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Foundations for Atheist Morality: Conclusion

21 Jun

Over the last few months, we have taken the time to discuss two commonly used “Foundations for Atheist Morality”.

We began our journey with a look at Societal Relativism.  We explored a few of the arguments used to support the idea that moral right and wrong are not universal, but are determined by individual societies.  We examined what this means for those who would go outside of their own society to right apparent wrongs like slavery or genocide, took a look at the difficulties which arise when we try to determine what constitutes a “society”, and even ran a few numbers to demonstrate the difficulties which accompany attempts to determine the moral views of the majority within those societies.  We concluded with the view that the only logical outcome of a societally relativist view of morality is an individually relativist view of morality in which each individual may create his own version of right and wrong without regard for others.

We then turned our attention to the Law of Nature.  We examined the proposition that a universal moral law can exist without a lawgiver and took a look at some of the apparent support for the idea that a solid foundation for moral behavior can be found within the natural world.  We took a careful look at nature’s “goal” to preserve individual species and considered the implications that this goal has in regard to human reproduction.  We examined natural selection and the ways in which a strict application of its principles would influence the use of modern medicine including the preservation of the lives of the elderly and disabled.  And we concluded with the view that an appeal to the Law of Nature leads to apathy rather than action.

Our purpose in examining these perspectives was to help Christians learn to effectively reason through the fallacies of each view with their atheist friends.  In the process, I had numerous discussions with atheists – some of whom did not hold to these views of morality and some who did.  It is important that Christians recognize that atheism (like the belief in a supreme being or beings) comes in many forms. Indeed, it would take a lifetime to address the full scope of moral views held by those who do not believe in a god and it is for this reason that we chose to address only two of them here.

Like the religious, atheists come to their views in many different ways.  Some were born into atheist homes.  Others reject god on the basis of bad experiences they’ve had with those who claim to worship a deity.  And others have serious questions about the rationality of religious belief.  It is the responsibility of every Christian to take the time to get to know and understand the views of the atheists in their lives before jumping into a moral debate.  We must approach our neighbors, friends, and family with humble, teachable spirits if we want to earn the right to be heard.

Foundations for Atheist Morality: The Law of Nature Part V

14 Jun

Last week in “Foundations for Atheist Morality”, we examined the implications that the natural moral law has for the field of medicine.  We looked at the difference between the way human beings determine each other’s value and the manner in which nature “determines” value.  We also asked an important question: If nature will, herself, select against the elderly and disabled, is there any harm in society helping her along?

Adolf Hitler asked this same question and came to the conclusion that the answer was “no”.  What followed was a bloody regime in which those who did not appear to physically contribute to the preservation of the race (homosexuals, the handicapped, and many others) were systematically exterminated.  Yet is this really an appropriate application of the principle of natural selection?

Undoubtedly, the Law of Nature does lend itself to violence.  The mass culling of one species in order to ensure the survival of other species (the southern African sardine run, for example) is not unheard of.  Carnivores hunt prey to feed their young.  One species forcefully removes another from its breeding ground.  And those who directly threaten the lives of others are, themselves, eliminated.  Yet one would be hard-pressed to find a situation in which the systematic extermination of specific individuals or groups of individuals is aptly demonstrated.  And this is an important point.

If the Law of Nature is to serve as a universal framework for morality, intervention either on behalf of the weak or in favor of the strong must be eschewed.  Neither those who perform acts of mercy nor those who promote wanton violence may be considered to be living lives in keeping with this accepted moral standard.  Indeed, the best application of the Law of Nature is not intervention, but apathy.

Doubtless, this conclusion will bother many, including the good-hearted atheists who would use nature for their moral guide.  Indeed, most of us spend our lives fighting against apathy, seeking to improve both our own lives and the lives of others.  We make the moral judgment that life, itself, is a gift and one worth preserving regardless of the contribution a given individual may or may not be able to make to the well-being of the whole.  We seek to demonstrate love, compassion, and concern for those who surround us – in short: to make the world a better place.

