Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Moral philosophy

I used to believe that atheists have no basis for accepting the idea of morality. I no longer believe this is true.

I have recently been discussing on David Guttmann's blog the issue of morality and religion. I admit that my views on this issue have significantly evolved in the last ten years. For my more recent views on the matter, see this post, which is based on an essay I wrote at the end of college. An essay I wrote at the beginning of college, however, presents quite a different perspective. I present an abridged version of the essay here:
Why must we act morally in the first place? An ethical system founded upon a religion that worships God is, in principle, more rational than an ethical system that denies this basis.

Personal feelings are too subjective to base an entire code upon them. The conclusion that "murder is immoral," for example, is not a direct implication of the premise that "murder does not feel good (to some people)." A person may be firmly ethical without following his or her emotions, while a person who follows his or her emotions may be morally lacking.

The argument that morality is a necessary part of society is also insufficient, because it is possible to behave contemptibly without harming society as a whole. While all cultures retain values at their foundation, they are free to adopt new tenets and discard old ones as time goes by. Morality, in contrast, is a permanent value system. It is not a product of Western society but rather an ideal toward which most societies strive. To say that murder is immoral is to imply that there is no possibility of it becoming moral anytime in the future, even if society would begin to approve of it. This is particularly evident in such topics as abortion or euthanasia, where people do not agree on the definition of an ethical concept. Their goal in debating the issue is to make society acquire a better understanding of morality. Since no society is infallible, no society provides us with the ultimate philosophical basis for ethics.

Another possibility is that disregarding proper ethical standards is self-destructive. It is certainly true that many people's moral actions are motivated by a desire for self-preservation. Obviously, most of us will follow the law of the land so as not to be punished. More to the point, all our actions have natural consequences, and for some moral actions, the consequences on the person who performs them are favorable. For example, the case for environmental protection is strengthened by the fact that problems in the environment can have hazardous effects for all the life on earth, including ourselves. On the other hand, the principle does not accurately describe all situations. Throughout history, evil societies and people have thrived while innocent individuals suffered. How does the self-preservation theory account for cases when criminals escape justice, even if such cases are uncommon? In any case, the suggestion that the goal of morality is self-preservation trivializes the concept, which has nearly always been understood to go beyond self-interest.

That last point exemplifies the problem with all these theories, which is their inconsistency with the morality understood to exist in our daily lives. If morality were merely a matter of personal taste or choice, as some philosophers have suggested, that would fail to explain most people's passionate hostility toward opposing moral philosophies. The passion implies that in most real-life situations, morality is assumed to occupy an objective reality of its own. In contrast, the previously mentioned theories invoke a conception of ethics that is more narrow and vague than the conception most people apply in practice.

Despite the general perception that morality is objectively true, people tend to relegate it to a separate realm of reality. For example, most people assume it to be an objective fact that advocating murder is "wrong," but would probably treat a comment that advocating murder is "inaccurate" with bewilderment. Moral judgments cannot be measured by accuracy, they would say. On the other hand, the same people would probably agree that the immorality in a doctrine of racial superiority is intrinsically related to the fact that it is false. The identification of racism as morally wrong in addition to being false is, like the first example, unprovable. Nevertheless, in the second example, we notice a logical connection between the realms of fact and value. It is inherently impossible to "prove" statements about how people should behave, yet such statements still constitute a kind of philosophical knowledge. This is clear because we so frequently use demonstrable facts to back up moral propositions.

If we assume that morality implies a system occupying a sphere of reality, the question presented at the beginning of this essay--Why must we act morally in the first place?--should be rephrased: How do we know that morality exists to begin with? That is, what knowledge confirms our general belief that all people must behave in certain ways and not others? From a rational standpoint, the assumption that morality exists is not self-evident, even though many people--including many religious people--treat it as such. It is rather a logical implication of the fact that it is God's will. Because God created and is in control of the world, He wants us to behave in specific ways, to satisfy the purpose of creation. This also provides the strongest rationale against destruction toward nature and society--because it is all part of God's creation.

Without God, there is no source by which to judge any statement on how we should behave as true. All we can say is that some people are motivated to behave that way, yet that does not tell us whether people should behave that way. Religion allows us to view moral propositions as truths rather than simply as preferences, instincts, or rules designed to maintain social order.

Accepting God's will as the ultimate basis for ethics does not preclude the previously mentioned motivating factors behind moral behavior; it simply gives them a unified point of reference. Compassion still plays an important role by enforcing moral rules deep within our psyche. Furthermore, even religiously based ethical systems use the standard of what is beneficial to society to decide on specific moral issues. Finally, religion embraces a version of the self-preservation argument, by its conviction that God punishes all evildoers. This belief, though, is based on faith rather than observation, whereas the secular version of the argument is an attempt to explain morality without reference to God.

I am not implying that those who do not recognize the ultimate basis for ethics are necessarily amoral. Divine authority is not the only cause of moral behavior, although it is the ultimate rational basis for ethics. The bottom line is that in the absence of religion, there are no ultimate grounds for condemning a person who chooses to behave immorally. Why is the evildoer's choice inferior to anyone else’s choice? None of the non-religious explanations for ethics answer that question; they merely clarify why some people prefer certain ways of behaving over others. Only when we recognize that the ultimate moral authority is God do we have a universal explanation for morality that applies equally to all people in all cultures, regardless of what the people or the cultures themselves may believe.
I actually still accept some of the ideas expressed in the above essay, even if I reject the general thesis. The philosophers who have attempted to root morality in social pragmatism or personal preference have not provided a convincing case for ethics. But I recognize now that basic morality is deducible without believing in God. I believe that the purpose of religion is to move us beyond this basic level in an attempt to perfect the world.

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