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”
William, thanks for your answer. Some more questions ….
“I can imagine that some morals are objective and others are subjective. Rape being an example of objective morality”
We both agree here, but what do you think makes rape objectively wrong?
“I can also imagine these being discovered through logic and reason. …. 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.”
Natural selection could explain why we think it is objectively wrong, but how does it explain why it actually is objectively wrong?
And natural selection can also explain why in some circumstances rape might confer a survival advantage, so how could we say that was objectively wrong?
And if we can see why sometimes rape might work against gene or society survival, and sometimes for, how does natural selection help us decide which of those two views is morally “right”?
My conclusion from these thoughts is that the evolutionary ethics thesis sounds good until it is examined, and then it doesn’t stand up. It can explain behaviour, it can explain social sanctions, it can explain subjective ethics, but it cannot explain objective ethics.
What do you think of those ideas?
“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.”
How do you get from “something is worse” to “it is wrong”? Either:
(i) worse = wrong, and you have assumed your answer, or
(ii) worse = unpleasant, and you have assumed that unpleasant = wrong, or
(iii) you have a logical process to justify your statement, but which I can’t see there.
I’d be interested in your elaboration on this.
“It’s possible that a rapist might think rape is morally good, but he would be wrong. I know that because rape produces suffering.”
Again, you have made an assumption – that producing suffering is “wrong”. Of course I agree that it generally is, but I don’t see how you can obtain that conclusion from your worldview. I can see how you can conclude that it is subjectively true, but not that it is objectively true.
So, in the friendliest possible way, I want to say that I still believe atheism cannot logically justify an objective ethic, and that all your statements so far assume an ethic rather than justify it.
good points, indeed. you know, i don’t know that I can prove objective morality. You are correct, i believe it to be so, but whether that belief is wrong or right in actuality, there is still morality. i guess I am fine saying that it is all subjective, if that makes it easier. Sometimes it’s fair, and sometimes it isn’t, i suppose.
What’s the alternative? Rape is subjectively moral, or it’s objectively moral (although it’s hard or impossible to prove to others), so is rape therefore excusable when rape occurs, because someone can say that in that instance it cannot be proven to be objective? Of course not, in either instance.
When is rape okay? when are similar acts moral?
many things upon further investigation come up lacking, or as you put it, don’t stand up. It reminds me of religion.
Your points are well taken, and I appreciate you posing them. They will be on my mind for some time.
Thanks for the reply.
I’m no philosopher, so my position on this might be naively simplistic. But I don’t see a huge problem here. I think that since rape is unpleasant (to put it mildly), and it’s necessary or beneficial in any way, then it’s wrong to inflict it upon someone.
I agree that in matters of taste, such as ice cream flavors, there’s no right or wrong answer. But that’s only because the experience is entirely subjective. Rape isn’t like that because it involved at least two people. One might find it pleasurable, but the other does not. So if Bob likes chocolate ice cream and Stephanie doesn’t, it’s still no big deal for Bob to eat chocolate ice cream. But if Bob likes rape and Stephanie doesn’t, it’s very wrong for Bob to rape Stephanie, because both of their feelings matter.
To me, that’s enough to say it’s objectively wrong. I know this may be an area in which we won’t agree; it’s also very possible that I don’t fully understand the philosophical implications of my position. But right now, I think this line of reasoning makes sense.
G’day William, I really appreciate your honest and open comments. I think I have little more to say, but will just draw one conclusion.
“i guess I am fine saying that it is all subjective …. so is rape therefore excusable when rape occurs, because someone can say that in that instance it cannot be proven to be objective? Of course not, in either instance.”
This is the dilemma. We know in our hearts that this and other things are wrong, and other things are right, but we don’t know how we can justify that conclusion. I am suggesting it is one small pointer to God. This is one of many things that we struggle to make sense of without God, but can more easily explain if God exists.
On its own, this may not be enough reason to reconsider belief in God, but if these little inexplicable things cumulate, as I believe they do, then we have good reason to reconsider, and believe.
Best wishes in your thinking and journey.
Nate, I think I have probably said all I want to say here, just as with William. But I want to make a similar final point to you too.
“I think that since rape is unpleasant (to put it mildly), and it’s necessary or beneficial in any way, then it’s wrong to inflict it upon someone. …. To me, that’s enough to say it’s objectively wrong.”
It seems to me that you’re saying that you find it objectionable, therefore you are willing to say it is objectively wrong. I feel this is as unjustified as a christian saying “I think christianity feels right so I conclude it is objectively true.”
You would not be willing to agree with that, but you are willing to use the same logic re ethics. I suggest that this dilemma you find yourself in of not being able to make the jump from subjective feelings to objective truth is an indication that your instinctive and heartfelt ethics are pointing to something more. But I’ll leave it at that.
Thanks and best wishes.
I get what you’re saying, and once made the same conclusion that you are pointing out here. I admit, after contemplation, the notion of absolute morality, or at least how we arrive at it, may be more of a theory.
