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Foundations for Atheist Morality: The Relativist View Part I

5 Apr

Perhaps one of the deepest questions posed for modern atheists is that of morality.  While there are, indeed, many highly moral atheists, finding a solid foundation for their morality can be difficult.  After all, if there is no supreme being who establishes and enforces a code of ethics, then who does?  Where do they derive their authority?  And what gives them the right to enforce the code they’ve established?

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be taking a look at two common foundational arguments used to support the idea that atheistic morality does, indeed, have a reasoned precedent… and why both of these arguments fail the test of providing a universal, authoritative code of conduct.

This week, we will begin our exploration by examining the argument that morality is subjective.  In this view, the code of rules governing human behavior (right and wrong) is determined by individual societies.  For example, it is appropriate to belch after dinner in some societies and not in others.  Some cultures view the gaseous expulsion as expressing a deep appreciation for the food and others see it as an expression of disregard for one’s dinner companions.  The argument for the rightness or wrongness of this action is inextricably linked to the society’s view of the action and is enforceable simply because the view is accepted by the majority of the citizenry.  Since most of us would agree that there is such a thing as subjective “morality” – a code of ethics or decorum that is distinct to each society, the view (at least on its surface) seems reasonable.

The weakness of the argument, however, is that a morality founded upon the majority view may be altered with astonishing frequency.  After all, we need only watch the evening news to realize just how often society (or at least the portion of it being polled) experiences a change of heart!  To ground one’s views of right and wrong upon these shifting sands would require one to change their moral views on a regular basis.  The irrationality of this view is evident, if only because one could take no action at all without first ascertaining whether the action was morally approved at the moment in which the action was taken.

True morality requires a more solid foundation and this is why many atheists will argue that ethics and morality within a society are not the result of public opinion in general, but of individual groups discovering what does or doesn’t help them to remain cohesive.  This allows for a more transcendent set of laws which may be utilized consistently throughout one’s lifetime.  Yet it, too, comes with its own set of pitfalls – one of which will be the feature of next week’s post!

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