For the overwhelming majority of human history, and in the overwhelming majority of cultures today, people have understood that we should all do what is right and avoid doing what is wrong. That is, we should be moral, rather than immoral.
But it was inevitable that, at some point, the word “immoral” would be abused.
What is much more interesting is the fact that so many, seeing this abuse, seemed to think that it was the whole concept of morality that was the problem (rather than the fact that abusing any concept will result in negative outcomes). Thus, the phrase “that’s immoral” has fallen out of fashion in our culture as oppressive language.
Of course, people still need a way of insisting that others not do certain things for the sake of a prosperous society.
Enter the phrase “I find that offensive”.
It serves essentially the same function as “that is immoral”, but presumably without the pretense of telling a person that she is wrong. Rather, it only has the pretense that she is somehow obligated to change her behavior on the grounds that someone doesn’t like it.
This seems like a return to “that is immoral” in all but name–and, worse, while insisting that we’ve somehow avoided the negative side of that phrase. It really is just a matter of time before “I’m offended” is abused often enough that people begin rebelling against it as well.
For a third generation phrase, I recommend “I’m right to be offended”. This recognizes that moral seriousness appeals not just to the emotion of feeling offense, but to an real, intellectually recognizable standard that another rational person can see, if she will take the time to reason it out. This is a much better ground for morality than the purely emotion-based method of offense.
Of course, there is a catch.
Moral relativism is the main reason why people don’t feel that God has much to do with their lives. Many committed atheists are, of course, dedicated to the idea that secular morals exist. But I’ve seen no good reason to think this, and interest in religion would almost certainly increase among neutral parties if morality came to be seen as a fact, rather than a matter of opinion.
As such, I think theists should be quick to suggest that offense, just by being offense, does not morally oblige us to do anything. Someone may be offended at one’s beliefs, one’s accent, or one’s skin color–but this doesn’t mean that one should change them (or even keep them hidden from that person).
The long-term result, it seems to me, would be a clearing of the relativistic fog that keeps so many from understanding (let alone seriously considering) the connection between their own moral decisions and the spiritual questions which underlie the great world religions.
December 21st, 2013 at 3:08 pm
I’m pretty sure you are aware that the views of moral ontology varies a bit among atheist philosophers. Have you written a post that I can read where you describe those different views?
December 21st, 2013 at 11:00 pm
Unfortunately, I’ve not written much here on this.
This has a lot to do with the fact that almost all atheists I’ve read or debated on the moral argument are moral relativists.
I do briefly touch on the point here. In general, the question that secular moral theories have, in my view, been unable to answer is “why is that the basis of morality?”.
But, now that you mention that, I really should write some things about secular approaches to morality. I love the subject, but haven’t gotten to that just yet.