As one ventures ’round the ‘web, a topic that arises time and again is the endless debate — or perhaps war might be a better term — between the poles of theism and atheism. I’ve determined, at least as far as my participation elsewhere, to recuse myself from that war. I’ve served my time on both sides, and I’ve pretty much heard it all, said it all, bought many tee-shirts and a couple of souvenir coffee mugs.
So this isn’t about the war itself, but about a topic that frequently arises as part of that debate: the idea of morality and/or ethics. A sub-question is whether those are different things, but the main question is how we define morality and how we ground that definition.
Here’s my stab at defining the difference along with some ideas about morality.
One thing to keep in mind is that philosophers and all sorts of very excellent thinkers have devoted large portions of their lives to this study and have come up with no pat answers.
This is one of those areas in life where no single answer exists and where your view of reality has much to do with how you answer those questions.
Consider the trivial case of answering the question: What is the square root of 4? That question has two equally valid answers: -2 and +2. Higher degree polynomials can have more than two equally valid answers, not one of which is more “correct” than the others.
If simple math questions can have multiple answers, it seems silly to think the same wouldn’t be true of major questions about human existence.
In the interests of full disclosure I want to mention that I have found within me a striking antipathy towards (strict) atheism. I’ve always had a strong antipathy towards strict theism — the denial of science that often obtains there is bad enough, but this business of killing for your religion is repulsive and reprehensible.
[But for the record, the Crusades — often pointed out as the murderous low point of Christianity — resulted in maybe as many as three-million deaths. In contrast, WWI resulted in at least 15-million deaths and perhaps many times that number (accurate numbers are challenging). WWII, our worst murder excess to date, resulted in 40-to-60-million (or more). The Crusades are actually pretty far down the list when it comes to mass murder.]
I was surprised to discover how strong my antipathy was towards atheism. It may be that I see atheism as extreme by definition (and I just generally dislike extremism). An analogy to science might help here:
A scientific theory is rarely completely established as correct. Instead, theories zero in on correctness as evidence mounts. Science progresses from an idea about reality to increasing confidence that idea might be correct. Think of this as a sphere with absolute knowledge at its dead center and decreasing certainty as you move away from center.
Science seeks that center, but often never quite gets exactly to it. But when a theory is invalidated — proven false — it collapses to a different single point, called “Nope!” The large “fuzz” of potential correctness is in contrast with that single point of falsity.
Likewise, atheism seems to me to represent that single point of falsity. It is uncompromising. It contrasts itself with the large, fuzzy space of all the expressions and varieties of spirituality. As such I see it as extreme, as a form of “fundamentalism” (which we might define as the idea your doctrine is literally correct).
So just be advised that, emotionally, I don’t like atheists. One of my resolutions for this year is to not follow bloggers who post about religion with any frequency. I find it hard to resist engaging, but I really don’t want to (it’s so pointless). It just seems smarter to avoid the temptation.
I wanted to put that out there so you know where I stand. I’m a Decisive Agnostic with spiritual leanings. As far as theism and atheism goes, I’m an aggressive agnostic — perhaps even a little militant.
This apparent digression may be important in understanding my views in what follows, because morality is a frequent, even central, topic in discussions about atheism.
Let me start by considering the two terms: morals and ethics.
Some conflate them, considering them essentially the same thing. Among those who see them as different, a variety of definitions seek to separate them.
One heuristic approach I found interesting is: Morals are how you treat people you know; Ethics are how you treat people you don’t. This is similar to a view that morals concern personal matters, ethics concern business matters.
My view, which is not an uncommon one, is: Morals come from metaphysics; Ethics come from physics. (Specifically: logic and experience with reality.) There is some consonance here with the idea that morals apply to personal life while ethics pertain to business. (Another way to put it is that morals come from god but ethics come from man.)
It has been said that governments that seek to be moral inevitably fail and end up acting immoral or amoral. But governments that seek to be ethical can succeed. Not being terribly interested in political theory, it’s not something I’ve pondered much, but it sounds reasonable. I throw it out as a possible discussion point.
