A long time ago, philosopher David Hume recognized that there was a fundamental difference between writers who argued about what ought to be instead of what actually is. He found that there was a significant problem with trying to make descriptive statements (what is) out of prescriptive statements (what ought to be). This problem became known as Hume’s Guillotine and it remains a significant problem today.
It’s funny, whenever I post something about morality, particular secular morality, and point out that there’s just no such thing as objective morals, I get complaints. It seems that there are a lot of atheists who are just not comfortable with the realization that all of their much vaunted moral beliefs are not, in and of themselves, actually true, in the sense that they exist outside of their own heads.
That, I think, is a problem. I’ve always been of the mind that an important part of the maturation process is coming to grips with what actually is, regardless of how it makes you feel. In other words, being able to tell the difference between what is and what you really think ought to be and not only telling the difference, but accepting what actually is without regard to your personal emotional feelings about the subject.
We can see this most clearly in the classical case of slavery. There are lots of, perhaps even a majority of atheists who will tell you that slavery is wrong. Why is it wrong? It just is. In fact, this is an “ought”, they are operating on their own personal feelings to decide that because slavery is personally reprehensible, therefore it’s universally wrong. The reality is, there have been and continue to be many societies where slavery is perfectly legal and acceptable. This is the “is”.
When that “is” and that “ought” come into conflict, we see what I can only term as “faith” on the part of the “ought”-adherents. It’s virtually identical to what we see among theists all the time. Their own emotional comfort comes before a rational evaluation of the argument and brings them to declare that their beliefs are equivalent, no, not even equivalent… superior to what’s actually demonstrably true in reality.
This is still a major problem, especially for those who purport to be rational, critical and logical individuals, but whom cannot step back from their own emotional comfort zone and discover that their feelings of what they wish were true is not a reflection on what is actually true. Morals, whether anyone likes it or not, are not objective. They are not handed down from the mouths of gods, nor are they inherent in the laws of nature. They are things that we came up with because they personally benefit us. As our societies and cultures continue to evolve and improve, so do our morals, but they don’t approach any form of idealized perfection, they just change to reflect our current needs and desires and where they will go next, for good or ill, is unknown and unknowable. In another 100 years, if, say, we create self-aware robotic servants, we could all be slave-owners again and see nothing whatsoever wrong with it. If we were to discover an alien species, we could very easily become racist or speciest against them. Society changes. Culture changes. People change. Reality does not.
I think it’s about time that atheists stop trying to compete with theists on their own terms. Lots of atheists are seemingly uncomfortable giving the moral high ground to theists, who have no real proof that they have it, it’s all a bunch of empty claims without evidence. I have no interest in competing against the delusional beliefs of a delusional group of people, only in embracing the demonstrable reality that we all share. I don’t care how the facts make me feel, it’s irrelevant, I care only that the facts are actually true. We need to stop pretending that just because the theists have a bunch of feel-good drivel, we need to do the same, we need to stop pretending that just because the theist beliefs make people feel good, we need to be emotionally comforting too. We owe nothing to anyone, this isn’t a competition, this is an attempt to better understand, accept and deal with what “is”. What “ought” to be is pointless.