Monday, 5 April 2010

Again With The Moral Absolutes

It's really to be expected that there's a backlash against "The Rise Of Atheism" in the media. If there wasn't, it means that atheists aren't really taken seriously. There's plenty in the article I could talk about, especially the scientism straw-man but I want to focus on the following statement:
Our society rests on the assumption of moral absolutes: right, wrong, good and bad. That is based on the belief that there is an objective truth and from that firm foundation we can judge good and evil. Our society rests on the presumption of God.

So much to pick apart, so little patience. The first obvious point to make is that God really can't be a foundation of moral absolutes, unless one wants to concede that morality is arbitrary. I'm referring to the Euthyphro Dilemma, which can be expressed as follows: is it pious because it is loved by the gods, or loved by the gods because it is pious? In other words, is murder wrong because God says its wrong, or does God say its wrong because it is wrong?

This leaves the absolutist with two unfavourable choices. Either admit that God-given morality is arbitrary or concede that the questions of right and wrong are external to the notion of God. This 2500 year old point should be met with a huge "duh!" but this needs to be pointed out time after time to those who really should know better.

The second obvious point to make is that most societies throughout history have not been Christian, yet flourished. How does one who claims the foundation of absolute morality relies on God explain this? I see one of two concessions. The first concession is that society does not need a God-given morality (no matter how absurd), or that it's the belief in a God-given morality. In other words, the argument is not between God and morality but belief and morality.

The third obvious point to make is one in terms of moral malleability. Should the moral standards for a society of goat herders some 2500 years ago be morally relevant for us today? How does moral absolutes deal with moral questions? What of equal rights for women? A drastic social change has taken place in the last few hundred years. Equal rights for women is a modern concept, does this mean that society has always been wrong until now? Or is it just right for our time? If so, how do we recognise what's right and wrong and at what period?

This leads to the fourth obvious point: the evidential problem. Society in the last few hundred years has undergone a drastic moral shift. It's only in the context of the enlightenment and social revolutions that have allowed this. The abolition of slavery, equal rights for women and for those of different "races", basic state of welfare for individuals, liberty and freedoms guaranteed, protection of children, working towards the protection of the environment - the list goes on.

I wonder why it is people cling to such an absurd proposition as God-given morality, or even the strange notion of absolute morality at all. The false dichotomy between absolutism and subjectivism (either a glass is all-full or it is empty) with no regard to the finite and contingent nature of our existence and knowledge is necessarily arguing one huge straw-man. It's not how morality works, nor is it how morality ought to work. That ideas can change, that propositions can be debated and looked at evidentially - these are what's needed. Otherwise we're stuck with whatever morality someone decided was a good idea of a given age.

The society we live in now is very different from the societies our ancestors lived in. Our technology, our level of interactions with others, our knowledge of relationships between actions and harm, notions such as human dignity, liberty and equality, all of these are modifiers in figuring out how we ought to behave towards others and within a society.

What is considered moral has changed as society has changed. As our understanding of humanity has changed. Losing God is not losing dignity in humanity, on the contrary it gives us the ability to question and criticise and not bow down to a law because it supposedly came from an authoritative source. That one can look at the consequences for actions, that one can use experience to help decide what to value and most importantly that one can be willing to change their mind if the evidence is against them is vital to any conception of morality worthy of being called one. Otherwise we fall victim to dogma, to arrogance, to the whims of lesser people who control through fear or promises of great reward. Moral absolutes are the playthings of lesser minds who desire conformity to the status quo and to not question why.


Tuna Blogger said...

While a good atheist doesn't need god to be a good moral person, millions of other people do. Fear motivates most humans. A system of punishment and rewards makes for great behavior modification. See Pavlov.

To control a large population you only have to publicly and severely punish a few and the rest fall into line. See Nazi and Stalinist tactics.

Whether or not you see ANYONE after you die is of little importance while you are alive.

Tuna Blogger said...

If god did not exist, man would create him. And so it goes. For a good read, not too mathematical, read
The Physics of Immortality, by Frank Tipler.

Kel said...

While a good atheist doesn't need god to be a good moral person, millions of other people do.
Perhaps, though countries like Sweden are doing just fine without needing the idea of gods. While there may be many who need the motivation of reward / punishment in order to act in particular ways, it's only behaviourally moral as opposed to mentally moral.

A good way to think about this is two siblings who have just cleaned their rooms. One sibling did so because she likes her room clean. The other did so because they were threatened with no dessert. Behaviourally both children cleaned their room, but would we say that their actions are of equal merit?

But back to the point at hand. Even if people need the idea of God to be good, at best it is an argument for belief in belief. It's not a foundation of morality, it's not a means to distinguish between right and wrong - it's pure obedience.

By the way, I think you're referring to operant conditioning (Skinner), not classical conditioning (Pavlov). Minor point but worth mentioning.

Robert said...

As a parent, I would be more pleased with the two clean rooms than why the children did it. In the short term the rooms were cleaned, but in the long term, using a deity as a motivational tool can have dire consequences. At some point in the child’s life, he may test the governance of the deity and develop the decision that it is not powerful able to punish. There is no worse behavior than a person who has a faith and has lost it. That is not to say that all people who are enlightened will embrace the ‘darkside.’

Operant vs. Classical Conditioning. Yes you are correct that the conditions I described are more properly characterized as operant, but when the bell tolls five times a day and a billion people kneel facing east and they do that year after year, I believe that it becomes a bit Pavlovian.

Belief in belief is much like the placebo effect. Or as in meditation. Focusing on a single thought and excluding all else creates the desired outcome. The god to which man preys has many faces and one of them is Om. It is when man anthropomorphizes the focus of their attention and ascribes human frailties to it that they get into trouble and make trouble for others. Making a god into a person of sorts introduces a myriad of paradoxes that arise due to the underlying faulty premises.

I would like to pose this question: from what does consciousness arise?

Kel said...

from what does consciousness arise?
Brain activity. How does it arise? I don't know. But there's almost certainly a link between brain activity and consciousness.