Secular Morality: Barfing Up A Moral Landscape

Yes, I’m still here.  I bet you thought that you’d gotten rid of me.  In my last post I referred you to an article on secular morality that a friend of mine had passed on to me after a discussion about the basis for moral judgments.  I began by dispatching the false dichotomy the article leads with in an attempt to establish that morality based in God is no less arbitrary than that based in a secular worldview.  Please read my previous post to understand why this is not the case.

Now, on to the task at hand, which is an attempt to understand how morality can be objective in the context of secular naturalism. The article tries to get going by asking the questions, “How should unbelievers behave? Where does our understanding of morality ultimately come from? How do we know that our standards are correct in a meaningful and universal sense?” These are great questions! How then, do we began to answer these questions? The article continues, “…if we approach the question from a humanistic, scientific stand point, atheists ought to agree that there should be rational standards for arriving at moral conclusions.”

Say what now?

I seem to be being told, that in order to conclude where “oughts” (statements about morality) come from, that we ought to agree there should be rational standards. This is absurd though. I see no reason why atheists ought to agree, unless there is some transcendent atheist herdsman that sets the moral standard for all people. The statement that atheists (or anybody else) “ought” to do anything is the very thing that is in question, and so at the outset this article commits the logical fallacy known as “begging the question“. This circular form of argument gets stuck in an infinite loop that usually goes something like this:

Atheist: We ought to agree there should be rational standards for arriving at moral conclusions.
Me: Doesn’t whether or not there are objective moral conclusions impact whether we “ought” to do anything, like agree on rational standards?
Atheist: No. We can know some things are right and some things are wrong?
Me: How?
Atheist: We ought to agree there should be rational standards for arriving at moral conclusions.

Unfortunately, a claim cannot use its own conclusion to justify itself, and so this article falls on its sword before it ever gets underway, by appealing to a sense of “ought” prior to establishing that such a thing can exist, or where it comes from. The fact of the matter is that either moral principles are universal laws that we discover, like the laws of mathematics or physics, or they’re merely social conventions that we’ve created for ourselves. In the event they are social conventions, there is no “ought” involved. There remains only the opinion based product of myself or my society. In this case, I have no grounds to judge the actions of other people or other societies. If another society believes nirvana is achieved by using babies for skeet shooting, that is their prerogative. I can object on the subjective grounds that I don’t like it because it is mean, but I have no objective standard on which to base my assessment.

In Sam Harris’s book The Moral Landscape, he lays out a much more thorough case for an objective morality without God. Harris defines his so-called “moral landscape” as, “…real and potential outcomes whose peaks correspond to the heights of potential well-being and whose valleys represent the deepest possible suffering.” Again, from the outset, the case for secular morality lies within the human condition. Though eloquent, Harris’s definition of morality holds water no better than the aforementioned article. The Moral Landscape makes its case using moral language with words like “well-being”, “should”, “right”, and “good”. All of these words are meaningless though, unless something gives them meaning. Harris dodges the problem of question begging by instead relying on the equivocation of these words so that they are synonymous with the promotion of human life. This secular humanism is arbitrary speciesism though. On naturalism I see no objective reason to think protecting human animals is any more right than protecting aardvarks or cockroaches. Surely you can assign subjective rightness to the flourishing of human life, simply on the grounds that you are one of them, but why stop there? Why not use you’re nationalism to promote an ideal society of whatever sub-class of humans you think is superior to others (WWHD)?

Theism presents the solution to this problem though, by recognizing a transcendent moral law giver outside of creation that provides a universal moral law. People seem to nearly universally recognize and affirm that human life is important, but unlike a secular humanist’s worldview, Christianity in particular has objective reasons for elevating humans over aardvarks or cockroaches. God, as the creator of all things, gives mankind special position in the creation. Without a transcendent moral law, all morality is reduced to individual and societal opinions. Sam Harris can use science to tell me that certain brain states equate to unhappiness. However, science is powerless to say in any meaningful sense why I ought not put you in these unhappy brain states.  It is not his science (as he would have you believe), but his philosophy that makes the claim we ought to look out for the well-being of people. This is his opinion…and we simply ought to agree with his moral conclusions.

