Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Summary: Morality Without God Debate

n a recent series of posts I have been concerned with atheists going up against theists on the question of morality without God armed with arguments that, to put it kindly, tend to misfire.

I think that it is important to look at the issue that people are truly concerned with when they ask questions about the possibility of morality without God. They look at the world and see a great deal of unpleasantness caused by other humans - rape, genocide, tyranny, torture, slavery, theft, lies - and they ask, "How can we prevent these things from happening?"

The way most Americans are taught to see this problem is that they have a choice. They can choose atheism, which leads to Nazi Germany and Salinist Russia (rampant and unrestricted rape, genocide, tyranny, torture, slavery, theft, and lies), or theism with its trust in God and a nation under God which gives us American constitutional democracy.

Given these options, one would have to be a fool to reject theism.

It does not help that the U.S. Government itself has a massive program going on that aims to convince young children to associate theism with liberty and justice for all, and to equate atheism with tyranny and injustice.

I suspect that the vast majority of readers realize that this alleged choice is simply false. However, this is the fear that the atheist confronts when he enters into battle with a theist on the possibility of morality without God. The atheist will be well served to know the terrain that the battle will be fought on and address themselves to the audience’s actual concerns.

"Can you, the atheist, give me some form of protection from these evils?"

The theist says, "Yes, I can do this because I will convince people that there is a God who will deliver eternal torture to those who engage in these types of actions. The atheist cannot give you this. This is why theism gives you American democracy and atheism gives you Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia.”

What is the atheist’s answer?

I have criticized the suggestion that we can simply assert that "good" is "an intent to reduce suffering." After all, the theist has just as much of a claim that they are out to reduce suffering as the atheist. This type of atheist cannot explain why morality is concerned with minimizing suffering, or provide a mechanism for motivating agents to do that which minimizes suffering.

I have criticized the idea that we can turn to evolution for an answer to our problems. Evidence that we have evolved certain forms of altruism (kin selection, reciprocity) does absolutely nothing to protect us from evils that we know humans are capable of committing against each other. You simply can't argue that evolution rules out the possibility of a Nazi Germany or a Stalinist Russia . . . or rape, slavery, tyranny, torture, theft, fraud, and wanton violence.

I have suggested that we can find our answer in a project to use social forces to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires.

We can find motivation to do so in the very desires to be fulfilled if we succeed, or thwarted if we fail. Once a person has desires that tend to fulfill other desires and lacks desires that tend to thwart other desires, we can trust him to do the "right thing" even when there is nobody watching over his shoulder. He will tell the truth because he hates lying, and oppose tyranny because he has an aversion to tyranny.

On the other hand, the vast majority of what currently passes for religion actually gives us is blind obedience to religious leaders. Man does not get his morality from God. God gets his morality from man, and God is exactly as moral (or immoral) as the people who invented him.

These are people who realize that, "Obey me, or I will make you suffer the consequences" is a weak argument. However, "Obey me, or my invisible, omnipotent and omniscient friend will make you suffer for eternity," is a substantially more effective way of enslaving people to one's will.

We have seen, just in the last eight years, how blind obedience to the "feelings" of a leader who thinks that his own sentiments are the word of God can give us torture, imprisonment without trials, wars of aggression, lies, theft (of the national treasury to reward campaign contributors with no-bid government contracts), and a whole host of evils.

President Bush did not get his morality from God, Bush's God got his morality from Bush himself (or, probably more accurately, from Vice President Cheney).

This is the risk we face when we go with religious ethics – that the leaders who assign their morality to God and claim that their own sentiments are the word of God written into their heart. That the person who is assigning his morality to God is evil, and that we all suffer the consequences.

God is only as good (and as evil) as the people who invent him. Sometimes, the people who assign their morality to God are not very good people.

14 comments:

timplausible said...

There is a lot of good material here for a debate. However, how do you respond to the question "how do you have morals without God?" when the questioner is seeking a brief answer? I have been involved in a religious diversity forum, where representatives of different religious and non-religious views provide information to an interested audience. The number one question for the atheist always seems to be: "Where does your morality come from?" or "How do you determine morality?" etc. In these settings, it seems very important to have a clear, concise, easy-to-understand answer that doesn't take long to explain. How would you respond in such a situation?

Justus Hommes said...

How do you know Bush's god didn't tell him to act one way, and he chose to act another in violation of his god's morality? Call it rationalization, pragmatism, or ends justifying the means, but don't we all fail to always do the act we know is good, whatever system or god we create to define our morality?

Since you love to bring up Bush (I don't like him either but simply ignore him), why not bring up Lincoln? After all:

Abraham Lincoln:
• Suspended the writ of habeas corpus.
• Spent money without congressional authorization.
• Imprisoned 18,000 suspected Confederate sympathizers without trial.
• Conducted at least 4,271 trials by military commission.

