Upon Morality…

Oooo, I know, deep subject…

I was inspired to write this on account of a videoed debate between Christopher Hitchens and Frank Turek. Turek kept asking (without Hitchens giving a satisfactory answer—I love the guy and I still feel he didn’t give a good answer) “if there is no God, how can anyone know what is Right and what is Wrong? Who decides? If we’re all just “molecules in motion” how do we not fall into moral relativism and anarchy? How is it we seem to know, innately, what is good and what is wrong?

Turek answered his own question by saying “God” (long-story-short)—that morality was “written upon our heart” by God at creation. Hitchens talked about Socrates referencing an “inner Daemon”, or conscience, but without saying anything about how it might have come about naturalistically.

 

 Naturalistic Origins of Morality?

The field of sociobiology seeks to provide a non-supernatural explanation for our seemingly innate knowledge of what is moral. Reference is made to certain animal groups (primates, dolphins, elephants, etc) where social behavior and a certain moral code in some ways similar to ours are observed. The ide

Lucifer

Lucifer (Photo credit: Michelle Bartsch)

a is that there were selective pressures (specifically among primates, in our case) that favored those who had a (heretofore) random genetic mutation that made them more sociable. Thus those who had more of a genetic “hard-wiring” for “morality”, or moral social behaviors, enjoyed greater reproductive success and thus those cooperative genes were passed down.

The same evidence can be argued from the other side, possibly, as “evidence of consistency of design”. However, the arugment of Consistency of Design raises questions about animals like lions; they live in social groups, but if a new male can defeat the old male, then he will proceed to kill all the cubs of the previous male and take over the reproductive duties. This does not appear to indicate consistency of design.

Besides the mammals, there are also social insects, ants being prime among them; however, on the other side there are Black Widow spiders and Praying Mantises, that in both cases have the females eating the males after the reproductive act. Again, disparate moral codes.

One Fallen Lucifer is often called upon to explain these discrepancies. Now, while there are some lines of argument for the existence of a First Cause (cosmological and teleological high among them), those arguments do not come close to proving any kind of personal god such as the monotheisms claim, and have no bearing on the existence of another powerful being that just happens to go around screwing up everything the first being does.

Occam’s Razor proves to have some utility at this point.

 

Genocide

In researching this topic further, I came upon an interesting page: http://www.makingmyway.org/?p=567. It brought up a question I hadn’t thought about before; the debate rages about the right or wrong of God ordering genocide in the Old Testament. Theists (specifically of the Christian variety, obviously) say that “since God did it, it was good—it looks bad, but it must have served some higher moral good that we’re unaware of”. Yet still, somehow, our innate morality needs that explanation in order to be even slightly placated at this apparent moral outrage. “Even if we grant the proposition that God is a morally perfect being who can never commit a moral transgression, it still leaves us with what to make of the sense of moral violation. Why do we still have it? The natural law is seemingly producing false positives. Essentially, theists tell us to ignore our sense of moral outrage whenever divine action seems to violate the law…”

In the Name of God, Welcome to Planet Genocide

So, if God wrote morality “upon our hearts”, why is it outraged at things He does? It is almost as if it knows that “god-instructed” genocide is just as evil as the more normal kind of genocide.

“For instance, returning to the example of genocide, how do we know the Holocaust wasn’t a critical piece in God’s overall plan? Wouldn’t moral condemnation of the Holocaust be at best premature and at worse mistaken? Given the theistic supposition that God chooses to intervene or not intervene in human affairs – invisibly, unpredictably, inscrutably – there is literally no event in which God’s involvement positively can be ruled in or out, and thus no moral outrage we can be confident of. The natural law thus becomes neutered as a moral guide.”

The very “moral law” that theists argue is evidence of the god of the bible writing his perfect law upon our hearts, is effectively rendered null-and-void by the inevitable explanation of “ineffability” of god’s actions when they trigger alarm bells for that same innate moral law.

Hmmm…

 

Cannibalism

Moral, or ethical dilemmas, and moral ambiguities pose an interesting problem and can be great sources of late night conversation (esp. when the tongue is loosened with an appropriate amount of smooth alcoholic beverage).

