Does Objective Morality Exist? An Agnostic Responds

by Faba Calculo  •  The belief in right and wrong can, indeed, be greatly aided by belief in god(s). My exit from evangelical Christianity was pretty much my exit from belief in objective morality. I tried reading Atlas Shrugged, and I have to admit, if anyone was ever going to prove the existence of objective morality with god, it would have been Rand. And while I believe that she constructed a credible morality assuming the ideal of the heroic individual, lacking objective reasons for that to be the ideal upon which morality is based, the whole thing collapsed.

That is to say, she died on the reef that all objective moralities die: the question of why should I be good? No answer based on morality can be given that won’t be circular logic. After that, what is left but pragmatism? And if one is just being good so as to not piss off god (or, better yet, get something from him), how is one different from the thief who also does what is best of himself? (Here I don’t mean “morally different”, as, again, such an answer would only result in circular logic.)

Since my exeunt a Christianismo, I’ve pretty much believed that morality is merely the desired application of force to preference. Hate this or that? There ought to be a law! Not that the force need be legal. It could just be a good old fashioned shaming. Nor need laws be considered moral (e.g., no one thinks it’s immoral for other countries to restrict driving to the “wrong” side of the road). And one can be too afraid (or lazy) to actually attempt the application themselves. The desire is enough.

So how is the brave US soldier morally better than the brave terrorist, objectively speaking? Well, lacking objective morality, they aren’t. Just as, lacking an objective center of the universe, Earth isn’t it, and, lacking objective time, yours isn’t it (i.e., travel near light speed and then compare clocks with one who hasn’t…you don’t agree but neither of you is wrong). The history of the last several hundred years has included a number of places where the alleged objective proved to be subjective. This, I believe, is just one more.

But can’t we all see that torturing a baby is wrong. Can’t we SEE that? And doesn’t that make it an objective fact? Well, no and no. Tell someone from the ancient near-east that it’s objectively wrong to offer up that baby as a burned offering and see if he agrees. I actually came across this argument about torturing a baby while still a Christian and found it unconvincing, so I was amused to later begin to see it stated as “torturing a baby for fun”. That, I’ll admit, closes off my counter-case. But so what? If that’s as far as you can go with objective morality, what good is it? Is the world out there torturing babies for fun? But more to the point, universal acclaim doesn’t make something objectively true. I’d imagine I could get everyone to agree that it’s more fashionable to wear polyester than it is to wear feces and acid. Does that prove the existence of “objective fashions”?

But can we build a strong society without general belief in objective morality? I don’t know. If not, it’ll never catch on because, deep down, every society’s REAL core belief is that it should go on existing. That’s not to say that it won’t do major damage before it loses its status as a cool belief, but humans have, over the long run, gone from being lion food to pretty much running the place, so, odds are, at least in the long run, he knows what he’s doing. The fact that the new morality seems to be tending towards “everything is OK as long as you’re not hurting someone else” seems to indicate at least that the damage is likely to be limited for now. And, as I get older, one thing I remember more and more is how many times I’ve read books or heard people talk about how imminent the death of America or the west or right and wrong is. And it never happens. And, call me jaded, but I just don’t see it happening.

Finally, while I agree that belief in right and wrong CAN be greatly aided by belief in god(s), I don’t think that that necessarily winds up being the case. Were I to still take the Old Testament as the literal word of God, I’d find it impossible to say that God never orders the killing of civilians and even babies (see: Amalekites, genocide of ordered by God). I’d also find it impossible to say that God doesn’t punish one person for another’s sins (see: same entry). With the Old Testament as one’s guide, should one meet an aspiring terrorist, one could insist that God didn’t want him going into that daycare with his Kalashnikov in this particular instance but not that God has never ordered such things. Stop and think about that. I’ve often thought that one the best things Christians ever did was to close their canon before they came to political power.

I recall once hearing a conservative commentator (I believe it was George Will, but it might not have been) addressing the issue of the wrongs of God I’ve mentioned here in the immediate wake of 9/11, and he replied with an interesting observation. He said, yes, there are parts of the Bible that appear to command bad things, but we’ve learned to ignore those parts, but the Muslims haven’t done nearly as good a job of learning to ignore the bad parts of the Koran. I don’t say this to celebrate the idea of ignoring the Bible in general. We’d be a lot better off today if we had more closely followed its norms on sex before marriage and divorce. But that doesn’t change the fact that the development of the west has, in some ways, required us to ignore / interpret away the implications of our alleged guide to objective morality.

