Thursday, 6 December 2007

The "Evils" of Moral Relativism

This is a topic which came up last night at an Atheist Society event. Somebody in the audience asked that old favourite question, which I shall paraphrase here:

"If you don't believe in god(s), then where do your morals come from? Why don't you just go around killing and raping each other?"

My initial reaction to this question is usually one of incredulity, rapidly followed by hope that the questioner really doesn't mean what they are suggesting. It keeps coming up though; people keep asking it and then waiting with that smug expression on their faces for the inevitable admission that all atheists are entirely devoid or morals, or that like Prometheus we 'borrowed' what we needed from the gods without acknowledging them. Or even sending a thank-you card. Godless heathens that we are!

What the question itself seems to suggest is that before religion came along, we did just go around murdering and raping each other. That, as Moses trudged down from Sinai, commandments fresh of the presses, everyone was busy coveting their neighbour's ass and killing and thieving and raping their little hearts out.
So Moses stands up and, after clearing his throat really loudly to distract them from their rampant sinning, reads out his ten simple rules. And after that, everyone is all about peace, love and understanding.

Given that we evolved as a social species, it seems far more likely that morals evolved along with us. That in order for us to exist in a tribe we had to follow certain rules of engagement. We didn't kill our fellow tribe-members and we didn't steal from them, because doing so would destroy the harmony of the group. Observation of other primates shows this kind of behaviour, whilst it has also been shown that they understand the concept of 'fairness' on an instinctive level.

Even disregarding other species and considering modern humans as we are now, one can derive a perfectly functional set of morals from the simple idea of doing unto others as you would have done to yourself. You don't kill because you wouldn't want to be killed, and likewise with theft, rape and so forth. It benefits the species if we help our fellow people, rather than fighting them.

In addition to this, deriving your morals from personal experience and not from a list of absolutes allows you to be more flexible in determining the morality of a given act. It is not always wrong to lie, most of us tell small lies all the time in order to avoid offending people, or to avoid recrimination. It is not always wrong to kill, although it nearly always is. There are scenarios in which killing one person is the more moral option, however distasteful this may seem. This does not lead to the collapse of society, however much the faithful say it will.

And finally, onto the big one, the best response I think you can give to that stupid question:

"Are you saying, then, that without a god or gods to watch you and punish you when you transgressed, you would be raping and murdering and stealing? Is it that these things are so fundamentally enjoyable that divine retribution is the only thing that will stop you?"

By placing the responsibility for morals on a higher authority, they abdicate all responsibility for thinking or caring about other people. They pass the buck. And by living by absolutes they miss out on a huge range of human moral experience.


Jenzo said...

I'm happy to see this notion of "fairness" with children made an impact on you as well.

Really got me thinking though... Not that I ever seen what you say as anything other than blatently obvious...

The bare existence of this question offends me!

Laurie said...

I once had someone suggest that I must be sleeping with my dog because I could obviously have no morals. As I put in the first post of my blog, I told him that if I had wanted to do that it was silly to have had the dog neutered!

Believing in divine punishment doesn't seem to stop Christians murdering, raping, stealing, etc. The prisons (at least here in the US)are chock full of them.

Stephen Bain said...

I bet they took that well! It's weird to think that someone can be so brainwashed that they can't conceive of a naturalistic cause for morals.

I'm pretty sure the prisons in the UK are fairly religious too. It's probably easier to sin if you've been forgiven in advance and can always repent.

Harespring said...

It's a great get-out-of-responsibility-free-card..."Father forgive me, for I have sinned"..."Oh fine that, do a wee penance and all will be well"..."Wa-hey! Another week of sinning!" Or you can do it on a daily basis if you're really keen. Meanwhile those you have transgressed against are none the better off for your HailMarys etc. I don't know how this translates to either other sects of Christianity or other mono-theistic religions. But I expect someone will tell me...

Stephen Bain said...

Christianity generally believes in this weird preventative forgiveness. Our man in Jerusalem only had to be nailed up once quite a while ago in order for you to be pre-forgiven. You still have to say you're really sorry but that's about it.

Unless you're a Mor(m)on. In which case, any time you re-sin your forgiveness for all past examples of the same sin are un-forgiven. So if you are a compulsive liar who's been on the wagon for 5 years and then you lie, you have to go back and say sorry for every single past lie as well. Nice.

As for Islam, it kind of allows you to do fairly bad stuff in the name of Allah anyway, if you're a man that is. If you're female then be careful how you name your stuffed animials.