There is also the idea of social mores. These, in contrast to morals or ethics, are entirely relative to a given society. The permissible length of skirts, the necessity of hats, the use of chemical recreation, even the eating of animals, are all social mores. (Religions and governments do often seek to legislate these as religious or social law.)
This brings us to the idea of relative morality. (The idea of relative ethics seems less coherent which points out the difference in the concepts as well as the presumed logical or experiential grounding of ethics.) Many argue that morals, like social mores, are entirely relative to a given society.
Yet the goal of moral (or ethical) analysis is finding absolutes that are not relative to society. Or, perhaps rather, that are relative to any society, that always apply. Moral philosophy is the pursuit of these absolutes. Immanuel Kant is one focal point of this endeavor. I’ve read that a great deal of moral philosophy since is either a refutation, an illumination, or an extension, of Kant.
Some relativists seek to decouple the idea of “good” from morality. If, as with social mores, morals are relative, then they are not really a matter of goodness versus badness but what a given society thinks.
I completely disagree. One distinction between morals and ethics for me is that a moral judgement — almost by definition — is a judgement about goodness. Even taking religion out of the equation, morality is still about good versus evil. A moral “code” is one that judges between right and wrong as intrinsic values.
It’s just a lot harder to define good and evil, or right and wrong, outside the context of some kind of metaphysics or spirituality. Essentially, the idea that the universe has some kind of meaning directly leads to the idea that moral rules — not unlike math rules — are there waiting to be discovered.
If so, how do we go about discovering them?
I think that morality, ultimately, is grounded in the idea of equality — that all people are equal on some basis. Note that the physical world, the animal kingdom, and evolution, all say exactly the opposite: that individuals are clearly not equal. It is self-evident, considering any group of people, that no two individuals are the same.
The Golden Rule, perhaps the simplest moral statement ever, depends on the notion of equality. Some might apply its concept to members of the animal kingdom, although rarely to many insects or bacteria. The key lies in seeing others as somehow our equals.
The idea of god presents an easy answer: we are all alike in god’s eyes. If we are all god’s children, then to treat any person as lesser than ourselves is to mistreat equals, to mistreat family.
Atheism has a harder time establishing a basis of equality. The physical world argues against it. A universe without (intrinsic) meaning seems to make the concept local and subjective (which is why many atheists are by necessity moral relativists).
The closest (sensible) argument I’ve heard from atheists about objective morality involves game theory. Which is a slightly suspect, even controversial, area of mathematics. Even so, game theory still implicitly assumes an equality between players. There is no onus that Player A ought to win over Player B due to being a superior entity. The two players are assumed to be, in some fashion, equals.
I’ve only scratched the surface of this topic. No doubt I’ll return to it on future Sundays (but maybe not immediately, so don’t hold your breath).
In closing I’ll offer one approach to a basis of equality that might apply to the physical world. Simply, it’s the startling fact of human consciousness. I don’t mean being simply awake or self-aware. I mean that thing we all experience every waking moment, that movie — starring ourselves — that runs throughout our lives.
Many believe this isn’t special, that humans are just an endpoint on a spectrum of animal consciousness. Some even believe that machines can be as conscious (if not more so) than humans. If so, then equality is local and subjective, and morality is probably an incoherent concept.
Ethics, which does align well with game theory (such as it is), is probably all we’ve got. In this context, any behavior you chose, subject to social and legal ramifications, is yours to decide. You have to pick and walk your own path.
But if consciousness is something special, even if it’s just an astonishing confluence of physical factors, that might offer a basis on which to see all humans as equals, as family. Once you do, morality comes along for the ride.
I’ve never met an atheist who has come at it this way. Perhaps the idea of the specialness of human consciousness is uncomfortably close to the idea of a soul. Perhaps it’s too much in conflict with the hope of machine intelligence (there does seem some alignment between atheists and that hope).
Perhaps it just the resistance to the idea of humans as special, or the universe as special, since this does lead to strong considerations of teleology (the study of the intrinsic meaning and purpose of reality).
In the end, after thousands of years of consideration, we are still left to find our own answers (-2 or +2). Clearly the question is a very difficult one. That’s a point on which we can all agree!