Through my experience, I’ve been left with the impression that the clear majority of atheists are moral relativists. That is, the bulk of atheists believe that ethics are simply the products of socio-biological evolution, which are not a matter of any truth external to our individual and collective opinions.
In general, I’ve always disagreed on two levels. First, I see no reason why moral experience needs any more justification than sensory experience. Second, and more pertinently to this topic, I don’t see how a true embracing of this sort of relativism can be lived.
It seems fitting that moral relativism is almost completely rejected in those places in the world which are facing tremendous suffering, and popular in those cultures which are complicit in that suffering. It seems clear why wealthy and oppressive societies are much more eager to abandon belief in objective justice than impoverished people.
Perhaps, one might say, that the poor believe as they do simply as a psychological necessity, or because they are (formally) uneducated. I hope, however, that we see the imperialism implicit in this. To say that we are somehow immune to being influenced by our culture in a way that the poor are not is neither intellectually defensible nor morally conscionable.
But, what is morally conscionable? The relativist believes that one simply accepts the morals of one’s society – or choses them as a matter of preference. In any case, she asserts that her own morals are not rationally held. As such, I am left to wonder why so many of the moral relativists in my acquaintance are morally appalled at the religious affirmation of faith.
This is not to say that such people have no right to hate those acts they chose to hate. But it seems an odd thing to attempt to convince me (as many have) that the God I believe in is evil while admitting that this is simply a statement of opinion. Isn’t my opinion equally valid?
More than this, on what grounds does the relativist, if she is a materialist, argue that her worldview has more grounding in evidence than my own? Personally, I do not accept that there is no evidence for God’s existence, but this seems moot. The relativist admittedly has no evidence for her moral positions or sense of purpose in life. I don’t, therefore, see this as an improvement in terms of taking a more objective approach.
Rather, this seems to ‘subjectify’ nearly all statements. To say that ethics are not objective is not to support an evidenced-based view of life, but to deny that such a thing could ever exist.
While I personally maintain that a divine reality is needed for an ontological grounding of ethics, not all agree. And it seems to be in the materialist’s best interests to seek grounds on which she can believe in the objectivity of ethics. I see very little future in a view which cannot offer an intellectual, as well as personal, defense of ethics. Such views can neither commend themselves as evidence-based, nor survive the next great crisis to strike our society.