So now I want to turn to that more academic, philosophical question of meta-ethics: where do our morals come from? I want to turn again to the Objective Morality Argument (which I'll abbreviate OMA), which is this:
- If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist
- Objective moral values and duties exist
- Ergo, God exists
So, the second premise. When theologians talk about objective moral values and duties existing, they mean it in a transcendent manner; that is to say that moral values are something like a tree falling in the woods – it does make a sound, independently of whether anyone hears it. Objective moral values would, similarly, continue to exist even if all humanity was wiped out and there was no one around to observe or practice them. Quoth William Lane Craig: "To say that there are objective moral values is to say that something is right or wrong independently of whether anybody believes it to be so."
Here's a really important part: humanists might also be inclined to use the language "objective moral values", like Sam Harris does. But it doesn't mean the same thing; in this case, we're talking about objectively valid reasons given certain shared goals. I know that's a mouthful, but bear with me. On the humanist view, we are all bonded and interdependent. We're a necessarily group-living (obligatorily gregarious) species with shared needs and interests. Moral values are not fixed ideals, but pliable and contextually varying guidelines that allow us to live cooperatively for mutual benefit.
The question is, then, why you should view morality from the humanist perspective instead of the theistic one. To quote William Lane Craig again (same article):
If there is no God, then any ground for regarding the herd morality evolved by homo sapiens as objectively true seems to have been removed. After all, what is so special about human beings? They are just accidental by-products of nature which have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust lost somewhere in a hostile and mindless universe and which are doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short time. Some action, say, incest, may not be biologically or socially advantageous and so in the course of human evolution has become taboo; but there is on the atheistic view nothing really wrong about committing incest.
Objective or contextual?
So what's the evidence that objective moral values and duties exist? The common answer seems to be something like this:
- Is it absolutely wrong to murder children?
- If you answer yes, you're acknowledging a higher moral law
- Thus, you've proved that you believe in objective moral values
- If you answer no, then you don't really have any moral values at all – it's just whatever you decide. It's subjective, arbitrary, and ultimately meaningless.
Hold on a second, though. The reason we dropped those bombs was to end World War II. We were on the verge of a long and costly invasion of Japan – costly both in blood and money. I'm not taking a side here, as I know this remains a controversial decision. But clearly, even someone who may have intuitively answered "yes" to the above query may nonetheless view the massacre of Japanese children as contextually justified.
If you find yourself on the other end of that particular example, I'm sure with enough thought you can find another. And this is how we discredit "objective morality", because you cannot have it both ways:
- Killing children is absolutely wrong
- Killing children was contextually justified in the Japanese bombings
- Killing children is objectively wrong now
- Killing children was objectively acceptable in that circumstance
With some acts of cruelty, we have to get pretty creative to imagine a scenario in which they would seem justified. So instead of child murder, let's use child rape. After all, we didn't drop a plane full of pedophile rapists onto Japan. But again, as a thought experiment, we can probably imagine a scenario in which it is justified – far-fetched and unlikely though that scenario may be:
- A malevolent alien race is going to destroy the entire planet unless you rape 10 children
Knowing right from wrong
So then who decides what is right or wrong? We do, both individually and collectively. Remember, on the humanist view, we are a group-living, interdependent species. Want to have zero moral accountability? That's easy: move into the woods and live by yourself. It'll be tough, but you'll never have to answer to anyone. But if you want the myriad benefits of group living, there are certain rules you'll have to abide by. Just like you, other people have their own needs and interests. If you do not respect theirs, they will not respect yours.
There's an implication here that's discomforting for theists: the Nazis weren't "absolutely wrong", at least not in the transcendent sense posited by theists. But in case you forgot, the Nazis lost the war. The rest of the world stood against that tyranny; simplistically, the Nazis didn't respect the autonomy of their neighbors – so their autonomy was not respected in turn.
So in another sense, we might indeed say the Nazis were "absolutely wrong" – because given that we are bonded and interdependent, a group who wishes to conquer and kill indiscriminately is absolutely in conflict with our broader shared needs and interests.
This view of morality comports perfectly with the reality we observe: moral standards and ethics have shifted dramatically over the centuries. 500 years ago, if you'd asked someone, "Is slavery wrong?" They'd likely have told you "no". Today, we consider slavery unambiguously antithetical to our shared values, and we are not hesitant to declare it wrong.
But what's the point?
There's one more related issue I'll address, as Craig highlights in his essay:
Given the finality of death, it really does not matter how you live. So what do you say to someone who concludes that we may as well just live as we please, out of pure self-interest?I'm not sure how, if Craig cannot find meaning and worth in a mortal life, he will find one in an eternal life. But he's nevertheless appealing to our own self-interest.
Why, for example, should even the powerful respect the needs and interests of others if they are able to live comfortably exploiting people? If the theist posits one's obligation to God, it's simply another way of saying that God will ultimately punish or reward your behavior – which falls back to valuing our own self-interest. There may not be justice in this life, but there will be in the next. If you can't threaten a powerful person here and now, threaten them in the hereafter.
So, why should a powerful person respect the needs and interests of others? Because history has shown that those who do not are not likely to remain in power very long. Tyrannical governments eventually fall; powerful people cannot walk on the backs of the weak forever – people will collectively rise up against them. I recognize that theists may not find this answer satisfying because there have been plenty of times when powerful people do get away with cruelty, but wishful thinking is not a sound justification for requiring some kind of absolute justice
There's yet another reason though. We are, as a culture, far more productive when we live cooperatively and freely than when we are set against each other. Think, for a moment, how many African slaves could have been great doctors, inventors, teachers, or scientists. How many oppressed women could have changed the world for the better, had we allowed them to? It's taken humanity a long time to learn that mutual respect is ultimately in the best interest of all of us.
There's more to cover on the topic – what makes us different than animals, or how we can value things – including ourselves – that do not have "intrinsic value". But those will have to wait for another post.