Several years ago, when I was finally getting back in touch with an estranged sister, I discovered that she had become a fundamentalist, evangelical young earth creationist. On one of my visits with her we stayed up late into the night talking about religion, atheism, and related topics. One of her early points was, “If you don’t believe in God, then you must think that murder is perfectly fine!” I was rather taken aback by this claim, because I certainly don’t think that murder is okay. I was somewhat baffled at the notion that morality or ethics, in her mind, could only come as a result of belief in God. If belief in God is the only thing that is keeping her from murdering people that I am actually quite happy that she believes in God; of course it is unlikely that this is indeed the only thing keeping her from such atrocities. Since that conversation, I have certainly experienced this argument numerous times from plenty of theists. It seems that for such people their rationale for morality seems to be the only rationale that they can even imagine existing, and so they actively disbelieve that any other rationale is possible.
There is also an opposite argument that I have often heard from theists. This opposite argument claims that there is indeed objective morality that even atheists acknowledge exists. Within this argument the very existence of an objective morality is used as evidence of the existence of a lawgiver, God. This is known as the “moral argument for God.”
Both of these attitudes are based on the notion that absolute morality can only come from a divine law giver. They differ in whether or not nonbelievers understand this morality even if they disagree about its origins.
In this essay I am going to explore ethics and morality. In a later essay I will lay out my own ethical philosophy, known as Pragmatic Ethics.
Morality versus ethics
For the purposes of this discussion I’m going to define what I mean by the terms morality and ethics. As was true of some of my definitions that I have used in other essays, I am by no means saying that the definitions I am about to use are the only correct ones. Rather, I am saying that there are two distinct concepts that I think it is important to distinguish, and that these two terms, morality and ethics, probably come the closest to working for those two distinct concepts. Therefore, as a shorthand, I am going to use those two words to reference those definitions.
Both morality and ethics are used to describe value judgments about behaviors. The important difference between the two is, in my opinion, the origins of those value judgments. In my mind where morality is handed down, ethics are figured out. The former answers the question, “What does authority figure X say about how we should act?” The latter answers the question, “What can we figure out about the best ways to act?”
Theists distrust ethics
Within the context of those definitions, it is natural for theists to distrust ethics. It is just as natural for atheists to distrust morals. In order to have a productive conversation about such topics, it will be important for us to understand the origins of this distrust. The theistic distrust of ethics is relatively easy to explain. Lacking an authority figure to decide what is good and bad, decisions about what is good and what is bad are simply a matter of opinion. Humans are fallible. Humans lack the authority to decide what is good and bad. Different people can come to different conclusions about what is right and wrong, leaving little justification for a society to impose rules, or laws, on behavior. Very simply, the foundation for ethical behavior is shaky and relative, hence the frequent use of the pejorative term, “moral relativism” (where “moral” is not being used in the way I have define it here).
How much more justifiable it is, it seems to such theists, to have morality defined for us by an authoritative lawgiver. Such an approach reassuringly gives us a rock-solid foundation upon which to base judgments about right and wrong. This approach gives us a basis for “absolute morality.”
Atheists distrust morals
But does it really do so? In the atheist’s analysis, so-called “absolute morality” results in an even shakier foundation than does “moral relativism” because it suffers from exactly the same failings, and additionally removes any hint of humility and introspection from decision-making, both of which are, to the atheist, intrinsic goods that keep us from overreaching and provide an error-correction mechanism that we can apply to decision-making. Let’s see why atheists feel this way.
In practice, so-called “absolute morality” is far less absolute than theists would have us believe. I will take Christianity as the example to discuss, simply because the majority of my readers are either Christian or deal with Christians most in their day-to-day lives; nonetheless, the analysis I will present is equally-applicable to other faith traditions.
If we had a direct line to God, complete with an ability to ask for and receive clarifications on ambiguous situations, the theistic claims of absolute morality would be at least slightly more reasonable. But we don’t. Instead we have holy books and self- or church-appointed spokespeople for God’s morality. At best, these sources are subject to human interpretation and thus to the same fallibility that plagues moral relativism. At worst, the holy books are of questionable ethical character themselves, representing a bronze-age understanding of right and wrong and of questionable veracity, and the appointed spokespeople are either charlatans or deluded.
Those are some rather strong claims, so let’s explore them a bit. We can directly observe that that these sources are “subject to human interpretation and… fallibility” simply by noting that different sects interpret the same texts in different ways, and that accepted morality based on these texts has changed with time. Contraception is opposed by Catholics and some of the orthodox, but is accepted by Reformed/Presbyterian and Anglican/Episcopalian. The death penalty is opposed by Catholics (mostly), Reformed/Presbyterian, and Anglican/Episcopalian, but is accepted by Lutherans and Methodist/Wesleyans. If “the bible says so” were truly sufficient in practice, then multiple sects that believe the bible is authoritative would not have different interpretations of these and other issues of morality. Claims of, “they’re reading it wrong,” sound, to the atheist, exactly like the accusations leveled at us, that “different people can come to different conclusions about what is right and wrong.”
What about the source material itself? The bible stipulates how slaves are to be treated (read EX 21:20-21 for an extremely incredible passage); the text has been used both to support the institution of slavery and its abolition.
