Atheistic Moral Relativism

One of the topics I find fascinating, and about which I’ll probably do a little writing now and in the future, is Christian apologetics – the various strategies Christians use to argue a) that their beliefs are true; and b) that the beliefs and worldviews of others are false. I’m intrigued by apologetics because I was born into a very committed conservative Christian community; but I was also born with a highly inquisitive mind that always had a new question for every answer I was given. All the “How do we know?”s and “But what about?”s in my head drove me down as many apologetical roads as I could find as I sought a way to reconcile the dogmatism with which our faith was handed down to the skepticism of my probing curiosity.

 

 

I recently had a conversation with someone arguing for the Christian worldview and against the coherence of any sort of atheistic worldview by appealing to the concept of moral absolutes [in the comments following this post]. I’m especially interested in this vein of reasoning because it’s an argument I myself would have used in the past; but looking at it from another angle, now that I’m not determined to have the conclusions set in stone before the arguments are evaluated (that is, not treating the truth of Christianity or any other supposition as a sacrosanct necessity), it doesn’t really seem compelling.

Here’s the argument, in a nutshell: atheists express moral outrage and more or less absolute moral opinions on some matters; but their worldview, which indicates that we’re here because of evolution by natural selection, doesn’t allow for moral absolutes. If someone is a murderer or a child molester, it’s just the influence of a random genetic mutation and it makes no sense to call it a moral issue – there can be no morality in a world that’s only material, just the consequences of physics. Besides, most atheists, by self-confession, are moral relativists; so by definition, anyone’s perspective is as valid as anyone else’s. It’s nothing but hypocrisy for an atheist to express indignation at a rapist’s opinion of morality because all perspectives are equal. In an atheistic world that’s purely material, it isn’t even valid to speak of moral evil at all; there is no morality, only a writhing tangle of atoms blindly obeying nature’s laws. But Christianity, on the other hand, both accounts for the human sense of moral outrage and provides a comprehensive and infallible guide for weighing out moral rights and wrongs. I think that’s a fair summation of the argument, but I’m willing to add any clarifications if anyone thinks they should be added.

So here are a few thoughts I have on some of those arguments.

First Question: Does the naturalistic, materialistic worldview of atheists mean that it’s logically impossible for them to speak of moral good or evil at all?

My Thoughts: The refusal of some Christian apologists to allow atheists to try to define moral evil, while arrogating to themselves that authority on the basis of their own preferred ancient doctrine, seems at best an uneven playing field. How can atheists even speak of moral evil, without being inconsistent? Well, this is how human languages work, including terms such as “moral evil”: like all other human words, that term has evolved in such a way that it means what it means largely by a consensus of language speakers. I think a good contention can be made that a fairly consensual meaning of the English phrase “moral evil” is pretty much something done intentionally, knowledgeably, and willfully that harms or causes subjective suffering or objective loss to another conscious being. I’m not really a philosopher, that’s not my point, so I’m sure there could be tons of quibbles and alterations you could make. But regardless of specificities, the basic field of meanings in common human parlance over the term moral evil is generally sort of restricted to the broad universe of actions done intentionally to hurt others. So that’s what the term means, then. Not out of any sense of necessity, just because a consensus of human language speakers have assigned to it that meaning. So when atheists see intentional harm being done and feel the human outrage that they’ve evolved to feel, and then use the term “moral evil” to describe the object of their outrage, they’re doing nothing different than when you feel the desire for nourishment and use the word “hunger” to describe it. Who’s to say your definition of “evil” or “hunger” or anything else is better than an atheist’s, granted he’s using the term in a way that’s consistent with a preponderance of language speakers? It’s a term used to describe the innate human sense of justice just like “hair” is a term used to describe the natural human head covering.

Second Question: Does the self-confessed moral relativism of many atheists mean that it’s hypocritical for them to express moral outrage or admiration over certain acts and attitudes?