So where does this leave an atheist who wishes to use the Law of Nature as a foundation for their moral code?  Unfortunately, without a leg to stand on.

Foundations for Atheist Morality: The Law of Nature Part IV

7 Jun

Over the last few weeks, our series “Foundations for Atheist Morality” has examined the argument that a universal law can be obtained through nature without the need for a universal lawgiver.  We’ve looked at evidence in favor of this view as well as some of the unpleasant moral implications – especially in regard to human reproduction.  Last week, we concluded with the view that allowing “natural selection” to work within the human race as it does within various animal species leads to an unfortunate state of apathy in which we do nothing to intervene for the sake of protecting or preserving those entities which nature has “selected out”.  This week, we’ll explore the implications that this apathetic view has for modern medicine and all those who benefit from it.

I think that most of us will admit that this is, indeed, a tricky issue.  After all, modern medicine has the ability to restore the constitution of those who, except for a minor infection or a broken bone, would be as fit as anyone else.  But it also has the ability to forestall or prevent the deaths of those facing more severe ailments.  Ask those who have contended with cancer, are battling with HIV/AIDS, or merely require the life-sustaining force of portable oxygen and you’ll find more than a few expressions of gratitude for the technologies which have helped them cling to life.  Yet in a world in which morality is determined by Natural Law, is it actually ethical to assist those who fall into this latter category?

If the “unguided” purpose of nature is to preserve individual species in viable forms, our answer must be a resounding “no”; such people may be considered to be “selected-out” of the system.  Philosophers have been quick to point out the benefits of such natural selection:

  • The lower population which results from natural selection leads to less competition for the resources necessary to our survival.
  • Natural selection ensures more efficient use of these resources, since they are distributed amongst the fittest members of society rather than being wasted upon those who consume, but do not give back.
  • The survival of only the fittest ensures that future offspring will be less likely to carry harmful genetic mutations like sickle-cell anemia, hereditary deformities, or predispositions towards the development of diseases like diabetes and cancer.
  • Likewise, natural selection plays an important role in weeding out those who suffer mental disorders, since those suffering such handicaps are often incapable of surviving on their own without the intervention of others.

That this picture is a frightful one is undoubted.  As humans, we tend to judge the ability of an individual to contribute to society based upon much more than their just their physical or mental abilities.  Yet nature doesn’t.  Where we see the many ways in which we gain wisdom from the elderly or learn fortitude and perseverance from those who suffer from physical or mental disabilities, nature “sees” an inefficient use of its resources.  Such people are “selected-out”.

This leads to an important question.  If nature, herself, would remove such people from the gene pool, what happens when human beings make the choice to forego the preservation of life and help her on her way?  And is such assistance justified by Natural Law or is it stretching the principle too far?  We’ll examine these issues next week, but in the meantime, feel free to share your own thoughts in the comment box below!

Foundations for Atheist Morality: The Law of Nature Part III

31 May

In last week’s installment of “Foundations for Atheist Morality”, we started to take a look at some of the practical moral dilemmas which arise when we use nature as a model for a universal code of conduct.  We looked at how this model affects our view of birth control and abortion and concluded with two questions concerning the moral propriety of both rape and homosexuality.  This week, we will address the latter two topics (rape and homosexuality) in greater depth.

Before we do however, we must emphasize again that atheism comes in many forms and that atheists, themselves, can vary widely in both their beliefs and their defense of them.  The view which we are examining here is only one of many.  Our purpose is not to “debunk” atheism, but rather to demonstrate that when logically examined, this particular support for a moral lifestyle leads to conclusions which even those atheists who support the view are likely to find repugnant.

Let us begin with the question of whether rape must also be accepted as a laudable act, since there are instances in nature in which the male of the species is seen to force himself upon the female of the species.  While at first blush, this may seem to be the case, I believe that an argument can be made that a difference does exist between a male forcing himself upon a woman for the purpose of sexual gratification and a male forcing himself upon a woman for the purpose of reproduction.  Since rape is (with few exceptions) performed with the former intent, i.e., that of gratification, it would seem that it remains morally reprehensible regardless of whether natural law is accepted or rejected.

