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!

My Conscience Makes Me Barf

Last time I wrote I addressed the comments of Dan Savage while addressing a group of high school students at a journalism conference.  The anti-bullying icon used the opportunity to verbally bully the young theists, specifically Christians and Jews, in the audience.  More intolerance from a supposed tolerance advocate, further evidence that the myth of tolerance is one-sided.  In any case, a thoughtful commenter on my last entry essentially posed the questions to me; Do I really think I ought to be, “lustful, prideful, angry, bitter, greedy, vengeful, and jealous?;  Is society actually telling [me] to treat other people poorly, never forgive, never compromise and be promiscuous?”; Why do I need a Bible to follow my conscience?  Let’s take a look at the reality of the answers to these questions, because I think though frequently posed by atheists, these are really pretty simple questions to answer.

To the first question on whether or not I should do these morally degenerate things, the answer is obviously: no, I don’t think I should. I think most people would generally agree with this. However, what they wouldn’t agree with is what constitutes the morally degenerate behaviors.  That is where society comes in.  We must all necessarily base our concepts of these morals on something.  The question is what are we basing them on?  In the end the atheist has a problem with where their values system comes from.  In the absence of objective moral law, I can really only get my values system from myself or from my society.  Neither one of these sources is adequate, as either one excludes you from being able to tell me my morals, or my society’s morals, are wrong.  Fortunately, on my worldview at least, we’re all created in the image of the Moral Law Giver, which means that at least to some extent, we have some similar sense of right and wrong built into us so even though our belief in the foundation of morality may differ, we can agree on some major points of morality.  Extreme things like murder, rape, theft, etc will generally be accepted as morally wrong among most individuals or societies.

However, it turns out we also have free will, which means we can defy what we know is right and wrong, and re-train our consciences into believing what once was wrong is now right, or vice versa.  We don’t believe it though, because from our own perspective we’re in the right.  History is filled with examples of people and societies whose consciences accepted things which they never should have (ie European and American slave trade, Nazi Germany).  We look back and condemn these behaviors with hindsight, but what would I really have done if I was there, and let my own conscience and society be my guide?  I suspect it would be no different from now as we normalize things like marriage hopping, porn, ladder climbing greed, and revenge seeking.  Embedded in some other culture, I’d probably have come to accept that Jews or Africans are not people.  I’d retrain my conscience to believe this to be permissible.  Moreover, I’d have no reason not to conform to society.  That is, unless I had some objective standard removed from human tendency by which to measure my own conscience.

At the same times in the past that society was normalizing morally abhorrent behavior, people like William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were standing up against other people’s consciences and fighting, even dying, for what was objectively morally right.  We see now that they were correct in doing so, and that the cultures that promote slavery and genocide are wrong. You see, without some foundation, conscience becomes only a matter of popular opinion.  So yes, I do need a foundation upon which to calibrate my conscience.  That then, is why I rely on the Bible.  Why I choose the God of the Bible over other possible foundations is a longer discussion, but the short explanation is that I believe it is because it is well-supported, where other foundations are not.

I think it is actually quite apparent that people’s consciences, while useful for day-to-day guidance, cannot be fully trusted unless properly trained.  In the end, when you pose this question about conscience, the question I think the you are really asking is not why can’t I just follow MY conscience, but why can’t I just follow YOUR conscience.  You want to be the foundation of my morality.  You would prefer I give up the God of the Bible, so that you and/or society may take His place.