Amoral Morality?

morality_croppedIn addition to not talking about Christianity, I’ve noticed that quite a few respondents to the arguments for God’s existence don’t actually talk about those arguments, either. Obviously, every argument is going to suffer from evasive responses to some degree, but it definitely occurs to some more than others.

My vote for the winner in this category is the moral argument for God’s existence.

Overwhelmingly, there are two basic responses to the moral argument that one is likely to encounter. (But, as a side note, I’m not sure whether the atheists who happen by would rather I made these responses sound calm and thoughtful or punchy and full of memes. I’ll  go with the typical New Atheist version I hear, but apologies in advance to the more genteel and thoughtful atheist.)

The first response usually reads a lot like this:

“I don’t need the Bible to tell me to be moral! It’s full of awful, terrible things, and only a complete sociopath would need that anyway. Are you a sociopath? I can’t believe how messed up you religious types are if you can’t be moral except because God threatens you with Hell. I do the right thing because it is right–not (like you) because I’m trying to avoid punishment.”

I don’t think there’s a book long enough to deal with all of the errors in this paragraph, but for those inclined to agree with it, let me point out the main issue.

Simply put, the argument isn’t for sociopaths. It is for people who agree that there is such a thing as moral truth. This is how reasoning to a conclusion works–we see something that is, then wonder how it could be explained. In this case, we see morality, then reason to the conclusion that God is the best explanation for it.

Of course, there are some wild claims about the Bible (and why theists are moral) here as well, but I’ll not get into that because it is beside the point. An attack on a very particular (and bad) interpretation of the Bible neither offers us a secular basis of morality, nor shows us that there isn’t such a thing.

But what of the claim that the atheist does what is right because it is right? That always struck me as a bit self-righteous, but the bigger issue is the second typical response:

“Morality is simply the result of empathy, which was put into people by evolutionary pressures. This kind of herd thinking helped our ancestors to survive, and it still helps us today. Cooperation is very powerful, and being good to others is what is best for you, in the long run.”

This is a pretty blatant contradiction of the first response, which is why I’m so often surprised to run across people who give me both responses in the same conversation–often in the same paragraph.

To say that morality is what is best for one is to deny that one does what is right because it is right. It is, specifically, to claim that one has selfish motivations for doing what is right. It is also to deny that there is any objective morality at all.

That’s fine, if one wants to do this, but this is precisely what the theist was claiming: that theism is the best explanation for objective morality. To respond with “well, as an atheist, I don’t believe in objective morality, but only that people have empathy” is to concede that point.

But, of course, the proponents of this response like to underline that empathy is “good enough”, and that nothing else needs to be explained. But I find that impossible to square with another claim these same persons make.

Namely, that we shouldn’t believe things without a rational reason to do so.

To say that we should have all kinds of moral attitudes, not because those things are really true, but simply because we feel a certain emotion (empathy), is to deny outright that one only believes based on reason and evidence.

At this point in the conversation, I’m usually treated to long, and increasingly impatient descriptions of how empathy might have arisen in the human species–as if proving that would counter anything I’ve said here.

One can reject objective morality in the name of atheism, or reject atheism in the name of morality. What one can’t rationally do, however, is claim that “are you a sociopath”, or “evolution made us empathetic” has much of anything to do with the moral argument for God’s existence.

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5 responses to “Amoral Morality?

  • Hank

    Either God IS, OR, God isn’t. The mind isn’t our best asset. In fact, in the argument for or against the idea of God, without listening to experience or our ‘heart’, it can be a total liability. The thinking mind seeks tangible evidence; proof beyond all reasonable doubt, mostly, when it comes to spiritual ideas. I would say that this is why my faith is tried more by my doubt than any experiences I have.
    The one fundamental principle of material nature that I can offer with confidence, as proof of the existence of an All Powerful Creator of the universe is this: You can’t get something from NOTHING.Follow material nature all the way back to whenever it ‘came into being’ and NO ONE, can explain BY material nature how existence came into being. It all HAD TO have a intelligent creative energy to start. Thus there never was a beginning to existence. Before material nature there was the spirit realm. (I hear the sound of the hair raising on the back of the atheist neck. Please, don’t be insulting. I get resentful far too easy for a guy who loves easily. I take it ALL personal.) The evidence is this:
    If we examine all the physical evidence, what we KNOW to be a FACT, we can only conclude that EVERYTHING has a beginning. Pr-existing atoms form compounds and join to create a ‘thing’; whatever that ‘thing’ is. Be it a ball or a human being or a tree, all things are created, grown, hatched, brewed, stirred, baked, stitched, sewn, built, etc. Everything in material nature has a beginning, period. There was a time when that ‘thing’ wasn’t. We can measure the processes. We can watch it happen. It’s a fact. It is a logical conclusion to agree with those who say that our universe began very small, and grew.
    Now, to think of anything as always being, having NO beginning and NO end, is difficult to grasp.This concept is foreign to our experience. I assert that I can link material nature with spiritual nature. I can only do it tho, by using logical conclusions, and no physical proof.
    Take the universe and imagine being able to see as far as the universe is in size. Imagine coming upon a barrier or ‘wall’ of some kind that reads; “This Is The End of The Universe”. Well, by logic, we know that it may be ” the end of the universe”, but it CANNOT be the end or “edge” of ALL that is. If there’s a wall or barrier, we know that there is ALWAYS something beyond that.
    Here we have a paradox. We have finite material nature, having a very clear and provable infinite quality to it.
    BUT, EVERYTHING has to have a beginning in material nature. This is where material nature and infinity meet the spiritual realm. Something had to cause material nature to BE.
    Just like a baby has 2 parents that ‘create’ it. Seeds drop from plants or acorns drop from trees, and water causes them to germinate and the nutrients in the soil cause them to grow. A person purposely builds a house. A person purposely bakes a cake. A factory makes clothes. People take raw materials from the ground and combined them to make cars, elevators, glass, note-pads, and cheese-puffs. Intention is REQUIRED in order to make all things. It takes an intelligent conscious force or power for anything to come into being. There’s no such thing as something just ‘happening’. I don’t know even what that would look like IF it were true!
    The only conclusion I come to with all the evidence we see, combined with the experiences of my life is that existence ALWAYS has been. It’s material nature that has had a beginning. Because one can’t get something from nothing, and, EVERYTHING material has a beginning, An extremely powerful, intelligent energy force HAD TO cause material nature to become. This force cannot be made up of the stuff we are. The spirit realm has to be the solution. I can’t see it or touch it. I can’t prove God is. I believe God is. That has made all the difference to me. Spiritual nature and material nature connect by reason, and by their quality of infinity. Spiritual nature must be the infinite source of material nature. There is an intelligent spirit creature that can, at will, cause material nature to become.
    Anyways, that’s my thoughts on it. Thank-you for bringing such thought provoking positive ‘material’ to my attention!

