Atheism and Cultural Morality

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 . . . .


Anonymous said…
"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."

Might want to be careful with this one. A few lines down you say that child sacrifice was condoned in cultures of the past. That doesn't seem like a superficial cultural difference to me.

I'm not saying that appeal to a universally presumed cross-cultural morality is illegitimate, but it needs to be a bit more nuanced.
Anonymous said…
I disagree that an objective universal morality does not exist in the absence of God or in the absence of proof of the existence of God. I assume "objectivity" and "universality" are what you mean by "absolute" morality.

I would cite the "natural moral law", often called an expression of God's general revelation in human nature.

The first premise (you ought to seek what's really good) is a statement of value that, as a commensurate universal (ought and desire), is self-evidently true.

The second premise (x is really good) is a statement of fact for which there can be substantial consensus. What is really good is what fulfills a natural human need as they are no wrong natural needs. Again, that is a self-evident truth. Distinquishing between natural needs, acquired wants and acquired needs (addictions) allows you to overcome cultural differences. In fact, the existence of cultural differences says nothing about the existence or non-existence of an objective and universal morality.

The conclusion (you ought to seek x) is logically valid and does not commit the naturalistic fallacy since the first premise is a statement of value not fact.

This structure says nothing about God. It is considered part of God's general revelation because God's created human beings with natural desires, but conceptually you can drop God and nothing changes in this objective and universal morality. Ought and desire (the first premise) still function as a self-evident commensurate universal. Human nature remains human nature. As long as human beings are human this morality prevails. The only real good that is dropped is the worship of God corresponding to the natural need for truth, goodness and beauty. The only possible challenge to this system is nominalism, but nominalism is self-defeating. Again, no recourse to God is necessary to create "objectivity" and "universality".

Robert Sutherland.
Anonymous said…
Just as there is no such thing as logic in the abstract (we are not logic machines), there is no such thing as an abstract moral standard (it is always a moral standard as understood by fallible humans).

It means nothing to say the Bible provides a moral standard that an atheist doesn't have, for what you need to say is that your particular interpretation of the Bible is the ultimate moral standard, and that's something no Christian down through the centuries can legitimately do. Although they have slaughtered many people while claiming this.

Which interpretation of Biblical morality is the ultimate standard, given the various ones Christians have espoused down through the centuries? Spell it out for us all.

I just don't think you fully understand this problem.

We're in the same boat.

Anonymous said…
"After all, if there is no absolute standard for morality, then morality becomes subjective."

You make it sound like morality would be arbitrary or whimsical, but a moment's reflection will show that this is not the case. I can no more change my basic moral code, non-asbolute though it may be, than I can change my language, non-absolute as it is, too.
Jason Pratt said…
I'll let Bill handle commentary on this thread, since I have my own OP to put up in a few days (maybe Sunday morning) on the topic, as the first part of an ongoing series of ruminations; and I would rather do commentary there.

From my referenced discussion with Paul, which btw I much appreciated {bowing in his direction!}, I would rather proceed into some technical issues of metaphysical analysis directly. I think Robert will appreciate it too, later if not sooner. I think John Loftus is not Socratic Cole Slaw; but I was saying that from the beginning. {g} (Anyone unfamiliar with why I would say that, can do a search on the site for Cole Slaw, cabbage, and cottage cheese. Have fun!)

Good luck, Bill! {g!}

BK said…

Good point. I should have been a bit more careful.
BK said…

First, there is such a thing as logic in the abstract.

Second, there is no such thing as a private interpretation of the Bible which is what I think you mean by "personal" interpretation. Sure, Christians sometimes differ and make mistakes about the meaning (sometimes leading to very bad actions by Christians), but that doesn't mean that the standard isn't there and real.

As usual, your statement that suggests that I "don't understand" something that you apparently believe you do suggests a strong arrogance that is reflected time and again in your comments. What bothers me most about you is that I think you understand the solutions but you pretend you don't.
BK said…

I agree that moral standards are somewhat built into our systems. Romans 1 and 2 teaches that. But I have a reason for believing in a moral code that is consistent and binding. If you are an atheist, you don't have such a reason.

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