Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Paradox of Theistic Morality

Hello again, dear readers! I apologize for the extended layoff, but I have been terribly busy lately. Today's topic concerns the relationship between religious values and morality.

I have envisioned a brief analysis of religion and morality as a casual, but animated, conversational dialogue. I imagine that such a conversation may develop between two close friends, Q and A. Our pal Q is a theist (he or she could be a Jew, a Muslim, or a Christian - it doesn't matter) while A happens to be a non-theist.

Q: It's incomprehensible to me how an atheist could have an explanation for morality.

A: Why so?

Q: Well, I've always believed that there must be some form of absolute morality, and that God is the best explanation for our sense of right and wrong. This seems especially likely to be the case in light of the arguments of famous defenders of the faith such as C.S. Lewis and William Lane Craig.

A: I think it's highly unlikely that God's morality is absolute. Doesn't the god of the Bible say that it's wrong to murder, yet even in books such as--

Q: --Allow me to interject. Do you believe in right and wrong? If I ask you about slavery, do you believe it is wrong? If I ask you about rape, do you believe it is wrong? If I ask you about theft, do you believe that is wrong?

The bottom line is that we all agree that certain things are just wrong, yet why should we agree to this if there is no objective morality in place?

A: You're asking me why we should agree that slavery and rape and theft are wrong?

Q: Yes.

A: Well, first of all, you're asking me whether we agree. Don't you think that if there were an absolute morality, you wouldn't have to ask me whether I agreed? In that case, wouldn't I just know that they're wrong?

Q: But don't you agree that they're wrong?

A: I do. But it's not because I believe that any god said so.

Q: Then if there is no god watching over you, if there is no ultimate moral standard, then who can tell you not to run out into the street and rape, steal, or kill? Who can tell you that it's not okay to cheat on your wife or your taxes?

A: I think you're finally beginning to understand what I'm trying to say. Who can tell me that it's not okay to cheat on my taxes? Who can tell me that it's not okay to rape or kill or defraud someone?

Q: Are you going to answer my questions, or are you just being cute with me?

A: No, I'm going to answer your questions directly. Allow me to elaborate.

Let's pretend that you have a group of agents in one place. All of them can benefit if they take something away from the others, but none of the others benefit if something is taken away from them. Wouldn't it be the most beneficial for all of the agents if everyone could have security for themselves and their possessions?

Societies decide on what is moral or immoral. Societies are built upon a foundation of respect, trust, and empathy.

If your husband or wife catches you cheating, he or she is going to lose that trust, and your relationship will deteriorate. If the government catches you cheating on your taxes, you'll go to jail -- if you aren't caught, then there will be less money to pay for things like national defense and road construction and social security, and if everybody acts like that, then the relationship of the country will deteriorate. If individuals don't cooperate, everyone suffers.

Do you really need a god to tell you that people will get hurt if you're selfish or rash or cruel? Do you really need a god to tell you that peoples' lives will be improved significantly over the long run if they would only cooperate?

Q: I'm afraid you're missing the forest for the trees. What if the majority of individuals liked or enjoyed rape? Would you still say that it's moral? Wouldn't you still say that it's morally wrong?

A: If there were a society that approved of rape, then perhaps that would be a difficult dilemma. But how likely is it that a society which widely approves of rape can survive or flourish?

Q: How naive you are. Do you realize that patriarchal societies throughout history have engaged in and even justified spousal rape under the law? Here's a case where most of the people in a society see no problem with something, the society is not negatively affected because of this something, and yet you still would hesitate to say that you are not morally opposed to this something.

A: You're right; just because something survives or flourishes doesn't make it fair or just.

Q: Ah ha, fair and just! You're using the vocabulary of absolute morality. How do you have any idea what is fair or what is just? Aren't you arguing that fairness and justice evolve along with the societies in which they develop? You have no justification to say that something isn't fair or isn't just because you have no consistent standard to say what it is that makes something fair or just in the first place.

