Monday, December 10, 2012

Morality and God: Is This an Important Question?

A member of the studio audience asked me to discuss the relationship between god and morality - specifically in the context of this article:

The Plausibility of Grounding Morality on God

There are a lot of different facets to this question. I have answers discussing many of those facets scattered through this blog. Here, I wish to bring those facets together into a more complete set (and then transfer that answer to the Desirism wiki).

The first question to ask is: "Does it matter?" There is reason to believe that whether moral value is grounded on God or not just does not matter - and we can move on to discuss what does matter.

Let me explain how the grounding of morality might not matter.

In the front lawn of my yard, there is a tree. My neighbor and I might have a fundamental disagreement about the source of trees.

On my understanding, about 3,900,000,000 years ago a bunch of atoms came together in a way that was self replicating. The molecular structure was one that attracted other atoms that bonded to it in a way that created a replica of itself that, then, disconnected and floated away.

However, this method did not create perfect copies. In almost all cases when an error occurred the new strand was unstable and broke apart. However, every once in a while, a new strand was stable enough to replicate its new structure. Some new structures were stable at higher temperatures or in saltier water, some replicated better in sunlight. Some were able to disassemble other strands it encountered and used their materials to make more copies of itself. After 4 billion years of progressively more complex strands coming into existence, a tree sits in my front yard.

My neighbor thinks that this story is utterly improbable. He holds that the complex replicating strands that make up the tree in my yard could not have emerged through natural processes. It takes the effort of a powerful intelligence to manufacture these DNA threads - knowing in advance that a particular number and ordering when planted in nature would result in trees and aiming for that result as he worked.

At one level, it does not matter which story is correct. In spite of this disagreement, we are both capable of standing in my yard and seeing the same tree. We can agree as to its height and the circumference of its trunk, how much it would weigh if it were cut down, the shape of its leaves, its chemical composition, and the effect of chopping it into pieces and puts them in a fireplace on a bed of hot coals.

Nobody - at least so far as I know - is willing to argue, Trees come from God. You do not believe in God. Therefore, you must not be able to perceive of any trees. You cannot say anything about trees unless you admit that a god exists. In fact, we cannot even trust you to drive - because you at risk of running into trees whose existence you cannot acknowledge. (This, of course, is comparable to the bigotry that holds that one cannot be trusted to hold public office unless one believes in God.)

This is an absurdity, of course.

What is true of trees can also be true of the wrongness of rape (for example). My neighbor and I can agree that the wrongness of rape is just as real as the tree in my front yard. I hold that the wrongness of rape comes from the reasons for action that exist for people generally to use the social tools of reward (including praise) and punishment (including condemnation) to promote in others an aversion to rape and a hostility to those who commit rape. My neighbor holds that its wrongness must come from God because nothing of the type can emerge in nature without the help of an intelligence. Yet, our disagreement as to the origins of rape does not imply that we must disagree about its properties or the very real reasons that people have to condemn it and punish those who commit rape.

There certainly is no justification for the conclusion, "If you do not believe in God you cannot be trusted to do the right thing," any more than "If you do not believe in God then you cannot be trusted to drive a car without running into a tree."

We see that, at this level, the question of whether morality is grounded on God or emerges as a property of natural elements organizing themselves into certain forms simply is not important. We can set it aside for casual discussion when we have nothing better to do and spend our productive time solving real problems instead.

Unfortunately, people do not leave the question at this level. They stick a bunch of other stuff to this claim that yield, in some cases, tragic results. They draw inferences that, "Because it is impossible for morality to exist without God, all homosexuals must be killed" or "Because morality depends on God those who do not believe in God must be barred from public office."

Consequently, there is more that is to be said on this issue.

In my next posting, I will address the tendency to view lack of a belief in God with immorality.


Jesus Zamora Bonilla said...

My definition proposal for "atheist", in Wiki Portal:

@b said...

This framing is problematic because today's moralizers insist that collectively we're permitted (even within a liberal democracy's legislation) to keep punishing "deviant" individuals because of our group's Higher Purpose.

Secular ethicists are then on the back foot arguing that US voters shouldn't permit their elected government to serve monotheism's Higher Purpose. Good luck there.

We'll need judgment calls. Perhaps good ideas aren't as important as good feelings? Maybe none are worth killing or dying for.

And we need to do debate morality without comparisons to no brainers. American christians aren't "like" salafists that (more than) permit violence to defend their religion of peace. Those examples are barely comprehensible within our western context.

Finally, we need to argue against today's influential moralizers, not skewer imagined interlocutors and the words we put in their mouths.