A while back I had an email conversation with a commenter (ok, it was Rhology) here who refused to accept that it was possible that a person who lacked any god-belief could be a moral person. I thought I had answered his questions completely in these posts I had written. (and later in this post.) He had a specific question posed:
Resolved: Any system of morality within an atheistic worldview can be based on nothing more than personal or at most societal preference for its value judgments.
Now when I had written in my posts that all morality actually has its root in society, and that morals which help any given society survive and thrive were considered useful and therefore kept, but those which were destructive either ultimately killed off the society, or those morals were discarded before the society died off. Virgin offerings to gods, cannibalism, incest are all things which had been practiced in the past and because they made the society as a whole unstable, they were subsequently considered "bad" moral guides. In that if they were continued to be practiced, the society would suffer and die off. Then those "bad" moral guides later became immoral.
In the same way "good" moral acts became morality. Such as not murdering, not stealing, etc.
But what about intermediate moral acts? For example having many wives, concubines. Those moral acts of millennia (or even centuries) ago are today now immoral. But just how much impact on society did those acts ever really have? Sure many other immoral acts occurred as a result (murder, for example), but their impact on society was not significant. For those civilizations continued to grow and thrive. It was only later when those intermediate moral acts became burdonsome in some way -- maybe financially, that they became, over time, immoral acts.
Even in today's society we have brand new issues which can go either way, they can be moral or immoral. Stem cell research, abortion, medical technology keeping a body alive long after the mind dies (Terri Schiavo), assisted suicide, same sex marriage. All these issues hang in the balance today.
So now we have a historical perspective with which to judge morality, specifically the morality of these types of issues. Let us take probably the easiest example, same-sex marriage. What is there that makes it appear to be immoral? Nothing. In no way does a man marrying another man harm anyone. It does not harm the children of that marriage in any way. It does not harm the marriages of the couples who live next door to that married couple, and it does not harm their children either. So if there is no harm caused to anyone, then how can it be construed at all to be immoral? If morality is defined to be that which strengthens society, then it is completely moral. If it neither harms nor hurts society, then it is intermediately moral, but still moral based on its effects on society. If it is immoral, then it harms society.
Marriage has changed drastically throughout history, we all know that is a fact. Plural marriage and concubines have been very common in history and have been accepted as moral. But that attitude has changed many times through history to where it is today, no multitudes of wives and the acceptance of concubines, just one woman and one man. But that is not the only way marraige has changed. Consider how just a few decades ago, even the one man-one woman structure had its limits as well. Both had to be of the same race, both white or both black. In many southern states (I refer you to Virginia v. Loving) there were laws against interracial marriage. This was only decades ago. Then the moral concept of marriage changed once again to allow for that new addition to the family of marriages -- interracial marraiges were now moral. So why can't the definition of marraige change once again? Why cannot men marry men and women marry women?
What is at the core of marriage after all? What makes marriage moral? Well love is the most obvious thing. But is it really the foundation of marriage after all? I think not, because even today there are many marriages that are "arranged" that is the parents of the couple decide that they should be united in marraige and the couple has no input in that decision -- they are essentially forced to marry. The foundation of marriage must be more basic than that. It must deal with providing a nuclear unit within a society that society can trust will act for its own best interests without intervention from the society. A family then is a marriage and offspring. The family acts as its own micro-society. Thus many of the duties and responsibilities of that larger society are offloaded onto the family and the marriage at its center. Thus the structure and scope of the marriage is irrelevant to its morality as long as it fulfills that duty and obligation: take responsibility of the offspring and the family unit from society and place it within the confines of the marriage. All marriages throughout history meet this requirement. MArriage types that do not are therefore immoral (i.e. the infamous Rick Santorum man-boxturtle marriage comment). So a same sex marriage would only be considered to be moral in this framework.
Now I am ready to respond to the thesis presented me and how I would respond. I think that all morality, no matter what its current source, is at its very core based on the framework I have just sketched out; that it is always, and always has been, based only on what works for society. Even in the most religious of mindsets, it has always only come down to society. The bible, and its moral code is the perfect example. No matter how a Christian wants to explain it, the fact is that the bible was the result of cultural moral ideals and was written as such, that a god was tacked onto it is not relevant. That biblical society in those biblical times found moral guides which worked for them and they encoded those morals in the bible. So even if one wanted to claim that all morality can only come from God, all their evidence is societal -- i.e. the biblical society surrounding the times of the bible. It is still society that determines what is moral and the way they do that is by sticking with what works and changing what does not. Clearly murder does not work, so it is immoral. But marriage works and it works in many different incarnations, so it is moral.
Therefore the real thesis in the original statement: "Resolved: Any system of morality within an atheistic worldview can be based on nothing more than personal or at most societal preference for its value judgments." is that atheism has nothing to do at all with morality. Atheism is simply a lack of god-belief (it is not a religion). But if lack of god-belief and God belief are not the actual root of morality then the thesis statement is a moot question. Atheism has no more to do with morality than does religion.
Now all of you must be stratching your heads at this point and saying to yourselves, "Hey wait a minute, both atheism and religion impact and influence what is considered morality." Yes that is true. They both do influence or impact morality. They can both even change morality. But the catch is that if either one changes morals in such a way that those morals now harm society, the morals must either therefore be altered again to protect society or the society dies. Which brings us full circle to the incontravertable fact that morals are the product of a healthy society, and not the other way around; a healthy society is the product of morals.
Thus my thesis is this: Both atheism and religion can influence morals in one direction or another; but society, by its long term health and stability, alone determines whether those moral changes are good or bad. Society is the key to morality, not religion or atheism.
Please note: In this essay I have used the words "good", "bad", good, and bad. I would attempt here to define them quickly and easily, but I do not think that is possible. Religion has a specific way of viewing "good" and "bad" through the lense of some magical sky daddy handing down what is good and bad. Ironically enough, for the most part they happen to coincide with the more common definitions of good and bad. I think theists getting them mixed up with holy and evil is the only real departure between the definitions. but that is another topic altogether.
Postscript: Maybe you noticed, but if you did not, this post had nothing to at all with the morality of an atheist. But I hope that it was understood that morality has nothing at all to do with religion or the lack thereof. I concede that both theists and atheists often attempt to change moral standards, but the standards themselves are neither based in a belief in a god or a lack of belief in a god.