I had previously posted an earlier version of this blog entry (with a different title). I decided that, although I knew what I was saying, I hadn't properly fleshed out my thoughts for general consumption. So I revised it to be more readable and connect ideas together more coherently. I hope you find this version makes more sense and is easier to read.


I am treated as evil by people who claim that they are being oppressed
because they are not allowed to force me to practice what they do.” ~D. Dale Gulledge


Whether Christian or Muslim, we've all had our fair share of experiences with true believers and have come to understand what William G. McAdoo meant when he said, “It is impossible to defeat an ignorant man in argument.” They are oblivious to reason and anointed in denial. Being ignorant is neither good or bad, right or wrong. Being willfully ignorant is another matter entirely.

Many (most?) Christians and Muslims, when faced with irrefutable evidence or an iron-clad argument, will almost never admit they are wrong. Instead, like the Catholic Church, they back-pedal: modify their arguments to mitigate the damage of evidence and logic.

Revealed religions claim to have a superior and objective moral system or standard because it is handed down by God via divinely inspired scripture. They are right when they claim that, without a supernatural entity to dictate behavior, there can be no objective morality. An omniscient God is the only possible source of objective morality because there is none to be found in nature. Nature has only a prime directive: survive. So, because we (atheists) believe God does not exist, most of us also believe morality can only be subjective.

One doesn't need to be religious to believe in an objective morality: I've even seen so-called atheists tout various ethical systems as objective moral standards -- Utilitarianism, survival-based cooperation, the avoidance of unnecessary pain or suffering, etc. But, of course, these are not objective moral standards at all . . . Who decides what serves the greater good? In what context are we to make survival-based decisions? Why do you claim something is unnecessary? . . . Value judgments are at the heart of any moral or ethical system and they are, by definition, subjective. Pay attention to what these people say and you're likely to see that they are didactic pedagogues attempting to force their pedantic dogma down your throat. Whether or not such a person is aware of it -- or just good at disguising it -- he or she harbors at least a little "holier-than-thou" smugness.

Morality is subjective. Collectively, much of morality is determined by social norms. Majority opinions form socio-cultural norms that vary from place to place and over time and are often codified into law. Morality isn't exactly dynamic but it does evolve as the human condition evolves. Even if an objective morality did exist, it could not evolve with us: it would be independent of us and unchanging in the same way scriptural morality is "written in stone". When people imbue their personal ethics (religious or not) with certainty, they are, in effect, objectifying it: turning it into a quasi-objective morality. That's the hubris called "Playing God". Certainty is an illusion: especially where morality is concerned. Scientists and philosophers agree that certitude is a sure sign of trouble.

Oh . . . and about the so-called "superior and objective" morality of religion? Even if there is a personal God, EVERYBODY overrides his moral dictates (as contained in scripture). We reject slavery and the subjugation of women no matter what God tells us. WE decide what is morally worthy: WE decide what is religious. Even if there is a God of Abraham, we don't need him for moral guidance . . . so why do we need him at all?

It's easy to understand the allure of an objective moral system. It offers a simple way to resolve complex issues. And it makes it easy to judge others with the comfortable self-righteousness of certainty. But we pay a price when others morally cop-out. Conflict. These people tend to relinquish critical thinking and to indulge in judgmentalism -- a potent combination that leads to, and reinforces, fundamentalism. And when they feel the backlash of our objections, they perceive it as persecution. It's the perfect recipe for simple-mindedness and denial.

That's what religious thinking does. And the main mechanism for that is the false belief in an objective morality. But it's not just religious thinking: it's any kind of dogmatic zealotry based on certainty of one's personal moral system. Vegetarian/vegan zealots and pro-life fanatics leap to mind as do other extreme left or right political wingnuts. Be wary of the certainty of moral absolutists: they are totalitarians in sheep's clothing.


© Copyright 2012 AtheistExile.com
eMail: AtheistExile@AtheistExile.com


Views: 157

Comment by G. Michael Williams on May 8, 2012 at 6:20am

@AE the willful ignorant aren't worth your time.

