Wednesday, August 15, 2007

A Reasonable Morality

Throughout the history of humanity, a society's moral codes were inexplicably tied to the local religion. Things have not changed in 2007. Many Christians believe that a belief in God is necessary for a person to live morally; atheists disagree. The atheist's argument revolves around the idea that natural law and civic virtue is available to people due to their ability to reason. The system of morality is established by natural law and civic virtue. Therefore, morality is a by-product of people's ability to reason.

A few terms must be defined before the discussion can begin. These definitions are taken from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Natural law "constitutes the basic principles of practical rationality for human beings, and has this status by nature which is universally binding and universally knowable." Civic virtue is "a willingness to do one's part in supporting the public good." Reason can be defined as "the general human capacity for resolving, through reflection, the question of what one is to do." Morality "is an informal public system applying to all rational persons, governing behavior that affects others, and has the lessening of evil or harm as its goal." Christians are men and women believing in the Judeo-Christian God, the deity of Jesus Christ, the infallibility of the Bible, and the existence of an afterlife. And atheists are men and women who believe that it is impossible to prove the existence of a divine being or an afterlife.

Many Christians believe that morality comes from God; an example of this is the Ten Commandments. For many believers, a life of sin and depravity is the only option for those who do not accept God. This is illogical, not only because it presents an either-or situation, but because it brings up questions of the source of goodness. Frank Zindler, a professor of biology and the editor of American Atheist Press, writes:

Plato showed long ago…that we cannot depend upon the moral fiats of a deity.
Plato asked if the commandments of a god were 'good' simply because a god had
commanded them or because the god recognized what was good and commanded the action accordingly. If something is good simply because a god has commanded it, anything could be considered good…On the other hand, if a god's commandments are based on a knowledge of the inherent goodness of an act, we are faced with the realization that there is a standard of goodness independent of god and we must admit that he cannot be the source of morality.

There is a standard of goodness independent of God and it is called natural law. This is the system that is at work in the natural world. From the beginning, survival of the species was, and still is, the overwhelming purpose of an organism. Certain behaviors benefit the group, while others hurt it. Generosity, loyalty, defending the group, etc, are behaviors that benefit the group. On the other hand, murder, stealing, selfishness, lying, etc, are behaviors that can damage the group's ability to survive. Throughout the evolution of humans, this behavior was analyzed as right or wrong based on the consequences of the action. Over time, this analysis would form the moral code that underlies ancient and current societies. In other words, "they are generalizations from experience…A moral law makes explicit in theory what is implicit in fact. The fact creates the rule; it is not the rule that creates the fact."

Even C.S. Lewis, one of Christian's favorite apologists, saw the foundation of morality as reason—"the fundamental maxims of civic morality are accessible to all human beings by virtue of their God-given reason. This natural moral code cannot be escaped, he said; it is the source from which all moral judgments spring." This reason is the key to morality, not religious dogma. It is the mind of humans that separates them from the animal world; reason is the best weapon with which to face everyday events. Too often, Christianity demands that reason and a questioning mind be shut down to give way for blind faith.

For two centuries, we have looked to the Christian God to provide us with morality and have not been satisfied. The issues that we face today are human problems and it is within our humanity that the answers will be found. This is the time for a return to reason, for a new focus on natural law as it applies to humanity, for civic virtue to once again gain prominence in our national discussion.

Sources
Civic Virtue. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/republicanism/, July 25, 2007.

Cohen, Chapman. "Morality Without God." American Atheists, Inc., http://www.atheists.org/Atheism/cohen.html

Morality. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/morality-definition

Natural Law. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/natural-law-ethics/, July 25, 2007.

Practical Reason. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/practical-reason/, July 25, 2007.

West, John G., Jr. "Politics from the shadowlands: C.S. Lewis on earthly government." Policy Review (Spring 1994 n680: 68(3).

Zindler, Frank R. The Probing Mind, February 1985. http://www.atheists.org/ethics.html

19 comments:

Intergalactic Hussy said...

"Belief in God is not necessary to live morally and, in fact, may undermine true morality. This is an incredibly bold statement that atheists are presenting and needs to be examined carefully. Not only have many Christians lived complete lives of depravity, but Christianity itself is based on immoral premises."

Well said! I think that religious scripture is that LAST place for find moral lessons. We all realize that even Christians pick and choose what works for them and what does not. And basing your moral code off of an old book is not "morality"...I believe Dawkins refers to it as "sucking up".

Bnonn said...

Angels—

You seem to be very concerned that you are able to justify a system of morality sans God. That is quite understandable. However, you are only focusing on the result of the existence of morality—that is, on the system of behavior, and its supposed origins—rather than on the existence and origin of morality itself.