I am not sure that saying ‘the origin must be god’ makes it any easier though. I do not say nor do I believe that there is no god, but neither am I sure that there is a god (just clarifying), so god may indeed the be sole source.
However, I do not have a perfect knowledge of the internet, among other things. I can see that it works, and may even have some rudimentary knowledge of a few of its operational aspects, but I could not explain and likely would not understand all of the components or science behind its reality. I would be thought insane to credit god for making the internet because it makes it easier in my mind to explain. God almost becomes an excuse as to why i dont understand or have a better answer, it also seems to prevent or at least get in the way of attaining the real and more accurate solution. That is one reason i hesitate to say that “god must exist because morality exists.”
God could be the source of absolute morality, and while that would answer the question of where absolute morality comes from, it creates the questions as to where god comes from, can god be proven, and then come in the questions of which book (if any) are his? which self proclaimed prophets are trustworthy, if any? The questions never go away it seems – which admittedly doesn’t prove that god isn’t there, it just shows that even with the idea of god problems still exist.
Here’s to the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. May we all come as close as possible to them as we can, and may we recognize them as we happen upon them.
Thanks for the reply — I always enjoy our exchanges.
As you predicted, I don’t entirely agree with this. 🙂
So we have two claims: “I think rape is wrong, so it’s objectively wrong;” and “I think Christianity is true, so it’s objectively true.” On the surface, there are some similarities. But when we get into specifics, I think there are some pretty big differences. Each of these claims has data that we can use to analyze them. With Christianity, I’d say the data seems ambiguous at best. The different sects of Christianity can’t agree on anything, including the nature of Jesus; the Bible’s prophecies don’t always seem to pan out correctly; certain passages seem to be at odds with one another; God doesn’t speak directly to us today, nor do miracles seem to occur; the transmission and selection of the canon of scripture doesn’t seem miraculous; we could go on and on. I don’t mean to imply that there are no evidences for the truth of Christianity; it’s just that a lot of evidence points the other way too.
With rape, we have lots of evidence displaying its negative effects. What evidence do we have that it’s a positive force? So I don’t feel like there’s a real dilemma here. It’s not like we have no reasons for thinking rape is wrong.
But you’ve definitely caused me to think pretty hard about this. If nothing else, I can see that I need to learn a lot more about philosophy; I’ve just never spent much time with it before.
William, thanks again for your thoughts.
“I am not sure that saying ‘the origin must be god’ makes it any easier though.”
I’m not sure about that either, though it is the way most christians frame the argument. I think maybe we should say that ethics (“love your neighbour”) is true just like 1 + 1 = 2 is true, and neither originate with God, they are just true. i.e. God couldn’t make 1 + 1 = 67 in our number system, because that is nonsense, and God doesn’t do nonsense; likewise God couldn’t make hating your neighbour right because that too is nonsense. (Some christians would think that is heresy, but I think it’s OK.)
But we need to God to show us with authority that ethics are true, and to assure us that wrongs will be righted one day.
That’s what I tentatively think, anyway.
“With Christianity, I’d say the data seems ambiguous at best.”
It is interesting Nate to see what criteria are important to you in determining the truth of christianity. I would say the evidence for both viewpoints (and all others) is not homogeneous, so it isn’t entirely fair to simply mention a few negative ones for the christian view while in a sense passing off the negative ones for your own.
I try to be fair to both sides, and I think there is some evidence that would lead one to think there was no God, and some that would lead one to think there is. Once we can handle that idea, we can list the arguments for and against, and start to look how it all stacks up cumulatively.
My conclusion is that the evidence for christianity far outweighs the evidence against, but I think that is a more useful discussion than trying to hold the line 100%.
“The different sects of Christianity can’t agree on anything”
Neither can atheists, neither can human beings generally. Why should that tell us anything about God? Except maybe that he is willing to work with imperfect people, which I would have thought was a positive?
“the nature of Jesus”
Very little theological difference there.
“the Bible’s prophecies don’t always seem to pan out correctly”
“certain passages seem to be at odds with one another”
Only a problem if you interpret them totally literally.
“God doesn’t speak directly to us today, nor do miracles seem to occur”
Who says? I know of many apparent cases. Fairer would be to say that he does it less obviously than in Bible times.
“the transmission and selection of the canon of scripture doesn’t seem miraculous”
No christian I know of claims that it is.
Nate, I know we’ve been over these issues before, so I won’t labour the point, but you are criticising a christianity of your own imagining, or of a very narrow section of US churches, so of course you’re going to find it ambiguous. But if you looked at the christianity of CS lewis or NT Wright, you’d find most of these objections amount to nothing. You might even find the case for christianity becomes stronger than that against.
I do appreciate your perspective. I think many of my objections probably do amount to nothing, when it comes to how CS Lewis or NT Wright view things, but that doesn’t necessarily mean their view is right. Of course, it doesn’t mean mine is either. I’ll keep looking at it.
Thanks Nate, I can’t ask for better than that. Doubtless we’ll be talking again. : )
Thanks greatt blog