our sense of morality evolved. Does objective morality exist? To that answer I would say no, not in the traditional sense. Let me explain.
First, I think objective morality does exist but it’s the little O objective. What that means is, as humans living on this planet, using logic and reason; we can come up with universal moral truths. To expand objective morals beyond that is again pure speculation. The example I used is space aliens arriving on our planet. Would they have the same objective morals as us? I would have to say probably not because their species evolved in a different environment. Their morals would be unique to them. They would be objective moral truths to that species. To me, the idea of objective morality is morality without context. They are concrete truths that do not change and given the evidence of our species, that is not the case. You cannot have morality without context and our context is a human society made up of evolved creatures within a particular environment.
Second, to assert objective moral truths, you have to have special knowledge of these objective moral truths. This typically present itself in the form of a moral lawgiver. In Christian circles, this moral lawgiver is God. The Euthyprho dilemma is relevant here because we can ask: are the morals of God right because God says so or does God say so because they are objectively right? Christians will try to weasel out of this by saying God’s nature is good. Ontologically, they say God is good but what evidence do you have of this? Just defining God as good without any evidence does little to help your cause. You can claim that Christian theology defines God as good but how are you going to convince an atheist of this claim without evidence? If you claim special revealed knowledge via some interaction with a holy spirit, you are engaging in special pleading. If you say you came to this conclusion via reason and logic, you then admit that reason and logic can lead to objective morality, negating the need for a divine lawgiver. Which again, gets at the heart of the Euthyprho dilemma. Even when Christian’s deny it’s a problem, like Matthew did, it’s not because it’s an invalid argument, it’s because they don’t have a good rebuttal without engaging in special pleading.
Third, I find that comparing objective and subjective morality is a false dichotomy. Morality is a very complex topic and study after study has shown that humans hold both subjective and objective morals. I would argue that instead of using the term objective morals, we should use the term universal morals. To boldly claim that morals are objective is ignoring all the evidence. I maintain that our moral truths are mostly subjective and that our morals are a product of our evolution on this planet within a specific environment but also the time and cultural we’re born into. The morals of 2000 years ago are different from today. Hell, just look back 60 years at the civil rights movement and see how much morals have changed. Morality is constantly evolving. Sometimes the evolution is good and sometimes it’s bad but to ignore this trend is to ignore the evidence. I can hear the theist now, if evolution dictates morality, why do we think rape is wrong? I would agree with that statement if evolution was the only deciding factor in morality but it’s not. This is another logical fallacy called the naturalistic fallacy or what philosophers call the is/ought confusion. Just because something IS a certain way doesn’t mean it OUGHT to be that way. This is typically described as moral relativism. Which is usually seen as a dirty word but there’s actually two sub-definitions of moral relativism. One is normative relativism which is pure subjectivity in that all systems ought to be tolerated. This is the context in which moral relativism is typically used. The second sub-definition is descriptive relativism which is stated as what is but not what ought to be. This is the heart of the is/ought confusion and this is the relativism that most of us live by.
Let me try to bring all this together is a closing argument. Can objective morality exist without God? To that question I would say no but given my earlier arguments, I would say that objective morality cannot exist at all, God be damned. Morality is subjective. It is subjected to the process of evolution and human nature, it is subjected to logic and reason, it is subjected to context and situations and it is subjected to history and culture. And, I don’t see this as a bad thing. I don’t see subjective morality as a negative. I think atheist do themselves a disservice by engaging in the objective morality debate. We don’t have to argue for an objective morality. Why should we when all the evidence points to subjective morality? I’m not saying that universal moral truths don’t exist, they clearly do but that doesn’t translate into objective moral truths. Those universal truths are still unique to our species living on this planet within this particular time in history. So that is why I use objective with a little O. Then where to our morals come from? The foundation of morality is the process of evolution. If evolution went down a different path who knows what morality would look like. This is the same issue with the Fine Tuning Argument. I doesn’t matter how we got here, the reality is that we are here and we have to deal with this existence irrespective of a god or gods.
Theist may claim that atheist rely on science for their morals. Although there are some out there that do like Sam Harris, I would think the arguments I presented clearly show that science is not the source of our morality. Do get me wrong, science can help inform our moral decisions just like understanding human nature can help inform why we behave a certain way but it’s not the be all end all of morality. I argue that you cannot have morality without human reason and logic and the evidence is clearing in favor of this position. Yes, cultural and historical context matters but what happens when you have two cultures colliding with two different moral truths?
Let me give you two situations. The first one is the meeting of two faith-based cultures. By faith-based, I mean they derive their morality from a divine lawgiver, this would be objective morality. Now both sides think they have the correct objective moral truths as revealed to them via their holy text or their god. How would they resolve their differences? The usually response is holy war. They try to wipe each other out or convert the other group or they may form a third, combined faith.
Now what would happen if two subjective moral systems confront each other? They would, through reason and discussion try to resolve their differences, find common ground or agree to disagree. Now, they still could engage in war or hide behind ideology but a system of ethics based on reason has the basis for resolving differences. The objective moral systems does not unless they undermine their objectivity and when that occurs, they are engaging in subjective morality.
Let me bring this back around to cultural and historical context. In an open society that is diverse and tolerant, the system based on human reason and logic is the only one that can work and that is the system of subjective morality. If you want a faith-based, therefore objective moral system, you cannot have a diverse and open society. That society will be authoritarian by definition. As an American, I was raised within a culture and society that is based on a constitution that protects certain rights, I’m more partial to an open and diverse society. If I was born and raised somewhere else, I would be more partial to whatever system was present during my birth and subsequent life. Which is still a subjective experience. When it comes down to it, all morals are subjective and I think this is what the evidence shows.
I can keep going on and one but I think I said enough. If you happen to disagree with me, please contact me in the comments section or via email or Facebook or twitter. I welcome all to this discussion, theist and non-theist alike. Hopefully I made my position clear and hopefully I gave you all something to think about. Thanks for listening.