Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Is Being Good Selfish?

In a discussion with an atheist and he made an interesting comment. He talked about me acting according to my conscience as trying "to appease your own moral sensibilities." In other words being moral was actually being selfish. How does that work? In his world morality is purely in your own mind. There is no good or bad. There are just some things that feel good or feel bad according to your moral sensibilities. So being moral is really about pleasuring yourself. You think it is right to give to the poor so you do so and it stimulates the moral pleasure center in your brain and you feel good. It is all about me.

It gets worse when the moral act involves another person. Maybe I am convincing others to give to the poor as well. Then I am using other people to pleasure myself. But isn't that selfish? To push other people into doing things just because it gives you pleasure? Can you see how this turns morality on its head? Doing the right thing becomes the wrong thing because it is selfish and potentially using others. But not helping the poor does not seem right either. 

So what is wrong? Morality isn't just about what makes us feel good. It is about actual good. People say morality is all in your brain and yet they don't realize the logical problems that creates. It is not self-contradictory but it violates our intuition about right and wrong quite dramatically. In this case being moral is selfish. Why not? If it is limited to our own brain then it just becomes another thing our body desires like food or sex or approval of other. Those things can bring out selfishness in us. Why should or desire for moral goodness be any different?

Many have this theory about other people's moral sensibilities.  Very few have it about their own. When they feel moral outrage at sexual abuse they don't catch themselves and say, "Well, I am just being selfish expecting others to act according to my morals." No, they get that there is an absolute moral standard being violated and they are right to be outraged at it. Yet when it is a moral principle they want to ignore, like homosexuality or abortion, then they get upset because your observance of the principle makes their ignoring it that much harder.

There really is no comfortable place for the atheist to land on the moral question. Saying morality is an illusion is logically consistent yet almost nobody wants to seriously take that position. If you want to say morality exists then there are a ton more questions. Where does it exist? Is it in the material world or is it immaterial? If it is material then how can matter and energy create a virtue? If it is not material then you need something other than the physical sciences to try and know anything about it. Atheist almost never want to go there. 

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