Where do we really get our morals?

Morality has been on my brain a lot, as you can see from the two posts on the subject earlier today (here and here). In those posts I argued that even if an Objective Moral Law exists and comes from God, it's a) useless, since no one has objective access to God; and b) renders theism pointless as a catalyst for good, since theologians readily acknowledge that we can be good without believing in God.

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:
  1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist
  2. Objective moral values and duties exist
  3. Ergo, God exists
I've noticed that whenever this argument is used (primarily by William Lane Craig, but also by folks like Frank Turek, Tom Gilson and David Marshall) the first premise is tossed out with virtually no support whatsoever. I suppose that it's assumed it'll be uncontroversial. And indeed, my main beef is with the second premise – objective moral values and duties do not exist – but more on that in a moment. I don't see any reason why, if objective moral values do exist, they could not be somehow embedded in nature itself or as an inherent feature of humanity. I'm not arguing for that position, but I just want to throw it out there because I think these theologians take it for granted that other things might be able to account for objective moral values.

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. 
But the answer is, in fact, "no". It is not absolutely wrong to murder children, and this can be easily demonstrated with a thought experiment. Let's say you answered "yes". Then I could infer that you opposed the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in which the United States deliberately killed tens of thousands of civilians, including many thousands of children – many of whom died horrible, slow deaths from radiation poisoning.

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
That's essentially saying,
  • Killing children is objectively wrong now
  • Killing children was objectively acceptable in that circumstance
So, which is it? Objective, or contextual? You cannot claim any act is "absolutely wrong", then moments later dream up an example in which it is contextually justified. That's not objective morality – that's relative morality, because the justification of the act is relative to the circumstances.

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
 So, would it be contextually justified to rape 10 children to save 7 billion lives? I think most of us would say yes. Obviously, that situation or anything like it will never happen. But that's why it's so easy to take for granted that something like child rape is not, in fact, objectively wrong; we can't imagine any realistic scenario in which it could be justified. But if children's deaths are part of a war-ending genocide like the Japan bombings, we can rationalize it as "collateral damage" for the greater good. 

The theist hasn't proved the existence of an objective (transcendent) moral law simply by asking whether we think something is right or wrong. We could be appealing to a cultural standard, or even a personal standard. If they include the word "absolute", it's easy to show that no one really believes that any act is utterly incapable of ever being contextually justified. William Lane Craig himself argued for this when he justified the Biblical story of the slaughter of Canaan, using what he referred to as "Divine Command Theory"; essentially: God commanded it, so it was contextually justified. But that by necessity means the act itself, genocide of civilians, is not "absolutely" wrong – its rightness or wrongness is relative to the contextual circumstance.

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.


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