My Thoughts: To me, painting atheistic expressions of moral opinion as hypocritical or inconsistent seems rather absurd. For very good reason, human brains have evolved a strong sense of what you might call moral outrage or indignation. It’s really a vital thing for us to have in order to facilitate interpersonal interactions on the scale of a whole society, without descending into anarchy. Furthermore, what a society expresses such outrage over directly affects every individual within it. So I think it’s only fair and reasonable that everyone should have a voice on what is or isn’t morally or ethically evil. Even atheists. Even those who don’t think their own opinions are absolute. I think it’s an unfair characterization to suggest that most atheists really believe that all views are equal — I’m sure most of them think some views are better than others, and that sussing out those better views is a goal worthy of the effort of conversation.

Let me use an analogy to further express what this argument feels like to me. Say there’s a convocation of literature professors, and they’re all discussing their favorite novelists. One says Dostoyevsky is clearly superior, another talks up Faulkner, a third despises Faulkner, and then here comes a fourth, who says, “Moby Dick is the divinely inspired, inerrant example of a perfect novel. It’s the absolute standard of novel perfection. You’re being inconsistent even having an opinion or saying Faulkner is better than Dostoyevsky because, by your own admission, you’re literary relativists. But my opinion is absolute, because I have the only perfect standard of comparison, which is obvious to anyone who can see the divine beauty in that novel.” I’m sure one of the other professors would say, “Hmmm, that’s weird….[turning to another prof] so what do you think of Turgenev?” Point being, just because someone doesn’t accept someone’s preferred source of infallible wisdom doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have an equal right to engage in the important human function of debating moral questions. Nor, in my opinion, does it mean that his moral opinions may or may not be better and more reasonable than those of the most conservative bible scholars.

Third Question: Do Christians have the absolute standard of morality that atheists so sorely lack?

My Thoughts: I’m not assuming right now that any one way of looking at the world has to be accepted as the best or final without demonstrating why. It seems to me a conveniently ungrounded assumption that the Bible or Christian dogma must be the only absolute standard of morality. Why does it have to be the Bible? Why not the Koran? Why not an evolved morality, shaped by natural selection? How do apologists demonstrate that this one option of many (conservative Christianity) is better than any other option? I’m not here arguing for any one in particular, but many Christians do, so they should demonstrate why their assumed position is the best instead of, say, that of Confucius.

But to me, the problem with using the Bible seems greater than that it’s simply assumed without evidence. In fact, I think the assumption that everything the God of the Protestant canon does cannot be morally evil makes it impossible to think of the term “moral evil” in a consistent way. It makes it impossible to have moral absolutes. Is genocide always wrong? Must not be, because God commands it at several points in the OT, to Samuel, Saul, Moses, etc. Is infanticide always wrong? Must not be, God commanded it. Is directly and intentionally causing the death of a fetus, by killing a pregnant woman, always wrong? But God commanded it. [I’ve compiled a few references here] So why do conservative christians act as if abortion is an absolute moral wrong? It’s all relative. It was right for the Israelites when God commanded them to do it.

Again, who’s to say that this morality based on the biblical God is any better than Hammurabi’s law code, for instance, based to some degree on Babylonian gods? Remember, Hammurabi came before Moses, so apparently it was possible to have a divinely-patterned human morality before the Bible. How can you say Moses’ is better than Hammurabi’s? Or how can you say either Moses’ or Hammurabi’s is better than a “feel-outrage-at-something-bad-for-the-common-good” kind of morality that evolved by natural selection and which is the common referent human language speakers often have when using the term “moral evil”? After all, it’s a term that evolved for the very purpose of having an easy way of referring to that nearly universal impulse of the human mind. The Muslim would say there’s no morality except based on what his God says. How can you demonstrate that the Christian claim is better than his?

The Bible is a remarkable and beautiful book in many ways; but I find it very hard to use it to come up with a consistent morality. In Numbers 31, God commands the Israelites through Moses, “Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him. But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him keep alive for yourselves.” But in the First epistle of John, you read, “God is love”. I can’t conceive of how that horrifying first command could be reconciled with that beautiful ideal of First John. And I could literally add a thousand verses to each category without looking too hard, every one of which seems contradictory to me. So when someone says that the bible alone gives a standard for morality, I think, “No, atheists and others have opinions too, many of which seem more reasonable, not less.” At any rate, it seems only fair that atheistic morality be given an equal shake with Christian and other faith-based moralities.

