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The Big Picture

'Have you ever heard of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates? Morons.' -- Vizzini from "The Princess Bride"

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Atheist Morality

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.

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6 Comments:

At April 02, 2008 9:20 AM, Blogger Rhology said...

Jeff,

Your post is long on assertion and short on justification.

On what basis should anyone other than yourself hold to the idea that, as you said, "morality is defined to be that which strengthens society"?

Also, it is incumbent upon you to define "society". Who comprises it? What if a certain action hurts one portion of the population and benefits another? If it hurts one portion and does nothing to another and benefits yet a third, smaller, minority?
Further, how do you know what "hurts" and what "strengthens" society?
You could try your hand at those questions in another post, I should think. I'd like to ask your response to this scenario; maybe you can incorporate it all into one.

Peace,
Rhology

 
At April 02, 2008 10:24 PM, Blogger jeffperado said...

Rhology,

You are really grasping at staws now. You wrote, "On what basis should anyone other than yourself hold to the idea that, as you said, "morality is defined to be that which strengthens society"? "

May I turn that back at you and question you, On what basis should anyone other than yourself hold to the idea that morality is defined by some god who is either Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, etc. etc. etc.?

You, Rhology claim the same as all other religions, a supernatural source. But how is one supernatural source to be judged against another supernatural source if all evidence of that source is supernatural?

And furthermore, what I claim is not unique to me. All other atheists and agnostics claim the same thing, morality is rooted in humanity.

But what really gets me is this statement you made:

"Also, it is incumbent upon you to define "society". Who comprises it? What if a certain action hurts one portion of the population and benefits another? If it hurts one portion and does nothing to another and benefits yet a third, smaller, minority?"

That was exactly the point I was talking about. Go back and reread. Society is made up of people who live and commune together. What helps in the long term is good. But history has also shown that what may help in the short term, but harms in the long term (like I described in terms of marraige) is bad. And in those cases morality changed. Just look at the history of marriage again as I already mentioned.

You concluded with:

"Further, how do you know what "hurts" and what "strengthens" society?"

Again, it was by definition that I already explained. If it hurts society, you as an objective observer, can watch that society suffer from it, if it helps then that society prospers. And again society can change it morals. Just look at marriage again as I outlined. interracial marriage used to be illegal and immoral. Now it is not.

As for your scenario, I will look at it, but I can tell you, you have already moved goalposts and given up on your original thesis; which may I remind you was: "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."

You have now moved beyond that (because I defeated that argument), to presenting specific "scenarios".

And just how many scenarios must I respond to before you defer? Your thesis has been responded to. That was your request. And that was what I spelled out. Are you now saying that you were wrong, and are now probing just where my moral philosophy takes me?

Can I do the same? Can I present you with a situation where you would knowingly and willfully violate one of the Ten Commandments because it was the "right" thing for your conscience to do?

 
At April 02, 2008 10:27 PM, Blogger jeffperado said...

Rhology, I just read your scenario. You are right it deserves a post on its own. Can I quote it fully? (I will post this question at your blog as well).

 
At April 03, 2008 9:16 AM, Blogger Rhology said...

You may quote any of my published writings to any extent. Free of charge! :-D

I'll hopefully be back within a week or so to comment here.

 
At April 03, 2008 9:37 AM, Blogger Rhology said...

Jeff,

You should believe my position b/c all other positions are totally insufficient to ground any morality that goes outside of the individual.
We keep seeing you beg the question, beg the question, beg the question. I ask you to justify your assertions, and you just repeat them! I don't have time to go around and around with you, so I'll point it out once and leave it to whoever reads this to see the vapidity of your responses.
Since all the options fall down except the theistic one, you have two choices:
1) Stop making any and all "should" and "ought" statements. Keep your morality to yourself at all times. Otherwise, you are being inconsistent.
2) Convert to the theistic position.

The rest of what I wrote is further showing how your position is incoherent.

Society is made up of people who live and commune together.

So, like an Amish settlement in remote Pennsylvania?
A city like Dallas?
A town like Centralia, PA?
A village like Tkalim's in my scenario?
A nation like the US?
Chinatown?

Help me out here - define your terms. The problem is obvious.

If it hurts society, you as an objective observer, can watch that society suffer from it, if it helps then that society prospers.

A brilliant example of a question-begging assertion. I ask what it means to hurt and help, and you just use synonyms! Hurt becomes suffer and help becomes prosper. There is no substance here.

interracial marriage used to be illegal and immoral.

That's really interesting - something that was immoral became moral?
Could that ever happen with murder? Rape? If so, under what circumstances? If not, why not?

you have already moved goalposts

What's your argument for that?

You have now moved beyond that (because I defeated that argument), to presenting specific "scenarios".

1) You never even dealt with my argument, for one thing. I told you that your other posts to which you referred me were not specific to my question, and this one is a bowl of water-soup.
2) The scenario is designed to point out with greater clarity the vacuity of your position. Illustrations are not moving the goalposts.

