Friday 23 October 2015

Ethics, Morality and Theism

In the last few days the following issue was raised in the comments section.
Evil is the violation of the moral code expressed in the New Testament. Since atheist have no such source, I am assuming that they base their morality on whim. Or for those atheists who are more systematic and see themselves at their highest state as simply a functionary of Nature, they might try to map evolutionary theory into their moral behavior. Or maybe it is just a mystery. (Neo, October 22)
Theists have a foundation for their morality that has to do with (a) god. Atheists have a foundation that is essentially whim. .. The type of theist, whether Christian or Muslim or whatever, has nothing to do with this. Whether or not the god of the theists is credible does not have anything to do with this. Whether this or that sacred writing can be believed or not has nothing to do with this. The question is... how do atheist(s) figure out what is evil? (Neo, October 23)
Usually I prefer not to "have a dog in this fight" between sincere Christians and equally genuine atheists. Much heat, little light, and nobody comes away convinced otherwise. But maybe a couple of points could be made.

1. "Evil is the violation of the moral code expressed in the New Testament." There are problems with this formulation. How exactly do you distill a moral code from the various injunctions in the Bible? Does the moral code preclude slavery? The status of women? Does Paul trump Jesus, the acknowledged letters of Paul the Pastorals? Where are the textual markers that spell this out?

The devil isn't so much in the detail as in the interpretation. Mennonite scholar Willard Swartley's Slavery, Sabbath, War and Women is a classic text on this issue. All too often when it comes to building just societies it is Christians who have been left in the embarrassing position of having to run to catch up with their secular peers.

Then there's the issue of the possibility of morality in places beyond the borders of the Roman Empire. Could you have lived a moral life in Persia, India, China or Angkor Wat? It seems outrageous to even ask.

2. The subsequent comment broadens things out and detaches the New Testament in favour of a more amorphous theism. Your god (of whatever stripe) is your lodestone. Again, problems. Non-theistic religions exist such as certain strands of Buddhism. Are Buddhists - by and large - moral people? What about the followers of Confucius?

"Atheists have a foundation that is essentially whim." I don't pretend to speak for atheists, but I've certainly known a few who are happy to adopt that badge. I haven't met any sociopaths among them yet. Most tend to humanism, and are every bit as compassionate as their theistic neighbours. The focus of their concern tends to be a little different, not so obsessed with issues of individual guilt as with the welfare of communities, but this is also the position of liberal and progressive Christians, both Protestant and Catholic.

The bigger question is whether morality can be externally validated. Does the fact that Jesus taught non-violence (assuming that he did) therefore make non-violence right; or is non-violence the preferable path regardless, and the fact that Jesus taught it simply an indicator that he was teaching something true? (How do you know it's true? If you have to ask then you probably haven't started thinking about what morality really is.)

Ethics is a fascinating field, and exists outside Christian discourse (or any other theistic community). Specifically Christian ethics are ethics informed by Christian discourse. A good example of this can be found in Daniel Maguire's A Moral Creed for All Christians. That certainly doesn't mean though that everything beyond the boundaries of Christianity - or one of the other theistic faiths - is based on whim, or that love, mercy and compassion are restricted to believers.

I appreciate the comments that have been provided. In engaging with them we all should be challenged to clarify our own thinking, whether we end up agreeing or not. As is invariably the case though, the easy solutions are generally the most dubious.



  1. In recent years, there has been an effort to demonstrate that the moral nature of man evolved. It has not been a good show. I have read some of the research and while it works for simplistic situations in the animal kingdom it does not in general explain the more complex moral behavior which is common to the human condition. Moreover, the research typically proposes a departure from the concept of pure natural selection which is generally accepted as the driving engine behind evolution. But the interesting fact is that this research is predicated on the idea that a human moral nature actually exists - it just needs to be explained by evolution.

    Like Otagosh, my experience is that many atheists are humanists. But why? I had many discussions with an atheist friend about this. He did not believe in absolute good and absolute evil - these ideas to him were myths. We discussed an incident in history that I was found to be horrific. He stated that I had no right to have that reaction because there really was no absolute right and wrong. These events just happened and were without moral content - sort of like sodium reacting with chlorine. Yet implicit in everything he said in general conversation was an assumed moral code. And his moral code was remarkably like everyone else's. He claimed to be a libertarian and believed that people should not help other people because that violated natural selection. Yet if I had grabbed his sandwich from off his plate in the cafeteria and had eaten it in front of him, I am sure he would have screamed.

    I believe this moral nature in man is the unacknowledged source of morality that atheists follow without thinking about it. But I do not know how atheists view this. If man does not have a moral nature and we are just biobots, how do atheists figure out what is right and wrong? And why does it coincide mostly with what everyone else believes? This is an genuine question - I'm not just gigging our atheist/agnostic friends.

    -- Neo

  2. Gavin, perhaps I'm not being fair, but I really believe that there is very little excuse for this sort of discourse. It's not like we don't have science to render the landscape for us, leaving the question of theism vs atheism rather moot. I suppose the core of the fault lies in modern social media where all opinions some how are treated as though they have equal worth except when they get belligerent (often because others aren't really paying attention to those who bring forth facts -- or, worse, treat those who do bring facts with great contempt and disrespect).

    "Hardwired Behavior: What Neuroscience Reveals about Morality" by Dr. Laurence Tancredi would be a good place to start. Dr. Tancredi is both a top level neurologist and a premier attorney who often gives expert opinions in court concerning behavior of the defendants. If people would read the book and understand it, many of the questions asked here would disappear. Not to worry though, there would be new questions.

    For example, Robots Lie raises some concerns and interesting questions about morality and ethics: If robots learned to lie all on their own and adopted the ethic of the end justifies the means (for example) what hope does humanity have? Lying and cheating are built in. It's biological.

    I lay before you a challenge: If it is true that we are biologically biased to be immoral and unethical (against an objective universal standard), what role can religion possibly have in making anything better? Shouldn't we be concerned that religion in itself as a flawed invention of hardwired behavior would be totally inadequate to enable us to manage the problem, and, worse, probably contributes to it by using political and social power to enforce arbitrary standards of behavior upon those who are subject to narcissistic sociopaths looking to create their own advantage of being elite?

    I would assume that atheists would very much like to see the Christian religionists give a response to that.