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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.

Foundations for Atheist Morality: The Relativist View Part II

12 Apr

Last week in “Foundations for Atheist Morality”, we explored the danger of basing one’s morality on public opinion.  This week, we continue our series with a look at the more common view that morality (while relative to individual societies) is rooted in those forms of conduct which lead to cohesion and stability within a given society.

It is hard to deny that there are certain social concepts which seem to transcend the boundaries of individual cultures.  For example Laws against actions like murder, genocide, and slavery exist in many societies.  Such codes generally do promote a cohesive community as they serve to protect the rights of the individual.  These moral rules and regulations often go a long way towards promoting friendly cohabitation in blended societies – those in which members of multiple cultures have drawn together with a common purpose or cause.

Yet there have been many non-blended societies in which the majority of the population has not come to similar conclusions.  Throughout history, we see the stories of cultures which have sought the annihilation or subjugation of rival people groups.  By preventing friendly interaction with these “outsiders”, these societies were able to ensure their own continued safety, dominance and, in many cases, survival.

That this causes a dilemma for the societal relativist is undoubted.  After all, if one is to hold to the view that moral right and wrong are determined according to those practices which promote unity within a society, one must agree that it is not merely acceptable to enslave or even terminate the lives of members of rival groups, but also, at times, morally obligatory to do so! Furthermore, the view that such acts are or were immoral becomes in itself immoral, since it is the minority within the society that hold this view.

It is important to understand this particular implication of societal relativism before we continue.  If views on morality are directly linked to that which the majority feels will promote unity within the society, the societal relativist is in no position to pass moral judgment on the laws of any society at any time!  (This can be particularly difficult for some societal relativists, since it requires them to accept the correctness of the unifying Christian morality which has at times been the predominant view of certain cultures.)

Next week, we’ll delve a bit deeper as we discuss what constitutes a “society” and how our definition of the word can revolutionize our understanding of societally relative morality!

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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