What about homosexuality?  While instances of homosexual behavior have been witnessed in nature, it is important to note that by and large this is not the norm.  Natural selection tends towards the preservation of the species and members of the species who engage in acts which do not promote such reproduction are left to their natural end.

Under such circumstances, the need for us as humans to take an interest in preserving the lives of those who engage in or suffer consequences from any sexual act (heterosexual or homosexual) becomes questionable.  Indeed, to attempt to alleviate the suffering and eventual decay or death which result from diseases such as AIDS or other STD’s simply doesn’t make sense if nature is to be allowed to take its natural course.  Indeed, apathy would seem to be morally obligatory in such circumstances.

But if we are to allow nature to simply “take its course”, selecting the strong and eliminating the weak, where does this leave us in regard to other “weak” segments of human society?  And do we have any right to intervene to help or preserve the lives of the elderly or the handicapped?  It would seem that if natural law as it is played out in the animal kingdom is to be our guide, the answer would be “no”… yet even many atheists agree that a strong argument can be made that the presence of the physically or mentally weak does help to strengthen and preserve our society.

We’ll take a closer look at this issue next week, but for now, feel free to share your thoughts on the subject in the comment box below!

Foundations for Atheist Morality: The Law of Nature Part II

24 May

Last week in “Foundations for Atheist Morality”, we discussed several ways in which animal society resembles human interaction and why, for some, this seems to support the view that a universal law can exist without necessitating a universal lawgiver.  This week, we’ll take a closer look at specific instances in which what is generally considered “moral” behavior amongst human societies may not be moral at all if nature is to be our guide.   Once again, it is important to recognize that atheists, like those who believe in a divine being (or beings) do not all subscribe to a single set of beliefs.  The view we are addressing here is merely one of many presented by morally upstanding atheists to ground their views of right and wrong.

In order to further explore this view, we must begin by proposing that the trending purpose of nature is to preserve individual species in a viable form.  That is to say that while individuals within a given group have a distinct tendency towards self-preservation, the overall “goal” of inanimate and undirected nature is to ensure that entire groups of living organisms (rather than individuals within those groups) will not merely survive, but also thrive. If an action promotes the welfare of such communities it ought to be viewed as morally praiseworthy.  Any action which does not must be viewed as morally despicable.

That a morality of this sort would have a clear impact on our views of everything from birth control and euthanasia to homosexuality and the treatment of the physically and mentally impaired should be evident.  And that it precludes mindful intervention in the “natural” results of any state of being is also evident.

Let’s begin by looking at the issue of birth control. If the purpose of a species is to preserve itself, then to intentionally intervene with the natural reproductive cycle becomes morally questionable.  Indeed, it becomes the prerogative of all humans to seek out the opportunity to reproduce.

If nature is to be our guide, this may be done either through monogamous relationships (as in the case of swans and other animals known to mate for life) or through a series of spurious engagements.  In all cases, the woman has no right to attempt to prevent becoming impregnated either through abstinence from such acts at times in which pregnancy could result or through the consumption of chemical inhibitors (though she may retain the right to refuse a given mate for a variety of other reasons).  Nor does her suitor have the right to attempt to prevent pregnancy through similar means either natural or mechanical.  (Whether it becomes acceptable to engage in intercourse for any purpose other than that of reproduction does become a valid question at this point.)  Should pregnancy result from the sexual act, it is important to recognize that it may not be intentionally terminated at any point: even when the woman’s life is in jeopardy.  The resulting life or death(s) must be seen as (for lack of a better expression) “the will of nature” and accepted as a moral good.

Where does this leave us concerning acts of rape and homosexuality?  We will address both of these issues next week but in the meantime, feel free to share your own thoughts on the subject in the comment box below!