Does all this mean I want those who believe in objective morality to give up those beliefs? Possibly not, and definitely not if that means leaving Christianity. I am about the least evangelical agnostic/atheism (the former on god, the latter on the god of the Bible/Koran) you will ever meet, addressing the topic only when others raise it. When I was active in Campus Crusade for Christ, we had an exercise to help us develop our witness. We folded a sheet of paper into thirds. On the first part, we wrote about what our lives were like before we came to Christ. On the second part, we wrote about how we came to Christ. And on the third part, we wrote about what our lives were like afterwards. Doing that exercise now, I can’t really see how leaving Christianity made my life better. I simply stopped believing and knew that honesty required me to leave. So if so much as a germ of belief remains in your heart, then nurture it. ‘Strengthen what remains and is on the point of death.’ Were it given to a man to decide what he believed, I’d go back in a flash. But it’s not. I can only look at the evidence as honestly as I may and make my judgment. And that has informed me as I have written here.
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4 Responses to Does Objective Morality Exist? An Agnostic Responds

  1. Glenn Fairman Glenn Fairman says:

    You have made interesting observations. But the human soul was not meant for such existentialist despair. Something deeper than the very marrow of my being is horrified that the universe could be as you say—–that we have no teleological end, no justice, that there is no accounting. The mass of humanity reels from it. You may have reconciled yourself to such thoughts via what you claim is “honesty,” but something deeper may be afoot here, sir. I wish you peace and the clearest of vision.

    • faba calculo says:

      “Something deeper than the very marrow of my being is horrified that the universe could be as you say”

      I know what you mean. This is precisely why I don’t generally bring up this topic or even particularly wish to convince anyone.

      Still, as the odds of my actually convincing anyone are, mercifully, all but nil, I’ll add one thing: the one thing worse than humanity having no end is for it to have the one described by the New Testament (or, perhaps rather my evangelical reading thereof). At best a quarter of the world’s population is Christian, and likely far less if cheap grace is insufficient to get you into Heaven. That would put the vast majority of the world on a destination with eternal, conscious torment. Better to have lived for nothing than for that!

      “You may have reconciled yourself to such thoughts via what you claim is “honesty,” but something deeper may be afoot here, sir.”

      Perhaps, but it wasn’t a snap decision but one made after years of thought. I worried very much at the end that I would do the opposite and never leave simply because I was afraid to. In the end, I simply decided to trust myself that, should the day come when I no longer believed it, I wouldn’t attempt to hide that fact from myself. Some time later, I was in church, lifting up my hands in worship (as is common in at least the portion of evangelical Christianity I came out of) and it just hit me: I didn’t believe that I was lifting up my hands to anyone. So I left. I know, it sounds very dramatic: the moment of realization striking in the middle of church service and all. But that is how it happened. Some years later, very much wanting to go back and having found what I believed to be a solution to one of my intellectual problems with Christianity, I did attempt to go back. Once again, I prayed the sinners prayer, asked God for forgiveness and aid in believing, and returned to church. But within a few months, I knew I was just lying to myself.

      “I wish you peace and the clearest of vision.”

      Thanks, and to you as well.

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    It may not be your main target, but I do have some points to make about the morality of the Old Testament. First, while Yahweh occasionally commands the Israelites to commit what we would consider atrocities, he gives them no general command to do that against all non-believers in Yahweh. Islam does have such a command, as well as the principle of taqqiya, under which it is moral to deceive the unbelievers. Second, Judaism was created to be a theocracy (hence all those commandments in Leviticus, which are to be enforced by whatever government there is), as was Islam (but not Christianity). However, when it became clear that Jews were doomed to be ruled by others (after the Bar Kochba revolt and the resultant completion of the diaspora), they came up with the Talmud to explain how to live righteously under those circumstances. No such event has happened to Islam, nor does it seem likely that it will for the foreseeable future.

    • faba calculo says:

      “First, while Yahweh occasionally commands the Israelites to commit what we would consider atrocities, he gives them no general command to do that against all non-believers in Yahweh. Islam does have such a command, as well as the principle of taqqiya, under which it is moral to deceive the unbelievers.”

      I wasn’t trying to make this about how all three of the Abrahamic religions are of equal value. In terms of how they are practiced today, I have no trouble with Christianity and Judaism being more to my taste than Islam.

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