Within the framework of the Hitchens/Turek debate, can ethical dilemmas themselves be used to help shed light on the nature, or possible origin, of our innate morality?

For example, cannibalism; so far as I know, the Bible makes no comments upon it, other than various prophecies that if the Israelites sinned too much, then God would send the armies of other nations after them to siege their cities and the siege/famine would be so bad they would engage in the activity. So, it appears to have been assumed that cannibalism was evil without God commanding “thou shalt not eat people”. Well, we could say that we don’t fall into the “clean animal” guidelines of Leviticus and thus telling us “thou shalt not eat people” would be redundant, but god did bother to say “thou shalt not kill” in the 10 Commandments, which seems equally obvious as not cannibalizing and, like not eating each other, was certainly something people already knew not to do.

In defense of “thou shalt not kill”, one can look around and see that killing always seems to come rather too easily to people; but again, why is killing not as innately reprehensible as eating, esp. if the one who commanded “thou shalt not kill” wrote such moral codes within us at creation?

Praying Mantis Sexual Cannibalism Female just ...

Praying Mantis Sexual Cannibalism Female just bite the Male Head of the Neck (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Refraining from cannibalization isn’t a moral absolute, though. Well, for some it certainly is and they will die of starvation before going so low as to eat another human; however, there are a great many others who will countenance the act in times of grave desperation, like the soccer team that crashed in South America back in the ’70s, or the Donner Party. And society does not condemn them.

Meanwhile, in much of Oceania (Indonesia, the Pacific Islands, etc), and some areas of Africa and South America, it was more of a norm—though usually only practiced upon those of the neighboring/defeated tribe. But again, if there were a universal moral code from a divine creator “written upon our hearts”, one would expect more uniformity. I don’t think we can claim that the fallen Lucifer was able to negatively influence Polynesians and Aztecs more than other peoples.

 

Incest

Incest, like cannibalism, is also almost universally detested (except in the Deep South of the U.S….BOOM, cheap shot! Lol), though it used to be widely practiced in ancient Egypt, especially in the royal family. In the modern day, it isn’t just that we know it leads to deformities and genetic diseases, but is just generally abhorred (and was similarly viewed in much of European society throughout history). The bible does have a list of specified prohibited incestuous relationships in Leviticus and Deuteronomy (though not all things are prohibited in all places, and there are differences in what is prohibited for males and females), but according to the bible, humanity only exists through numerous acts of incest; Adam and Eve & Children would have been without choice in the matter for a few generations, as would the children of Noah’s sons and their wives. Abraham (father of the faithful) married his half-sister Sarah even though there was no shortage of non-related females.

So why was the biblical god initially OK with the practice, especially considering that he later made certain prohibitions against it? What about the issue of genetic diseases? Did he alter the genetic code with cases like Adam & Eve, and Noah & Co.? Why not just make the proper amount of people to ensure genetic variation in the first place? We may never know…

 

So, what’s your point?

My point is that the evidence in the world around us appears consistent with a naturalistic origin of morality. Furthermore, the Bible doesn’t appear to make a very convincing case for a divine origin. There are too many inconsistencies, both within nature, and within the bible itself, for any to honestly claim either that “only believers can be moral because they are the only ones with a True Moral Foundation” or that “our intrinsic morality was put there by god” (who is supposedly perfect and never changes).

And why does this matter? It matters every time there is a mass shooting or similar event–“oh, if only prayer were allowed in schools, this kind of stuff wouldn’t happen!” Not likely. Perhaps for some, the only reason to be Good is that there is an ever-watchful, all-knowing Big Brother in the sky who will grant you eternal bliss…or will toss you down below to roast for eternity if you’re bad. Greed and Fear are a fairly potent combination, even though it doesn’t seem to work for child-molesting priests; of course, the whole Carrot-and-Stick approach is rather neutered when your belief structure has a built-in “get out of jail free” card in the form of “confess your sins and all will be forgiven”. Every time people fight to get more prayer in schools, or to get the Ten Commandments on the walls o

Goodness is the only investment that never fai...

