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Follow Up to a Follow Up - Morality

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismA couple months ago, I posted a few entries about a conversation I was having with a creationist in the comments section of his site (see the end of this post for links). A real life conversation I had recently reminded of that online conversation, so I went back to look at it again, and decided that I liked my last comment enough to repost it here, to hopefully allow it to be read by more people. For background, my comment was prompted by this question from the creationist:

Therefore, if you'll permit one more question: By what objective standard of morality are you appealing to when you express that those things are wrong?

Here was my response:

As far as objective morality, this is a topic that's been debated ever since there's been philosophy, so I doubt you or I will say anything that hasn't already been said. In other words, I don't foresee this as a very fruitful discussion, either, but I'll briefly indulge your question.

I don't think there is an objective morality. Morality is based on values, which are in the realm of the subjective. I know some people have tried to make a case for an objective morality based on science, such as Sam Harris in his book, The Moral Landscape. And while I haven't yet read the book, I don't understand how he could get there. Rather, I think you must start with givens that come from our human values, for example, that causing pain is wrong, or that increasing positive emotions is good. You start from your givens, and build from there. And sometimes, single actions can cause conflicting effects, so you have to weigh the good and bad consequences. For example, I already wrote that one of my givens is that causing pain is wrong. But sometimes, the beneficial effects of causing pain outweigh the negative ones, such as spanking a misbehaving child to improve their behavior or keep them from repeating a dangerous action, or putting criminals in jail as a deterrent to crime. But all this weighing and considering is subjective. It depends on how much you value the positive aspects you want to promote, or how much you oppose the negative aspects you want to curtail. While I only spanked my daughter a handful of times because I thought inflicting physical pain was a pretty big negative that needed a very substantial positive to justify it, I know other people who spank their kids on a daily basis, and have even heard of people that whip their kids with switches.

I can guess that you think God is a source of objective morality, but I wouldn't agree, even if Yahweh existed. I'm sure you've heard of the Euthypro Dilemma [Wikipedia], which I think sums up my stance pretty well. Appeals to God's authority like Divine command theory are merely dictating obedience to authority, not true morality. And I can further guess that you might accuse me of trying to put myself above God, but how can you truly be considered to be a moral agent if you abandon the up front work of trying to determine what's moral and fall back on a divine version of the excuse 'I was just following orders'.

I'll use an example. I can think of no inherent reason why homosexuality is immoral, yet Yahweh obviously doesn't like it. Now, just imagine that we were having this conversation 3000 years ago, before Jesus supposedly came along and told people to stop throwing stones. If I found out that somebody was homosexual and had engaged in homosexual acts, I'd be in a quandary. The Law makes the punishment quite clear, that they should be stoned to death. But according to my own moral compass, I'd think that stoning the person to death would be horrible - I'd basically be committing murder, since the person had done nothing wrong. So, do I attempt to follow my moral compass, or do I abandon my moral compass in place of obedience and a selfish fear of being punished by Yahweh. Is it more moral to do what you think is moral, or what you're told?

To add one small point to that, I think the Christian interpretation of the New Covenant completely does in any argument for objective morality. If the just and right thing to do 3000 years ago was to stone a homosexual, but the just and right thing to do now is to judge not lest ye be judged, then it shows that there never was a single proper reaction to learning that someone was a homosexual. It makes morality the whim of God (and also removes the attribute of unchanging or immutable from the description of God).


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