Thursday, February 21, 2013

Morality Recap

Okay, so there's been some confusion as to what exactly my concept of morality would be.  I had initially accused a few people of being dishonest in misrepresenting me on this, but I have to concede that maybe just didn't understand it.  So I apologize for being hasty in that accusation.  Allow me to lay it out; I will then be happy to take questions:

In my view, morality as objectively defined according to whether or not it brings about happiness or causes suffering.  That action is moral which increases happiness; that action is immoral which causes suffering.  This is an objective definition.

Of course, there will be some subjectivity in how happiness and suffering are determined.  In some situations, they will directly conflict with each other.  For example, if I shoot a home invader who was going to rape my wife, I have prevented her suffering but caused suffering to the the home invader.  In these situations, a moral dilemma results.

In some cases, happiness or suffering will conflict with other ideals.  For example, if I am a shiftless bum who refuses to get a job, I suffer from lack of money to buy food or pay rent.  So others might volunteer to give me money to ease that suffering.  However, compelling someone to give me money conflicts with other ideals, such as our right as individuals to do as we please with our money (that is, the ideal of private property), or the idea that individuals should take responsibility for themselves and get a job (that is, the ideal  of personal responsibility).  These situations also result in a moral dilemma.

When a person faces a moral dilemma, it is up to that person to resolve it on their own.  There are no hard-and-fast rules to dictate what should be done in each situation.  The individual must decide on his or her own and must be prepared to face the consequences of whatever they decided.  For example, if a home invader were going to rape my wife, I'd shoot him without hesitation; I would rather face the legal consequences of doing so than face the consequences of what happens to my wife if I don't.

There are also situations in which society as a whole faces moral dilemmas.  When this happens, people work together as a society to provide rules for how to resolve them.  For example, the shiftless bum could apply for welfare, and society's rules would determine if he or she meets the criteria to get it.

In some cases, our personal senses of morality conflict with society's rules.  For example, I believe that people should be allowed to smoke pot for fun if they want to.  However, as a society, we have decided that this is against the rules (in all but two states).  I have two options: follow the rules in the name of deferring to society, or break the rules in accordance with my own sense of morality.  In either case, I am responsible for the consequences, and whichever I decide, I am also within my rights to work with others in society to get those rules changed.

So the bottom line is that I believe morality to be objectively defined but subjectively applied.  I would never claim that my personal sense of right and wrong should be imposed on everyone, and I apologize if I ever implied as much.  Ultimately, the need to live together in society forces people to work together to set rules for what is right and wrong, and these rules necessarily change over time with the desires and needs of the society.  Such is the beauty of living in a society with a representative government; individuals get to participate in shaping the morality of the society as a whole.

I hope that makes more sense than how I've explained it up to this point.  I'd like to thank everyone who has challenged me on various points of this, as it forces me to make sure that my ideas are well-examined and clearly-expressed.

I welcome your feedback.


  1. You wrote "there will be some subjectivity in how happiness and suffering are determined." Happiness and suffering are completely subjective. I understand that there are chemical reactions in the body associated with happiness and suffering, but the actual happiness and suffering are subjective. You mention "moral dilemmas", but by your definition, every situation could be a moral dilemma.

    You wrote, "Ultimately, the need to live together in society forces people to work together to set rules for what is right and wrong, and these rules necessarily change over time with the desires and needs of the society." So you believe morality changes over time? I understand that individual's and society's view of morality changes, but do you believe that what is right and wrong actually changes over time?

  2. Great questions.

    I think you could make a case for happiness and suffering being completely subjective, but I don't really think they are. I think there are plenty of situations where no moral dilemma exists. For example, how would it make anyone happy to systematically round up and slaughter people because of their beliefs, as happened in Third Reich Germany? I think that's pretty objectively immoral. So I would still feel comfortable describing happiness and suffering as objective, although I can see where one would disagree with me on that.

    Since I do feel they're objective, I wouldn't say morality itself changes over time, in its essence. What does change is how society subjectively applies it. For example, in the pre-Civil-War South, society considered slavery moral at the time; however, I would argue that it was immoral all along.

    In fact, referring back to our other conversations, my view of morality being objective is what leads me to conclude that slavery is always wrong, in all cases, even in your example of someone volunteering for it. For me, there's no dilemma there at all.

    I generally believe that society's subjective application of morality has generally gotten better over time; that is, societies have become "more moral" as time has gone on. So I don't think it's a problem that the rules change over time.

