There are certain things that we all know are wrong — child molestation, for instance, or murder. But how do we know those things are wrong? Many religious people (and I’m mostly gearing this toward Christians, since they’re the group I’m most familiar with) believe that we must appeal to a higher authority in order to know what’s truly right or wrong. Of course, they believe that authority is God.
But what if you don’t believe in God? Are you forced to concede that there is no such thing as absolute morality? Must you acknowledge that your moral ideals are no better than the morals of a sadist?
No, I don’t think so. I believe that there is such a thing as absolute morality, and I don’t believe a god must exist in order for us to know what it is. However, I think it’s important to discuss exactly what morality entails. While I do believe in absolute morality, I don’t believe all morality is absolute. We probably all know that morality means “conformity to the right rules of conduct.” But those rules can vary in importance. Morality deals with modesty, for instance. But there’s no absolute level of modesty. Some Muslims believe it’s wrong for a woman to show her face or hair, whereas some cultures wear little more than loincloths. Which one is right? It depends on the culture. Even within Christianity there are different opinions about moral issues. Some Christians believe dancing, gambling, and drinking alcohol are all wrong — other Christians don’t see a problem with those things. So many aspects of morality are quite relative.
However, some moral issues are absolute. It is wrong to rape, molest, or murder someone. It is wrong to steal. Slavery is wrong. Dan Barker once said that morality is trying to minimize harm in the world. Those principles sound good, and I’m sure most people would agree with them. But for those of us who aren’t religious, where do we get our authority for those claims?
There’s a website called ProofThatGodExists.org which was created by an apologist named Sye ten Bruggencate. The site takes you through a series of questions that are supposed to prove that God exists and you already believe in him (even if you don’t want to admit it). In case you’re interested, there’s a very fascinating interview with him here. Many of his questions deal with whether or not laws of morality, laws of science, laws of math, and laws of logic exist. I’m going to appeal to similar reasoning, though I’ll reach a different conclusion. It’s a fact that 2+2=4. But that law was not created by someone; it’s an explanation of reality. When you have two things and add two more, you will have four. We could have called those numbers by different names, but it wouldn’t change the number of items that you have. Certain aspects of morality work the same way. Every culture in history has discovered that murder is bad for society. So is theft and rape. Many cultures allowed those things to be done to members of different tribes, but it was never okay within one’s own tribe. The Code of Hammurabi and the Code of Ur-Nammu both predate the Law of Moses (even if Moses actually wrote it), and we can see that those cultures had already discovered these aspects of morality. They did not need the God of the Bible to tell them how to behave.
When dealing with the above math problem, if one person said that 2+2=17, and another said that 2+2=4, which answer is better? Obviously, 4 is the correct and best answer. But how do you know that? What source of authority can you point to in defense of that position? None, except the authority of logic. No entity has told us that 2+2=4; it’s simply a principle that we’re able to understand. Similarly, understanding that murder is bad for society is a simple, logical principle. And beyond that, most people feel saddened and horrified when others suffer. It’s not difficult to draw the conclusion that causing others to suffer is wrong.
In other words, I think the major moral absolutes are little more than common sense. Perhaps that sounds overly simplistic. But if humans aren’t smart enough to discover that indiscriminate killing is a bad thing, how did we figure out how to build airplanes or communicate wirelessly? The Bible certainly didn’t teach us how to do those things, so how did we figure them out? In fact, several studies have shown that even animals exhibit certain moral tendencies, suggesting that our sense of morality is a natural instinct. For some examples, you can check out these articles at The Telegraph, BBC News, and the University of Chicago Press.
In order to cope with more ancient examples of morality than what’s found in the Bible, like the Code of Ur-Nammu and the fact that some animals exhibit morality, some Christians now believe that God has given us an innate sense of morality — one that we’re born with. This is an interesting theory, but it doesn’t count as evidence for God, since it becomes indistinguishable from the idea that our moral tendencies have developed through evolution. If we’re all born with morality, then we don’t need the Bible to learn it. Either some deity programmed it into us, or we developed it into an instinct via evolution. But since it would be nearly impossible to determine which theory is correct, morality can no longer be used as an argument for the existence of God.
