I know I feel like I’ve done this topic to death, but on Sunday’s Atheist Experience, a theist called in and asked how we can have objective morality without God. Now I know the answer to this is simple, there is no objective morality, it’s a complete non-issue, but Matt Dillahunty came back with his explanation of how we can have objective morality without a deity.
The problem is, Matt is wrong. Oh, I know where he’s coming from but he’s simply wrong with respect to objective morality. There’s no such thing. He desperately tries to defend his moral views by declaring by fiat that some things are wrong, simply because they are wrong. That’s fallacious thinking. Here’s why:
The real issue at hand here is how we can have a moral view that is beyond humanity. If it is not beyond humanity and it’s dictates, then it cannot, by definition, be objective. We already know that each culture has it’s own ideas on what is moral and what is not. These ideas change across time and across cultures. Matt simply declares that we can criticize some groups of people for being “immoral”, but what does that really mean? He’s simply criticizing them for not agreeing with him and his native culture. They, likewise, can do exactly the same thing to him. There is no winning this particular situation because no culture or individual can defend the “correctness” of their moral views. Matt simply picks a set of criteria that he likes and then measures all moral codes against his set of subjective criteria. It’s no wonder that he finds that other cultures with different views come up short in such an evaluation, but then again, the same is going to be true of other cultures who measure Matt’s morals against their own personal criteria.
Is murder immoral? From the standpoint of most people, absolutely. Why? Because most people decided that it was. However, the definition of murder is subjective. In general, murder is defined as killing not sanctioned by law. Want to redefine murder? Change the law. In a theoretical society where random killing wasn’t against the law, it couldn’t rationally be called murder and thus, very likely wouldn’t be considered immoral by those people. It becomes little more than opinion and as soon as something becomes opinion, objective morality goes straight out the window.
This reminds me of an old, old story by Farrell Till, atheist apologist and former publisher of The Skeptical Review. I don’t know where my copies of that newsletter are at the moment so I’ll try to paraphrase the story.
There were two cavemen, Ogg and Oog. One day, for reasons nobody knows, Ogg killed Oog. Oog’s family was understandably unhappy about that and immediately went and killed Ogg. Now Ogg’s family was mad and retailated, killing Oog’s uncle. Next went Ogg’s brother. Then Oog’s father. This warfare continued until not only were both families severely depleted, but there was no time for anything else, such as hunting and both families were starving as well. Eventually, they called a truce and decided that murder was wrong, not because some big imaginary friend in the sky said so, but because it was too harmful to their society to allow it to happen.
One question that was raised was “how can you criticize anyone if morality isn’t objective?” Very simply. I don’t have a problem criticizing anyone for any reason whatsoever. It’s absurd to think that if you don’t have one single standard that everyone accepts, that suddenly no one can be criticized for their irrational positions. Certainly they can. Like in every other facet of life, people need to be able to justify their beliefs or face well-deserved derision. Racism isn’t objectively wrong. I can certainly tell someone who follows it that they’re an idiot however. Religion isn’t objectively wrong, but that doesn’t stop me from laughing at people who hold irrational beliefs. Why should morality be any different?
What’s really sad is the fact that so many people get so uncomfortable if they don’t have absolute truth. If life doesn’t become simplistic, if they can’t simply declare “I’m right, you’re wrong, so there!” they can’t handle existing. I’m sorry but life just doesn’t work that way. Life is complex. It’s nuanced. Philosophy doesn’t operate by fiat. You might actually have to defend your position and come up with a means for demonstrating that your ideas are substantively better than someone else’s. You don’t get to just declare “aha! I win!”
Morality, like law, is dictated by the agreement of the people. Not that long ago, slavery was considered moral. It was the norm, practiced by society. Then some people started to think it wasn’t a good thing and over time, wars were fought, lots of people were killed, and society changed it’s mind. Slavery became immoral. We’re seeing the same thing today with homosexuality and gay marriage. These kinds of changes in societal attitude are very common, but happen relatively slowly. I find it absurd that people declare, after the fact, that older ideas that have been overthrown by society were never “moral” to begin with, basing their entire argument on modern-day views. So slavery was never moral, even though it’s clear from any rational historical evaluation that at one point, it was considered to be so. In another hundred years, are these revisionists going to be declaring that there was never any homophobia? That gay marriage was always moral and opposing it was never the case?
The reality is, people can oppose gay marriage all they want. I can also think they’re primitive, hate-mongering cretins. Don’t you love the reciprocity?
Morality is something that we, as humans, invent. It’s not something that just floats around in the ether waiting for us to discover it. There is no objective morality. There are ideas which can be defended or supported to varying degrees, but none are absolutely right or absolutely wrong on their face. We can hope that, over time, those ideas which are less beneficial to society will fade and become “immoral” and those ideas which are better for the health of society will become “moral”, but there simply isn’t a code of ethics that stands for all time, declared valid by either a deity or by nature.
It simply isn’t so.