I have been debating with a few people online about morality. Essentially, the issue is, is morality a given in an atheist universe? Are there any objective standards of morality in the absence of any god? Is it just a subjective set of rules that may vary from nation to nation, group to group, even person to person? And in that situation, which is the ‘right’ set of rules and how do you decide upon that?
Now this is a vexing issue indeed. This was one of the first questions I grappled with when I became an atheist, and I don’t think I still have a fully satisfactory answer. Of course, a “fully satisfactory” answer may not be possible to any question outside mathematics, but I digress.
Now, an objective morality is one defined as a set of rules of human behaviour and interaction that stand true regardless of whom the person is or who the interaction is with. These are a set defined by a god, an omniscient, omnipotent deity as his personal guidelines to his creations (us) and he stands guarantee behind (1) their timeless truth and (2) strict adherence to them and the consequences of disobeying them. Most people, religious people at the very least and many freshly turned to agnosticism or atheism, find this a clinching argument in the favour of religion’s necessity in the world. It is felt that divine guidelines and their enforcement by an all-powerful deity are what keep us humans on the straight and narrow. “We are good because we want to go to heaven and we are afraid of going to hell.”, similar to why children in Western countries try to be extra nice in December.
On the face of it, I don’t think this is entirely wrong. Many people do refrain from committing crimes or ‘sins’ since they’re told from their childhood that there will be divine retribution for whatever wrong they do. Of course there are any number of people who do wrong, all kinds of wrong, despite all that teaching/indoctrination too. But since this set of rules is set by an entity outside our sphere of experience and is held to be immutable, it is deemed an objective code of morals, an objective morality.
In the absence of god, there is no such external entity to define these codes for us. We can, in theory, define them however we want; so can every other human being on the planet. There could be a billion such codes and nothing to choose between them, no objective standards to measure them by. This is taken by believers as an argument in favour of belief, a sort of upended argument as it were, god has to be true or there is no objective morality. Now, of course, this is a specious argument and need not even be debated. God cannot be conjured into existence because we want an external examiner for our species.
Disregarding this, I have two problems with this idea of morality.
Firstly, the idea that god sets an objective set of morals for humans, a set of rules that are right, true, and changeless. The problem is, this set of morals keeps changing! As we have advanced along the road of culture and civilisation, our morals have changed along with us. A god four or five thousand years ago would have happily sanctioned genocide, and he did. Not only the god of the OT, even those of the so-called pagans. A few thousand years before that god was apparently happy with humans eating other humans too. Make no mistake, he not only sanctions it, he asks for mass murder and people who do it are right in the eyes of their lord. How many people today would ascribe such a set of morals? As times changed and eras came and went, morals changed. By the middle ages, god was still apparently happy with murder, but it wasn’t done in public and seldom en masse. In this day and age, not many people would subscribe to any god who called for carnage, and we would look askance at people who do think so. God was apparently okay with slavery too around that time, but times have changed and our sense of morality is offended by the idea of enslaving other humans. So the rules humans believe as divinely ordained moral truths are neither immutable nor objective. This leads to another point. How can a believer be so sure that whatever he’s taught as moral is really taught by god and not another human? What makes one believe that god wrote on stone and handed the tablets over to Moses? Or that god spoke through Jesus or Mohammed? Or, to be precise, how can one be sure that whatever we read of the sayings of any of these figures was actually uttered by them and not out in their mouths by chroniclers after their death (provided they lived, which is another story altogether)? In short I find these set of “divine” morals subjective and unproven to be of divine providence.
The second problem I have is with the idea that a subjective set of morals cannot be right, or one set of morals is as good as another. The holocaust is often brought into the picture at this point and the believer claims that we cannot call the Nazis immoral, since there are no right or wrong actions. I find this attitude defeatist, pessimistic to the extreme, lazy, and quite inaccurate. It’s amusing and saddening at the same time to find people shying away from formulating a morality without a divine compass to chart their way. It’s as if they lack the courage to step out on their own and need that crutch to walk the “right” path. My contention has been and still is that we can form a set of morals without god and we can decide on whether one set of morals is better than another or not. The basic idea stems from certain fundamental truths most people can agree upon, the ideas of what is good for our well being. Getting food, for example, and being safe from pain are the kind of things I’m talking about here. Other such concepts could be added as the pre-requisites for a happy life. Now once we can agree upon these basic needs and that achieving them is desirable, we can formulate a set of rules governing human interactions to bring about this state. Any such rules generally agreed upon would be quite similar no matter who the two humans were who sat down and made the list. Any set of morals that are not designed to achieve these ends are therefore, immoral. Now, putting fellow humans in gas chambers can in no way be described as conducive to their well being. So why do we need god to call the Nazi actions wrong?
I have also heard it said that this theory would flat when faced with a person who did not agree to the basics of human well being. How can we call someone immoral if he/she doesn’t even accept our basic premise? Of course we can’t. A psychotic cannot be reasoned with, not by atheist morals, neither by a god based moral system. The presence of insanity doesn’t invalidate our thought-out set of morals. Insanity itself invalidates the person under consideration. Whatever set of morals you subscribe to, their validity depends ultimately on general acceptance by the society at large and in an intelligent society, an atheist moral system can work just as well as a god based one.
The biggest problem that people have, I think, is that this puts the onus on us as sentient creatures to work out a code of morals for ourselves and to self-govern ourselves according to that code. I think we fear our own self too much and give our intellect less credit than its due. It’s a hard task but we can and must evolve a moral standard that stands on its own without any external adjudicator to validate it. It will be an incomplete set in the beginning and I’m sure will go through a number of revisions of text before we come to an acceptable conclusion, but it will be an achievement in its own right.