Many theists will probably think that the position that absolute morality can be derived from common sense is a weak argument and an insufficient basis for one’s morality. But that’s okay. As an atheist, I view their position in exactly the same way. I don’t believe in their god, so I don’t think it’s a sufficient basis for morality. I would much rather someone come to the conclusion he should live morally based upon reason than upon ancient religious teachings. After all, religious morality has led to things like the Inquisition and the 9/11 attacks.
Finally, the fact that religious people ask we non-believers what we base our morality upon already shows that they instinctively know we want to be moral. If we’re atheists, and morality is actually based upon God, why would we want to be moral? The fact that they assume we want to be shows that morality isn’t based upon God at all.
In the next post, we’ll discuss this issue further.
Also, I just ran across this post by my blogging friend Don Maker. I strongly encourage you to check it out as I think it ties in well with what I’ve tried to say here.
38 thoughts on “Absolute Morality”
This looks like a real interesting article. My eyes a pretty heavy and I’m about to call it a day, I’ll read it when I get up. I have something similar called “Breaking The Ten Commandments”
Interesting post, Nate. I thoroughly enjoy reading posts of those who may have “differing” points of view, if those views are based in sound research and reasoning (as yours always are). . . even if they come to a different conclusion than I would (as you and I sometimes do 🙂 ).
I have two questions: First, in your comment, “After all, religious morality has led to things like the Inquisition and the 9/11 attacks.”, if you substitute the definition you give in the 3rd paragraph so that it reads, ” After all, religious conformity to the right rules of conduct has led to things like the Inquisition . . . “, does that statement still hold true? I personally don’t believe so. I think in that statement you’re talking about a human (mis)interpretation of morality or bias of that moral teaching for personal gain, rather than the morals themselves. Many who fought in the Inquisitions may very well have thought they were furthering the cause of their god or of their religious moral teachings, but based on “societal” understandings of morality, even at the time, this was not “good” moral execution (pardon the pun.) The “powers that be” had ulterior motives that had nothing to do with God, morality, or religion for that matter. It was more about resources, greed and power. The same can be said of the 9/11 attacks. The majority of the worlds Muslims looked at that and said, “that’s not right!” The attacks were done out of simple retribution/revenge. Morals (especially religious morals) had nothing to do with it.
Second, as a Christian, I don’t say that my morality is based on God, I say it comes from God. My question is that if morality is possibly part of our evolutionary process, I assume that precludes that, at one time, we did not have morals and they were, through time, learned. But from what I’ve been able to discern, we humans have always had some sense of right and wrong . . . whether we chose to use that sense is an argument unto itself, even within the world’s religions. So, if whatever evidence we have at our disposal points to the fact that, at some base level, humanity has always had a sense of right and wrong, where did that sense come from? My own answer, based upon my beliefs and research I’ve done (and continue to do, thanks to writers like yourself) is God.
Thanks for the great comment.
You make a very good point about my assertion that religious morals led to some things like the Inquisition and 9/11. You’re right, most atrocities done in the name of religion have been misuses of said religion. However, I don’t think that’s always the case. A very literal reading of the Koran might lead some to think that the 9/11 attacks were justified. The same goes for the Bible. So much of the Old Testament is concerned with obliterating heathen, that it’s easy to see how things like the Crusades and the Inquisition came about. Thankfully, the New Testament is more in fashion these days, or my family would have stoned me when I left the church.
So, I do think you make a valid point, and my statement about religious morality was a bit unfair. I do think some very terrible things have been done because of religious teachings, but the vast majority of religious people are good, decent folks who simply want to do what’s right. Thanks for pointing that out.