George W. Bush:
• Defined captured enemies as "enemy combatants".
• Denied "enemy combatants" habeas corpus.
• Tried "enemy combatants" through military tribunals.

(taken from http://thethoughtsontheworld.blogspot.com/2008/03/civil-liberties-habeas-corpus-and.html)

faithlessgod said...

Hi timplausaible

I would start as simple as possible and then expand as needed based on questions. So:

"Where does morality come from?"
It is not a thing that comes from anywhere rather it is both a means to evaluate desires as morally good or bad and a means to encourage such good desires and discourage such bad desires.

"How do you determine morality?"
You morally evaluate any desire by seeing its affect on other desires whoever has them and without exception. A desire that fulfils or tends to fulfil other desires is a desire to encourage or is good, a desire that thwarts or tends to thwart other desires is one to discourage or is bad.

David said...

timplausible
I don't think there's any way to convince someone else you're right with a short answer, but there may be ways to convince them they're wrong about some particular. The strength of a lot of theistic arguments is that they're both concise and vague. The vagueness allows others to interpret an argument to fit their model and also lets the person shift around when you try to counter the argument. I would try to force them into more explicit ground, and maybe they'll even start to see some inconsistencies on their own. Ask them things like "if you were wrong, what would be the evidence?" or try to pick out hidden assumptions and clarify "is this an assumption or a conclusion of your theory?"

With morality in particular, the arguments are driven by hidden fears and emotions. People talk about "moral bankruptcy" and "social chaos". You need some definitions to base your argument on, but you won't have time for them. Asking questions vs. making statements gives you the high ground, and finding the right questions (if there are any) will be like solving a puzzle.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Timplausible

Unfortunately, my first instict is to say, "Well, I DON'T get my morality from a bunch of pre-literate mysogenous tribal bigots who have been dead for a couple of thousand years."

Because that is exactly where the ethics of the Bible come from.

As I have argued, using the Bible as an infallible reference to morality is like using the works of Hypocrates as an infallible reference for medicine. Its consequences are just as destructive.

However, the best short answer is that I get my morality from the same place that I get my chemistry, medicine, and astronomy - from theories and observations of what happens in the natural world.

"Now. if you are interested in the details, here is the best theory that I think we have to date."

Makarios said...

Unfortunately, my first instict is to say, "Well, I DON'T get my morality from a bunch of pre-literate mysogenous tribal bigots who have been dead for a couple of thousand years."

It sounds almost as though you believe human nature has changed since history was first recorded. It sounds like you think we're more psychologically advanced than we were then.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Makarios

I believe that there are moral facts, just as there are facts in medicine. And just as the practice of medicine has improved over time, so has the practice of morality.

It has nothing to do with a change in our nature. It has a great deal to do with learning to use the tools at our disposal more efficiently.

Christian Apologist said...

"I have suggested that we can find our answer in a project to use social forces to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires."

It sounds like you are saying that desire itself is the ultimate good. First of all what is the basis for this? Second how can you say that desire is the ultimate good and then turn around and say we should inhibit desire?

Kevin Currie said...

Christian Apologist wrote: "It sounds like you are saying that desire itself is the ultimate good. First of all what is the basis for this? Second how can you say that desire is the ultimate good and then turn around and say we should inhibit desire?"

I support you in these questions, fully. I am not at all sure how Alonzo is justified in holding desire in such high esteem when it is universally recognized that desire is not an unqualified good (therefore, an action's ability to fulfill other desires is good ONLY IF the desire being fulfilled is a good desire. This, though, begs for a non-utilitarian way to evaluate whether a desire is good or not.

Kevin Currie said...

Alonzo wrote: "I believe that there are moral facts, just as there are facts in medicine. And just as the practice of medicine has improved over time, so has the practice of morality."

What is the criteria, though, for evaluating whether morality has improved? WE don't have an abstracted "final morality" to hold our current moral codes up against to find out how closely the two match.

For me, a subjectivist and pragmatist, the best we can do is to say taht "morality seems better because today's moral codes do more than the past's in doing the things I think they should do."

That, though, is very subjective.

Is there a non-subjective way you use to judge whether we have improved, regresseed, or stagnated in our moral codes? (If you say that today we act in ways "that tend to fulfill other desires," more than in ages past, I will retort by asking why that is a sign of moral progress, rather than subjective preference.)

Eneasz said...

Hello Christian Apologist!

It sounds like you are saying that desire itself is the ultimate good. First of all what is the basis for this? Second how can you say that desire is the ultimate good and then turn around and say we should inhibit desire?

First - you are mistaken. Nowhere has Alonzo said that desire is the ultimate good.

Rather, he has said that all intentional action is the result of two things - beliefs, and desires. There is no other motivator for intentional action than a desire to realize a state of affairs, and the belief that the action will result in realizing that state of affairs.

