As I was reading through the discussion that is taking place between Paul and Jason Pratt in the post by Layman, below, entitled A Future of Atheistic Morality?, a few thoughts occurred to me that I wanted to run past the assembled readers. Paul, in writing in response to Jason, said:
If you're looking for atheistic morality to provide a grounding or foundation that is as secure as, say, mathematics or logic, or provides the surety of an absolute morality, it won't happen. Evolutionary morality is a scientific hypothesis of what is, not what should be (it's not a contradiction that this is a theory about morality, which is a code that says what should be).
We may at times let rationality rule, or at other times allow our natural feelings to rule. We are probably more rational when we seek to impose our morality *within* our own group that is assumed to share our morality, as a matter of consistency (if you're for freedom, as an American, then you should favor specific policy X), and more likely to let what seems to be our natural feelings hold sway, against rationality, when we direct our moral judgments *outside* of our group (take, say, female genital mutilation in certain other cultures).
It is undoubtedly true that atheistic morality cannot provide "the surety of an absolute morality". It has long been the position of those who argue for the existence of God that without a god there is no such thing as absolute morality. Yet, to most people, the idea that morality can change from culture to culture seems absurd. Of course, there are some differences in morality between cultures on a superficial level, but no one would believe that it could ever be seen as acceptable for one culture to view certain larger evils, such as murder, as moral.
But that's the problem. After all, if there is no absolute standard for morality, then morality becomes subjective. Thus, whatever any particular culture defines as morality in its cultural norm becomes the acceptable morality for that culture. This doesn't just include little actions of societal niceties, but includes variations on the bigger actions that most people would take for granted as either being moral or immoral. Thus, in some cultures the ethic may be that murder is morally laudable and if morality has no absolute standard then those of us outside that culture have no basis for arguing that such activities are always immoral for all human beings in all cultures at all times. (Of course, someone could make that argument, but they would really be arguing nonsensically because the reality would be that there is no standard of morality that applies to all human beings in all cultures at all times.)
One could argue that as the world gets more interconnected, morality will increasingly be judged by the "world" culture. Thus, for example, in some ancient cultures child sacrifice was considered morally acceptable. Looking back 500 or more years, some might argue that we have no right to judge that culture's morality. Today, however, where the world is so interconnected, the only relevant "culture" would be the "world" culture. As a whole, our world would agree that child sacrifice is no longer acceptable and so while we cannot go back and judge other earlier cultures by our more evolved ethical standards it is perfectly acceptable to judge other cultures today on the basis of world opinion.
This all sounds nice and good until you consider two things: first, the idea that ethics always evolve assumes improvement. Yet, evolution means only change over time. There is no basis for determining whether the change in ethics is an improvement or not. In fact, it remains possible that the ethics that "evolve" are actually less ethical (as I would argue it is in the case of the broadly applied right to an abortion). Naturally, there is no way to make the determination of whether a particular change in morality is an improvement because there would be no absolute ethical standard by which to judge the change. Thus, if there is no God and no absolute standard morality, if someone were to say that we have a higher standard of morality because we no longer believe in slavery or child sacrifice, such a statement would be meaningless because there is no way to determine if abolishing slavery and child sacrifice is really a good or bad thing. All we know is that a change has occurred that will be seen as either good or bad in the future, but we don't know which. In fact, all we are really saying is "I dislike slavery", but that doesn't mean that abolishing slavery is (or can ever be seen as) an improvement over promoting slavery.
Second, what happens if the world standards for morality take a turn that we, in today's world, would see as a step back? Suppose, for instance, that the world once again begins to find slavery to be a morally acceptable practice. What if fifty-one percent of the world suddenly finds that we have been wrong in abolishing this practice? Does that suddenly mean that we have been wrong in finding slavery immoral? Does it mean that slavery then becomes moral? Is arguing that it is immoral a meaningless argument since world opinion has determined that it is moral?
What if the world suddenly finds that female genital mutilation or forced sex slavery is acceptable? You think that such viewpoints could never gain broad appeal? History suggests that cultural opinion on subjects of morality can change over time -- sometimes relatively short periods of time. Forty years ago it is doubtful that anyone would have forseen that in a mere forty years homosexuality would be seen by many as the moral equivalent of hetersexuality and opposition to homosexuality would be seen as bigoted.
These changes in opinion happen over time, but they do happen. When the world opinion shifts to support the idea that sending children into a marketplace strapped with a bomb to kill unarmed civilians for political purposes is moral, how will you argue that it is immoral? Cultural opinion? Sorry, the world evolved past that . . . .