That’s a simple subject to take on in a blog post, right?
Richard at Philosophy, etc. has posted a thoughtful response to some thoughts I had in my recent interaction with DarkSyde. Richard is concerned to try to establish some objective basis for morality other than religious beliefs, and I applaud him for at least recognizing the dilemma and trying to come to some conclusions. I believe his conclusions to be inadequate, but I’m sure that’s hardly surprising that we would disagree, him being an atheist and me being a theist.
Richard first of all questions my assertion that the existence of a soul renders men equal:
As I understand the rest of his post, Matt seems to be asking for some ability or descriptive/substantive attribute that all people have in equal proportions. But people vary according to just about any measure one might care to imagine. So he suggests we all have equal ‘souls’. I’m not sure what this is supposed to mean. Perhaps the ‘soul’ is our innermost self; the part of us that makes difficult decisions, engages in moral deliberation, etc.? If that’s the case, then it just doesn’t seem true that our souls are any more ‘equal’ (in the descriptive sense Matt is after) than the rest of us. Just like some people are faster runners than others, so some make better decisions, are more morally developed, and so forth. So if ‘soul’ means anything like what I suggested above, it cannot do the work Matt demands from it. (And if it doesn’t mean this, then I’m not sure it means anything substantive.)
The Christian concept of the soul is something a good deal more than what Richard suggests, although it certainly means at least that. Our soul is what separates us from the animals. Its mere existence in us is what determines our equality. The fact that I can reason; that I can make moral decisions; and that I can do all the other things that no mere animal can even approximate, demonstrates that I bear the divine stamp on me, and it is on the basis of that divine stamp that I am declared equal. Not because that image of God is equally regarded by others or equally present in all, but because God has commanded that His image be regarded, and that all human beings therefore are regarded as morally equal.
Richard talks about this concept of moral equality, and does a clear job of defining it:
But of course, when we talk about people being ‘created equal’, we’re not talking about any such descriptive equality. Rather, it is meant as an affirmation of moral equality. This might be best understood not as a substantive property possessed by others, but rather a claim about how we ought to treat them. Everyone is (prima facie) worthy of equal consideration. It would be wrong to discount someone else’s interests just because they’re of a different race or religion from you. More succinctly: all count in the moral calculus.
Although very abstract, I think it’s a simple enough concept for any moral agent to understand. It’s not about how fast we can run, how rationally we can think, or any other ability or descriptive property we may possess. It doesn’t require that we have some internal organ that is literally identical or ‘equal’ to our neighbour’s one. So it doesn’t require God-given ‘souls’ – indeed, it doesn’t require religion at all. It’s simply about morality, and how we ought to treat others.
But again, that fails to answer the central question, which is why we ought to treat others that way? My assertion is that in a world in which there is no ultimate authority to say “Thus says the Lord”, there is ultimately no basis on which to make such a statement.
To his credit, Richard has written a post which also seeks to address this issue head-on, here. I read it as central to his thesis that moral value, like other values, may be relative, but that doesn’t mean they’re pure matters of opinion. For example, “up” and “down” are relative matters, but that doesn’t mean that it is a matter of opinion whether Everest is higher than Pikes Peak (I hope I’m understanding you right here, Richard). Given a particular value, there are defininte and fixed ways of achieving that value. But he is still a relativist insofar as he says that those values don’t come from anywhere outside of me- there are no “mind-independent” values.
Richard then defines moral values as those which address not the individual perspective of one person, but that of humanity as a whole. If you are choosing to pursue moral values, this means that you choose to do things in such a way as will benefit all of mankind, not just yourself. So it’s relative, in the sense that which values you choose to pursue are entirely up to you, but it’s objective, insofar as once you have made that decision, there are choices which will definitely advance that objective and others that will detract from it.
It’s a well-thought out position. But there seem to be some serious difficulties with it, nonetheless.
1. Richard has still not established why anyone should be asked to consider the point of view of all mankind, instead of just his own well-being. Perhaps he would say that nobody needs to, it’s just a choice you make. But that fails to answer the reality of why we feel the way we do about people who fail to consider the viewpoint of humanity. I don’t feel outrage when someone does not do things for my benefit. I don’t expect the butcher to give me the meat for free. But when someone acts in such a way as to hurt all mankind (or all of mankind that he’s able to hurt) for his benefit, I feel outrage at that, and pretty much everyone else does too. Where does this compulsion to hold myself and others responsible to consider the wider welfare come from?
2. This view of morality cannot avoid the dilemma of minority rights. If it simply is the welfare of the many over the welfare of the few, doesn’t that imply that it would therefore be moral to take away the rights or well-being of a few if many would profit by it? It’s hard to see how you would avoid things like eugenics with such a moral system.
Richard certainly faces the problem squarely, and has clearly done a lot of thinking about it. I think his formulations fail, but not for lack of trying. They fail because morality without the author of morality really is an unsolvable dilemma.