2/08/2003                                                                                       View Comments

Objective Morality

Objective Morality is a popular apologetic topic that frequently comes up on this site. Instead of continuously repeating the same things over and over, I'll attempt to briefly address the discussion here.

First, I'd like to take issue with opening lines frequently taken by our "on-line, Christian evangelists." Rather than come right out and plainly state their ideas and the conclusions they have already formulated, they ask purposefully misleading questions, which in my opinion is a disingenuous tactic. It's nothing more than attempting to lay a verbal net from which to spring the actual agenda: convert the infidel.

Here is an example of an exchange which motivated me to write this monologue:
    I'd like to ask you a question I've been kicking around in my own head for a while. Simply put, on what do you base your standard of morality? from josh

Now at first glance it may appear that Josh is really looking for an answer, so, giving him the benefit of the doubt, I sent him to Dan Barker's article, For Goodness Sake, which he visited and read. Afterward he responded:
    Dave,

    I don't claim to know it all, I am seeking to understand myself and the world around me in an intellectually honest way. I suppose that makes me a "freethinker", unless part of the definition of "freethinker" is belief that God does not exist.

    Webster's Dictionary, "Moral" : of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior.

    This question of right and wrong is what is ultimately on my mind here. If something is moral it is right. Conversely, if something is immoral it is wrong. Or is it...................
    OK, so atheists can be moral--- "We atheists are just as likely as Christians to jump in that river--perhaps more likely."

    And this morality is a decision I make based on my assessment of what is most beneficial for me--- "Morality is simply the avoidance of unnecessary harm."
    And the way to be moral is "to learn what causes harm and how to avoid it"
    OK, so far this argument establishes the individual as morally autonomous. That is, whatever an individual deems to cause the least amount harm is right.

    Now I, as a morally autonomous person, need to decide how to behave.

    Dan Barker: "Why should I treat my neighbor nicely? Because we are all connected. We are part of the same species, genetically linked. Since I value myself and my species, and the other species to whom we are related, I recognize that when someone is hurting, my natural family is suffering"

    1) Up till now, I have been following along the lines of Dan's own logic. But here he seems to make some wild assumptions. I will first assume that Dan expects his conclusion to be applicable to me. How does he conclude that I value myself, my species or other species to which I am related? What if I don't give a rat's patootie?

    2) Suppose that I do care about myself. Maybe what causes me the least amount of suffering causes you to hurt like hell. But I made the moral decision because I didn't suffer. Suppose Bill and Ted are on a small hypothetical island. One day, Bill gets tired of looking at Ted and decides to kill him. Bill gets more food out of the deal. But Bill might not have Ted's help if he breaks his leg. There are definite advantages and possible disadvantages for Bill. You get the idea. Did Bill do the right thing, is Bill a moral person?


It is obvious to me that the writer was not really interested in searching out my response, he wanted to convert me. Regardless, my answer follows.

The Christian believes that in order to have morality, there must be some guide or measuring stick outside of humanity defining what morality means. In other words, if there is no objective measuring device, or ruler, then there is no way to determine right from wrong. Having pre-supposed, or assumed, this "truth," next comes deciding what to use as the "standard" for separating right from wrong. After a little discussion, the Christian presents the Bible as the only possible guide to morality. After all, it was written by the hand of God! Without the foundation of the BIBLE (the thinking goes), there can be no agreement on right and wrong, therefore moral chaos will inevitably result. If the BIBLE is not aggressively waved as the banner of truth, and used as the primary guide for determining right from wrong, then every person will simply do what is right in their own eyes: only evil continually.

This is preached from the pulpit constantly, offered in numerous printed publications and generally agreed to be true by the bulk of Christians everywhere. Only by complete submission to the BIBLE and its tenets, can any society hope to have order, peace, justice, the protection of personal freedoms, and so on.

Embarrasingly, I know where they are coming from. I used to believe this too.

There is a huge hole in that line of reasoning, however ... the BIBLE.

Let's examine a few things about the BIBLE and see if it does indeed promote an objective standard of morality. The following is a list of references from the BIBLE addressing the discussion. This is not meant to be a comprehensive list; these are just a few things that immediately come to mind.