    • Debilis

      I definitely agree that focus on arguments can sometimes cause us to lose track of the very spiritual truths we’re defending. And I also agree that the contingency arguments you reference here are good ones.

      In fact, I’m trying to find the balance, where my seeking God includes both the head and the heart. That’s always tricky.

      In any case, thank you for the thoughts. I enjoyed them.

  • paarsurrey

    Quran mentions three gradation of morality:

    [16:91] Verily, Allah enjoins justice, and the doing of good to others; and giving like kindred; and forbids indecency, and manifest evil, and wrongful transgression. He admonished you that you may take heed.

    http://www.alislam.org/quran/search2/showChapter.php?ch=16&verse=90

    Thus explained by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad- the Promised Messiah:

    “This means that we are commanded to return good for good, and to exercise benevolence when it is called for, and to do good with natural eagerness as between kindred, when that should be appropriate.
    God Almighty forbids transgression or that you should exercise benevolence out of place or should refrain from exercising it when it is called for; or that you should fall short of exercising graciousness as between kindred on its proper occasion, or should extend it beyond its appropriate limit. This verse sets forth three gradations of doing good.
    The first is the doing of good in return for good.

    This is the lowest gradation and even an average person can easily acquire this gradation that he should do good to those who do good to him.

    The second gradation is a little more difficult than the first, and that is to take the initiative in doing good out of pure benevolence. This is the middle grade. Most people act benevolently towards the poor, but there is a hidden deficiency in benevolence, that the person exercising benevolence is conscious of it and desires gratitude or prayer in return for his benevolence. If on any occasion the other person should turn against him, he considers him ungrateful.

    On occasion he reminds him of his benevolence or puts some heavy burden upon him. The benevolent ones have been admonished by God Almighty:

    [2:265] O ye who believe! render not vain your alms by taunt and injury

    http://www.alislam.org/quran/search2/showChapter.php?submitCh=Read+from+verse%3A&ch=2&verse=265

    That is, O those who do good to others–good that should be based on sincerity–do not render it vain by reminding them what favours you have done them or by inflicting injury on them. The Arabic word for alms (“Sadaqah”) is derived from a root (“sidq”) that means sincerity. If the heart is not inspired by sincerity in bestowing alms, the almsgiving ceases to be alms and becomes mere display. That is why those who exercise benevolence have been admonished by God Almighty not to render vain their benevolence by reproaches or injury.

    The third grade of doing good is graciousness as between kindred. God Almighty directs that in this grade there should be no idea of benevolence or any desire for gratitude, but good should be done out of such eager sympathy as, for instance, a mother does good to her child. This is the highest grade of doing good which cannot be exceeded. But God Almighty has conditioned all these grades of doing good with their appropriate time and place.

    The verse cited above clearly indicates that if these virtues are not exercised in their proper places they would become vices. For instance, if equity exceeds its limits it would take on an unwholesome aspect and would become indecent. In the same way, misuse of benevolence would take on a form which would be repelled by reason and conscience; and in the same way graciousness between kindred would become transgression.

    The Arabic word for transgression is “baghi”, which connotes excessive rain which ruins crops. A deficiency in the discharge of an obligation or an excess in its discharge are both “baghi”. In short, whichever of these three qualities is exercised out of place becomes tainted. That is why they are all three qualities conditioned by the due observance of place and occasion.

    It should be remembered that equity or benevolence or graciousness between kindred are not in themselves moral qualities. They are man’s natural conditions and faculties that are exhibited even by children before they develop their reason. Reason is a condition of the exercise of a moral quality and there is also a condition that every moral quality should be exercised in its proper place and on its proper occasion.”

    Pages 64-67- “The Philosophy of the Teachings of Islam”

    http://www.alislam.org/library/books/Philosophy-of-Teachings-of-Islam.pdf

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