Morals without God?

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.

3 thoughts on “Morals without God?

  1. Matt, that’s a very accurate summary of my position, and some thoughtful criticisms too – so thanks for that.

    As for why one should be moral, that’s certainly a difficult question. But surely no less so for God-given values. Why should I care if God says we should treat each other well? Or, rather, why should I care any more about that than about everyone’s welfare regardless? Morality is problematic, no matter what one’s religious persuasion.

    Having said that, I don’t think it’s difficult to see why we care about others behaving morally. (Though it’s more a question for psychologists than philosophers!) For instance, intolerance of free-riders is a basic psychological trait predicted by evolutionary psychology & game theory. I might update my ‘objective moral relativism’ post to discuss the relationship between morality and ‘social rationality’.

    Lastly, the problem of minority rights can, I think, be resolved through a few minor tweaks, as I mentioned in the comments to my OMR post. I hope to explain this more fully in a new post within the next few days.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Man cannot invent criteria greater than himself. Thus, man-made criteria goes no higher than his eye-brows. God’s criteria goes through the ceiling of the universe and equipts humans with a predictability of consequence prior to choice. Got Wisdom? When we measure the values God prioritizes, our choices will bless us, our neighbors, and all mankind. Man-made systems can’t compete. Additionally, our center becomes the actual center instead of our predicament of falsity: Ego-centric. The advantages are all of the hand of God.

    Got Criteria? See Psalm 119:1-176.

    a Choicemaker
    Psalm 25:12

  3. Anonymous says:

    The HUMAN PARADIGM – Intro

    The way we define ‘human’ determines our view of self,
    others, relationships, institutions, life, and future.
    Important? Only the Creator who made us in His own image
    is qualified to define us accurately. Choose wisely…
    there are results.

    Many problems in human experience are the result of false
    and inaccurate definitions of humankind premised in man-
    made religions and humanistic philosophies.

    Human knowledge is a fraction of the whole universe. The
    balance is a vast void of human ignorance. Human reason
    cannot fully function in such a void, thus, the intellect
    can rise no higher than the criteria by which it perceives
    and measures values.

    Humanism makes man his own standard of measure. However,
    as with all measuring systems, a standard must be greater
    than the value measured. Based on preponderant ignorance
    and an egocentric carnal nature, humanism demotes reason
    to the simpleton task of excuse-making in behalf of the
    rule of appetites, desires, feelings, emotions, and glands.

    Because man, hobbled in an ego-centric predicament, cannot
    invent criteria greater than himself, the humanist lacks
    a predictive capability. Without instinct or transcendent
    criteria, humanism cannot evaluate options with foresight
    and vision for progression and survival. Lacking foresight,
    man is blind to potential consequence and is unwittingly
    committed to mediocrity, averages, and regression – and
    worse. Humanism is an unworthy worship.

    The void of human ignorance can easily be filled with a
    functional faith while not-so-patiently awaiting the foot-
    dragging growth of human knowledge and behavior. Faith,
    initiated by the Creator and revealed and validated in His
    Word, the Bible, brings a transcendent standard to man the
    choice-maker. Other philosophies and religions are man-
    made, humanism, and thereby lack what only the Bible has:

    1.Transcendent Criteria and
    2.Fulfilled Prophetic Validation.

    The vision of faith in God and His Word is survival equip-
    ment for today and the future.

    Man is earth’s Choicemaker. Psalm 25:12 He is by nature
    and nature’s God a creature of Choice – and of Criteria.
    Psalm 119:30,173 His unique and definitive characteristic
    is, and of Right ought to be, the natural foundation of
    his environments, institutions, and respectful relations
    to his fellow-man. Thus, he is oriented to a Freedom
    whose roots are in the Order of the universe.

    See the complete article at Homesite:
    “Human Defined: Earth’s Choicemaker”

    a Choicemaker

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