Foundations for Atheist Morality: The Law of Nature Part I

17 May

Atheism, like the belief in a deity (or deities), comes in many different forms.  Not all atheists have arrived at their beliefs through similar means or share the same understanding of those beliefs.  Indeed, oft times, the views of individual atheists or disparate groups of atheists are as far removed from one another as Hinduism is from Islam or Shamanism from Christianity.  Addressing every argument used as a foundation for atheist morality is well beyond the scope of this blog.  As a result, we have elected to limit ourselves to addressing two common defenses utilized by morally upstanding atheists to defend their moral views.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve taken the time to consider the fallacy of claiming that morality ought to be determined relative to individual societies.  We’ve looked at the difficulties (and atrocities) which often result from using social groups to determine the appropriate ethic for everyone as well as the dilemmas faced by those who would enforce such accepted norms.  It is clear that there is no solid foundation for morality within the will of the masses… or even the will of an individual.

That said, a second moral “foundation” commonly put forward by atheists is that of nature, i.e., that objective morality does exist and is innate in all living things.  Such a view permits those who hold that there is no ultimate lawgiver to affirm that there is still an ultimate law by which all living beings are bound.

That this view is consistent with a more scientific approach to life is undoubted.  After all, it does go a long way towards explaining why so many cultures have such similar moral views and why the social interactions of human and animal societies often look so much alike.  Over the next few weeks, we’ll be taking a closer look at this particular point of view and why, even with its strengths, it still fails the test of providing a solid universal grounding for morality.

If you’ve taken the time to read books like Jane Goodall’s Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey, you’re likely already familiar with at least a few of the arguments in favor of an objective morality inherent in nature (though this argument is not the primary or even secondary purpose of the Goodall’s tome).  In her spiritual biography, she shares about her work with chimpanzees and many of the sometimes striking resemblances between ape society and human cultures.  Perhaps most prominent among these similarities is the way in which family groups interact with one another.  After a quick (and enjoyable) read, I admit that it is quite tempting to believe that there is a kinship which binds all living creatures together in a way that promotes our communal good.

A closer look, however, shows something far different from this heartening perspective.  Indeed, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s description of “nature red in tooth and claw” comes much closer to the point: emphasizing the tendency of the natural world to “select the fittest” and preserve only the strongest of any species.  Even the chimpanzees have a violent streak, ripping apart and eating those who challenge the authority of the dominant male or are too weak to contribute to the community’s social structure.

Where does this leave an ethic of generosity and selfless compassion?  Perhaps much farther from innate morality than we might hope.  Indeed, it would seem that one of the oddities within nature (despite the sometimes human-like behaviors demonstrated by the animal kingdom) is that survival takes precedence over the communal good… and that self-centered (or, on occasion, species-centered) motivation, leads to acts which, for the moral atheist would be considered despicable.

What would our society look like if “natural law” were to prevail?  We’ll take a look at a few examples next week.  For now, feel free to share your own thoughts on why you feel that natural law is or isn’t a good basis for morality in the comment box below!

Foundations for Atheist Morality: The Relativist View Part VI

10 May

In last week’s installment of “Foundations for Atheist Morality”, we discussed the difficulty which accompanies any attempt to positively determine the actual moral views of the majority within a given society.  But what if those views could be determined?  What then?  The difficulties for the moral relativist aren’t over!  This week, we conclude our examination of societal relativism as an adequate foundation for moral values with a look at whether the agreement of 50% + 1 (a simple majority) is really sufficient to determine what is right and what is wrong.

The question here is more philosophical than anything else.  What happens if 50% + 1 agree that euthanizing the elderly will provide a more productive and cohesive society?  Is that one person who tipped the scales really to be given the power to execute a death sentence upon portion of the population?  If not, how much of a majority is necessary to do so?  If 55% are in agreement, can we feel comfortable in accepting the verdict?  What if 60% or 75% concede?  Where do we draw the line when it comes to determining how much of the majority is necessary for a given moral view to prevail?  And who gets to decide?

