Thursday, December 24, 2009

What grounds our morals?

I finally got around to watching this video on Hemant Mehta's Friendly Atheist website (which has a snazzy new, anagram-tastic banner, by the way):

The Painted Door's Panel Discussion on "Collision". from Parable Media on Vimeo.

This was a discussion following a viewing of Collision, a movie showcasing Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson debating the point "Is Christianity good for the world?".  The discussion features Hemant and Dr. Chad Meister, Professor of Philosophy at Bethel College in Indiana, and was moderated by Pastor Mark Bergin of The Painted Door church.  

While watching the video, Dr. Meister brought up the question of where atheists get justification for their morals.  This question comes up so often, and its probably one of the harder questions to answer, especially if you haven't really thought about it.  While I think Hemant did a good job of explaining his views on where morals come from, I don't think Dr. Meister really understood the points he was making.  He was not willing to accept that moral principles can emerge naturally from complex relationships between people.

Here's an analogy that I think might help:  Economies exists wherever there is a large group of people who rely on each other for goods, even if there is no governing body regulating it.  This completely laissez-faire economy still has a set of standards for all merchants selling their goods.  Merchants who sell well-made, useful products for reasonable prices will do well, because people will continue to buy from them, and tell others about them.  Merchant who overcharge for crappy products, on the other hand, will lose customers as long as they continue to be bad merchants.  Over time, good merchants are rewarded and bad merchants are punished.  Therefore these rules and principles of selling good merchandise for fair prices exists, without the over-arching hand of god telling us "Thou shalt not overcharge."  These natural laws occur without divine intervention.

Morality works in a very similar way.  Certain moral rules emerge because the community naturally enforces them.  I am more likely to be rewarded by others if I treat them fairly.  On the other hand, if I consistently try to take advantage of others (by lying, cheating, stealing, etc.), I will be punished, by losing their trust and ostracism.  Detainment or physical punishment could even occur, if my immorality is has enough of a negative effect on the community. 

But why does the community enforce certain moral rules in the first place?  We (meaning humans) evolved as social animals, originally living in small bands of a few dozen.  It was important to cooperate with everyone we interacted with for survival.  It is no surprise that characteristics would be selected for which cause humans to value each other as ends in themselves, rather than means to an end (to paraphrase Kant).**

Of course, these natural processes are not perfect, just as natural selection does not produce perfect organisms.  This is why for both the economy and morality, governments exist which formalize the rules we have to follow.  This makes rewards and punishments more uniform, and limit the amount of damage a bad entity can do.  But that does not mean that the economy or morality completely falls apart if there isn't an overarching entity enforcing all of the rules.

What probably frustrates me most about this argument, is that theists will argue that an atheist cannot justify their moral principles.  However, when a theist is asked to justify theirs, they evoke god, without any further explanation.  However, when we think about this a bit, we realize that there are serious considerations to be made if we want god to be the origin of moral precepts.

If we argue that the following statements are equivalent (for any action, or set of actions X):

"X is a moral action"
"God commands you to do X" or "God wants you to do X"

then we have to determine which truth causes the other.  As Socrates asked Euthyphro: "Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?"

The first part ("Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious"), is equivalent to saying that "If X is a moral action, then god commands you to do X."  The morality of X causes god to command you to do X.  If this is the case, then god is not deciding whether X is moral or not.  X is moral regardless of what god does, and god is therefore bound by morality, just like everyone else.  God is only a dispenser of moral knowledge, not the originator.

The second option is to reverse the causality, which is what I believe Dr. Meister was arguing.  In this case, we are saying that "If god commands you to do X, then X is a moral action."  This is also known as divine command theory.  But this leads to other problems.

First, if an action is moral if god commands it, then our morality is completely arbitrary.  If god had commanded us to rape and murder, then those actions would be morally permissible, or even obligatory.  One might say: "But god would never command us to rape and murder."  The problem is, you don't have any legs to stand on any more, since there are no moral truths above what god commands.  We think that god wouldn't command rape and murder because their immoral, but its only immoral if god hasn't commanded it, according to divine command theory.  If he decides to command it, its no less moral than anything else he could have commanded. 

It also means that calling god omnibenevolent (all-good), is meaningless.  If "good" in the moral sense means "whatever god commands", this is basically equivalent to: "god does whatever he commands himself to do."  (I personally don't take much stock in this objection, since it doesn't really refute anything.  But I do think its important to realize how we would have to re-think god and morality if we accept divine command theory.)

More objections are described on Wikipedia's page for divine command theory, as well as some responses (although I must admit they are fairly weak in my estimation).  My main point is that the theist still needs to defend their belief that god is the prime cause for the morality of our actions.  Although there a many different theories trying to explain morality in natural terms (either by evolution, or some other mechanism), at least they are presented with evidence and logical arguments.  We must demand that divine command theorists do the same.   

**I know there are other evolutionary explanations for our morals.  Regardless if you agree with my assessment or not, it is clear that we do have moral beliefs, and there are a number of plausible evolution-based explanations for that.  If any of these are accurate, that means our morals do not come from an authority figure (i.e., god).


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