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Objective: Morality

When considering morality, questions about the subject are as important as the ethical conclusions reached within moral investigation. This subject, known as metaethics, asks not what is good but what is good. This question seems basal to the whole process; first we figure out what the hell an ethical conclusion is, then we can attempt to identify instances thereof and derive more practical outcomes. Is the good subject to the whims and feelings of the individual or are there murkier, more holistic and impersonal forces at work? Are morals subjective or objective, and what form does such objectivity take? There are some who deem objective moral values both desirable and unthinkable without a god or gods to send down such edicts and give us lowly primates a foundation upon which to stand. As with so many religious arguments this seems to succeed only in pushing back the problem one more step, and then placing great faith in the power of special pleading.

Objective morality, by its very nature, is something which can be assented to by any rational, dispassionate observer. To be subjective is to be open to debate precisely because there is no fact of the matter. I might say that Star Wars is a better franchise than Star Trek – and defend my conclusion to the bloody end – but since there is no demonstrable correct answer this is purely subjective. But were I to say that the first Star Wars film was released in 1977, there can be no disagreement of this kind. All of the available evidence leads to the inescapable conclusion that this is a fact; it is objectively true. Objective morality is of this kind. Objective moral propositions are verifiably accurate therefore are true regardless of your protestations or support. Based on this definition, objective morality must be based upon objective reality, not upon the conviction of a single being. A statement of an objective moral value will end in, “… because facts xy and z are factually accurate to any rational observer.” A statement of a subjective moral value will ultimately end with, “… because I/he/they say so.”

I do not think that it is an exaggeration nor a misrepresentation of the theistic position that all believers regard their god or gods as a source, at least, of moral teaching and guidance. Many go further and state that their deities are the only source of solid and objective morality at all. The mantra is, “If there is no god, there is no foundation for objective moral values.” Such moral guidance as is forthcoming from gods may take the form of precepts in scriptures, vicarious communication through their representatives on Earth, or a conscience urging us towards the good implanted directly into our bodies. This godly morality applies to all people at all times and must not be contravened. It is thus dubbed ‘0bjective’. This is a very different definition of objective morality than the one offered above: No rational or dispassionate person can reject these ethical statements because the guy in charge said so. Rather this divine command theory eerily resembles subjective morality.

In Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, Socrates confronts the eponymous character over his intention to prosecute his own father for manslaughter. Making the not unreasonable assumption that such a man must be confident in his own piety, Socrates performs his usual duty of relentlessly questioning his interlocutor into submission. His challenge is to request that Euthyphro define piety, which forces this hapless fellow onto the horns of a particularly ill-tempered dilemma. “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious? Or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” If piety is something independent and is only communicated by the gods, deities become irrelevant middle-men between humans and holiness. If piety is simply that which is demanded by the gods, it is subject to the idiosyncrasies of of the mighty and holds no deeper meaning than that. The gods are rendered either irrelevant to piety, or piety is rendered meaningless by the gods. The same principle is exactly applicable to morality. Is the good loved by the gods because it is good? Or is it good because it is loved by the gods?

There are those among the unbelievers that entirely agree with this line of reasoning, and therefore hold that morality is subjective and cannot be defended in an objective manner. In the worst of cases they lapse into moral relativism, a position as repugnant as it is self-contradictory (A moral principle is good if the society deems it so, except for the moral principle of relativism, which holds among all societies). However, there is a way to construct an objective morality that does not depend upon the divine, but only upon those minds that seem to clearly be present: the minds of conscious creatures. On this view, objectivity is not a nebulous, universe-spanning concept, but applies only to a limited sphere, namely those entities which are capable of suffering. If we grant the uncontroversial premise that the best possible flourishing is better than the worst possible suffering, we have all the foundation we need to build an objective moral system. To argue that it is not good or moral to promote flourishing and avoid suffering is, to me, to lose sight of any reasonable concept of ‘good’. In any given situation concerning a human, there will be options as to how to proceed, and among those options there will be some which will cause suffering and some which will cause flourishing. This is simply factual. I can demonstrate that drinking brake fluid will cause me to suffer. Thus, it is objectively true that to drink brake fluid would immoral, insofar as it causes nothing but suffering. Because there is tremendous diversity and uncanny similarity among all conscious creatures on Earth – chauvinistically singled out because we do not as yet have any proof of extraterrestrial life – there will be no simple, sweeping answers to moral questions. But we will always be faced with paths which are more likely to cause suffering and paths which are less likely. The objectivity lies in the demonstrable conclusions and the ability to apply such a method in all cases, if not in practice then certainly in principle.

I once wrote an essay entitled, “Why Moore’s “Naturalistic Fallacy” is Neither Naturalistic Nor Fallacious”. While I hold only a tenuous grip on the conclusions that I reached in that particular composition, while still thinking I was mostly correct, I can report that it is very satisfying as a critic to find that your target fails on multiple levels. This may seem childish, but it is undeniably true in my own case. In the case of objective morality as based in gods’ existence, we find that not only is such morality not objective, it is not moral either. It is based on what some being or beings think, and is thereby subjective. There is no guarantee, and plenty of evidence to the contrary, that the thoughts of such beings as they are reported to us will be beneficial or in any sense good. (Should anyone doubt this, please consult any given holy book.) Rather this theistic morality seems an impediment to building the better and more comprehensive ethical framework towards which we are still struggling. Cast off the notion of divine parental permission, focus our energies on the eradication of suffering and the promotion of flourishing, and it seems clear that we can accomplish yet greater feats of compassion than we have thus far.