You see, the problem with societal relativism is that it is… well, relative.  Moral views change over time as national boarders shift, ethnic groups merge or die out, and demographics are altered.  Popular opinion is swayed by an excellent orator, the rules which lead to societal cohesion move in and out of vogue, the powerful justify the oppression of those without a voice, and those with a voice determine the standards not only for their own societies, but for others as well.  And none of this can be said to be either right or wrong… because it’s all relative.  All, that is, except one universal truth: “It’s all relative.”

It is this universal statement of the relativist that proves the death knell of his philosophy.  If it really is “all relative”, then this statement, too, must be relative… but relative to what?  In the end, there is no moral center for the relativist view except the relativist, himself.  In essence, he becomes his own god – determining right and wrong based upon his own likes and dislikes.  But his godhood is limited, for as much as he may be able to declare moral absolutes for himself, he is equally incapable of making such declarations for others. A relativist may find himself robbed and beaten, but he is in no position to determine that the action of the violent party was wrong or ought to be met with justice.

In becoming his own god, the relativist becomes impotent to do either good or to declare what is evil.  What is right or wrong for him is right or wrong for him only and his views cannot rightly be forced or enforced upon anyone else either as an individual or upon a society as a whole.  His moral freedom has become a moral strait jacket.  Societal relativism as a basis for atheist morality fails.

Next week, we’ll examine another argument that some atheists use to defend moral behavior: the Law of Nature.  Meanwhile, please feel free to share your thoughts on societal relativism in the comment box below!

Foundations for Atheist Morality: The Relativist View Part V

3 May

In our first four installments of “Foundations for Atheist Morality”, we examined the argument that moral right and wrong may be determined relative to the views of the majority within a given society.  We discussed the dangers of basing morality on those views which provide cohesion within a cultural group and took a look at the problems of selecting dominant societies based upon either power or value.  In our two-part conclusion, we’ll take a look at the problems faced by those who would try to determine the actual views of the majority within any society – and the moral questions which accompany the application of such views.

It is necessary for our readers to understand that a “majority” is simply that portion of society with the greatest numbers.  We are told that 50% +1 forms a “simple majority” and, at least in congress, this is sufficient to pass any law with the exception of an amendment to the constitution. In a small society like that of a family of five, three members would constitute the majority (50% + 1, give or take half a family member).  If the goal is to determine the prevailing moral view, one would need to interview individuals until three members were found to be in agreement.  Finding the majority consensus within such a group would prove to be a fairly easy take.  Finding a majority consensus in a community of 50,000 or a nation of 313 million people, however, is not nearly as simple.

For example, if I am to discover the actual moral views of the majority of the citizens in a town with a population of 50,000, I must find at least 25,001 people who are in agreement.  It is unlikely (unless most of the citizens are robots) that I will find such an agreement without interviewing far more than just 25,001 people.  In other words, I must survey well upwards of 50% of the population if I am to come to a clear and unquestionable verdict regarding the majority view within the township.

Exchange that town of 50,000 for a nation of 313 million people and the difficulty becomes even more apparent.  Now, if I am to determine the actual moral views of the majority, I must find 156,500,001 people who agree.  To give a clearer picture, there are only a little over 207 million registered voters in the U.S.  For the majority of the country’s opinion to be made clear, 156,500,001 of those or 76% of all registered voters would have to cast identical votes!  That this is unlikely is evident and I would be forced, instead, to go door to door, interviewing each individual until I reached the coveted 156,500,001 coherent moral opinions.  A monumental task, to say the least and one which, until accomplished, leaves the morality of the societal relativist hanging in limbo!

But what if such a task could be accomplished?  Next week, we’ll take a look at one final question plaguing the societal relativist: is 50% + 1 really sufficient if one is to authoritatively enforce a moral view upon others?