Goodness is the only investment that never fails, Lisbon, Portugal (Photo credit: Pranav Bhatt)

f Federal Buildings, that is time, thought, and energy being taken away from figuring out what really needs to be fixed in order to reduce the chance of another mass shooting (or whatever horrible event that has happened recently).

Every Crusade, every Jihad, every Inquisition, every Honor Killing, every Witch Trial, every instance of “kill ’em all, God will know his own” is evidence that we don’t need religion to be moral. It makes a mockery of Dr. John Lennox’s arguments, who, when debating Prof. Richard Dawkins, laments that an Atheistic Worldview that denies the idea of an Ultimate Judge and Ultimate Justice would only encourage evil. Conversely, I think it rather lends credence to Hitchens’ line of “name a good thing that could only be done by a Believer–something that a non-believer could or would never do. Now, name an evil deed that could only be done by a Believer. Odds are you couldn’t think of any of the first category, but you’ve already thought of several in the second category. The suicide-bomber community is an entirely faith-based community”.

Character, it is said, is what you do when you’re sure you would never be caught. Sure, if you have poor character and lack self-discipline, the thought that you will, definitely, be caught (and punished horribly) by the all-knowing Creator will probably keep you from stealing that gold watch, or sleeping with your neighbour’s wife. But do we really need that? Why not be good for goodness’ sake?

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9 responses to “Upon Morality…”

  1. Howie says :

    I’ve always been pretty creeped out by the whole praying mantis thing. 😉

    You’ve taken on a very challenging topic (I personally see it as challenging for both theists and atheists), and you have brought up a very important piece of evidence in our world that I have grappled with as well. I also see this inconsistency of “moral codes” as a dilemma for believing in some absolute morality. Some would argue that the essentials are the same, but even that I think you have shown has a valid question mark on it as well.

    • eSell says :

      Thank you, Howie. Yeah, it is a biggie…I mean, here I am, Mr. Nobody blog-dude taking a crack at stuff that some of the greatest minds of history have had trouble with. LOL

      As per the theme of this blog, raising good questions (and inspiring a discussion, hopefully) is pretty much a victory in itself. Part of the issue is that if god created everything, then everything should be perfect. But it isn’t. So, Satan comes in to explain that…except everything isn’t as BAD as one would expect if the origin of all wickedness came in and wrecked everything. One could argue that “satan can only do as much as god will allow”, but why allow him to wreck it just enough to look like the product of amoral natural forces?

  2. ptjames says :

    Eric,

    I would like to link to your blog if your alright with that. Hate to lose someone who writes as well as you did on Armstrong Delusion.

    • eSell says :

      Wow, thanks a lot! Yeah, sure, and I’ll return the favor.

      I’m trying to step away from the totally “religion bashing” thing and be more generally Skeptical, but religion is a big thing still–both in the world and my personal life, so I’m still hammering on about it. lol

  3. blogginbaldguy says :

    Esell,

    Who says this?:

    There are too many inconsistencies, both within nature, and within the bible itself, for any to honestly claim either that “only believers can be moral because they are the only ones with a True Moral Foundation”

    Even if a theist makes such a claim, this is not representative of the biblical witness. I do not deny that an atheist can lead a “moral” life. In fact, I would concede that many atheists live a consistently moral life. Finding a deontological foundation for this morality is where the question lies.

    Furthermore, it is a non-sequitar to assert that supposed moral outrage at God’s action or inaction effectively dispenses with God being “ex-lex” This blurs the creator-creature distinction and is not a counter-argument in any sense.

    You go on to say: “Part of the issue is that if god created everything, then everything should be perfect”

    Another non-sequitar. This is simply an assertion on your part and simply does not follow by necessity. The being of God (i.e. his perfection) does not entail the subsequent perfection or imperfection of his created works. The bible never asserts that creation was “perfect” it only says that his works were viewed as “good”. This is an important distinction and the fall of man could not have occurred in a state of perfection.

