To lay out the basis of this post, I was debating with a polite conservative Catholic on Twitter a few months ago, and he asked me about where my morality comes from if it doesn't come from God.
So, I tried to explain, briefly (as befits Twitter), that my moral system is based on a couple of basic principles. At the time I feel like I only really worked through the first, but I've added two additional principles here to try to further explain my thought process.
- It is possible to differentiate between moral and immoral acts based on a framework of empathy and relative harm. Eventually this devolved into "feelings are meaningful" but obviously there's substantially more to it than that. A large part of why this is a basis for morality can be described as the "Golden Rule." Treating people the way you would want to be treated is good, treating them as you wouldn't want to be treated is bad.
- Morals are situational. That is, the more that is known about a situation, the more well understood the morality of the situation. Saying that "hitting someone" is moral or immoral is difficult if not impossible based on the vague nature of the presented situation. Additional information can easily turn an immoral act into a moral act. However, the morality of a situation can be judged from the best, if imperfect, understanding of any situation.
- Morality is not relative. If two situations are precisely the same, then the morality of both those situations is the same. Any differences between two situations, no matter how slight, might change the morality of those situations.
Additionally, because I was debating a Christian on this, at some point I stipulated two additional things:
- The world exists.
- People exist.
I should have additionally stipulated that there are moral, immoral, and amoral acts. That sometimes choices have no real moral content. I didn't think about that at the time, but I'll try to recall that for next time. As it was, I'm glad I stipulated to at least the two things above because they headed off the worst of the "How do you know?" and "What if you're wrong?" questions.
Just a note, Matt Dillahunty's talk on secular morality, "The Superiority of Secular Morality
" helped me understand and phrase my own point of view of this subject. Thanks to him for his excellent discussion there, and on episodes of The Atheist Experience.
So, I was trying to understand the conservative Catholic's framework for understanding morality so I asked a series of questions, which all really boiled down to "where does your morality come from?" I'm paraphrasing here, obviously, but he stated that moral and immoral acts should be clear to people because of his god's revelation, especially to Catholics. When I asked how some Catholics could disagree about morality, his reply was that one of the Catholics would be wrong, and that wrongness would derive from the failure to understand or submit to God's will.
That's where I started getting really interested, because to me it seems pretty clear that this is where we split on my principle number 1. While I think that morality is based on empathy and relative harm, he thinks that it's based on the will of God. In that sense, I think he would accept my second principle, but only where better understanding of the situation can be clarified by the Bible or his god's will.
I kind of followed that through to my third principle and realized that while there was a difference of opinion in principle number 1, the third principle fell apart completely. We were both talking about objective morality and we were talking about two completely, completely different things. I wanted to try to focus on that, but first I wanted to talk more to establish a larger basis of common terms and ideas with which to discuss it.
I don't generally use the term "absolute morality" but when I followed that thread down, my understanding was that "absolute morality" was the morality of his god, and that while it existed to him, it could not be perfectly understood by imperfect beings. So it was a real existent thing, but it also wasn't something that we humans couldn't completely grasp.
To underline that he said "Morality isn't determined by men but by God."
We spent most of the rest of the conversation talking about why people's feelings matter to morality, and how morality can be based on harm, societal impact, feelings, and all of the other things upon which I base my premises. He views feelings as evidence of moral law, which I obviously don't. I pretty much view things from the opposite direction, moral law is evidence of feelings. Human morality is what we build up on top of the basic observable effects of our actions on other people (which, if you'll recall, I had to stipulate existed). People are hurt by cruelty and abuse, and they suffer and society suffers as a result. Being nice and moral lead to better outcomes, both for individuals and society.
I do need to clarify that all of this is based on the idea that people are physical beings, and that feelings and harm are physical states. Society is also a construct made up of many people, all of whom are physical beings. Since I'm observing physical people though, I can make objective statements because the statements I'm making literally relate to objective reality.
I continued to consider this after the conversation had finished, and I came to a few additional realizations.
First, given two situations that are morally equivalent but not exactly the same situation. A simple moral situation to use could be two men, acquaintances but not friends or relations, one of whom is jealous and kills the other to rob him. So we have four people, two murderers and two victims.
To me, given similar moral circumstances (neither of the murderers was acting in self defense or for the defense of another, the motivation was robbery in both cases, and the murderer wasn't coerced or forced in any way) I can say that both of these situations are bad because the actions of the murderers are both immoral. The murderer is clearly wrong to do what he did.
I can say, given the situations, these killings are objectively bad. Does it result in good outcome for both parties? No, half of them end up dead. The killers' financial windfall doesn't mitigate the loss of life by the victims. Murder 1 is objectively bad, and Murder 2 is objectively bad.
There is a major missing factor for some other conservative Catholic to judge the situations though, which is the will of their god. Let's assume that Murder 1 occurs without countenance from God. Then my hypothetical Catholic friend clearly says that the murder is objectively wrong and bad. Assume though that Murder 2 occurs but is condoned by God (for any reason, known or unknown). Well, then my hypothetical friend would have to say that the murder is objectively good.
Aside from the opinion of God, what has changed in the situation? Well, nothing. Two people have still murdered two other people. The direct circumstances of the situation haven't changed, and to me the opinion of God doesn't change anything, both are still bad. To me, the actual situation matters, not what the opinion of a third party is.
To my hypothetical philosophical sparring partner, the situation doesn't actually matter at all. What matter is the opinion of that third party. So "robbing and killing" someone isn't actually an objectively immoral act, because the determination rests on the subjective opinion of a third party.
I think it's obvious that the immediate response to this would be "God wouldn't condone killing." Except, clearly he has. He condoned and even ordered significant amounts of killing in the Bible. Some Christians argue that this was a moral thing because killing is not against the command of God, but murder is. To some extent I agree about the difference between "killing" and "murder," but my agreement is all situational: was it in self defense or in the defense of another? For the hypothetical Catholic though, again, the actual situation doesn't matter, what matters is the approval of God.
And, of course, I'm assuming the manifestation of God to the Catholic to make his will known, which I know is unreasonable. As my real Twitter acquaintance made clear, it's impossible to perfectly understand the mind of God. That just makes me more confused about why they think that their morality is "objective" though, because the opinions of God are unknowable. Who can say that God wouldn't prefer stoning of atheists, idolators, and blasphemers today or that our society has violated the will of God to forbid Biblical slavery?
There might be an assumption, especially for non-prophets, that certain acts are acceptable or forbidden by God according to the dictates of the Bible, but those are just assumptions. It would be impossible to discern the exact feelings of their deity on each specific case.
Thus, it strikes me as completely ridiculous that Christians claim that their morality is objective. It certainly has nothing to do with the objective reality of the situation, or even really of their own laws or opinions. It's clearly a subjective morality where the "subject" is their god.
Certainly, the more accurate assessment would have to describe secular morality as more "objective" than the muddy and subjective morality that requires a constant stream of opinion from God. After all, it's much easier to say "robbery and killing" or "kill their men and capture their women" are immoral in the secular system than in the religious one.