A common comment that will be thrown at you when debating or discussing with a theist will be that "if you don't get your morality from god, where do you get your morality" or "are atheists then immoral" or something else of that flavor. There are many way to address these comments such as discussing where morals come from and the definition of morals, which can be tricky, or that morality is intrinsic in each being and you don't need god to have them or that morals preceded religion and there are plenty of examples that can go along with that last point. These can all be very effective but I heard something the other day that I felt made a lot of sense.
When asked "were you a moral person", the person, who was an atheist said, "you're right I'm not moral because morals is a set of behavioral guidelines derived from authority whether real or imagined and I don't use morality in my day to day life to make decisions, however I'm a very ethical person, and I think that social ethics as they evolved out of social dynamics, are a better course to pursue then morality, because if you're being a moral person, and you are doing what the authority has instructed you to do, that authority may not in itself be moral. So for me social ethics are the way to go."
Now I understand that by ethics are defined as moral behaviors. But the distinction is blurry to me. So I would like to hear your opinion on a) the differences between the two if there are any in your view and b) your preferred method to answer this question. How do you answer someone who comes at you with the "morality" argument?
RE: "we can't say that anything is actually good or bad"
Actually Nelson, Shakespeare concurred when he wrote, "Nothing ever is right nor wrong, but thinking makes it so." And that's where the difference lies - thinking makes it so.
If my thinking determines how I relate to others, you may well ask from where that thought process comes. I can't put it into an axiom by which others can live, but I can say that I had good examples as a child - my parents, while religious in beliefs, were not particularly religious in practice. I learned basic "rights" and "wrongs," based not on religion, but on their personal life experiences of how people should treat each other if we are all going to coexist in this world.
Dostoevsky told us that without god, "all is permitted," Again, I disagree. There are certain social obligations we must expect of ourselves and others, if we are to live in an organized society, but again, there's no need to refer to biblical concepts of right and wrong to access those. Frankly, I can't recall the last time I killed a witch.
If I were to suggest a moral code of conduct with which each of us could successfully, securely and peacefully live, I would have to refer to the Jerry Springer show, as simplistic again as that may sound. Near the end of his show, Springer has a segment called, "Jerry's Final Thought," during which he murmurs platitudes regarding the theme of that particular day's show. But he ends the segment with the only commandment I've found worth following - he says, "Be good to yourself, and each other." I can think of nothing to add to that.
Just so you are able to admit a little grey towards Xian's there is Mother Theresa, Bishop Tutu, and George Muelller. Not all of them fly in lear jets to their speaking engagements.
And along with Bill Gates and other's, we could also list Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao and others.
Neither party is black or white but shades of grey.
Yes, but at least Pol Pot never cheated on his wife! ;)
Good morals help sustain human existence and advancement. If you value humans, be they friends, society, or the species in general, you have or are working to develop good morals that will sustain and advance that which you value. If you don’t value humans, you need fear and conditioning to guide your behavior, kind of like a trained dog does.
The theist would reply:
Good morals help sustain human existence and advancement.
But where did they come from? What morals accomplish isn't the question. The question is how you can be moral without religion/god. And why should an atheist care to sustain human existence and advancement without there being an objective grounding of morality and justice?
If you value humans, be they friends, society, or the species in general, you’re going have or work to develop good morals that will sustain and advance that which you value.
But why would you value humans without an objective grounding to morality? And why wouldn't you just be selfish and cutthroat? This would be the strategy that would pay the greatest dividends for you with the least amount of input.
If you don’t value humans, you need fear and conditioning to guide your behavior
No you don't, you just need have your own self-interest in mind. And why wouldn't you if there's no final judge? Why care about anyone else?
This is why we have to have a better answer. The other "answers" are too easy to shoot holes in. Then we look like we haven't given the question the kind of thought it deserves.
Theists could reply that way. And I would say “what morals accomplish is precisely the question.”
Your question “why would you value humans without an objective grounding to morality” would evidence a failure to understand my point. Morality exists because of a value of humans, not the other way around as your question asserts.
You are free also to not value humans. That seems to be what you refer to as cutthroat. That’s a lack of morality.
Self interest is not inherently bad and does not preclude one from caring about others. I am self-interested and I am my final judge. I treat others well because I value them and want them in my life. I judge myself to be a good person. So do all the Christians and Muslims I know. Does lack of faith change that I'm a good person? (I don't really mind if they think I'm going to hell, but I would mind if they thought it made me bad.)
"And why wouldn't you just be selfish and cutthroat? This would be the strategy that would pay the greatest dividends for you with the least amount of input."
In a social setting survival is dependent on cooperation. The selfish and cutthroat attitude would destroy the dynamics of a group. No man is an island.
Which is why you will find selfless behavior and altruism in many social animals.
The primitive "survival of the fittest" misconception some theists have is completely divorced from what is actually observed in nature
Nelson, I think you sum up the arguments very well. These are all questions that need answering.
For example, we can choose to be nice because we like to be nice and unselfish; but that's not good enough: we are always going to be selfish beings at heart. Being nice is the best strategy for our own long-term self-interests, in a relatively closed society with a low turnover of people. I believe that we all benefit from living in a co-operative culture: however there are cheaters who will always be able to take unfair advantage of this because there are always new people they can rip off. Does religion do any better in this regard? That isn't the point, exactly, but the answer is probably no. Religion succeeds well at encouraging people to be moral, not because it frightens people to death, because bad people always find a crummy way to justify themselves; but because [often,] religious people constantly struggle so hard to honestly figure out their everyday moral issues. I very rarely see atheists do this. Religious people also fail epically to be moral, due to the possibilities for abuse caused by thinking thinking God is on your side all the time, and the intense psychological territory. I also very rarely see atheists do this: their equivalent would be "I am rational therefore I am right" which just has less potential for disaster.
I think one good tactic would be to answer a question with a question. What is their definition of morality? They may either say, "Atheists are not moral!" or "How can atheists be moral?" and the question would be effective either way... because it continues the conversation and determines whether or not they really want to engage you about this.
What I find is that they like to make these blanket statements with no intention or learning anything. They wouldn't listen to even the most clever comeback. But if you ask them what morality means to them, their vanity kicks in and they'll go further and then reveal more to you what they think.
Do they think morality is obedience to authority, or mercy on other beings? Then we can get at the heart of things.
Always a good idea to define the terms of the debate. Absolutely. That way there's less of a chance of a misunderstanding and you can argue more effectively against the person's actual position without wasting your time on irrelevancies.
I definitely feel that saying something to the effect of "I don't have morals; I have ethics" would appear to be a cop-out in their mind. They won't get the nuance. I think it's sort of arguing above their head... pearls before swine, if you will.
If we really want to get through to them, it's best to speak to them on their terms. If morality is simply behaving and being considerate, then they really cannot say atheists are without morals. They will have to back up their position when you offer your own testimony and examples of other moral atheists. If atheists are not moral, then no atheist can be moral. If religion is the basis, then they need to give an explanation for why anyone would be able to be moral without it. After all, aren't they making the claim?
It's not our responsibility to prove to them something they obviously don't want to be contradicted on. Most cannot resist the urge to give their opinion, though. Hopefully you can keep them engaged long enough, and ask enough investigative questions, that a little crack appears in their worldview.