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17 thoughts on “Atheistic Moral Relativism

  1. Billy Howell

    Hmm… I was thinking about something similar to this topic the other day after reading in the first couple chapters of Genesis.
    I think one of the issues is how is absolute morality defined? If absolute morality simply means a morality, defined by the culture, that is absolute for everyone at a given time, then I don’t think that the idea is hypocritical (a word too often thrown out to keep from having to address the actual issue).
    But who gets to decide what is moral and what is immoral? If there is no Creator, than as a society, we get to decide what is good and what is evil. But if a Creator has designed us as human, than He knows better than any of us how we were designed to function. My definition of morality is “The construct in which we were designed to function within.” If this is the case, a more moral person is not a better person (the only ones who see themselves as better are those who allow morality to define them), but a more moral person is a better off person.
    I believe that this struggle of what is morally good or evil goes all the way back to Eden. God had given the man and the woman the choice: who gets to decide what is good or evil? They chose to decide for themselves.

    As far as a Biblical absolute standard of morality. I see it as muddled because of that choice we have. However, I don’t think that the law of Moses is the same as the moral law–otherwise, Jesus, Himself would have sinned. It has more to do with what is requires of God’s holiness than how we are designed.

    We are far too sure of what we believe, that surety leaves us holding on to things that we need to let go of, it ruins relationships, and it screws things up in actually learning what God has to teach us. I think the only thing we are designed to be sure of–the only thing I am 100% sure of–is the goodness of God.
    –Billy

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  2. exetazon Post author

    Thanks for the thoughts, Billy. If I’m understanding you right, you’re saying that “absolute” doesn’t necessarily mean unchanging for all time; it just means what is non-negotiable for all individuals in any given society at any given time. And also, that God the Creator is ultimately the one who determines what is good for each particular time/society. If I’m misunderstanding you, let me know.

    To me, that gives so much wiggle room that it’s hard to put to use practically. If absolute morality changes from one society to another, who’s to know which of God’s commands are in effect at which times and in which places? Genocide was good for Israel under Moses; is it good or bad for America under Obama? How do we know? If we appeal to NT commands like “Love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself” to say we shouldn’t systematically exterminate a given race, man, woman, and child, then I wonder why ancient Israel, who had those same precise commands and many others like them, was supposed to systematically slaughter man, woman, and child. They also had the same complement of general principles we have — things like, ‘Don’t murder’ — but somehow, genocide was made to co-exist with such commands. So why can’t it in our own society? Master/slave relations are explicated often in the NT with no suggestion that we shouldn’t really enslave fellow humans, a fact antebellum slaveowners in the Christian South made use of — were they wrong? Is slavery morally wrong in our society/time today? If so, how can we know that we’re taking this morality from the Creator, especially when so many societies treated of at length in the bible seem to affirm it (including explicit affirmation from Moses at many points)? Who’s to say that Jim Jones’ or Joseph Smith’s ideas of what the Creator expects of us at this time and place aren’t better than anyone else’s? To me, all the questions your perspective raises underscores the importance of having many different voices speaking into the public consensus of what constitutes a fitting morality for twenty-first century America, including Christian voices of all stripes and secular/atheistic voices of all stripes. Giving anyone’s perspective the exclusivity of being endorsed by the Creator is dangerous business, because everyone thinks the Creator must surely not intend what someone else says he obviously intends.

    Just some muddled thoughts. I appreciate your thoughts on being too sure of what we believe. It’s a tendency I’ve always had, and it never seems to end well for me or anyone else.

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    1. Billy Howell

      Personally, I see absolute morality as unchanging for all time–there was morality even before “the fall” but the man and the woman naturally lived within those constructs until after they ate from the tree.
      What I am saying, is that it would not be hypocritical for an atheist to define morality as changing or evolving as culture and humanity changes and evolves, but yet is absolute for any given culture at any given time.