Your second point is also very good. I agree that it seems humans have always had moral tendencies. But I think these tendencies developed so early along our evolutionary line, that I think evolution can still account for it. If I understand it correctly, a sense of morality is thought to be tied to the limbic system, or paleomammalian area of the brain. This part of our brain was thought to have formed in early mammals, and all mammals today have this area of the brain. Reptiles do not. So sometime during the development of reptiles into mammals, these traits apparently began to evolve. So I still view this as a difficult argument for people to make about the existence of God.
That being said, I do understand why some people would view morality as a reason to believe in God. It’s not enough of an argument for me, but I’m sympathetic to those who feel that way. The only thing I don’t really get is why that would lead them to the god of the Bible rather than just a generalized deistic god. Any thoughts on that?
Thanks again for the great comment!
I like your comment of, “Thankfully, the New Testament is more in fashion these days . . .” I myself struggle with the reconciliation of Old and New Testament other than viewing it in the role of parent. The people of Israel out of Egypt were relatively new in their faith; infants as it were. God, as father–and as most any father of young “children”–would be more of a stern disciplinarian, outlining right/wrong, good/bad, do/don’t in a fairly black and white teaching. I see Jesus of the New Testament as the parent to more like rebellious teens than anything. Steering them back, reminding, chastising and, yes, getting angry at times. As a parent, you would give a teen a little more leash, but with that also comes more responsibility and accountability. Anyway, that’s how I see that.
As far as the inner guide of morality leading more towards one god than another, and in particular, the God of the Bible, I would probably give you the same answer that a Muslim or Jew or any other believer of a monotheistic God would give. I see a linear progression from God’s creation of man (and the instilling of this moral fiber) through to his leading of the people of Israel (again, as the “parent” figure above) through to the teachings of Christ and His disciples, totally leaving out how self-motivated “followers” have misused and misinterpreted these teachings for their own selfish gain. If I take the teachings and examples given by Christ and his disciples, having based those teachings on Old Testament scripture (they were Jews after all), it leads me to follow the God of the Bible as the ultimate example of morality, right(eous) living and, ultimately, everlasting life with Him. (I hesitate to bring up the whole “heaven” ideology, because for me personally, my faith is based just as much, or more, on righteous living, sacrifice for others, helping, serving et.al. as it is a “get out of hell free” card. That’s so NOT what it’s about . . . it’s a package deal. The old quote, “preach always, speak words if you must” carries a lot of weight for me.
Lovin’ the dialog, my friend! Cheers!
I agree! I always enjoy exchanging ideas with you.
The father analogy is a good one to describe the difference b/t OT and NT God. I think it especially fits his relationship with the Jews and then with the Christians. I only think it runs into trouble when you think about the Amalekites, Midianites, etc in the OT. According to the Bible, he had no covenant with those groups, so it’s not like he was punishing them for their failure to follow his law. He was simply eradicating them because he wanted the Israelites to have their land. And of course, he was afraid those nations would cause his chosen people to follow after false gods. But my overall point is that they never seemed to have much of a chance. He didn’t send messages to them telling them to leave the land; he didn’t allow the Israelites to sign treaties with any of them (other than the Gibeonites, but that’s only because they tricked Joshua); he didn’t even try to convert them into serving him. He just wanted them annihilated. So I don’t feel that the father analogy works as well when it comes to the Canaanites. I find those commands to commit genocide very difficult to come to terms with.
Thanks for shedding some light on how someone goes from morality as a reason for God to identifying that God as the god of the Bible. A comment might not be the place for it, but at some point I’d like to hear more about the particulars of why you identify with Christianity.
Thank you, Nate. And in the interest of full transparency the total annihilation of peoples is troubling for me as well; I have no answer and I don’t want to mislead by assuming I can justify. I rest only in the faith that someday I’ll have a chance to ask . . . and you can bet I will 🙂 I have a lot of “why’s” as a matter of fact but I wonder if we could eventually find out all there is to know about God and His motives if that would make him more of a god of our own making/molding than the God whose “ways are not your ways” and “thoughts are not your thoughts”
I don’t know . . . I’ll probably question and wonder ’til I die. And, I’m oddly comfortable with that.