What I mean is, you provide what may or may not be plausible appeals to natural law as an origin for moral behavior; but you have not provided any kind of account for the origin of the concepts of law or moral behavior themselves. You have not engaged with the fact that values and laws in a discussion of morality are completely separated in meaning from values and laws in a discussion of physical events.

I agree that it is possible for an atheist to live a somewhat moral life. Belief in God does not necessitate good moral conduct (as James says, even the demons believe). Neither does disbelief necessitate that one will not follow the law written on the heart, or in society. However, that is not the issue in any intelligent discussion of morality. It is only the most vacuous Christians who would argue, against Scripture, that one cannot be at all moral (in the sense of following God's law) without belief in God. The question of deeper importance is whether one can make sense of the very idea of morality if God does not exist. Note the difference between these two issues: you are focusing on whether belief in God is necessary to moral behavior—however, underlying that discussion is the issue of whether God is necessary to morality.

It looks as if you wish to conflate the latter issue to be identical with the former, so that by dismissing the former (which is a spurious and illogical argument) you do not have to engage with the latter (which is a genuine and devastatingly logical criticism of secular worldviews).

Regards,
Bnonn

angelsdepart said...

Bnonn

This must be so embarrassing for you! Had you read all of the way through this post or some of the post preceding it you would have noticed that they were written by Telos. She is a new author on the Angelsdepart blogsite. I think we are starting to see what happens with you. When you read material, you skim through it and don’t pay attention. I can see how this has led to your horrifying misunderstanding of the bible.

It makes sense to me now why you have to make things up. It also makes sense how you missed so many of the points in my posted arguments against you. My recommendation would be to read through things thoroughly and completely if you plan on posting rebuttals. This way you won’t continually embarrass yourself when you miss major things.

tina said...

ooops!

Bnonn said...

Angels—

My apologies; I had forgotten you had another contributor on this blog. I hope Telos will engage with the issues I have raised.

Regards,
Bnonn

telos said...

Bnonn -

It is important to recognize that a system of morality is not based on a diety. I can only speak from personal experience here, but when religion is removed from the equation, life runs a lot smoother. There is less judgment, less hate. There is the recognition that everyone deals with problems, but that we are all doing the best we can with what we have available. Tomorrow is another day and we will approach life a bit smarter from what we have learned today. Religion has, in my experience, a way of making humanity worthless and heaping guilt on the followers for not living up to unattainable goals.

For the many Christians who take the Bible as a literal account of the world, starting from the creation of the Earth right up to the end of all things, God is the origin of everything and nothing can exist apart from Him. From this perspective, morality has its origin in God and cannot exist in its own right.

But, I don't believe that God is the origin of everything. I believe that the account proposed by the Bible is an assimilation of the many cultural myths that existed in previous civilizations. I believe that these civilizations had moral guidelines that were developed by natural law as humanity evolved and adapted.

You said "Note the difference between these two issues: you are focusing on whether belief in God is necessary to moral behavior—however, underlying that discussion is the issue of whether God is necessary to morality." I see the difference between the two and was not trying to confuse them.

This is where we can miss each other in conversation and end up talking in circles. If you believe that God is the origin of all things, you will believe that He is necessary to morality. On the flip side, because I don't believe that God is the origin of all things, I don't see Him as necessary for morality to exist.

Since we start from such absolutely opposed positions, I don't see a way to reach any happy conclusion.

The real point of contention is the existence of God. You believe by faith that He exists. I do not believe that faith is enough. I believe that reason and proof should guide such important decisions. I have not yet seen the reason or the proof for the existence of God.

Bnonn said...

Telos—

My contention is that morality, as a concept, is unintelligible in a materialistic or naturalistic worldview. I am not talking about the behavior or codes of conduct which arise from morality itself. I am saying that moral value is an intrinsically non-materialistic concept; that it is in fact transcendent, and in a worldview which by definition denies the transcendent, it therefore does not actually make sense.

I don't at all deny that you are capable of moral behavior, or that you believe in morality as a concept. What I am saying is that you have imported that concept into your non-theistic worldview, in contradiction to some of its basic presuppositions. Only the existence of a transcendent God can make morality intelligible.

Regards,
Bnonn

angelsdepart said...

Bnonn I would like to briefly illustrate what you are doing with your morality argument. I will simplify it into a formula to you can see it more clearly.

A. God exist

B. Morality is only intelligible because of the existence of god

C. Morality exist

D. Therefore god exist

This is a perfect example of circular reasoning and nearly all of your arguments use it. The problem is that you cannot prove god exist. Unfortunately for many of your arguments to work, god must exist. Therefore you assume god exist and try to argue backwards to his existence. I hope I am helping to make this clearer to you.

telos said...