      Looking at the comments and rereading some of your posts, I am thinking that we see morality very differently. I mentioned that I view morality as relating how we were designed. I don’t see the law as the same as morality. The law is related to morality in that it creates constructs in around morality, as well as stating on how to respond to immorality (though admittedly those responses would be considered immoral per my definition of morality), some of it is even statements of morality (to avoid debate on what is moral or not), but it is not morality itself.
      As far as parsing through scripture to try and figure out what is moral and what is law… that is somewhat difficult… especially through the OT. But for me it becomes simpler in the NT–though not completely clear in some instances.

      No individual other than God has the right to decide what is morally good or evil… I would say that the conscience is the purest source of morality, and even that is messed up, I don’t know exactly how we decide in everything what is absolutely good or evil–some things see more obvious than others, but the lines become more blurred as time goes on. Yet another reason not to find my identity in my ‘sureties’.

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      1. exetazon Post author

        Thanks, Billy, I was misunderstanding you. Sorry about that, I think I get it now, and I see your point. You’re prob. right that we see morality different, but to me that’s a good thing. More to consider. New perspectives are always helpful.

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  3. John

    Nathan,

    It seems like you and I were engineered in reverse. I was brought up as an atheist who scoffed at Christianity and sternly warned my friend against letting himself get brainwashed by Christians when his parents were going to send him to a Christian college. But then when I went to the University of Colorado, starting out a staunch evolutionist, God opened my eyes to the spiritual reality of the world, that there is meaning that underlies everything and that this universe is not some cosmic mishap. In addition of the reasonableness of the Bible, too many supernatural events took place to change me to ascribe life merely to the natural. Ironically, my spiritual awakening took place, when I was reading the book of Deuteronomy and and God called the Israelites to drive out the Canaanites where he declared

    “There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer 11 or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord.” (See Deut 18:9-14).

    When I read this verse, I realized that He was God and I was not. That there is justice and purpose in the universe and a true objective right and wrong. And I was convicted because of my own sin. The texts that drove you away from Christianity are the very texts that drew me in. I don’t know if you saw the recent season of Game of Thrones or not, but one of the last episodes showed believers in a pagan religion in which the King (Stannis) of that region, in the hope of getting more power, burned his own little girl at the stake while he stood by and watched. Such horrendous evil by man that it is unimaginable. And this is precisely what the Canaanites were doing to their children in order to appease their gods. Thankfully God put an end to all such practices and quite rightly and justly had the Israelites wipe them off the face of the earth for such great wickedness. Since you think the Israelites were evil in obeying God’s command in judicially taking out the Canaanites would your morality have the Israelites let them continue in their abominable murderous practices? It seems then, in this instance at least, that you have arbitrarily determined that so-called “freedom” to do as we wish is a higher virtue than justice for evil.. As for the instance of the women being spared and married off, if anything, what God did here was an act of mercy. Of course if God doesn’t exist then the Israelites took justice in their own hands. Of course I would agree with you that if the Israelites pretended to hear from God and did all these things it would be arbitrary and of no more importance than any piece of history. But there is way too much here that demonstrates the reality of the God of Scripture. And if it is God who did these things then there is nothing evil about them at all but true justice. Sadly, in our own age, like the pagan religions of Canaan, we have made it legal and socially acceptable to murder approximately 60 million of our own children and live in a society which makes it a common practice to objectify women, and we don’t blink an eye, both of which Christ abhors. But when we play such evil over and over in our mind it becomes banal and we often don’t even perceive it anymore.