  3. You mention Third Reich Germany. Obviously there were a lot of people who believed what happened was right. They just happened to be on the losing side of the war. What if Germany had won? Morality in the world today would be a lot different.

    Just as an interesting historical tidbit, do you know what the basis was for condemning the Germans at the Nuremberg Trials? They made up laws after the fact, showed the Germans had broken them, and thus they were "proven" guilty. Because society at large had rejected Biblical morality, they were left with, "You're guilty because we say so."

    As for your assertion that societies have become "more moral", what does that even mean? Are you saying that there is some fixed standard of morality to which we should conform? That sounds an awful lot like the Biblical view. Actually, you wrote, "I wouldn't say morality itself changes over time." I completely agree. What I want to know is, how do you know what that fixed standard is? How do you know that what you perceive as "more moral" is actually so? Could it not be that people's view of morality is getting worse?

    Again, I don't believe your view of morality can ever answer such questions because it is inherently subjective.

    1. "More moral"? The 20th century was the bloodiest one ever (except for the Flood in the days of Noah), most of which was the result of whole societies killing each other. Is the ridiculously high U.S. prison population the result of our society becoming "more moral", and thus identifying more bad guys?

      Here's a thought to rattle around in your brain. What about entropy (as it relates to morality)?

    2. You mentioned biblical morality a couple of times; I don't believe that is any more objective than my view of morality. The Bible contains a wide range of conflicting moral directives, and Christians have historically been happy to follow only the ones they want to and disregard the rest. I can provide with you with quotes showing how slavery in the United States was justified by the Bible, just for one (particularly pertinent) example.

      My position is that every Christian has a moral intuition completely independent of the Bible, which we use to assess the relative moral value of biblical directives.

      Consider this example:
      The Golden Rule is held up as a brilliant expression of morality. However, we don't say the same about the Second Commandment (don't make graven images). They are clearly of similar importance to God; one is the central ethical teaching of Jesus, while the other is on the only list of directives that God saw fit to personally carve in stone. Yet one is considered profound, while the other is roundly ignored (after all, what possible moral value could not making graven images have?).

      My position is that we, as human beings (Christian or otherwise), have to have some external standard of morality by which we are making those judgments. Otherwise, we would view all of God's orders as essentially morally equal, given that they all come from the same infallible moral authority, in the same holy text.

      So my view is that biblical morality is no more objective than any other; in all cases, we keep that which fits in with our own consciences and ditch the rest.

    3. Sorry, typo there. First sentence of second paragraph should read:

      "...that every person, Christian or not, has a moral intuition independent of the Bible..."

      Proofreading fail.

  4. Right, but balance that with the civil rights movement, women's suffrage, global expansion of representative government... I think it would be stretch to call the 20th century the bloodiest ever. Although I would certainly argue that our society is more moral than any in the Bible...

    I'm not sure I buy entropy in this context; I think it's a bit of a false analogy. Even with relation to conservation of energy, entropy only applies to closed systems, which the world isn't.

  5. You wrote, "...that every person, Christian or not, has a moral intuition independent of the Bible...". I completely agree. The Bible says exactly that in the first few chapters of Romans. While that moral intuition may be independent of the Bible (some people have never even heard of the Bible), it is not independent of God. God created humans in His image and gave us a conscience.

    Just for the record, no one in America could honestly claim that their moral intuition is independent of the Bible. America was founded by Christians as a Christian nation (No, I'm not talking about the Constitution, which is an anti-Christian document. I'm talking about the original settlers.) Even someone in America who has never read the Bible themselves has had their morality shaped in part by the culture around them (even those who explicitly reject Christianity). Things like "the golden rule", which comes from the Bible, have become part of even secular culture.

    You wrote, "My position is that we, as human beings (Christian or otherwise), have to have some external standard of morality by which we are making those judgments." I completely agree. But you haven't answered my questions. What is that external standard? How do you know that what you perceive as "more moral" is actually so?

    I think you know my answers.

  6. I'm not able to believe that morality came from God until the existence of God can be established. Still no evidence for that.

    America was founded by Deists, many of whom specifically rejected the divinity of Christ, as an explicitly secular nation. American culture was shaped far more by the Enlightenment than by the Bible.

    The external standard is our own moral intuition, our inborn sense of right and wrong that developed from the need to live together in societies.