Just to be clear, I am NOT saying that the atheist cannot be moral, I’m simply saying that on atheism there is no objective grounds on which to base the concept of morality.  In a secular worldview it seems it must be admitted that “oughts” and “ought nots” are no more meaningful than in any other part of the animal kingdom. If we really think that an objective morality exists though, and that things like “human rights” are real things, then we must look outside ourselves to find the source, for it is only something beyond mankind that can apply universally to mankind. Once we identify the source of moral laws and duties outside ourselves, only then can we say with confidence that we ought not eat our babies like guppies do, and this is more than just mere personal opinion or cultural convention!

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11 thoughts on “Secular Morality: Barfing Up A Moral Landscape

  1. I think you are missing our point. Morality, like logic, reason, math, and science are human constructs produced from minds in order to better navigate/understand this physical universe (reality). Morality is fundamentally about well-being. Well-being can be empirically measured. Many questions of morality are ultimately about life and death. Life is empirically preferable to death. I approach morality as being the rational consideration of the consequences of one’s actions with respect to the well-being of yourself and others. It is really that simple. No unsubstantiated, invisible, undetectable gods required to make decisions in this life with regard to well-being. Whether you subscribe to divine command theory or other supernaturally-based systems, I would content that this is the more rational, reasonable, and healthy approach to questions of morality.

    • But see, there’s the problem again. You’re just equivocating on the term “morality” in order to *make* it be “well-being”. By that method of defining morality I see no reason why somebody else can’t equivocate “morality” with whatever achieves the super-human race they want to design by eugenics programs that exterminate inferior human beings. You say life is empirically preferable to death, but in what sense? It seems to me plenty of people choose death over life, whether it is their own or someone else’s. Preferences are subjective. I so while I applaud you for your stance on morality as being subjectively defined as looking out for the well-being of people, I see no reason why anyone else *ought* to care. If they prefer to define it as whatever promotes the well-being of their super-race, that is their preference. Who am I to say otherwise?

      • “But see, there’s the problem again. You’re just equivocating on the term “morality” in order to *make* it be “well being””

        – Nope, just using a clarifying term that describes the practical reality and real-world application of something that means different things to different people.

        “By that method of defining morality I see no reason why somebody else can’t equivocate “morality” with whatever achieves the super-human race they want to design by eugenics programs that exterminate inferior human beings.”

        – Yes, people are free to make choices that negatively affect the well being of others. And you would be free to disagree, rebuke, and ultimately fight against their choice.

        “ You say life is empirically preferable to death, but in what sense?”

        – Seriously? In just about any sense (save for a few specific scenarios). I would find it difficult to take seriously anyone who suggested otherwise.

        “It seems to me plenty of people choose death over life, whether it is their own or someone else’s.”

        – I mostly agree. Sadly, both the religious and irreligious sometimes make this choice.

        “Preferences are subjective.”

        – Yes. That doesn’t make them equally valid.

        ” I so while I applaud you for your stance on morality as being subjectively defined as looking out for the well-being of people, I see no reason why anyone else *ought* to care. If they prefer to define it as whatever promotes the well being of their super-race, that is their preference. Who am I to say otherwise?”

        – Really? you can’t think of a single reason to resist a Hitler-like character? Wouldn’t the “inferior human beings” care that they are being exterminated in your scenario? As a moral agent, concerned with the well being of others, I and like-minded folks would be compelled to resist in such a scenario; with at least some motivation coming from the real possibility that we might be next on their extermination list – if we weren’t already.

  2. If you have to clarify a term by calling it something else, that is equivocation. You’re trying to turn them into synonyms, but there not. Morality is just a word to describe actions that are good or bad. “Good” may mean “well-being” to Sam Harris (and you), but it may mean achieving some perfect race to somebody else, and there is no reason to say that person is wrong. You can appeal to popularity of the “well-being” way being the *real* “good” way, but popularity cannot prove its rightness.