Thus, desires themselves are not good, per se. They are just that which motivate humans to act.

The basis for this is the evidence provided by the real world. If there are any other reasons for action, we would like to know about them (honestly).

Second - desires themselves can be evaluated on whether they tend to fulfill or thwart other desires. A desire to help your neighbors when they are in danger is a desire that everyone has reasons to promote. If I am in danger, I would like my neighbors to help me. Thus I try to promote this desire (and they do the same to me). A desire to kill your neighbors and take their stuff is a desire that everyone has reason to inhibit. Thus I try to inhibit this desire in others (and they try to inhibit it in me).

That is why some desires are inhibited and some are promoted. There is no rule that says "Desires are good, and should always be fulfilled." Assuming such a thing is ridiculous, and no coherent moral theory would do that. Rather, a theory of morality describes how humans act in the real world. It describes why some desires are promoted, and some are inhibited (because they tend to fulfill/thwart many desires of others). It describes how this is done (via classical conditioning). And, if someone has a certain goal (such as landing on the moon in physics theories, or bettering the lives of everyone in moral theories) it proscribes certain actions that can be taken to achieve this goal. That is what scientific theories do.

Kevin -
the best we can do is to say that "morality seems better because today's moral codes do more than the past's in doing the things I think they should do."

Most people have many strong reasons to achieve a better life for all. If this is your goal, then yes, todays moral codes do these things better than the moral codes of the past. If, on the other hand, your goal is to achieve the best possible lives for the ruling elite (regardless of the cost to others), then today's moral codes are fairly poor at achieving that (altho still not so terrible).

I assume I don't have to explain why it is in almost everyone's interest to promote a moral code that gives a better life for all over one that only gives a better life to the ruling elite.

faithlessgod said...

Kevin

Christian Apologist wrote: "It sounds like you are saying that desire itself is the ultimate good. First of all what is the basis for this? Second how can you say that desire is the ultimate good and then turn around and say we should inhibit desire?"

Kevin wrote: "I support you in these questions, fully. I am not at all sure how Alonzo is justified in holding desire in such high esteem when it is universally recognized that desire is not an unqualified good

How can you support Christian Apologist fully when you should well understand that no-one here has made an argument for "ultimate" or "unqualified" good - this is a straw man.

Desire is not held in "high esteem", rather it is the only objective basis that we know of for reasons to act that exist and reason for act that exists are what are required to answer moral question. If you know of others, please show and argue for them. For example, you claim to be a rule utilitarian in which case please show how such rules exist as reasons for action and are something other than desires.

Kevin said "(therefore, an action's ability to fulfill other desires is good ONLY IF the desire being fulfilled is a good desire."
A very interesting point. The ONLY IF is misplaced and as far as action is concerned one determines the proximate desire(s) that bring about such (intentional) action and those desires are evaluated against their affect all other desires -whoever has them and whatever they are. Now any and all of those latter desires can also become the object of a different evaluation. No desire is privileged over any other, all are amenable to evaluation - a version of the utilitarian idea of equal consideration (of desire).

Kevin said" This, though, begs for a non-utilitarian way to evaluate whether a desire is good or not."
Since any desire can be evaluated this way no question begging nor non-utilitarian requirement results. It is only you insisting on a different formulation that leads to such question-begging non-utilitarian needs, but then your formulation is not Desire Utilitarianism.

Christian Apologist said...

Thank you for the clarification I think I understand a little better what you are saying.

However saying that desires are one of the prime motivating factors of action does nothing to resolve the problem of deciding what is good and what is bad.

Anonymous said...

Alonzo, your thinking is flawed.
God is absolutely the basis for morality. If there is no established standard for morality by an absolute, unchanging authority there is no meaning to morality. Suppose you take admission in a reputed university, can you do whatever you want there? Aren't rules established by the university authorities? Similarly morality is "rules" established by God. The university rules may be relative and imperfect, but God's "rules" are absolute and perfect always because God is absolute and all-perfect. We may not be able to grasp the "mind of God". In short, what God says is right, is right and what God says is wrong, is wrong. Very easy for a theist! Can an atheist define what is right and wrong? It is so difficult for him. There is no sense in denying God. Take the origin of the universe for example. What happened before the so-called big bang? What is the origin of the big bang? An atheist generally accepts that the universe ultimately came from nothing, but refuses to believe that a human being, or an eye, or a wristwatch, or a leaf or a tissue or a living cell came out of nothing. Isn't that nonsense? Everything in the universe has a cause, including the universe. God is beyond the created universe and He created it. You may ask, "Who created God?" God is defined as the "Cause of all causes" in various ancient Vedic texts. The Vedas are authoritative because they themselves originated from God and were not creations of human beings. So by definition: God has no creator, He is the ultimate origin of everything else.