What is morality?
mo·ral·i·ty /məˈrælɪti, mɔ-/
1. Principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior.
2. Behavior as it is affected by the observation of these principles.
So we should conclude that a moral system effectively differentiates between right and wrong behavior in those circumstances where such distinctions are meaningful. Great. What makes a thing moral? If you’re a Christian, it’s generally adherence this list of ten rules:
- 2 I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. 3 Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
- 4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: 5 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; 6 And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
- 7 Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.
- 8 Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: 10 But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: 11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.
- 12 Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.
- 13 Thou shalt not kill.
- 14 Thou shalt not commit adultery.
- 15 Thou shalt not steal.
- 16 Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
- 17 Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.
I, on the other hand, adopt this* much more concise list:
- Harm is bad.
- Well-being is good.
- Intending to do harm is bad.
- Intending to cause well-being is good.
- In moral arithmetic, consequences matter more than intentions.
- All things being equal, harm done outweighs well-being caused.
Which principles better describe morality? Which list covers more territory, behavior-wise? Which standard forbids the abuse of children? Which construct includes commandments that do not actually pertain to “good and bad behavior?” Which model better values human life? Which option is more moral?
* This list may not be final. It is subject to revision upon further consideration. Like all things properly rational, it is not set in stone. If you have suggestions for revision, I am eager to engage them.
When it comes to weighing the moral implications of an action, I take the otherwise uncontroversial stance that we can make meaningful, reliable judgments about the relative morality of competing models. Some systems of moral evaluation are frankly terrible, and we gain nothing by standing by without voicing condemnation when people attempt to justify atrocities with these bad systems. I say my position is “otherwise uncontroversial” because some believers assert that atheists cannot make claims to objective morality, suggesting that only members of their own faith have the One True Morality (which I have previously disagreed with at some length). Such presumptions are quite ridiculous and cannot be made by anyone who purports to engage in honest discourse.
Consider the hypothetical case of a soon-to-be rapist who has convinced himself that his victim will enjoy the experience; he believes himself to be an unparalleled lover, and it is inconceivable to him that his victim will be in any way harmed or traumatized by the experience. His intentions are good, even though he is about to perpetrate a terrible misdeed. Would anyone thus argue that his actions were morally good? I don’t think so. Is our moral evaluation of this person any different from that of a rapist who knows that his actions will cause great suffering and actively continues them anyway? I think so, yes, because the first rapist does not intend harm while the second one does. From a “what now?” standpoint following each rape, however, it should be obvious that both men deserve punishment, and I believe this demonstrates that an action’s consequences (i.e., effects in the real world) outweigh any intentional considerations.
Let’s look at this issue from a different angle, though, by considering four different scenarios:
I have previously written on the subject of the subjectivity of human existence. In short, we exist from moment to moment as subjective creatures who experience the world in ways dictated by our previous experiences. In spite of the pure subjectivity of our lives, however, believers enjoy invoking the “if the universe has no higher meaning, our lives are completely meaningless” cliché. Needless to say, I disagree with this notion. Our lives have exactly as much meaning as we believe they do—no more, no less. Given current scientific models of the universe, we are left with the conclusion that our universe is finite; one day, it will either cease existing or be reduced to absolute uniformity (ultimate entropy). Does this fact remove all joy and sorrow from our lives? Of course not. We do not experience reality as objective beliefs. Only our experiences matter.
We have no innate purpose. Some believers find this idea terrifying, but it needn’t be. To me, it is sublime liberation. The knowledge that I forge my own meaning gives me the strength to appreciate my interests at a higher level; instead of being merely a distraction from my predestined end, these activities bring me fulfillment. That’s pretty darn nifty, if I do say so myself. (Which I do.)
Here’s some recommended reading for anyone not terribly familiar with this way of thinking.
“Pure logic cannot tell us anything about facts; only experience can.”
—James R. Flynn
This is also the single largest criticism one can make of those who rely only on abstract thinking. It is why theist apologetics cannot be compelling. I can reason that the world was created by the omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent Flying Spaghetti Monster, who defies all attempts to measure Him by actively interfering with the instrumentation of scientists (though judicious application of His noodly appendage) yet reveals himself to the faithful in ways that only He can understand; until there is evidence of my claim, however, you would do well to reject it out of hand. Believers are loath to consider that their arguments apply equally well to the FSM, if not significantly better for its lack of contradictory dogma. When it comes to claims of truth, the following quote should be ever-present in our minds:
“What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”
One of my gripes against professional philosophy is that the great lengths they go to to construct precisely defined arguments have a great propensity to obscure the intended message to anyone who isn’t educated in the nuances of the field. Let’s be clear here: I would never dream of criticizing someone for endeavoring to communicate effectively, which is precisely the philosopher’s intention in creating these elaborate constructs. Language is one of my things, and I have great respect for people who appreciate it and master its use. The written word is a playground for the mind, and those who are unwilling to pay the price of entry probably wouldn’t enjoy the rides anyway. In this case, that price is the willingness to occasionally dust off an old tome, or, far more likely, to take a few seconds to tab over to a dictionary website (and I’ll take no shit from shortsighted, uncreative, reality-challenged pedants for my verbing of that noun, thank you). I’m sorry, but if the idea of learning a new word so turns you off to reading a relatively short piece you’ve found online, you’ll find that this blog simply is not for you. And that’s okay—for now anyway. Remember me a few years from now when you’ve come around to my side of things, and pay me a visit.
“But,” you might be tempted to ask, “haven’t you just done the very thing that you disparaged philosophers for doing?” Meh, sort of. I don’t think any of those words are particularly daunting, but even if so, each of them can be looked up rather easily through a quick jaunt over to any one of these helpful websites. To understand philosophical concepts takes slightly more work. Let’s carry on.