Bnonn -

I'm not sure I understand what you mean about morality being a non-materialistic concept or about it being transcendent. Also, what are the basic presuppositions in a non-theistic worldview that contradict this concept of morality?

Bnonn said...

Angels (and Telos)—

I am afraid you have misunderstood. My argument, simply formulated, looks more like this:

1. Morality exists.
2. If morality exists, it is not physical (ie, it is transcendent).
3. The naturalistic/materialistic/physicalistic worldview denies the transcendent.
4. Therefore, either morality exists, or physicalism is true.
5. Morality exists (from 1).
6. Therefore, physicalism is false.

Obviously, I affirm that only the Christian God can intelligibly and properly account for morality. But my argument is not a proof for the Christian God, and neither does it presuppose him. It is an internal critique of your own worldview, seeking to demonstrate that the very concept of morality does not make sense within it. If physicalism is true, then morality is literally unintelligible, because it is not only absurd to say of one piece of matter that it was good to another piece of matter, but the word good itself must mean something—and no meaning can be ascribed to it in a purely physical universe, because goodness is not a physical thing. In even using that word, you are borrowing a transcendent concept. This is by no means surprising, since you have the law of God written on your hearts, and you know inwardly that right and wrong exist, and where they come from. But that law, and its origin, are obviously at odds with the worldview you are supposing, in which neither transcendent laws, nor transcendent beings, exist.

Regards,
Bnonn

angelsdepart said...

You changed your argument again Bnonn! Let me remind you of what you said…..

“however, underlying that discussion is the issue of whether God is necessary to morality.”

Now you are saying that this isn’t an argument for the existence of god but rather and argument against “physicalism.”(sic) Yet you now offer no alternative explanation and you have yet to offer any evidence for your argument.

Are you sure you’re up to this, you really seem to be losing steam!

Bnonn said...

Angels—

My argument has been consistent throughout this exchange, albeit progressively explicated. In my first post I maintained that, "you have not provided any kind of account for the origin of the concepts of law or moral behavior themselves [...] The question [...] is whether one can make sense of the very idea of morality if God does not exist." In my third post I elaborated on this, stating that, "My contention is that morality, as a concept, is unintelligible in a materialistic or naturalistic worldview [...] it is in fact transcendent, and in a worldview which by definition denies the transcendent, it therefore does not actually make sense. [...] Only the existence of a transcendent God can make morality intelligible."

You tried to reduce these statements into a syllogistic formulation of sorts, as follows:

A. God exist [sic]

B. Morality is only intelligible because of the existence of god

C. Morality exist

D. Therefore god exist


However, this formulation does not correspond to what I said; if anything, it reverse the order of my inference. I have consistently stated that: 1, we agree that morality exists; but, 2, a physicalist worldview cannot make even the concept of it intelligible; and 3, only the Christian God can make it intelligible. My argument, from the first comment I made, was couched as an internal critique of your own worldview, showing how it fails; leading to an assertion of the success of my own. I am starting from a consensus about the existence of morality, so as to evaluate your worldview for the preconditions necessary to it. Your worldview does not provide the preconditions necessary to morality. If you disagree about these, then you should engage with them—but my critique does not rely on assuming God. It only relies on recognizing that, since morality by definition entails the transcendent, and since the transcendent is by definition denied in your worldview, your worldview therefore does not make morality intelligible. Whether or not the Christian worldview does has not really been covered (although a passing attempt at refutation was attempted in one of the articles via reference to Euthyphro's Dilemma, if I recall correctly).

Regards,
Bnonn

angelsdepart said...

“2, a physicalist worldview cannot make even the concept of it intelligible
3, only the Christian God can make it intelligible.”

Yes you keep stating these assumptions but you have proven nothing. We know you think that this is true but where is your proof? If you could show actual proof I think you could convert Telos and I. Proof is what we are looking for, not your assumptions!

telos said...

I disagree that morality as a concept is transcendent. I think a better word is abstract. The behavior resulting from the concept is concrete and can be examined in the physical world. I think everyone would agree to that. But abstract concepts are accessible to humanity because of the development of our frontal lobe. Grasping abstract concepts does not require a divine being. Morality--along with justice, love, liberty, etc--is not transcendent. It is available to believers and non-believers alike.

angelsdepart said...

Telos for the win!!!

Tommy said...

Only the Christian god can intelligibly and properly account for morality? What a load of crap.

What this kind of thinking stems from is the hold that the Catholic Church and its protestant offshoots had on the mental universe of the people of Europe.