Comment by archaeopteryx on May 8, 2012 at 9:16am

I can't answer that Exile, but I DO think the 11th commandment ought to be: "Thou shalt not ever serve broccoli or cauliflower!"

Comment by Atheist Exile on May 8, 2012 at 10:13am

Hey, I like broccoli and cauliflower. Raw, steamed, stir-fried. Yum.

But okra . . . now THERE'S a vile, vile, veggie.

Comment by archaeopteryx on May 8, 2012 at 3:10pm

There's always one in every crowd --:P tongue

Comment by SteveInCO on May 9, 2012 at 1:47pm

"Broccoli" is simply a clever word that hides the true nature of B. coli.

(In the below, I use "morality" and "ethics" interchangeably.  I state this up front because some people tend to think "morality" is a term that applies only to the stupid god-will-smite-you-for-what-you-do-naked shit that religious people serve up, and I want it to be clear that's not how I am using the term.)

I tend to think of morality as contextual not subjective, as it seems to me that once context is taken into account, there's generally an objectively best thing to do.  The criteria for judging a specific action as moral or immoral is therefore objective, but it won't reduce to a simple set of ten or a hundred rules to follow--which is why it looks subjective.  But before one can really discuss what morality says, you have to establish why you need morality in the first place.  In other words before asking what the moral action is, you have to ask why you should give a fuck what the moral action is.  And in asking that question you'll get an objective criteria to judge against.

We mostly-hairless apes are quite different from most (if not all) other animals in being able to think about what we are going to do with a high level of abstraction and consider consequences,  in fact our ability to do so is our chief means of survival.  (We aren't particularly good hunters or gatherers without it.)  In other words we have the capability to think abstractly and decide what to do, in order to remain alive or even to flourish.  (When we don't, we act like chimps.)  Morality, then is basically the tools we use to decide how to do so.  If some action we are thinking of taking is self-destructive, it's ipso facto immoral. 

For example, in most contexts, shooting up morphine is self destructive and in those instances, doing so is immoral.  But if you are in excruciating pain and it's the only opiate available and you manage the dose, it could well be the moral thing to do.  If you are going to die within an hour anyway perhaps it's even moral tonot manage the dose. 

Does this make morality "subjective"?  Not really.  It makes it complicated, more than just following a cookbook full of one-size-fits-all rules.  Maybe not having the cookbook makes it seem like it's not objective, but the fact of the matter is you are judging your potential actions by objective criteria, rather than by their adherence to "objective" (but potentially just fucking pulled-out-of-someones-ass arbitrary) rules.

[It should be noticed that even those "objective" rules like the decalogue are, when you dig behind them, subjective as well.  Your choice of which made up god's made up rules you will choose to accept is subjective.  And god himself (pretending for one sentence he exists) was free to pick whateverthehell rules he wanted so that's subjective too.]

[Also:  someone might protest that I am applying "moral" to an action (shooting up morphine) that affects no one else.  But that confuses "moral" with "should be illegal."  To be sure shooting up morphine does not affect others and should not be illegal, but that does not make it moral, or not a moral issue at all--morality is your guide to living your life, not your guide to interacting with others.]

Another example:  It's usually a good idea to be honest, especially with oneself.  Almost always it's good to be honest with others as well.  For example, in business dealings where one is hoping the other party will be honest, it's a good idea to be honest yourself. But that doesn't mean "always tell the truth" is a good moral rule though it might strike some people as "objective" because it's utterly clear.

There are contexts where you should lie through your teeth.  "Do you have any daughters?" the burglar in your house asks, once he has you at gunpoint.  In this case, LIE, damnit LIE.  It would not be moral, in fact it would absolutely be immoral to tell him truthfully about your 16 year old daughter in the room down the hall, because having this scumbag rape and or kidnap and or kill her would destroy her life and ruin yours.

Comment by Atheist Exile on May 9, 2012 at 2:26pm

Quit trying to be coli and B coli.

LoL. I love The Matrix.

Seriously, SteveInCO, how does context help with deciding moral questions like abortion, euthanasia, animal rights, and the legalization of marijuana and prostitution?