Um thou shall not gamble is not in the bible, so lets hit the casino
I agree that morality is something developed through empathy, not a god. I think in a dog-eat-dog world, empathy is hard to come by. So it was beaten into our not-so-nice early society with a club – religion.
Religion, and the notion of a god, has reached its used-by-date in human evolution. It is time we move beyond it and into something more humane.
(And dear gonads, have you all not read the Christian Bible? It is full of atrocities commanded by your moral (not) god. All the iterations of the inquisition WERE in accordance to the moral, religious law as interpreted at that time.)
If everybody on Earth were constantly happy, would morality cease to exist?
I don’t think that morality and happiness go hand in hand (think Socrates dialogue with Euthyphro), but your question is interesting. Are you referring to heaven? I mean, Jack could happily kill Jill, and Jill could die before she knew to be unhappy – yet I think we would all say that it would be immoral that Jack killed Jill, whether everyone was happy about it or not. Unless, no one would kill another person, which is why I asked about heaven…
But what are you getting at? This is of course so improbable that it is basically an impossibility. It is so impossible, that i do not see the relevance. I don’t mean to be rude, not at all, I’m having an initial problem understanding the point you’re making. Can you clarify?
I think a key here is the difference between something being true and us knowing it is true.
We know 2+2=4 not just because we “know” but because we can demonstrate it. But how do we demonstrate that rape is wrong?
The usual way is to point out how hurtful and harmful it is, and that is true, but it isn’t ethics. A sadist can compute that outcome just as well as a saint, what makes the difference is the choice of whether to do good or do harm. So how do we know that doing good is ethical? And how do we decide whether we want to do good or do harm, if we see advantage in it for us?
If we are strict evolutionists, we must surely say that whatever helps my genes or my tribe to survive is “good”. To live otherwise is to live by some higher standard, but where does it come from?
I think we can say that rape is really and truly bad, and that is a fact, but I don’t think we humans have very well attuned ethics detectors – we need help. And that’s where God comes in, because he can tell us authoritatively what is truly right and wrong.
And so we come to the moral argument. You know that rape is wrong, and I agree that you know. But how do you know? I think your basis is flimsy, and mostly a leftover from christian ethics. I think that a society without that basis will gradually shift towards pragmatic ethics, and that will become do whatever you think you can get away with.
I think we need to return to true ethics as taught by Jesus, to love God and love people. I think christians need to return to that more than anyone else needs to, for our hands are very dirty.
That’s how I see it.
Hi unkleE, thanks for the great comment!
I at least agree that we need to return to the idea of loving people. But I don’t see the basis that I laid out above as empty or flimsy. Every example of human culture that we have has developed a sense of morality. Granted, they often were not kind to outsiders, but at least within their own tribe they developed moral guidelines.
We both know that rape is wrong. You believe it’s wrong based upon your Christian traditions and the rules of your culture. I was raised as a Christian, so I’m sure I’m still influenced by that. But I was also raised to think that homosexuality is wrong, but I no longer believe that. Why? Because I can’t find a reason to think it’s wrong outside of religious prohibition. I can still find a reason to believe that rape is wrong. I don’t see what’s flimsy about that.
I don’t believe that basing our values on rational reasons like these would lead to a society that does whatever it can get away with. I’ve heard that more secular societies have fewer incidents of crime than religious ones do. Perhaps I misheard that, or perhaps there are other factors at play. But surely you would agree that there are many reasons to live morally — why can’t we remain moral for those reasons? And remember, one of the things that helps my genes survive is remaining in good standing with society.
Nate, I think this is a very tricky area, and I appreciate your response. I want to focus on one main point – the difference between personally believing something is right or wrong, and believing it is objectively right or wrong.
“We both know that rape is wrong. You believe it’s wrong based upon your Christian traditions and the rules of your culture.”