Can I present you with a situation where you would knowingly and willfully violate one of the Ten Commandments because it was the "right" thing for your conscience to do?

Be my guest.
I know I should't expect this, given the level of dialogue that I've seen from you ever since I first started talking to you, but it's not too much (rationally) to ask you to demonstrate at least a basic level of understanding as to how to present OT laws as binding/non-binding. Here's a good place to start.


Peace,
Rhology

 
At April 06, 2008 9:02 PM, Blogger jeffperado said...

Rhology,
Because of what you said said in your last comment, I almsot have to let it stand as the final comment. It will be up to the readers to ascertain who is making sense here. To further comment would only muddy up those waters. And I think anyone who reads and knows a thing or two will be able to figure out who is making the more valid case. I have made my case, and you have made yours.

I will, however discuss a couple of points you made in your last comment that are new. You wrote:

Since all the options fall down except the theistic one, you have two choices:
1) Stop making any and all "should" and "ought" statements. Keep your morality to yourself at all times. Otherwise, you are being inconsistent.
2) Convert to the theistic position.


State your case for why all options fall down. I have aleady shown throughout my writings that the only real case that falls is the one(s) supporting any type of supernatural/theistic morality. Especially the entire Judeo/Christian theism. In the beginning (may I steal that?) God said it was ok to marry many women. Then somewhere he changed his mind, and only one wife was allowed. Then by the time of the New Testament, only one wife in a lifetime was allowed (according to Paul), and now today divorce is allowed. The same for slavery. Slavery was allowed, and was its rules were spelled out in detail in the Pentateuch. Jesus and the NT writers even aloowed and condoned it, goin so far as to gives rules for the behaviors of slaves. Now today it is not allowed.

You fail to repproach these issues, because you cannot. Theistic morality is as flowing -- dare I say relative -- as any system of morality.

And for one reason alone. Certain moral imperatives become harmful and thus must be changed. This is the same no matter what your moral foundations are; Christian, theistic, New Age, or atheistic (humanistic).

That was my point.. And that has been the point you mock because you have no rational answer to it. I need no other explanations to make this point. You know what. I would even be so gracious to you as to say that you within your theistic moral framework will eventually come around to accept and embrace the humanistic moral framework I, and other humanists (nee "atheists") already embrace. Again I point to marriage.

As for your point 1. Being dense is no excuse for being wrong. Morality is a collective no matter who defines it, me or you. Within the realm of morals, I have ever bit as much authority to press my morals onto you as you do yours onto me. That is the nature of morality. (Otherwise, no one ever, anywhere, would ever be considered "immoral" if their own personal system of morality reigned supreme in their moral actions. Osama bin Laden would be as moral as you if his own personal morals were as individualistic as yours.) Since I have only expressed a societal system of morals, then for you to accuse me of this is not only illogical, but is lying. (And isn't lying a moral 'no no' for Christian society?)

You nit picked on my definition of society, because I only used that word without defining it. Then let me define it for you. Society is a collection of individuals with a common interest. Thus a neighborhood can be a society, a city that contains that neighborhood can be a society. The state that contains that city can be a society. The country that contains that state can be a society. And a race that contains that country can be a society.

I thought this was basic knowledge. My mistake. You can also go to any dictionary (you know that thick book with lots of words which defines those words) to find out what a society is.

You wrote also:
A brilliant example of a question-begging assertion. I ask what it means to hurt and help, and you just use synonyms! Hurt becomes suffer and help becomes prosper. There is no substance here.

Sorry, if you do not know what hurts and helps means, then I cannot help you. (Does that mean I am hurting you??) A philosophical question for the ages....

And finally. Here is my situation. You believe in the Ten Commandments I presume. One of which is, "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor." Now presume your neighbor is married. His wife comes to your door; she is bloodied, barely conscious, obviously been hit by a baseball bat (or other blunt instrument) and says to you, protect me, my husband is trying to kill me. So you bring her in and give her all the aid you can, and call the police. Then your neighbor comes banging at your door, he has a gun and a bloody baseball bat. "Do you know where my $%@$#$ wife is?" Do you bear false witness against the wife and tell your neighbor, "No." Or do you tell the truth that she is inside (and the police are coming)? Sometimes lying is a good thing, but you would never know that from the Ten Commandments. Another example is a parent who sexually abuses their child. Should that child submit to the abuse and be right under the fifth Commandment that all children should "Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the LORD your God is giving you". Or should the child dishonor their parent and bring to light the evil that that parent does and therefore violate God's unequivical dictate?

Morality is hard when you approach it from a theistic point of view, isn't it? Luckily this is not a problem in the least for atheistic morality, because as humans we learn from our mistakes and change to make things better, rather than be restained by some absolutist dictates from a fairy sky-God.

And that is true peace,
--jeffperado

 

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