    Nathan, In my opinion, you are taking the path of least resistance. The morality I see you post about, and I say this with respect, is on par with the morality I now see on the pop entertainment news channels. It is so easy to conform to the popular philosophy of this age. But IMHO, you have been taken captive and now express empathy and sympathy and have positive feelings toward your captors, to the point of defending and identifying with your captors…. a sort of Stockholm syndrome. Jesus Christ, on the contrary, sets the captives free from their bondage because He calls evil, evil, and gives real hope and deliverance to the weak, sinful, dispossessed and the hopeless – the very people who are harming themselves and others. Those Jesus calls evil are the very ones He helps and redeems. What great mercy He has. But He and his people walk the path of greatest resistance in this world. If I wanted ease I certainly would not have followed Christ. In the morality you now espouse, as a friend I tell you, there is no real freedom or liberty for people … mark my words as someone having been there … you will sooner or later see the utter emptiness and bondage of this philosophy. I have been there and exhausted it… but we all must go through the processes God has ordained for us. On my vacation Nathan, I have gone through a process which I can only describe as mourning. I pray God bring you back to your senses. Truly I do not say this condescendingly, Nathan, as I have certainly come from a much deeper hole of sin than you could ever perhaps imagine .. I believe I only say it in love. but I believe in all likelihood your morality is borrowed as a first generation son leaving the faith. Your children, as I did, will much more easily perceive the nihilism behind any facade of declaration of objective morality while holding to relativistic atheistic philosophy/morality. They will ask why? Why should I be moral? The world is too hard and life is too short to be good when I could get there much easier by being bad.

    Nathan, regarding objective and relative morality …. Objective morality, by definition, cannot exist within an atheistic framework. Atheist morality is relative and cannot be otherwise. But ironically you are appealing to some universal objective morality as if right and wrong somehow intrinsically exists in the universe … a morality that is universally authoritative and binding on both me and you and exists outside yourself because you are saying that others SHOULD or OUGHT to abide by it. In Atheism humans are simply biological machines whose conduct is determined by a mixture of biology and environment so no external standard of measurement defines what should be applauded or condemned. So it is not merely about having an equal shake. Atheism has no absolutes, nothing is universally bad, deplorable, tragic, or worthy of blame. Neither is anything universally good, honorable, noble, or worthy of praise. Morality is a fiction if it is mere firing of synapses – a cultural construct, a preference at best, and nothing more. Why is your preference better than mine? As a relativist you cannot improve your morality. Moral reform implies an objective rule of conduct as the standard to which we all ought to aspire. You can change but improve you can only do with your arbitrary moral rules you have made for yourself. Other people’s rules are good for them. Objective rules are exactly what relativists deny. Yet ironically you act every day as if objective morality exists. A meaningful ethical dialogue between us can be held only when moral principles are seen as universal action guides. So when I hear you moralize to me Nathan it is incoherent. Whose morality are you appealing to? Your own? Good for you. But it has no bearing on anyone else. What you think is good, I think it evil. And as a true relativist you would celebrate our differences. You said in your post that one moral view CAN be better than another? I agree but your view precludes something universally better or worse. “Better” implies that you you possess objective knowledge about morality OUT THERE that others do no know about and you are trying to teach them. You can honestly say you don’t believe in my morality, but you cannot consistently say that I OUGHT to conform to yours because then you would be admitting you believe in God and that you know God’s will for everyone else. In reality neither virtue nor evil are inconsistent with an atheistic worldview. If an atheist decides to be evil, he is beyond critique because he is not being inconsistent with what he believes… if he does good it is also not inconsistent but both are equal. Social Darwinism is just as consistent as universal tolerance in atheism.

    Lastly, when you professed to be a Christian, didn’t you have a prayer life Nathan? Did you never encounter the supernatural in your Christian life? Was your faith a mere intellectual exercise which you thought was interesting?. I believe the gospel Nathan, because, in addition to what I believe to be incontrovertible historical facts, I have a continual deep intimate connection with the living God in Jesus Christ. I saw way too many answers to prayer as a missionary and way too many encounters with God now to leave this to mere intellectual exercise. There is definitely something more and it is not my imagination. I just find it puzzling that you went through all those years as a mere exercise.

    Warm regards
    John H.

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    1. tigernick

      If Christians have the monopoly on morality, why are there so many different opinions among Christians? They claim to base their morality on the bible, but it actually comes down to their own interpretations, preferences, and preconceived ideas. The bible does not speak exhaustively to every single moral issue and seems contradictory in so many ways, so anyone can use the bible to support whatever they want.