[Addendum: The ideas for a godless objective morality are not entirely my own, but have been heavily influenced and inspired by Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. I highly recommend checking it out, as it makes a powerful case for the fusion of ethics and science, and lays out a plan for putting an end to quibbling over moral dilemmas – thus putting me out of a job…]

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I Know You Are, But What Am I?

There is a trope called the “Pyrrhic Victory”, which references a Greek king who achieved a desperate victory at the expense of destroying his own armies. The basic concept is that an empty success is snatched at the cost of your own side along with the enemy’s. This idea is also inherent in the “scorched earth” strategy, where one retreats in the face of an overwhelming attack, while burning and salting your own territory, rendering it as useless to your foe as it is to you. Why bring up these suicidal military tactics? Because both of these approaches seem to drip from a very peculiar response levelled by believers against atheists: Atheism is just one more religion among many.

Coming from the religious themselves, the accusation of religiosity as a criticism is an extraordinary attempt at a knock-down argument. What could be more self-refuting than an argument that states, “You are unjustified because you are the same as me”? This seems to be the very definition of a Pyrrhic victory. If atheism is just another religion, then it is just as superstitious, irrational and baseless as any other faith. Congratulations, you have successfully argued that those who disagree with you are just as absurd and bewildered as you are. The statement is certainly not intended as a compliment. When a Christian says to another Christian, “Your faith is admirable,” they intend a great compliment. When the same sentiment is offered to an atheist, the intent is a snide potshot. I understand that words can have different meanings, but with such a foundational concept, it is unwise to define it in diametrically opposed ways. It may begin to look like you don’t know what you’re talking about.

Let us grant the premise for the sake of argument. Atheism is not the end point of an examination of god claims and finding them wanting, nor a result of lacking any exposure to them. Rather, it is a position based upon faith, the groundless failure to accept that any deity exists. Theism and atheism are therefore left on equal footing, right? Well, no. A belief is relatively reasonable if, while it lacks real justification, it accurately reflects the way the world works. We would look more kindly on a heliocentrist than a geocentrist, even if their belief is based on nothing more than personal preference. There are better and worse reasons to believe, but a correct belief is better than a false one, even if it falls short of actual knowledge. So in the presence of a universe operating by physical laws, wherein all the suffering and chaos and wonder one might expect in an unsupervised space exists, atheism still seems eerily like one of these true beliefs. The claims of the religious of miraculous events and benevolent superintendence are as ridiculous as ever, regardless of the faithfulness of their opponents.

This is where my generosity ends. Atheism does not fit any description of religion that isn’t so hopelessly diffuse as to also bring sports fanaticism and knitting club membership into the fold of faith. We use definitions as limiters, to distinguish things by noting those characteristics that are shared by that group and not by everything else. Thus atheism can easily be excluded from the category of “religion” by its failure to participate in the necessary features thereof. Admittedly, religion is difficult to define, but most people have something specific in mind when they use the word, and it may be accepted that a layman’s definition is sufficient for the purpose.

A religion generally includes a belief in some kind of deity or deities, whether deistic, theistic or pantheistic. Daoism and Buddhism do not necessarily fall under this umbrella, and for this reason it may be argued that these are closer to philosophies than religions – though some sects of Buddhism do hold a belief in the deity of the Buddha. Atheism spectacularly fails to fulfil this requirement, by its very definition. This is an analytically true statement: Atheism is the lack of belief in a god, and therefore atheists lack a belief in a god. No further empirical investigation is necessary. The vast majority of religions include a belief in an additional cornucopia of supernatural propositions. If one lacks belief in god, prayer and miracles become untenable. And while the term “atheism” only applies to the belief in god, most atheists in my experience – in the West, as many Chinese atheists hold traditional beliefs like ancestor worship – are also sceptics and materialists, and this certainly excludes these atheists from being religious believers. Religions commonly have a text or set of texts that are seen as essential and inviolable, often claimed to contain tales of gods, inspiration from same, or even direct communication from the divine. While atheists may have personal favourites and admired authors and thinkers, we stop far short of deification and are all too aware of their human limitations. I have great affection for the works of David Hume, but I will freely state that his views on race were backwards and vile.

Remove god, the supernatural and holy texts from religion, and what are we left with? Groups of people with similar ideas who meet regularly and celebrate particular days, identifying under a particular label. There is nothing now to differentiate between a religion and a political party or supporter’s club. A definition that describes everything describes nothing and should be discarded as useless. So, no meaningful definition of religion can include atheism. This leaves the theists’ scorched earth policy as a failure on two fronts: it is factually incorrect, and even if used damages theism more than it does atheism.

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