Atheism, Evangelism, Foundations for Atheist Morality, Relativism

Foundations for Atheist Morality: The Relativist View Part II

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!

Atheism, Evangelism, Foundations for Atheist Morality, Relativism

Foundations for Atheist Morality: The Relativist View Part I

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!