      Take for example these issues:
      Drinking
      Dancing
      Dress
      Polygamy
      Head coverings
      Baptism
      Homosexuality
      How to treat women
      How to discipline children
      Music
      War
      Tattoos
      Dating
      Contraception

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  4. exetazon Post author

    A few thoughts, John.

    First, you keep arguing for a bible-based morality that’s absolute in all times and places; but so far, I haven’t really heard you discuss all the biblical contradictions in morality that I’ve brought up. Let me say it again, but I won’t go to all the trouble of providing tons of references this time: God frequently commands one thing at one time and its opposite at another. Biblical morality cannot be absolute because it frequently contradicts itself. For example, in Joshua 7, as well as in many other places, God has Joshua kill Achan’s sons and daughters for Achan’s secret offense of taking plunder from Jericho. But in Deuteronomy 24:16 he had said, “Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.” All the places he told Moses to kill men, women, and children also apply. God told Moses, for the case of Israel at his time, that they must put to death infants (of the Canaanites) for the sins of their parents; and in Deut. 24:16 he says to the same nation that they may not put to death children for the sins of their parents. God commanded countless acts of abortion (by killing the mother) during the Mosaic/Joshuanic holocaust against Canaan; and yet you speak as if it’s a moral absolute that we shouldn’t abort babies. You say it’s a good thing for Moses to have slaughtered the Canaanites’ infants because the Canaanites were engaging in the great sin of slaughtering their infants. How is that even coherent? How bad do parents have to be before it becomes a moral necessity to commit genocide, abortion, and infanticide? When America gets that “bad” (in your perspective) will you be the first one to volunteer to begin ripping up its pregnant women? Your absolute morality looks to me like a bundle of contradictions from Genesis through Revelation. To me, that’s always been the issue.

    And again I’ll say it, you don’t have to believe in an absolute morality (or even a completely contradictory morality that you pretend is absolute and unchanging) to have strong, reasonable opinions on what’s good or evil. Our scientific knowledge isn’t generally proved deductively. It’s built up inductively until the degree of certainty exceeds human capacity to fathom and can then, in common parlance, be called certain. We don’t know with the sort of absolute certainty that you crave that an apple will fall to the ground when dropped; we just know that the theory of gravity has confirmed mind boggling numbers of specific, falsifiable predictions, so we can treat the effect as a certainty. In the same way, we can treat it as an inductive certainty that killing pregnant women is not an act of human love, and that it is therefore to be avoided as a monstrous evil. That’s one certainty that the bible can’t give us. It teaches us that killing pregnant women and their fetuses is good sometimes and bad sometimes, and that punishing children for the crimes of their parents is both a moral evil and commanded as a moral good. How is your contradictory absolute better than the non-absolute but inductively certain and well-reasoned absolutes of a secular thinker? Just because a novelist may say he believes Moby Dick is inspired and infallible so his own literary opinions are absolute, doesn’t mean he’s any more likely to be right than anyone else. Any literature buff has the right to a reasoned opinion that’s not absolute. And just because you believe the bible, with all its moral contradictions, is absolute, doesn’t mean that your own opinions are better than the reasoned, inductively derived moral opinions of scientists and others. And it seems to me that there’s no quicker way to kill a profitable conversation than to stubbornly insist that they fundamentally are. It’s the same reason that it’s hard to have a profitable moral conversation with a fundamentalist Muslim. I’m sure ISIS has as much moral certainty about their genocide as Moses had about his.

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  5. dfxc

    I find it unfortunate that the comment thread here devolved so quickly into a loquacious version of the very tired ‘divine command’ debate; especially since your post was heading into much deeper waters… so I’ll pretend the other comments aren’t here.
    You’ve thought through some implications of atheism for morality, and your answers even end up in some philosophically well developed territory (despite your not being a philosopher). Kudos.
    The issue you need to compass, however, is moral obligation. Whatever moral means, why *should* I be it? And can you answer in a way that doesn’t end up equating morality with legality?