But I also believe that it is objectively wrong. That it breaks a principle of the universe as true as gravity, and made clear to us by God through our conscience and through the Bible and through other religious texts. I think deep down you and most atheists also think it is objectively wrong (i.e. not just your belief, but true and therefore able to be demanded of others), but I don’t see how you can have any basis for that.
“But I was also raised to think that homosexuality is wrong, but I no longer believe that. Why? Because I can’t find a reason to think it’s wrong outside of religious prohibition.”
The question again is – is that just your personal view (similar to the fact that you like or dislike eating cabbage) or is it something you believe all people should think because it is true?
“But surely you would agree that there are many reasons to live morally — why can’t we remain moral for those reasons?”
Of course I do. But what if someone decides it is to their advantage or pleasure to not live morally? Can we say they are wrong or just that we disagree with them?
“one of the things that helps my genes survive is remaining in good standing with society”
When personal self interest and recognised morality coincide, it is very easy to be moral. The real question is what will we choose when the two are in conflict? Or when someone else chooses that, have we any basis for criticising them?
It is what I see as an inability of atheists to effectively answer these questions that makes me say the basis of atheist morality is “flimsy”, while recognising that atheist behaviour may well be just as ethical as mine. It is the logical basis that I question. This won’t affect your choices, for you are a decent person, but it affects how we address other people’s behaviour. (e.g. is a suicide bomber objectively “wrong” or just highly inconvenient?)
I think i can see what you’re getting at. I used to make a similar argument when I was a devoted believer. If there is no “absolute authority,” such as god, what makes one man’s idea of “good” or “moral” better than any other man’s?
But the religious community has their morality built on a just as flimsy foundation as the atheist or agnostic. As you pointed out 2 + 2 = 4 can be tested and observed, morality is not so easily detected or proven, and neither is god, though. By saying “god said so” may answer one question, but introduces others – “who said that god said so, himself or someone on his behalf?” “who actually gave us these moral codes, god himself, or someone who claimed in was on behalf of god?” If those questions could be answered and proven as well as 2 + 2 = 4, then this conversation would be very different.
As you agreed, things like rape are immoral. We can be as sure of this as we can that gravity will keep us from accelerating into space when we jump. We see the insidious affects of it. Most of us would agree that other things fall in the same category, e.g., slavery, oppression, genocide, murder, etc… yet the bible gives instances where god commands that genocide be carried out. Does that mean that god condones genocide, god commands that something immoral be done? Does it mean that genocide is not immoral? Does it mean that all actions are neither ethical or unethical, but morally neutral – with the only determining factor being god’s approval in a given instance?
If the god of the bible is true, then i would agree that people are incapable of understanding morality without god, because much if it seems so contrary to what we humans identify as justice, mercy, and morality. It is only fair to also say that much of the bible’s moral teachings do in fact make rational sense, but some goodness is not the same as saying it is all goodness…
maybe it’s hard for a godless society to condemn those that rape, but fortunately those societies do and have condemned those who have committed such atrocities. It is within that society’s best interest to do so, for very basic and obvious reasons.
but these are just my thoughts. If there is a god, it would know better than me, I just wish god would let me know himself. I find it flimsy evidence when guys I’ve never met say that god told them to or say this or that. Great for them, but it is no evidence for me.
I have to agree with William’s response. I’ll just add a couple of additional points.
I don’t view rape as a violation against the laws of the Universe, because I think it’s only a law in relation to sentient life. Without sentient life, there would be no need for a law against rape. But since we’re here, and we can see the horrible consequences of rape, we can say that it’s an absolute moral evil.
I do think all people should view homosexuality as moral. It’s between consenting adults, so what real harm comes from it?
This is a good point, and I see what you’re saying. But I think William is correct in pointing out that saying God condemns it doesn’t really solve anything. And as he stated (and as my next post will explore), the OT is full of God’s commands that resulted in the same sort of destruction a suicide bomber could cause. So even relying on God doesn’t answer the question definitively. However, when we base morality on humanism, we can easily see why suicide bombings are wrong. At least, that’s how I see it.
