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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7 Responses to “Foundations for Atheist Morality: The Relativist View Part I”

  1. myatheistlife April 5, 2013 at 00:21 #

    ==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.==

    I will guess that you intend to contend that ‘codes of conduct’ must necessarily be universal and authoratative. Given that you have already shown your bias, why should I want to continue reading?

    • acgheen April 5, 2013 at 08:04 #

      Actually, I won’t be arguing that all codes of conduct are or should be universal. My purpose is to address two arguments that some (not all) atheists use to defend their moral conduct and why these two arguments actually succeed in justifying violence against others, rather than peaceful cohabitation.

      Since I do believe that is possible for those who hold differing world views to get along peaceably and even be friends without either party compromising their views, the politely presented thoughts and opinions of atheists will be welcome throughout the series. Taking the time to fully understand each other is one of the most important steps we can take towards getting along. Perhaps that will be enough to hold your interest!

  2. acgheen April 5, 2013 at 08:21 #

    Because of the strong views that are sometimes held by both Christians and Atheists, I’d like to add a note for those interested in sharing their views on this blog: I do screen posts. If you would like to give your comment the best chance at appearing on the site, please observe the following rules.

    1. All comments must pertain to the topic being discussed. For example: we are currently discussing morality NOT the existence of God. Posts addressing the latter either in support of my views or opposing them will not appear.

    2. All comments must show respect for those who hold opposing viewpoints. (This does not mean that you need to accept every point of view represented, merely that you must be polite in your address.) I do not approve posts which attack an individual’s level of intelligence. Suggesting that everyone who believes a certain way is just stupid or ignorant is a sure way to keep your comment off the site. Many highly intelligent people have disagreed throughout the ages and will continue to do so.

    3. If you wish to present ideas that oppose either my own views or the views of other commenters, please clearly explain why you oppose those views, then support your argument. I do not post comments that simply shift the attack from, “This person is stupid” to “This idea is stupid”. Please take the time to defend your perspective!

  3. Kevin Schaller April 5, 2013 at 16:37 #

    I know this is a evangelistic site, but there seems to already be more significant bias in your approach to atheist morality by asking:

    “After all, if there is no supreme being who establishes and enforces a code of ethics, then who does?”

    I apologize, but that basic thought expressed early on is harmful to the credibility of your article. Have you tried talking with or contacting any atheists to expand on the arguments you’re planning to debunk in this “Foundations” series? Because as it stands, without citing any sources for the way you’re approaching this particular form of morality (and my personal conclusions as an atheist, which are very much out of step with your rationale here), I really have no reason to come back for another article except to go out of my way to argue.

    Also, the idea that morality is “subjective” doesn’t mean it’s tied to societal norms, and the comparison to belching after a meal is almost rude in comparison. The ideas of subjectivity – subjective meaning one’s personal feelings and beliefs not necessarily based entirely around any other norm – should not be confused with what you’re actually referring to, which is “moral relativism,” which has been debated about since the days of ancient Greece. (for reference: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_relativism, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subjectivity)

    Though I can’t claim concrete evidence that moral relativism isn’t prevalent among atheists, I can say with certainty that it’s definitely not an approach all of us take. I can refer to you my personal writings on the subject from January of this year, just search for the title “Atheist on the Sabbath.”

    • acgheen April 5, 2013 at 17:00 #

      Kevin,

      Thanks for your reply. I agree (and state in my article above) that the two views I will be addressing are ones held only by some atheists. (A quick cruise of the internet as well as conversations with my atheist friends has been enough to demonstrate that these particular views are commonly held by professing atheists, though by no means all atheists.) To claim that all atheists hold such views would, indeed, be negligent! Most systems of belief (or disbelief) come in a variety of flavors.

      As far as your point regarding subjective morality, I entirely agree. I will be addressing other forms of subjective morality in future installments, but chose the societal view for this initial discussion. Subjective morality and moral relativism are related, but not identical and I hope that this is clearly conveyed as I continue to develop the topic.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

      A. C.

      • Kevin Schaller April 5, 2013 at 18:14 #

        Just to confirm, you use the terms “most” and “many” in place of “some,” which could be interpreted as “the majority,” which is more than a bit presumptive. And really, there is a big enough difference between subjective and relative morality that I would ask you not to relate the two of them without a few examples to explain.

        If you want to spread this series at all, I would ask you to watch your words and similes carefully, and make sure you’re clear with some background to back up statements you make. This is an idea I’ve written about myself, and it’s something I hold pretty close to the vest, so I do apologize for being so wordy on the subject, but know that you’re being read by people who are capable of arguing passionately and coherently for an opposing view.

        But please keep writing. The opinions and conclusions need to be made, if for no other reason that we all might understand each other’s views better and can communicate more clearly in the long run. 🙂

      • acgheen April 5, 2013 at 18:30 #

        Thanks Kevin!

        I just took a moment to read your blog and would recommend it to anyone interested in hearing another view on the subject of atheist morality. Your perspective that morality should be based on a “do unto others” concept is, at its root, far easier to embrace than the more complex views held by many of the atheists I have read, listened to, or conversed with.

        As far as my word choice is concerned, it is my hope that you will read my work as written rather than as it could be interpreted. I do appreciate that not all atheists share the same views or rationale for those views. This series of posts addresses only two of these and a few of the variants encompassed by them.

        Keep writing!

        A.C.

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