I really don’t respond to editorials and opinion pieces very often, everyone is free to think what they want to think, even if it is utterly idiotic. This time though, and I’m not the only atheist blogger who picked up on this piece from The New York Times, Justin P. McBrayer asks a question that needs a response because it’s a bit of bad thinking that lots of people are guilty of.
To begin with, McBrayer starts by asking what we would think if we found out that schools were teaching that it is not absolutely wrong to kill people for fun or to cheat on tests. Therein, he makes his first mistake because it isn’t absolutely wrong, he entirely misunderstands the nature of morality in reality. He seems to have a traditional Christian view of what morality entails but, like pretty much everything else in Christianity, this view is flawed. I have no idea from this article if he is, in fact, a Christian, he is an associate professor working in the philosophy of religion and it was very obvious that religion would figure into it somehow.
The simple fact is, morals are relative. It is very simple to see by just comparing the moral views of society today with those of 100 years ago. Or 50 years ago. Or 20 years ago. Compare the views of mainstream America to those of Iran. Or Russia. Or Japan. You have different people in different cultures with largely different ideas of what is moral and what is immoral. For an associate professor of philosophy, you’d think McBrayer would know this, but of course, I’ve pointed out that modern philosophy has a vastly over-inflated view of itself so maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised. He complains about moral relativism and entirely fails to recognizes that morals are, in fact, relative. The laments that morals aren’t taught as truth ignores that they aren’t actually true. They exist within a particular social group, be it a religion or a society, and represent common thought and belief. That doesn’t make it necessarily true, no matter how much the ardent believer wishes it were so.
I’d like to think that most first world countries have evolved past the notion that something is true just because some book says so. Sure, the religious lag well behind the curve in virtually every metric, but the rest of us have hopefully moved beyond such primitive thinking. This is essentially the same thing I’ve been arguing for many years, the move toward rationality and away from primitive religious thinking. For many theists, the idea of some eternal moral standards that were handed down from on high are comforting. There are many who wish for the good old days when most people just let the clergy tell them what to do and think and believe, but those days are nearly gone and it’s about time people embraced the new freedom that is upon us.
This kind of thing unfortunately also happens with some secularists as well, that they can come up with a set of objective secular morals, based on some subjective set of criteria that they happen to like. When it’s pointed out that they are working from subjective criteria, they just wave it all away, ignoring the fact that objective and subjective mix as well as oil and water. An objective set of morals based on subjective ideals is, by definition, not objective at all.
In reality, a lot of people adopt “objective” morals and ideas because it’s just easier than having to engage in the deep thinking and intricate reasoning that it takes to actually support these ideas. It isn’t just religion, there are plenty of people in America who think “all men are created equal” is an objective fact, just because it appears in the founding documents of the United States. Yet if you go to the Middle East and try to tell those governments that all men are created equal, therefore they need to treat women exactly the same as men, they’ll laugh at you. They do not share that view. It’s a simple fact that all men are not created equal. Some are taller than others, some are stronger than others, some are smarter than others. Women have some characteristics that are superior to men and some that are inferior. The idea that all men are created equal, ignoring for the moment that nobody was created in the first place, is foolishly false, yet it has value in a culture which agrees to go by that precept. By the same token, the United States generally accepts freedom of religion, freedom of the press and freedom of speech but you can’t go to a nation where that’s not true and demand they respect your freedom to speak where you simply do not have that freedom. There are far too many people who insist that their views are the only views that matter. They are simply wrong.
About the only place I think McBrayer actually gets it right is his idea that we’re not teaching standards in the schools. Just because there isn’t an absolute objective truth doesn’t mean there are no rules. It doesn’t mean there are no social standards that people are expected to live by. There is a middle ground between “this is always true” and “go hog wild, nobody can stop you”. That’s where both the far right, which McBrayer seems to represent, and the far left are wrong. There isn’t a set of objective moral truths that everyone has to abide by, but neither are there no rules or expectations whatsoever. Within our nations or our states or our towns, there are ideas that are shared by the community to which we are held accountable by the social contract. You don’t kill except in self-defense or as a soldier in a war because society has declared it unacceptable. You don’t steal. You don’t cheat. You don’t rape. All of these have understood social reasons why they are unacceptable, but they are not eternal and are subject to change over time as society changes. Most of these will never change but let’s be honest, all of them were, at one point in time, different, and the society of the day had their reasons why it was acceptable to do them. Just because we live with our current worldview doesn’t mean we’re magically right, just that these are the rules we have to follow today, pending a change in the future.
People really need to get over the idea that there are moral facts that exist for all time because some magical man in the sky said so. It just isn’t so.