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  6. exetazon Post author

    Yeah, that’s an intriguing question you bring up, and I wonder if you have any thoughts of your own as to possible answers or know the best minds today speaking to the issues. I wouldn’t mind doing some well-selected reading there. I feel like about the best I’ve ever been able to do to be consistent is go with something like Kant’s categorical imperative, but something in me has always rebelled at the thought. It seems so cold and soulless and blindly indifferent. Besides, it makes me wonder, “why should I care about what becomes universal law? And what about the fact that just about everybody probably wishes for something different to be universal law?” Sometimes I’ve wondered whether the oughtness we feel is just hardwired into our brain through eons of selective pressures and that the impulse to act for the common good has been advantageous for surviving and reproducing in a world constantly relying on social connections for personal advancement. The way I’ve sometimes pictured it to myself is this: I read once that when humans were mostly hunter-gatherers, they usually lived in bands of app. 150 persons. If that social state lasted long enough, it would be a kind of artificial environment in which selective pressures favored cooperative behavior. As that extended phenotype was shaped by more and more selection, the impulse for the universal good became so ingrained in the human brain as it grows and develops to maturity within community that it’s a nearly universal human impulse to consider it reprehensible to intentionally and gratuitously cause harm to another being. [I keep going back and adding stuff before I post this comment. But at any rate, I’m very open to hearing perspectives or literature recommendations on the topic.]

    Full disclosure: I know I first encountered much of the above way of thinking from Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins (esp. The Selfish Gene and Dawkins’ other books on evolution) — but it’s been quite a while since I’ve read either author, and I’ve mulled the topic over a fair bit myself in the interim, so I don’t know how strongly my perspective still resembles the one they first taught me.

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      1. psychoticmath

        No I’m not. I should have just said objective. There are a lot of types of moral theories, and even ones without God aren’t all based on moral relativism.

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      2. dfxc

        They might not name “God” but, so far as I’m aware, there’s no objective morality without moral realism and there’s no moral realism without positing (without possibility of proving) an immaterial, transcendent reality beyond nature…which opens the door to at least, as Nietzsche referred them, the “shadows of God” if not ‘God’ in name and which, in the end, leaves you in the same place.
        What do you have that escapes that? Or is your “God” in this context limited to direct divine-command revelatory models?

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      3. psychoticmath

        I’m really not trying to start a debate on which metaethics theory is correct. I just came to mention that you have seemed to miss a few. I’m in the process of deciding on or developing a good moral theory. I’ve talked about it some on my blog. (No, I don’t expect you to visit it. I just don’t feel like rehashing it, since I’m not at home.)

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      4. dfxc

        Well I’ll check out your blog but, honestly, (and maybe I obscured this by my style of writing) I really was just trying to ask: What few do you think I missed?
        You don’t even need to explain or define them, common terms or author’s names will suffice. I’m genuinely curious if there are theories I haven’t encountered yet.

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  7. dfxc

    Well if you want a consistently atheistic morality, your gut was right to move away from Kant…for pretty much the reason you cited: obligation. Why should you care? Short answer from Kant: you have to act “as if” God exists. Long answer: Religion Within the Bounds of Bare Reason. (I’ll save you the reading–Kantian morality is, drum roll please, Lutheran Christianity.)
    Evolutionary morality suffers the obligation problem as well, and Dawkins pretty much admits it in Delusion. Late in, I think it’s, Chapter 6, he notes that any non-absolute morality has a hard time saying, for example, “Hitler was evil”. And then he jumps to a tu quo que against Bible-literalist divine command and never solves the problem.
    Best attempts I was able to find:
    Nietzsche in The Gay Science, specifically “the heaviest weight” — but he doesn’t tell you how to live it and there’s zero support. You just have to be strong enough.
    Simone de Beauvoir in “Pyrrhus and Cineas”. A hard to find essay but one which argues compellingly for a necessary recognition of the value of (at least some) others. Fascinating argument but it left me feeling like a user and still didn’t solve Dawkins’ Hitler problem.
    Miguel de Unamuno in The Tragic Sense of Life. The best of the bunch but hard reading, a complex argument, and one that feels more intellectual than livable (if you set aside his latent Catholicism), but he does pull the trick off on the grounds of existential reason alone [and then he calls it faith, but not in any commonly recognizable sense].
    Happy Hunting.

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