I run into this kind of thinking all the time. A Christian will argue that an atheist does not have an objective definition of morality, but a Christian does. WRONG! What we have is Christians claiming that the Bible represents the inerrant truth of a universal deity, when it is in fact merely a subjective moral system that they wish to believe is objective.

Likewise, a Muslim believes that his morality is objective. So, while we would say it is oppressive, not to mention plain stupid, to restrict the rights of women to work, wear the clothes she wants to wear, walk in public without a male relative or spouse, to a Muslim these restrictions are divinely ordained and are necessary to preserve the virtue of women.

Morality and virtue can be measured by the benefits they bring. A person who is sober is less likely to have the problems that an habitual drunkard experiences. A person who drowns himself in credit card debt is much worse off than a person who is thrifty and invests wisely.

One reasonable argument that could be made is that religion served a useful function in trying to scare people into being good by getting them to believe that one must refrain or participate in certain activities in order to receive a reward, and in doing or not doing these things one risks eternal suffering.

Those of us who are atheists are free from such mental constraints. We are mature enough to understand that the benefits of being moral and virtue in and of themselves are sufficient for us to be moral and virtuous, or at least aspire to be so. Because, whether we are theists or atheists, we are all flawed human beings and we will always fall short of the standards we set for ourselves.

Bnonn said...

Telos—

I use the word transcendent, because abstract implies too little. Namely, it implies a non-realism about non-physical things. I put it to you: are truth and value real? If so, in what sense do they exist?


Angels—

I have been elaborating various proofs for some time now. I'm sorry you can't see that. Your contention that you would be converted if only I could present proof rings rather hollow in light of our discussions; and particularly in light of the biblical teaching that you do already know God, but suppress that knowledge in unrighteousness and believe what is false (Rom 1, 2 Thes 2).


Tommy—

You said, "Morality and virtue can be measured by the benefits they bring." However, you have not accounted for the concept of "benefit". You are trying to use value to define and account for value; which is to say that you have not defined or accounted for anything at all.

Regards,
Bnonn

angelsdepart said...

Jesus Fucking Christ Bnonn!

I seriously can’t believe that you still have steam! I think that it is amazing that you feel you have presented proof. All you have done is quote scripture to back up your tenants. Unfortunately there are unresolved discrepancies in the Bible that you have not and cannot rectify. You repeatedly ignored even the simplest of arguments such as the flood. The only reasonable defense that you have offered is that we don’t understand the writing techniques of the ancient authors. That might be fine for an ancient history book but not for a divinely inspired manual to life.

Your own arguments are full of contradictions and discrepancies, a fact that you have simply ignored. When called out on your ridiculous assumptions you resort to fallacies and ad hominem attacks. You have proven that you don’t even read through and consider any other arguments seriously in the first comment of this post and thus inferred flaw in your understanding and comprehension of our view and potentially your own. You assume that god is real in every argument that you make and then you expect us to accept you at your word without proof.

But wait!!! You did offer proof right? It must be that as non-believers we are just to “stupid” to understand!

It is apparent that you are so inferior in your beliefs that you must convince everyone else to believe them too. You can’t just be happy with your beliefs because deep down you have to know that they are insane. You see, we don’t care what you believe. It makes no difference because you are not affecting the world negatively. (Not that we know of.) If you were then we would get involved. But you have a score to settle. You have something to prove to yourself and to your fellow believers and you can’t give up until you feel you have won. Unfortunately you can’t win because proving god’s existence is an impossible task. I understand that this drives you crazy.

If it turns out that I am really just to ”stupid” to understand the “truth” of the existence of god because I am not a believer then put it in simpler terms for me. Don’t give me rhetoric and double speak about how we can’t know anything without divine revelations. Back you claims with evidence and I don’t mean that contradictory book called the bible. Give me something I can observe and test for myself. Pray to you god to reveal himself to me. Show me proof of a miracle. Find an entire Egyptian army at the bottom of the Red Sea.

If you don’t have any of this then hang your head and walk away. Know that your god is not disappointed because he knows you did your best to save our souls. His almighty and powerful nature just wasn’t enough to win over the soul of a stupid and ignorant non-believer such as myself. Know that it is not your fault. Your god is simply not powerful enough. Maybe Allah, maybe Buddha, but you and your god have had your chance.

Please stop annoying us. We are interested if you actually have evidence, otherwise we feel your droning to be quite boring.

Tommy said...

Bnonn, you are just playing stupid word games.

You can't tell whether something is beneficial to you or not unless I explain the concept?

An engineer discovers a new building method that makes buildings more resistant to earthquakes, thereby potentially saving thousands of lives if the method is adopted. But you believe that in the absence of Christianity there is no basis for adopting the improved building method? Gee then, I wonder what motivated the Cretans to adopt building methods that were earthquake resistant to build Knossus?