Sunday, March 31, 2013

An Atheists Morality Recap

For the second lent in a row I had a huge spike in comments right after Ash Wednesday. God must find it quite funny watching me have to remain silent when I have so much to say. Anyway, DVD Bach has a post he call Morality Recap which I thought I would respond to. 
Okay, so there's been some confusion as to what exactly my concept of morality would be.  I had initially accused a few people of being dishonest in misrepresenting me on this, but I have to concede that maybe just didn't understand it.  So I apologize for being hasty in that accusation.  Allow me to lay it out; I will then be happy to take questions:
Great to hear. I love charitable dialogue. I shall try and avoid misstating anything just in case I am one of those few people.
In my view, morality as objectively defined according to whether or not it brings about happiness or causes suffering.  That action is moral which increases happiness; that action is immoral which causes suffering.  This is an objective definition.
This is a very common atheist attempt at morality. Suffering is kind of the basic bad thing. We hate sexual morality because it might cause somebody somewhere to suffer by denying themselves certain pleasures. We embrace euthanasia because even death cannot be worse than suffering. But are there some things worth suffering for? Say someone threatens to beat you up unless you tell a lie. Imagine the lie will cause no obvious suffering. Would it be immoral to tell the truth and take the beating? It would be an act that failed to minimize suffering. It would be putting truth telling in a higher place than the avoidance of suffering.

It seems to me that it would not be objectively wrong. That is what objective means. Not that everyone who accepts the principle will disagree about what it means. It is that when somebody has a different principle you would say their principle is wrong and your principle is right. So you would have to say that someone who is willing to suffer to keep his marriage vows is objectively immoral. Suffering is the objective moral principle and if anyone puts anything higher than the suffering principle you must not just agree to disagree. You must assert they are acting immorally. I doubt Mr Bach would do that. I suspect he would become a moral relativist pretty quick but I don't want to misstate his position so I will wait for him to clarify.
Of course, there will be some subjectivity in how happiness and suffering are determined.  In some situations, they will directly conflict with each other.  For example, if I shoot a home invader who was going to rape my wife, I have prevented her suffering but caused suffering to the the home invader.  In these situations, a moral dilemma results.
Is this really a moral dilemma? That would see to be a weakness of a moral system if that is really true. Defending your wife is clearly the moral thing to do. Moral systems should get the easy questions right.
In some cases, happiness or suffering will conflict with other ideals.  For example, if I am a shiftless bum who refuses to get a job, I suffer from lack of money to buy food or pay rent.  So others might volunteer to give me money to ease that suffering.  However, compelling someone to give me money conflicts with other ideals, such as our right as individuals to do as we please with our money (that is, the ideal of private property), or the idea that individuals should take responsibility for themselves and get a job (that is, the ideal  of personal responsibility).  These situations also result in a moral dilemma.
So the suffering principle is not the only principle.  Where did we get the idea that respect for private property is a moral principle? Where did we get the idea that laziness is wrong? Seems like morals are falling out of the sky.
When a person faces a moral dilemma, it is up to that person to resolve it on their own.  There are no hard-and-fast rules to dictate what should be done in each situation.  The individual must decide on his or her own and must be prepared to face the consequences of whatever they decided.  For example, if a home invader were going to rape my wife, I'd shoot him without hesitation; I would rather face the legal consequences of doing so than face the consequences of what happens to my wife if I don't.
Again, the idea that there are no hard and fast rules seems very strange. If a husband has a gun and stands idly by while a man without a gun rapes his wife that would be a perfectly acceptable moral choice? Weird.
There are also situations in which society as a whole faces moral dilemmas.  When this happens, people work together as a society to provide rules for how to resolve them.  For example, the shiftless bum could apply for welfare, and society's rules would determine if he or she meets the criteria to get it.
It seems he has some issues with shiftless bums. It is a common thing with the suffering principle. That is that people find excuses for exempting some people's suffering from the equation. The Christian principle that everyone's suffering matters is actually not all that intuitive when you get down to real examples. There are some people we just do not like. Shiftless bums, fundamentalist Christians, NY Yankee fans, do we really care about all their suffering the same way?
In some cases, our personal senses of morality conflict with society's rules.  For example, I believe that people should be allowed to smoke pot for fun if they want to.  However, as a society, we have decided that this is against the rules (in all but two states).  I have two options: follow the rules in the name of deferring to society, or break the rules in accordance with my own sense of morality.  In either case, I am responsible for the consequences, and whichever I decide, I am also within my rights to work with others in society to get those rules changed.
So where has this suffering principle gone? We now have moved to a "do whatever you please" principle. Why isn't he asking whether legal pot or illegal pot causes less suffering? The answer seems unclear but at least that should be the central point of debate. He seems to have moved to away from that and just declares that he wants what he wants.
So the bottom line is that I believe morality to be objectively defined but subjectively applied.  I would never claim that my personal sense of right and wrong should be imposed on everyone, and I apologize if I ever implied as much.  Ultimately, the need to live together in society forces people to work together to set rules for what is right and wrong, and these rules necessarily change over time with the desires and needs of the society.  Such is the beauty of living in a society with a representative government; individuals get to participate in shaping the morality of the society as a whole.
So is morality objective or is it "my personal sense of right and wrong." Those are opposites. I can see why people misunderstand his position.

I like the idea of representative government setting the rules for society. It should be made clear that it does not matter at all whether those morals flow from a religion or from anyplace else. If a majority feel something is so immoral it should be illegal then that is enough whether their opinion comes from the majority religion or not. I do feel respecting minority rights is important but there is a limit. Where that limit should be set is something that should be decided democratically.
I hope that makes more sense than how I've explained it up to this point.  I'd like to thank everyone who has challenged me on various points of this, as it forces me to make sure that my ideas are well-examined and clearly-expressed.
I guess I see more confusion than clarity. Unfortunately it is not so different than what I have seen other atheists write. First of all, real confusion about what the issue with the lack objective morality is. Secondly, frequent assumptions that Christian moral principles like property rights will still be in place without any reason why anyone should respect those principles in an atheist society.
I welcome your feedback.
 I hope my comments have been charitable.  God bless you.