A: You're right, again. Racial minorities and women and religious minorities and those of differing sexual orientations than the majority have struggled to obtain rights and are still struggling to obtain rights today. How far have we come in discerning what is fair or just, and how far must we go?

Q: How far? Not only are you avoiding my questions now, but you're also just bringing more and more difficulties for your position in this discussion. You can't analyze the past and discern whether something that happened then was moral or immoral unless you have a consistent, absolute standard of morality.

A: Humanity has developed different moral ideas such as justice, empathy, fairness, and loyalty. As we learn more about the universe around us and the reality of our existence, our knowledge about ourselves and about our world increases. As our quantity and quality of information increases, so does our potential opportunity to reflect upon what is fair and just.

When we are able to observe species in nature that have same-sex relationships, we gain more evidence that neither homosexuality nor bisexuality is a choice, but rather something inherent in the nature of certain individuals. When women have more choices outside the framework of their traditional roles as mothers and caretakers, we gain more evidence that women are not inferior to men. When DNA confirms that all human beings originated from the same ancestry, we gain more evidence that there is nothing superior about any one race over any other race.

Humanity's ability to learn more information about our world gives us new ways and new perspectives on what fairness and justice mean. Our circle of empathy expands; our horizon of moral concern is broadened by the new ways in which our lives are interconnected and intertwined. It has become increasingly difficult for humans to sink into their tribal tendencies and neglect those found to be outside the immediate circle of acquaintances, for we human beings have found more and more that our fate is interdependent on the fates of our fellow creatures. There is no nation, no tribe, no race, and no language that can unify or dominate our world - there is no nation, no tribe, no race and no language that can stand alone and take care of itself alone.

Our evolving morality is largely a product of two trends: our inherent moral intuitions which have evolved for the cooperation of our societies, and the ways in which our existence has been changed by technological discoveries - these two elements have combined to shift our moral compass and provide us with new perspectives on the meanings of old notions like fairness and justice. The underlying concepts are the same - the basic cooperative qualities which compel a society's attention have not changed - but the ways in which we perceive each other as a collection of overlapping societies has indeed changed. Our broader moral outlook is a function of the manner in which our way of perceiving ourselves as human beings has changed.

Q: That certainly sounds impressive, at first. You've argued that certain moral concepts develop in an inherently natural fashion because they advantage the development of complex societies, and that an increasing level of understanding between human beings emerging through new technology has also continued to expand the arc of human moral concern. However, how do you get people to accept this morality? Why should I listen to you?

A: That's a great question - I think you are getting this after all!

Before you ask, no, I am not pulling your leg. Let me explain.

Organized religion is a political system which expedites the acceptance of commonly held moral conventions by the masses. Adherence to the dominant religion of a society is an acknowledgment that one accepts the shared moral code of his or her peers. Religion is a system of political values which distills the accepted mores of the day and disincentivizes free riding from those agreements -- put more simply, religion punishes, or threatens to punish, those who do not pull their fair share.

Of course, we have both agreed that the commonly shared values of individual societies shift greatly and vary widely over time and place. The development and evolution of the dozens of widely embraced branches of the three major monotheistic religions is a prime example of this variation between evolving political values.

Thus, your claim that religion is the safeguard of absolute morality is false, because organized religions are almost exclusively interdependent with the majority views of the societies in which they develop.

Therefore, the paradox of theistic morality is this: while most theistic apologists claim assertively and vigorously that their religion is the safeguard of absolute morality, one of the major reasons that religious apologists abhor non-adherence of their religion is because of their fear that the non-absolute moral agreements of society will collapse if enough individuals dissent from the non-absolute "absolute morality" which is the paradigm of the particular time and place inhabited by said religious apologists.

1 comment:

Ketan said...


It is after so long that I'm reading a post coming from you, and I must congratulate you. You've discussed almost all the major issues relating to the genesis of moral sense. And your informal style, but systematic method of analyzing the issue was very impressive.

Prior to reading your piece, I had never thought of the contribution of science in making us realize the same-ness, and the resulting fundamental equality of all 'varieties' of human beings.

Thanks for widening my perspective!

Take care.