    1) Is it right or wrong to put someone to death for picking up sticks on the Sabbath? Numbers 15:32-36
    2) Is it right or wrong to murder every man, woman and child in a community because practicing homosexuals live there? Genesis 19:24
    3) Is genocide right or wrong? Judges 21:10, 1 Samuel 15:3
    4) Under any circumstance whatsoever, is it right to force people into the position of eating their own children? Deuteronomy 28:53
    5) Is using threats as a way to force compliance right or wrong? Isaiah 13:18
    6) Is lying right or wrong? Proverbs 19:5
    7) Is slavery right or wrong? Philemon 1:15
    8) Is rape right or wrong? Numbers 31:15, 17, 18 Judges 20:21


Okay, most people would agree that these things are wrong. The Evangelical Christian retreats when it comes to some of the darker sections of the Bible, hiding behind: "God's ways are not our ways." Or, they might say that in primitive times, people had to be dealt with differently than now. I have actually heard ministers on national radio programs state that modern man cannot accurately assess the proper way to deal with ancient peoples, only GOD can do that.

So, if what evangelicals say is true, and indeed there is a somewhat different view of right and wrong in ancient times, then what does that do to the idea of objective morality? To say "things were different back then," or something to that effect, is to admit subjective, or relative morality, rather than objective morality. Objective morality, by definition, means that right and wrong are written in stone, so to speak, and not changeable by time or circumstance. I argue that there is no clear objective morality in the BIBLE. The only thing that is clear in the BIBLE is that GOD commands different things, to different people, in different times, and they sure as hell better do it, or they'll regret it!

Rather than presenting a real measuring rod of right and wrong, what we really see in the BIBLE, as well as other ancient writings of this type, is an evolving development of human thought. Human beings have been experimenting with various styles of orderly society since the beginning of human history. The BIBLE is just one example of human development in this area.

Let me digress a bit. The Bible is the standard for truth, right? Then how do we answer these questions?

If genocide was okay back then, under certain circumstances, then it must be okay now in some situations. Who is to decide what circumstances make it right and what circumstances make it wrong?

If slavery was right under any circumstances way back then, then it must be right sometimes now. Or is it?

Is it okay to lie or not? If I am hiding Jews in my house and the Nazi's come to my house asking if I am harboring Jews, should I tell the truth or lie?

Should we drop an atomic bomb on San Francisco (or any other city of your choice) as an example to the world of the magnitude of homosexuality, promiscuity, and rape?

Should we wipe out every man, woman, child and living creature in any country with which we find ourselves at war?

Need I go on? It is so painfully obvious that such things would never be tolerated by the world. The backlash of world opinion against Nazi Germany and Japan during WWII for their crimes against humanity are well documented.

Let's face it, there is no such thing as objective morality. The definition and understanding about what constitutes moral behavior is ever changing. This turn of events is nothing new; it has been changing all along. Bikinis and Speedos at the beach is an accepted norm today, even for most Christians. A hundred years ago, anyone dressed at the beach like that would find themselves condemned from the pulpit and jailed by the civic authorities. What was moral yesterday is immoral today. What was immoral yesterday is moral today. Objective morality is a myth.

Since objective morality is a myth does that mean chaos is the only alternative?

The world is a dangerous place. We deal with disease, severe weather, geological instabilities, accidents, and a percentage of destructive people. As long as mankind continues, we will be fighting against these forces that threaten our survival. Comprehending that there is no real objective standard for determining right from wrong is a disconcerting, and perhaps even a terrifying realization, but history demonstrates that bulk of the human race really does want to survive. Nearly all of us want to live, to be happy, to be protected and to be as free as possible. The Fascist experiment in Germany didn't work because it attempted to deny life and survival from millions. The Communist experiment is failing all over the world for much the same reason. Humanity will not forever tolerate ideas that destroy life. People will generally promote concepts that protect life - preferably a happy, safe, secure life.

Deciding right from wrong is not an easy task, and although books like the Bible do offer some occasional wisdom, to say that any Bronze Age writings are the last word on morality is ignorant. Morality, like every other aspect of human society, will continue to develop and change as time goes on, just like every other aspect of human reasoning, knowledge, and thought.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree with what C.S. Lewis said in Mere Christianity. There is no right or wrong just our instints taken to the extreme. Kind of like a piano, each key plays a part in its own song.