Thursday, June 10, 2010
Your Bell-Bottoms are in Such Bad Taste (as is Your Slave Trading)
Is religion or some sort of belief in a higher power necessary for morality? Atheists are fond of arguing that one can be moral without God and there is a lot of truth to this. The theoretical belief that there is someone looking down at us waiting to punish us with hellfire is not going to keep us moral. Decades of experience with televangelists and Republican "family values" politicians and their moral lapses should be enough to convince us of that. Human beings, in the short moments while in the grip of temptation, are simply too good at rationalizing their actions away.
Following C. S. Lewis, though, I do believe that there is something to be said in terms of needing some sort of deity, not in order to be moral, but in order to make meaningful statements about morality. To give an example, I believe that plaid and bell-bottoms are out of fashion and in bad taste. These beliefs are solely the product of my imagination and in no shape or form can be traced back to any universal law, higher power, or God. The consequence of this is that I have no moral authority to enforce these beliefs upon others. When I tell people that bell-bottoms are just "wrong," what I mean is that I personally do not care for, but for no good reason and they should feel free to carry on with their bell-bottoms safe in the knowledge that their sense of fashion is just as valid as mine. To push the issue, even to simply say that I do not wish to associate with "unfashionable" people, would be close minded and bigoted on my part.
Now what happens to us when we turn from something as arbitrary and meaningless as fashion to morality? What do I mean when I tell slave-traders that they are "wrong?" Presumably, what I mean is that there is some sort of universal "good," "justice," or standard of fairness that they themselves recognize, but are violating. There are practical implications to such judgmentalism; even our very "tolerant" society would be willing to endorse my decision to ostracize slave-traders. Not only that, but they would even endorse the use of government force to end slavery (such as fighting the Civil War and passing the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution) and even perhaps to personally kill perpetrators of slavery.
If all I mean is that I am "personally" opposed to slavery and find it in bad "taste" then I have lost the debate even before it begins and might as well go home. When I say that slavery is wrong, I am not just saying that I "personally" do not care for slavery. I am saying that they are in violation of universal moral law. I may be wrong and I may not be able to prove the truth of this belief, but at least I am making a coherent statement. Of course once I admit to some sort of universal law I find myself hard pressed to explain how my universal law is distinct from the Judeo-Christian deity or at least the Enlightenment one. Atheists wish to have it both ways. They wish to be able to make meaningful moral statements, but refuse to pay the entrance fee for them. (I have yet to hear any atheists refraining from using words like "good," "just" and "fair" on account that they are gibberish. Nietzsche came closest to this.)
Despite the major differences in culture throughout the world and throughout history, there are remarkable similarities in their morality. This may very well be due to evolution. Evolution still does not explain why this morality holds any authority. We can travel from ancient Greece to modern day Tahiti and the people we meet would agree on a number of things in terms of morality. Honesty is a good thing; one should not repay good with evil and do unto others as you would have them do to you. People may not always live up to these standards and recognize certain exceptions, but this does not change the fact everyone accepts the validity of these values. This is what allows us to even talk about morality.
You do not need any scriptures for this morality. They are knowable through reason once one accepts the notion that there is something called right and wrong as opposed to what I want or do not want. The two most basic statements of morality are Kant's two universal ethical imperatives. For ethics to be meaningful it must be universal hence you must always act according to principles that you would have as a universal rule. Also ethics assumes the existence of ethical responsibility hence the need to treat all humans as ends not as means.
I am not claiming that we need a higher authority to be moral. One can be an atheist and perfectly moral. The issue that I am raising is slightly different. Can one make coherent moral statements like "x is unjust" without assuming some form of moral law outside of our own collective minds? Without some sort of outside authority, statements of morality devolve into statements of taste. This does not mean that people will not hold of them. It simply is an issue of our ability to make moral statements that actually mean something and which we can expect others to take seriously.