Here is my unscripted off the cuff remarks on my interest in Buddhism
A typical argument for God from theists is that claim that without God there is no objective morality. The only morality, in this view, is Darwinian in nature, and some atheists actually agree. Most atheists, who I’ve heard, do not think there really is objective morality. Many people balk when they hear this. Of course, everyone wants to hear that pedophilia and murder are unequivocally wrong, and those deeds are actually wrong. The problem is using terms like “objective morality” in the first place.
I would argue that morality is more complicated than just either being objective or relative. Furthermore, I think the term “objective morality” is a little like the word “evil.” We want to call Hitler evil. We don’t want to think of him just as a bad person who did horrible things, but the term “evil” tends to evoke supernatural or other thinking that is not in the arena of reasonable thinking. Thus, I want to talk just about morality in general instead of arguing against objective morality. It’s just not a useful topic for what I’m trying to say, and I suspect discussing it is a less useful conversation than people tend to think.
What are morals? Morals, I suspect, had it’s origins in biology, but like I said before it’s more complicated than that. People are smart, and as such, inventive. Some amount of morality is certainly hardwired into us, but people are smart enough to out smart their biology. It’s too simple to say morality is objective, or morality is just an evolutionary byproduct. People can and have invented or changed what it means to be moral, as well. Slavery went on for a long time, but now it is seen, almost universally, as the terrible thing that it is.
The problem with morality now is that it still appears to be in it’s infancy. Many people disagree about morality. Many people use religion to decide what is moral. Others pick a moral philosophy, and still, others don’t even think about morality. We all have a long way to go, and I doubt we’ll ever reach perfection. However, my point is that morality is complicated. It’s more complicated than just biology. It’s as complicated as trying to figure what works best for humans individually and as a whole, which is no small task. Still, the shock people feel with atheists saying that there is no objective morality is not useful. The theist is simply shocking their audiences’ emotions, and atheists need to talk more clearly about morality.
Utilitarianism is, basically, the philosophical notion that our morality should consist of maximizing pleasure and minimizing suffering. At first glance, this sounds like a good idea. It certainly doesn’t sound nefarious. After all, who wouldn’t want “the most good for the most people.” However when taking utilitarian notions to their logical ends, leads me to say that I disagree with this philosophy.
For example, we can all agree with that the Holocaust was immoral, and of course, it wasn’t just immoral because it resulted in the death of millions. There were cruel and painful experiments forced on the victims. Now, take into consideration utilitarianism. If these cruel and unusual experiments could result in a large gain in pleasure, in the future, they are allowable. After all, the victims were going to die anyways, or so the argument could go. I cannot agree with this kind of logic.
Secondly, I don’t find utilitarianism practical. Utilitarians, usually, see the need to treat everyone equally, which sounds great, but it is problematic. Can anyone ever, really, value a stranger the same as they value their own mother? I doubt it.
As an atheist, I have to think critically about moral philosophy. I cannot just trust a book as infallible, and while I know utilitarianism is popular, I have to disagree with it. This is not to say I agree with Kant either. Instead, I find myself delving into other moral philosophies to try and find something I can salvage. I, also, find that the practicality of any moral philosophy is usually understated. What good is it to have a moral philosophy that is logically consistent but can’t be implemented?
For now, I will state where my thinking is. I am for differentiated caring, which I am stealing from Confucius. It is not that it is okay to not care about all people, but everyone, can’t value everyone equally, in my opinion. Thus, we should continue to value those close to us the most, but we shouldn’t stop caring for others with our spare emotional and materiel resources. I believe there are plenty of these spare resources around, and most of us are just selfish.
As always, let me know what you think!
I’m not one of those atheists who completely ignore theology or apologetics, but now, unless I uncover a book containing an argument that is unique, I feel like I’ve put in my time. I’ve read theology, apologetics, and watched many video lectures by the more prominent theologians. I’ve even taken a 300 level philosophy of religion course. (I am aware this doesn’t make me a theologian.) Not to mention, I’ve read the Bible several times.
Recently, a commenter recommended a book. I looked at the book on amazon, and the book’s premise was that even atheists use Christian morals. I have heard this argument before. The premise is usually a variant on the idea that people, here anyways, grow up in a largely Christian society, and this is where atheists get their morals. Thus, an atheist’s moral values originate from Christianity.
While no one can doubt that Christianity has had a large effect on many societies, I think the idea that all atheists nowadays are following and should follow Christian morality is wrong. The fact of the matter is that people know, without the Bible, that murder is wrong. Yes, the Bible points out certain things are wrong that most of agree on, but other pre-Christian ethics have done the same thing. The Code of Hammurabi predates Mosaic law with eerie similarities in some places. (Here’s a wikipedia article on it.) The Code of Hammurabi has laws on slander, theft, and more. Still, I do not claim to follow The Code of Hammurabi or the Bible. Just because some of the prohibitions are good doesn’t mean the entirety of the text should be kept, and just because we can all agree on some things, like do not kill, doesn’t mean we got that rule out of the Bible. I do not think most of us would ever be that barbaric with or without the Bible.