And what about the supposed character of God himself? God turned Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt for simply turning around (GE 19:26). He killed Onan for ejaculating onto the ground during adultery (GE 38:9). He killed all the first-born in Egypt (EX 12:29). He threatens to have wild beasts steal children (LE 26:22). He threatens to cause people to eat their sons, daughters, fathers, and friends (LE 26:29, DT 28:53, JE 19:9, EZ 5:8-10). Moses, following God’s command, orders the Israelites to kill all Midianite male children and every non-virgin woman (NU 31:17-18). God orders horses to be hamstrung (JS 11:6). God instructs Saul to destroy everything the Amalek have, from families to livestock (1SA 15:3, 7-8). God orders the deaths of old men, young men, maidens, little children, and women (EZ 9:4-6). God killed children for insulting Elisha by sicking two she bears on them (2KI 2:23-24). God killed nearly every living thing on Earth (GE 6-8).
So in short, to atheists, the bible appears to include clear instances where God himself advocates or even performs acts that seem to be evil. We are left with very few options concerning how to explain these instances within an absolute morality, only one of which seems reasonable to the typical atheist.
- You have misrepresented or misunderstood these passages. All of them? Most of the passages I cited seem pretty clearly to indicate that God is directly performing these acts or is advocating or commanding others to perform them. While it may be possible to explain a few of them away as misrepresentations, the weight of numbers begins to make such an approach seems, to be polite, forced.
- These examples are allegorical, not literal. If so, then how we to know which passages in the bible are allegorical and which are literal? Different denominations claim that different passages are literal, demonstrating that in practice this supposed absolute morality is quite relative.
- God defines morality, so by definition these acts are moral. While logically consistent by virtue of defining away all controversy, this argument is, to the atheist, abhorrent. A God that is consistent with these acts is a petty, capricious dictator, far from being a good role model for behavior.
- The God of the bible is, in fact, immoral. This is the only option that seems to reasonably fit scripture to the typical atheist.
So just as many theists are skeptical of ethics because it leads, in their minds, to moral relativism, many atheists are skeptical of absolute morality because it reduces to moral relativism in practice, unless one is willing to throw out conventional notions of morality.
Is God’s authority a sufficient basis for morality?
In an online debate several years ago, I was told by a theist, “Rape is wrong because God says it is wrong.” Leaving aside the point that the bible is less than clear on the subject, I find this justification to be an ethically inferior position to mine. If God had said that rape was right, I would oppose God on that issue. Rape is wrong regardless of what God says on the issue.
Let me repeat that point, because it is an important one. We, as a society, have determined pragmatically, by societal trial-and-error, that some behaviors are so ethically reprehensible as to be abominations. They would remain abominations regardless of what God says about it. If a God were to exist and if he were to instruct me to perform these abominations, I would resist with all my might.
Can you not say the same? If God were to come to you and instruct you to rape, torture, and then kill your sister’s prepubescent daughter, would you not say “No”? Would you not then put your own ethical structure above that of God?
Now the obvious response to this argument is that God does not, and would not, instruct anyone to do such a thing because he is inherently moral himself. If you believe this response, check again the list of biblical examples that I provided above.
Moral relativism is worrisome because some people might not arrive at the “right” conclusions about how to act. Christian morality suffers from the same problem. Do not some self-declared Christians think that the bible condones violence against homosexuals? Do not some self-declared Christians think that it condones slavery? White supremacy? Even genocide? This barely scratches the surface of what the name of Christianity has been used to support. So it seems that even a so-called absolute morality is still highly susceptible to the danger of people reaching the wrong conclusions.
So given this, which philosophical system inherently deals with such dangers better? One based on appeals to authority, which are themselves subject to interpretation? Or one based on the competition and evaluation of competing ethical systems (I will describe my own such system, Pragmatic Ethics, in a separate essay)? Which system is inherently self-correcting? It seems pretty clear to me that a system that is not only open to reevaluation, but which demands that it be continuously employed, is significantly better.
Who am I to judge God?
In the online debate I mentioned above, the person I was debating told me that yes, he would do what God asked. To quote him, “… if God came to me and told me to do anything (after I was sure it was God) then I’d have to do it. I’m loyal to my God as I’m supposed to be. I would hate what I was doing, but I would do it.”
To me, that is a sad commentary. He would know to the deepest core of his being that what he was doing was ethically wrong, and yet he would do it anyway. Would not the fact that God made such a request in the first place (still working within the hypothetical where he did) indicate something about his feelings for you? Would they not indicate something about his feelings about the victim of the acts he was telling you to perform?
Yes, I am stating baldly that we should judge God based on what he does. Who are we to judge God? We are humans. We have the power to reason and determine right from wrong. Whether you believe this came from eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil, or whether you believe this is an evolutionarily developed trait, we are judging beings, in the sense that we make judgments in order to figure out how to act. If we act contrariwise to our judgment, then we are not being true to ourselves.
And if we are not true to ourselves, how on Earth can we be true to anyone else… even God?
Contrary to the perception of many theists, most atheists have a highly-developed sense of ethics that is answerable to themselves and to society as a whole. The significant difference between an atheist’s ethics and a theist’s morality is that the atheist is constantly evaluating his ethics, looking for places where mistakes in reasoning can be corrected. As I hope I have shown above, absolute morality isn’t really absolute, and it disavows the need for the entire structure to be subject to critical scrutiny. In all cases, we the people are the ones deciding right and wrong; it’s just that in one case we isolate ourselves from reflective reevaluation.