    Perhaps we should stick to one of your first statements, because I think that is where the heart of the problem lies. You say, “Morality is fundamentally about well-being.” Riddle me this then: If morality (good and bad) is *fundamentally* about well-being, please explain how states of well-being came to be a *necessary* property of good and bad actions/decisions?

    BTW – I can think of excellent reasons to resist a Hitler-like character, but we’re not talking about my worldview, we’re talking about whether or not a secular morality can be an objective thing that applies equally to all people, in all places, at all times.

    • Moral assessments are made by comparing an action to admittedly subjective standards. However, an objective assessment can be made of any particular action even if the standard itself is subjective or arbitrary. Practically speaking and like it or not, we live in a world of subjective moral standards. The umbrella of theistic faiths is teaming with different subjective moral standards. You can claim your particular subjective standard is objective all you want. That doesn’t make it so.

      To address your question, in order to have a reasonable discussion about morality, certain assumptions are necessary. To say morality is about maximizing well being I would hope would be uncontroversial.

      • Ahhh…well, there you have it then. If the moral assessments are admittedly subjective (on secular morality anyway), then there’s no reason any one assessment is any better than another. Whether you or I agree (or hope we agree) on any particular assessment is irrelevant to the discussion.

        Only if the standard is established apart from EVERYBODY can it apply to EVERYBODY. If it comes from within each of us, then each of us therefore has the power to set our own standard, and change it on whatever whim we see fit, whether it is particular states of well-being, or eye color. That being the case, we might as well abandon the illusion that any such thing as moral duties actually exist.

      • You’ve misunderstood. That’s why I hate this format – but this is too fun and good mental exercise… 🙂

        Moral assessments (comparing an action to a standard) are objective. Moral standards themselves are subjective and usually informed by one’s world view. We live in a world with many different world views, many of which coexist and usually find common ground in a peaceful way.

        It is your subjective opinion that your worldview, and therefore your moral standards are objective and correct. To demonstrate to someone outside your worldview that your moral standards are objective rather than subjective and apply to “everybody, everywhere”, you would have to demonstrate and provide evidence for your deity.

        Prove to me your god exists, and I’ll take your claims of having an objective (rather than subjective) moral standard seriously.

  3. I believe you’re the one misunderstanding! 🙂 You’re still saying my subjective moral standards are my own, and therefore correct, so it follows that any individual’s standard (Stalin’s or Hitler’s) standard is also his own, and also correct. We have no grounds to judge anybody’s actions other than our personal opinions.

    My claim is that if there isn’t some transcendent source of morality, then no “standard” of morality is better than any other. On a secular worldview, “good” and “bad” are illusory concepts we’ve invented to placate ourselves, so I might as well free myself of them and do as I please.

    If we’re just a universe of swirling matter, then the idea of “good” or “bad” states of matter is absurd. Matter can’t really matter! (see how I worked that pun in there)

  4. I understand your position completely, I used to hold it. Now please provide evidence for the existence of your transcendent source of morality. That’s where it all falls apart.

  5. Unfortunately, you’re still confused. My position in this particular debate is that some transcendent source of morality must exist if it morality is to be anything other than personal opinions (like the taste of lima beans). Just because you don’t like lima beans (or punching babies in the face for fun), doesn’t mean that I can’t like lima beans (or punching babies in the face for fun). Everybody must go on their own search for the transcendent source, should they come to the conclusion that one is necessary to successfully explain reality as we know it. Certainly I’d be willing to assist you in that endeavor should you so choose, but at this point I’m merely asking you to accept the reality of your own position, which is that good and bad can’t actually exist (and punching babies in the face for fun is just fine) and any sort of meaning is an illusion perpetrated by evolution! Sorry to be a downer, but just ignore me, because it doesn’t matter 😉

  6. Yes, I accept that since no one has been able to provide sufficient evidence that a transcendent objective moral standard law-giver actually exists, we are stuck with subjective moral standards (aka the current moral landscape).

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