Now, I think most atheists keep their morality simply by contemplation. However, their is a wealth of content on morality from philosophy. Moral philosophy has been going on since the ancient Greeks, and I for one try to look at these systems of beliefs. (Although, my work is not done.) I suggest others consult moral philosophy as well. I have posted before that I think any good moral system should look at sources such as psychology, moral philosophy, sociology, and neuroscience. We can turn morality into a system that works for everybody. I think we should try our best to do this.
As an atheist, I do not see myself as “special” due to a soul. Instead, I see myself as a human animal, who like other humans, happens to have the most complex brain, when compared to other animals, so I, also, care about the suffering of animals. Animals are different than humans, cognitively speaking, but other animals do feel pain. Now, I don’t consider mere physical pleasure and suffering to be the only thing that matters, but I do think the pain and pleasure of other animals matter. Thus, I decided to become a vegetarian, but I am struggling quite a bit.
For meals at home, it is easy to not eat meet, usually, but I, occasionally, eat at restaurants. It is very hard to find vegetarian options at restaurants where I live. I suppose I could order a salad, but they are usually higher in calories than even cheese burgers. Plus, their more expensive. Then again, I could eat fish, which would at least cause less suffering, but once again it is more expensive.
Sometimes, I eat at other peoples’ homes, which is even harder. I do not feel comfortable telling people they have to serve a vegetarian option. I don’t really know what to do there. Then again, they already bought the meat, and the animal is already dead. Ugh, I don’t know a good solution.
Perhaps, my fellow vegetarian bloggers can help me. Anyone have any advice?
Here’s the thing about morals: you don’t lose them all of sudden after losing faith in a deity. However, certain “morals” that seem to only be around due to various scriptures, might not stay. For example, homosexuality may no longer seem like a big deal. Nevertheless, people do not go around killing, raping, and looting after they come to the conclusion there is no God.
Why is this? Human beings are social animals. We need each other. We depend on each other. Morals help glue us together, and prima facie, it seems terrible to hurt one another. Now, it is not good to run into the naturalistic fallacy or to derive an ought from an is, but I think having a basic understanding of how people operate is important when considering any moral code.
Still, I think it is obvious that people operate better when we treat each other with dignity, respect, and kindness. I think society works better when immoral people aren’t throwing wrenches into the machine that is society. Humans are complex people capable of both love and hatred, and most know we cannot act on the more sinister parts of our nature. For those that don’t know this, we have laws.
So let’s examine some of these religiously based “morals.” Let’s take the homosexuality example, for starters. One could argue appropriately against homosexuality, if it had something inherent in it that harmed the participants or society at large, but homosexuality does not seem to have anything inherently bad in it. For example, if studies could prove that it is necessary to have one man and one woman to raise a child, because having two parents of the same sex was bad for a child, then yes, it could be argued that homosexual couples shouldn’t raise children. This would still not make homosexuality inherently bad. Of course, I would be waiting for the evidence, and with the many children without homes, I think, for them, any parents would be better than none.
So, no morality does not go away due to atheism, but morality is, of course, no longer based on scripture. Morality, when starting out, is generally based on the good parts of our nature. (Some of us get a little more sophisticated and research moral philosophy, but this post has purposely steered away from that.) Furthermore, some scriptural morals are actually not based on the good part of our nature.
Many people think morality should be based on doing the greatest good for the greatest amount of people. Of course, this sounds good and obvious at first glance. However, I do not think that this rule, by itself, can work.
Although “doing the most good” works in a variety of situations, it fails in many others. For example, doing medical experiments, even painful ones, on those who were imprisoned during the Holocaust could have been legitimized under this guideline. The people in these camps were going to die anyways, and the experiments could lead to the advancement of health for others. Given these types of situations, I cannot say that utilitarianism alone makes for good source of morality.
Now, some would argue that, while these situations are awful, these types events are simply counter-intuitive, and then, they would stick to their guns. I, however, cannot, at this time, do this. I think there, at the very least, needs to be some additional rules. Perhaps, we also need to do the least harm and respect rights.
For example, let’s say there are a bunch of people in the hospital who need organs and a healthy person sitting the waiting room. It is not okay to kill the healthy person in order to save the others. The healthy person has a right to life, and killing the person would not be doing the least harm. Yes, some of these people waiting for organs might die in the process, but there is a viable alternative to murder. They can simply wait on the organ donation list, and once again, the healthy person has rights. Meanwhile under strict utilitarianism, it would be okay to kill the healthy person.
I’m not completely devoted to system I’ve explained; however, I’m attempting to carve out what is good in utilitarianism and get rid of what, at first glance, sounds horrible. Please fill free to critique me, and give me your opinions.