I am sure that any atheist who has even skirted the theism/atheism debate has encountered what I will term here the “objective morality” argument. The argument has a couple of versions but the common thread is that morality that is subjective is of little or no value. There must be a moral law or moral law giver, an ultimate authority who invests morality with an unchanging solidity that subjective morality lacks. Theists view subjective morality as being akin to whim, being open to change at will. This sentiment is usually summed up in the inevitable Dostoevsky quote from his book The Brothers Karamazov “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.”
The view of the theists that morality has its basis in objective reality or is at least divorced from human whim presents some very interesting questions and objections. Christians often use this argument for instance while dutifully ignoring the changing morality from the old testament to the new. One question of interest is;
“Why, if morality is objective does it seem to focus solely on humans?”
I think it is fair to say that every moral question that is posed and every moral law presented has to do with human action. I don’t believe anyone has every criticized a lion for killing a gazelle; “How immoral!!”
While it makes perfect sense that a morality invented by humans focuses solely on humans, it doesn’t follow that the same should apply to an objective morality. If killing is wrong, then it is wrong, it makes no sense that it be dependant on species.
Perhaps all lions are immoral, objectively speaking!
The most interesting question to me though must be
“Does morality source with God, or is moral law truly objective?”
If moral law is truly objective then God himself is subject to it. His murder of every living thing (bar a few lucky pairs and a presumably incestuous family) must be deemed immoral as it breaks the “thou shalt not murder” law. His orders of genocide don’t look too good by any light either. This would render God less than morally perfect and so I doubt the idea would find much traction in the theistic community.
My guess is, though I have never posed the question to a theist, is that most theists would be in favor of morality sourcing with God rather than being something truly objective which even God must be subject to. Incidentally, if any theists disagrees I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject.
If morality originates with God then it is subjective to God. This presents some problems of its own. Most obviously, any moral “laws” that God would invent are entirely arbitrary. For example, God merely chooses to make moral issues of what people do with their genitals. There is nothing objectively wrong with adultery or homosexuality or any of the other practices that God deems immoral as morality in this case is a subjective invention by God. He may have chosen to make the wearing of blue shoes a high moral crime. If the theist’s argument is to be accepted, the theist themselves must accept that anything God chooses to make moral/immoral would be automatically so. Were God to command all his worshippers to immediate bugger the nearest child in order to gain their salvation, that act would immediately become a righteous act and the price of being “saved”
The bible seems to show a changing morality too, something with violates many of God’s supposed properties, most notably his unchanging nature and all-goodness. More importantly though, it shows just how subjective and subject-to-change even the perfect morality of God is.
In conjunction with the objective morality argument is the idea that everyone has a moral sense implanted in them by God. This is the theist’s way of explaining how non-theists often act in good moral conscience. It presents some problems of its own though. Why is there ever disagreement about what is moral if we all already know what is moral and what is not? If God has magically informed us, there should be complete agreement. We would all “feel” the same way about every moral question. It also raises a question about free will. How free are we really if we come with pre-installed ideas about what is good and what is bad. Presumably the freedom comes in the liberty to do “bad” things. I wonder how often murders find murder morally objectionable but just go ahead and do it anyway as an exercise in free will.
Sociopaths simply don’t feel that many of the things we find “bad” are bad. They lack all empathy with the victims of such actions. They simply don’t get it.
This all fits perfectly with an evolutionary explanation of our moral sense, both biological evolution and the evolution of societies. Modern society simply could not exist if most people did not adhere to what we might call common morality most of the time. Biological reproduction is not perfect, in some cases the faculties most of us take for granted don’t work properly. Sociopaths for instance have a compromised sense of empathy with other people. Well either that or God forgot to include their moral sense!
There is a great irony though in the way in which most, if not all, Christians cherry pick the bible’s perfect morality. I doubt many Christian fathers these days would consider charging his daughter’s rapist 50 shekels and set up a marriage. Rather than embrace all the moral teachings in the bible, Christians pick and choose the moral teachings they agree with and quietly ignore the rest. Jesus even said that the old laws where to be upheld but I don’t see even devout Christians out stoning disrespectful children. What is ironic in this, is that Christians are applying the same subjective morality that the rest of live by in order to decide which parts of the bible are “good” and which are “bad” (though I doubt they see it that way) In essence they apply their subjective moral views to a text in order to determine what it says the objective morality is. While society at large may once have supported the idea of executing adulterers, modern societies (western democracies at least) no longer do. Rather than point to some Islamic countries where such practices still go on and say “That’s what we should be doing, just like it says in the bible” Christians instead find these practices just as barbaric as non-theists do.
They must also confront the problem that God is apparently unchanging. If that is so, then what was moral is moral and always will be moral. Aside from the host of contradictions this raises between the Old and New Testaments, it also means that it is still moral to kill someone for working on the Sabbath. By not executing your friend for putting in a little overtime you are guilty of immorality.
All of the evidence from human behavior, both the general and the exceptional and all the evidence provided by changing societal attitudes to moral issues seem to fit perfectly with a subjective, evolved morality.