Interesting. I skimmed your blog and I’ll admit my allure to click the following button. I’d comment on this one particularly, but given the long responses above me, I imagine I’d be redundant hah.
It seems you are an honest writer with yourself. Do keep that up if you’ve got it (as much as we humans may). 🙂
Thanks Page 28! I appreciate the comment and the encouragement.
Dear Nate & William
I feel I’d like to test this issue a little more carefully, for I feel you are missing the main points I am trying to make. I will present what I think is a logical series of statements, and I’d be interested to know where (if anywhere) you disagree.
1. We are familiar with the meaning of objective (really true whether I think it or not – like 2 + 2 = 4) and subjective (what I think, but you could equally validly think differently – like “chocolate is nicer than ice cream”).
2. The basis of ethics must be either objective (really true whether I think it or not ) or subjective (what I think, but you could equally validly think differently), or a combination of the two. These are the only possibilities. (A society may decide that it will adopt certain rules, and make these law, but this doesn’t change that the ethics are still either subjective or objective.)
3. If ethics have an objective basis, then where does that objective basis come from? If subjective, then there is no way to objectively judge between different ethical beliefs.
4. As an atheist:
(a) Which do you think is true – objective or subjective?
(b) If objective, where do these objective ethics come from? Why should your understanding of ethics be any better than someone else’s?
(c) If subjective, do you accept that someone else can call “right” what you call “wrong” and find repugnant (and say is “absolute moral evil”)?
So, do you disagree with any of this? How do you answer the questions in #4? (You’ll notice that in asking these questions, I have not mentioned God or made an argument, just tried to clarify.)
” the OT is full of God’s commands that resulted in the same sort of destruction a suicide bomber could cause”
Nate, I am a christian and this is not christian morality you are talking about here, so it isn’t relevant to the discussion here, though it is an interesting question to answer on its own. I will put it aside for now.
@ Nate: How do we always end up in these discussions?? Ha!
I totally get you. I guess I jumped the gun on the god and bible discussion because that is where it typically leads when a believer is asking a nonbeliever where morals or ethics come from.
But to try to answer your question, although I am more of agnostic than an atheist, I can imagine that some morals are objective and others are subjective. Rape being an example of objective morality and the consumption of alcohol or marijuana as an example of subjective.
I can also imagine these being discovered through logic and reason. Where did they come from or where did they originate? It could be from a creator, or it could be through natural selection. If we harmed those around us, then harm can befall us. Helping one another only helps each other and is therefor mutually beneficial.
I’m interested to hear what others have to say on this. Good question. It should lead to some good discussions.
And isn’t deciding “where morals came from” a subjective journey?
I came across a video on YouTube about recent studies on the morality of animals. I should post it some day. Besides being interesting, it’s rather humorous.
I think it’s from some type of natural selection. All social creatures seem to have empathy. If they didn’t, I don’t think the species would last long.@William
Great question — thanks for writing it out so cogently.
I’d have to say that rape is objectively wrong.
What works better at jacking up a car? A car jack, or a metal pipe as a lever and a large rock as a fulcrum? The jack works better. We know that because we can perform experiments and record the results.
When it comes to certain questions of morality, like rape, we know that being raped is much worse than not being raped. The testimony of victims shows us that the side effects of rape are horrible. Therefore, I have no trouble viewing it as an objective moral principle.
It’s possible that a rapist might think rape is morally good, but he would be wrong. I know that because rape produces suffering.
I understand that you don’t view the OT as completely inspired, but many Christians do. Many in this country still tout the 10 Commandments, so I think the OT’s commands on genocide, etc, are very applicable. If nothing else, most Christians would say that Yahweh and Jehovah are synonymous, so understanding why he would command such things is pertinent for Christians, in my opinion.
As always, thanks for your comment!
William, Kent, and Donald — thanks for your comments!