What do we mean by morality?

One of the key arguments made by Geisler and Turek is that morality requires a deity to justify and sustain it. Their chapter, “Mother Teresa vs. Hitler,” asserts that without a set of absolute rules, we cannot explain what makes the abuse of children or mass murder wrong.

Their choice of Mother Teresa was perhaps a case of a cliché, the plugging in a ready-made module into the slot labeled “good moral example.” They may not have spent much time investigating the reality of her work, though if they would be willing to learn from Christopher Hitchens, his exposé, Hell’s Angel: Mother Teresa of Calcutta would help them. The program, produced for the British Channel 4 in 1994, revealed her willingness to associate with corrupt politicians and tyrants and her celebration of poverty and suffering — doing little to alleviate the pain of patients or to seek effective treatment for those who could be helped by modern medicine, for example. But then, finding a paragon of moral virtue is difficult.

The assertion, however, that we cannot call an act good or bad without the dictates of God is offered as having explanatory power, while in fact being simply a case of muddled thinking.

Criticism of the position given by Geisler and Turek is more ancient than the religion that they profess. In Plato’s dialogue, Euthyphro, Socrates poses the question, “Is what is holy holy because the gods approve of it, or do they approve of it because it is holy?” The question of holiness builds on the discussion that he has been having with Euthyphro, a man who is seeking to prosecute his father for the killing of a worker through neglect, about what actions are pleasing or displeasing to the gods.

The implication that Socrates developes is that if something is inherently good, any rational being can seek it out. If things are good because the gods say so, that makes goodness arbitrary, the equivalent of a preference for chocolate ice cream over vanilla. The only difference would be that the gods are supposed to be able to back what they prefer by force.

Geisler and Turek present morality as absolute, but even if true, that would not prove anything useful to them. A yardstick is absolute, but it is also an arbitrary choice to make it only so long. The object also is relative to its location, given that in regions with intense gravitational fields, lengths are distorted by the warping of space.

Any moral rule is an absolute in the same manner that any other rule is absolute. But what justifies accepting the standard? For Geisler and Turek, apparently it is enough to say that their god commands it. Rational people, however, want more than a mere “because I said so.”

If morality cannot be reasonably grounded in the whims of a deity, on what basis can we assert that, as I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist asks, the torture of children is wrong?

It is tempting to dismiss a question like that. After all, the assumption behind it is that without constant restraint, we would all engage daily in horrific acts. This ignores basic human empathy. But it is worth considering on what philosophical basis we can support what our instincts tell us, since we naturally care more for those immediately related to us than for people we regard as strangers.

And we have to note that the god worshipped by Geisler and Turek commands vile behavior against children. Disrespect for parents, for example, is a capital offense, as is having the poor judgement of being born in a Canaanite family.

But there are a variety of theological attempts at excusing such things as special cases or as laws that are no longer in effect. To give the claim the best chance, though, imagine a deity who commands that children be treated with dignity and with the intention of making the best lives possible for them. In such a case, would that commandment require a divine mandate to make it worthy of compliance?

Posing the question shows how this was all addressed by Plato. Is caring for children good in itself or simply the preference of a god? The answer takes us to the basis of morality. On rational grounds, an action is morally acceptable if it promotes rather than retards benefit to human beings. We can debate the definitions here endlessly, but that is not a weakness of godless morality since the same is true about moral systems that claim the endorsement of deities.

Instead of divine mandates, we can use reason to explain why some acts are desirable, while others are to be discouraged. Rational self-interest comes into play here. Let us imagine that killing human beings or taking the belongings of others at will is not forbidden. What would life in such a society be like?

Living among our fellow human beings with those sorts of behaviors being tolerated would mean a constant state of alarm in each of us. We could never know when the next attack on our property or persons would come next. And in that kind of world, we would have little time for anything but constant fighting.

As a result, it is simply reasonable to make a deal with our fellow human beings. I will refrain from killing you if you return the courtesy. This is the idea of the social contract, and while moral philosophers of the eighteenth century acted at times as though such an agreement had come about through a formal process, it is rather the logical result of having an intelligent and gregarious species. We live in groups, and any group that does not at least implicitly forbid murder, theft, and some number of other acts will not long survive.

But what if we could get away with actions that harm others? Plato raises this question in Book II of The Republic in the story of the ring of Gyges, a magical piece of jewelry that allows its owner to be invisible and thus able to break laws at will. In the dialogue, Socrates claims that doing this would make the person a slave to one’s appetites, rather than reason, but we do not need something so lofty to explain here why being able to get away with something does not justify the doing of it.

Instead, consider the practical effect on the society. Trust is an essential element of the social contract. If we live in a society that gives us good reason to believe that others will respect our persons and property, as implied above, we can engage in more productive activities than perpetually standing guard. The more who go about doing surrepticious harms, the less trust is possible.

Fundamentalist apologists will complain that this is grounded in nothing but pragmatism, but so what? Perhaps an appeal to the gods gives some people a measure of emotional assurance regarding their behavior and more importantly a sense of superiority over others, but if we are to convince each other that an act is “good” or “bad” in terms that we all can agree with, the argument will have to be made on the basis of the effect of the action, not on whether anyone’s particular god endorses it.

Morality without reference to gods is simply an exercise in honesty. Is morality subjective? Of course it is. It depends on our own needs and vulnerabilities. But handing off the formulation of morals to some deity only clouds the reality. The resulting morals would also be subjective, subject to the whims of the god in question. In the spirit of Socrates, it is better to work out through reason what benefits human beings and seek that, while eschewing what harms us.

Notes

Geisler, Norman L. and Frank Turek. I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist. Wheaton: Crossway, 2004. Print.

Hitchens, Christopher. Hell’s Angel: Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Channel 4. United Kingdom, 1994. Television.

Plato. “Euthyphro.” The Collected Dialogues of Plato, Including the Letters. Trans. Lane Cooper. Ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University, 1989. 169–185. Print.

— — “Republic.” The Collected Dialogues of Plato, Including the Letters. Trans. Paul Shorey. Ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University, 1989. 575–844. Print.

This will appear as a chapter in the book that I am writing, titled, Insufficient Faith: Reason in Science and Religion. For more of my work now, go here.

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