    • eSell says :

      Thanks for the reply, Blogging Guy!

      Who says only believers can be moral? I suppose I should have a specific source for this, but right now I only remember it mentioned in youtube debates with people like Dawkins or Hitchens; though, more usually, the side arguing for the Biblical POV claim that morality without being a believer is not only possible, but expected, b/c god “wrote the law upon our heart” or instilled morality within us at creation. But, of course, the inconsistency in moral codes from one society to another doesn’t appear to support the idea.

      Hmmm…some good points, specifically the bit about there’s no necessity for the creation to be “perfect”. I suppose that is an assumption I’ve simply grown up with as it has been the standard explanation–everything was perfect until Satan inspired the “Fall”, at which point god “cursed the ground for your sake” and cast Adam & Eve out of Eden. For example, in the Millennium, the lion will eat straw as the ox and so will the bear. But they don’t now (bears eat a lot of grass, but not exclusively). Isa. 11:8-10 is a good reference, I think. Of course, as you brought up, just b/c of a future perfect, it doesn’t necessarily mean a past perfect.

      I’ve been thinking that this traditional view kind of paints us all into a corner…how to explain an imperfect world when the creator is Perfect in every way. Could man have “fallen” in a state of perfection? I don’t know, though god letting satan into the garden as a talking snake does seem rather less than perfect…

      Finally (sorry for the rather lengthy reply), the bit about the “moral outrage against stuff god does”…it is true that it is not, necessarily, a counter-argument: we are flawed humans and the “foolishness of god is wiser than men” (I Cor 1:25) and all that, but I think it is a good question. Again, on the argument of “we are moral b/c God put morality into us” (which, again, I’ve heard from those who like to debate people like Dawkins and Hitchens), it seems strange that the morality God put in us would be outraged by things he does.

      Further thoughts?

      • blogginbaldguy says :

        Hi Esell,

        First, let me say it is refreshing to interact with someone willing to look at both sides of the argument. I appreciate your reply and look forward to a fruitful discussion.

        I think the real issue is not whether or not a Christian, atheist, agnostic, et. al has the capacity for morality but rather is there an objective basis for “morality”. The best argument that the atheist or agnostic can proffer is either pragmatic or utilitarian. I have yet to find a utilitarian argument that does not lead by way of necessity back to subjectivity.

        This leads to the question, “who” has the right to determine what is right for me or you? If not God, then whom? If we take this argument to the logical conclusion there is no basis for punishment.

        Best regards,

        BBG

  4. eSell says :

    Yeah, the whole objective vs. subjective nature of Morality question is a toughie. I’m hearing more and more that there is, supposedly, a naturalistic explanation for Objective morality, discoverable like the objective Laws of Physics…but I haven’t read into it yet. It sounds a bit hard to believe, personally.

    Personally, I don’t see that there needs to BE an objective morality–handed down from on-high or not. Who makes rules and laws? Who decides punishments? People. Communities. Societies. When you look around the world and see the multitude of differing moral codes (both from culture to culture, and for the same culture through the centuries) then it appears obvious that we make up the rules as we go.

    I would ask: do we NEED rules/laws given to us? I guess it could be argued that the multitude of injustice and savagery we visit upon one another would be a good reason that we do, but on the other hand we appear to have been improving ourselves over the centuries…

    I’m guessing you do see an objective source for morality in the bible? Would you mind elaborating? I used to be Christian myself, and since no longer being, I see more and more that there are numerous interpretations of what the bible says…maybe yours is better than the one I grew up with?

    • Casey Wollberg says :

      Surely the only escape for the atheist is naturalism, with its rejection of contra-causal free will and embrace of determinism. Thankfully, there is good evidence to support that position. Morality is not a hard question once you realize that it evolved and does not require absolutism to explain its limited universal nature. Right and wrong are things that we feel intuitively because we evolved as social animals, and they are right and wrong by virtue of those feelings as well as by the ethical structures we invent to rationalize them. In other words, there is no “is-ought problem”.

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