 

Foundations for Atheist Morality: The Relativist View Part IV

26 Apr

Last week in “Foundations for Atheist Morality”, we examined the difficulties inherent in using power (physical, numerical, governmental, etc.) to subject the morality of one cohesive society to the opposing morality of another cohesive society.  This week, we will continue our discussion with a look at the difficulty of using “value” to determine which society’s morality ought to be subject to the views of another.  Indeed, if power fails the test when it comes to providing a foundation for the subjection of certain societal groups to one another, value is all that the societal relativist has left. And value is not easy to determine when one holds to a relativist view.

Each individual culture has its own way of determining what does or doesn’t have value.  Is a society with a stable economy, but which is constantly at war to be more desired than a society in which the economy waivers, but peace prevails?  Is a people group who promotes communal sharing, but condemns freedom of speech to be preferred over a society in which the poor go unaided, but a man may speak his mind without fear of reprisal?  To make such determinations, a moral view must be taken… but which?

At its very best, the moral relativist must now face the tricky reality that he becomes a hypocrite if believing that morality truly is relative to and ought to be determined by the majority of the population within an individual society, he continues to try to force other societies to bend to the moral views of his own.  Yet this is his only choice, for he must determine the value of other societies based upon the prevailing morality of his own… or risk being immoral, himself.

This Imperialist view in which one society is arbitrarily deemed “more valuable” than others has, throughout history, led to both the enslavement and, on occasion, annihilation of other “less valuable” cultures.  It has forced millions to sit quietly by as their heritage has been stripped from them and their people dominated or destroyed.  It has led to broken homes and broken lives.  And in order to hold it, the societal relativist must make the decision that one thing, at least, is not relative: that his society is more valuable than all others.

Next week, we will begin to address one final argument against the view of the societal relativist: that the apparent moral view of the majority may not be the actual moral view of the majority.  In the meantime, feel free to share your own thoughts on this week’s topic below!

Foundations for Atheist Morality: The Relativist View Part III

19 Apr

In last week’s edition of “Foundations for Atheist Morality”, we explored one of the difficulties with the relativist view that moral right and wrong are determined by what the majority feels will promote unity and cohesion within a given society.  This week, we’ll take a look at what constitutes a society… and some of the sticky situations we encounter when we try to apply the doctrines of societal relativism.

Ask ten people what they think when they hear the word “society” and you’ll likely get ten different definitions.  This isn’t all that surprising when we consider the dictionary definition of society as “the aggregate of people living together in a more or less ordered community” or “the community of people living in a particular region and having shared customs, laws, and organizations.”  Families, nations, religious groups, ethnic populations, football teams, and online gaming communities can all be classified as “societies”.  Each has their own governing principles, their hierarchy of power, and standards for living.

If you’ve noticed that some of these societies exist within other societies, you’re on your way to understanding one of the great ethical dilemmas faced by the societal relativist: how do you determine which society takes precedence over the others?  For example, when does the cohesive majority view of a nation dominate the opposing cohesive majority view of an individual ethnic group?  Is it ever right for the predominant religion to override the opposing view of a smaller municipality?  In order to decide which moral rules ought to govern the whole, the societal relativist must appeal either to power or to value as their guiding principle.

In the case of power, the relativist must appeal to the old adage that “might makes right”.  It is the group which possesses the most money, the greatest membership, the strongest governmental pull, or the most firepower which has the right to govern the morality of the society.

One needn’t look far to see the danger inherent in this approach.  History is filled with the stories of those who suffered under the hands of the powerful.  To claim that it is those with the most power who have the right to govern is to accept that slavery, poverty, and abuse are all morally acceptable as long as they are condoned by those who hold power.  Such situations cannot be viewed as unjust… and those who work to change them are themselves immoral for having chosen to labor in opposition to the predominant societal group.

I have known few atheists willing to accept this view, so the societal relativist must now appeal to value if he is to rightfully subject the cohesive views of one society to the governance of the opposing cohesive views of another society.

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