Comment by SteveInCO on May 10, 2012 at 1:38am

It turns out in order to answer most of those questions, Athiest Exile, I have to bring in the concept of rights, which I derive as shown in the two long posts on this page: http://www.thinkatheist.com/photo/political-correctness?xgi=&te...

(Welcome to Unseen, who will now be joining in this conversation to tell us rights are whatever society says they are.  Although I ask that he read those long posts of mine first; otherwise we will talk past each other.)

You are actually, in some of these cases, asking what the law should be, which is different from what is the moral course of action.

Rights do ultimately interconnect with morality, however only some immoral acts violate rights (as I derive them).  The converse is not true: all rights violations are immoral.  Furthermore all rights violations should be illegal; punishable by law.

OK let me take on your cases:

1) Abortion.  I do not believe the fetus has rights, thus it is entirely a question of whether it is best for the mother.  Aborting (when it isn't best) or not aborting (when it is best) would be immoral.

2) Euthanasia.  It's the right of people to end their own lives, so euthanasia must not be made illegal.  Whether it is moral or not for the person to take their own life is dependent on their situation (it's similar to the shooting morphine example above).  Precautions must be taken to ensure it really is an assisted suicide and not actually a murder.

3) Animals do not have rights and can't therefore be legally protected--since legal protections exist for rights.  However, it would be grossly immoral (under any context I can think of) to torture them for no reason; it says horrible things about ones character to do so.  I'd want nothing to do with someone who does so; and such a person would probably be ostracized.

4) Marijuana and prostitution should be legalized; they don't violate rights.  You didn't ask this (you asked specifically about legalizing them) but they again are moral or immoral depending on context; usually not, I think.

I would go even further--for a government to ban an activity that does not violate rights is itself a violation of rights, and the ban itself is therefore immoral.  So the act of banning pot, prostitution, euthanasia, and abortion (generally due to a misguided sense of what is and is not moral, and also the sense that everything that is immoral ought to be illegal) is itself immoral.

Comment by Atheist Exile on May 10, 2012 at 3:28am


I need to verify: we are discussing whether or not morality is ultimately subjective or objective, are we not?

Whether or not morality is subjective or objective, context is a given. How could it not be? Can you ignore context and make coherent claims?

"Objectivity" as I'm using the word, refers to what is real -- as opposed to our perception or interpretation of it. The Earth beneath my feet is real but what resemblance it bears to my perception of it is unknown. Our consciousness is the interplay of external stimuli received by our sensory organs which convert stimuli into bio-electrical signals sent through our nervous systems to our brains which, in an utterly mysterious process, further converts the signals into electro-chemical representations of external stimuli. We have no clue what objective reality is really like: we can only hope our pattern-seeking perception of it is a reasonable facsimile. The conceptual continuity of consciousness is a perpetual feedback loop between us and our environment.

Objectivity is not a human forte.

Everything (almost everything?) about experience is subjective. We have no objectivity mode or switch that magically turns perception into reality. The best we can do is consciously try to be as objective as humanly possible. At minimum, this means applying logic. The scientific method is all about objectivity and how to best ensure it. Most scientists will tell you that morality is not amenable to science. Sam Harris doesn't enjoy much support from the hard sciences.

Okay? Strictly speaking, what is real is objective: everything else is subjective: an interpretation. Our interpretation might very closely agree with what is real but we can't prove it. This is why certainty is a sign of trouble. It's an illusion. Even in physics our objective knowledge about ANYTHING is incomplete . . . and that doesn't take into consideration the assumptions that underpin our theories. It's the most fundamental knowledge of things we lack the most. Is physical reality local or non-local? Are subatomic particles discrete points or strings vibrating in different ways? Is space a measurable thing? Is time just a human construct?

This is not to say that we can't be reasonably objective about things: especially physical things. We can identify physical properties and predict physical reactions. But when we get away from the physical, we come to rely on value judgments. And when that happens, we're being subjective. We might try to be objective about our value judgments but we can't demonstrate that we are. We can only make our best arguments.

All your specific replies, above, about: abortion, euthanasia, animal rights and marijuana/prostitution legalization are OPINIONS. They are not objective in ANY way. They are entirely subjective. You're not dealing with physical properties, you're dealing with value judgments. You're merely expressing opinions.


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