  7. DVD Bach,

    The evidence for God is all over the place. Just look around. But as I've said before, evidence doesn't prove anything to someone who doesn't want to believe it. I know you talk about being objective, but you are not. As I have said before, your view of morality is subjective (see below as well).

    Regarding America's Christian history, did you even read what I wrote? I was talking about the founders of America, not what are typically called the "Founding Fathers." The true founders of America were the ones who came over in the 1600's, not those who wrote the Constitution of the United States. As I mentioned above, the Constitution is an anti-Christian document. The Declaration of Independence and the State Constitutions are another matter. In any case, even the so called "Founding Fathers" based much of what they did on the Bible, so my point still holds even on that basis.

    You wrote, "The external standard is our own moral intuition, our inborn sense of right and wrong that developed from the need to live together in societies." But that changes over time, and earlier you wrote, "I wouldn't say morality itself changes over time, in its essence." Which is it? We are back to the same problem that I've pointed out all along.

    The solution is simple. The Bible provides the unchanging, universal, fixed standard of morality for all times, people, and places. I know you don't like the morality of the Bible, but you accept it, you will continuing drifting aimlessly.

    You want objective evidence for the existence of God? There it is. Without God, there is no logical, consistent basis for morality.

    1. Just for the record, I am not objective all the time either, but the arguments I have presented regarding morality and the existence of God are.

    2. I'm looking around. Everything I see is the result of either human activity or natural processes. Where is the evidence I'm supposed to be seeing?

      Why would it matter what people in the 1600's thought, if they didn't write the documents that define and govern the nation?

      I don't think those two statements that I made about morality are contradictory. Our inborn sense of right and wrong is based on happiness and suffering; I don't think that has changed.

      Your statement about biblical morality being fixed simply isn't true. As I stated, the Bible was the justification given for slavery in the American South; that obviously changed.

    3. You are seeing what God has created, just as I am. The point is that I interpret that evidence based on the assumption of God's existence, but you interpret that same evidence based on the assumption of God's nonexistence. Are you claiming to have proved God's nonexistence? If so, please provide the evidence of that. Hopefully you can see where this is going.

      If you can't understand why it matters what people in the 1600's thought, I'm afraid I can't explain it any more simply to you. Did the so-called "Founding Fathers" appear out of nowhere, starting the American culture from scratch?

      Regarding morality, at first I couldn't see how you could fail to see the contradiction, but I went back and reread your original definition at the top. I understand how you have defined morality objectively by relating it to happiness and suffering. But happiness and suffering themselves are inherently subjective. They vary from one person to another, one place to another, and one time to another. By your definition, morality (what is right and wrong, not simply individual's or society's view of morality) changes. Are you willing to accept that? There is another option that involves an unchanging, universal standard of morality--the Bible.

      About Biblical morality being fixed, I'm not saying that Christians or people who believe the Bible have always had the same view of morality or were always right. I'm not right all the time. No one is (except God, see Romans 3). The same is true of atheists, Hindus, Muslims, etc. I believe that those who used the Bible as justification for kidnapping and enslaving people were wrong.

      The real issue is what I was asking about above. If morality (what is right and wrong) doesn't change, then what is the fixed standard to which we are to compare our individual and societal views of morality? My answer is easy--the Bible. What's yours? The answer you gave when I asked before was "our own moral intuition, our inborn sense of right and wrong that developed from the need to live together in societies", but that is not a fixed standard.

  8. On the argument for God's existence, you're attempting to shift the burden of proof. You're claiming God exists, and you're unable to support that claim because you admit that it's an assumed conclusion.

    I am making no claim about whether or not God exists; I don't claim to know that. But since you can't support the argument that he does, I conclude that he does not.

    Not much more I can say about the Founding Fathers either. The documents that govern this country were written in the late 1700's.

    If people's interpretations of biblical morality change over time, then biblical morality is no more fixed than human moral intuition. Or, to put it another way, it doesn't matter if biblical morality is fixed if everyone's going to put it into practice differently.

    1. Okay, let's reverse roles here about God's existence. I won't assume that God exists. Please provide me evidence that He doesn't.

      You wrote, "it doesn't matter if biblical morality is fixed if everyone's going to put it into practice differently." But it does matter. Earlier we both agreed that morality is based on a fixed external standard. That is, there has to be something to which we can compare a given view of morality to see if it is correct or not (ie. we need a way to see if our society is becoming "more moral" or not). Although people's interpretations of it may be different, the Bible is a fixed external standard. "Our own moral intuition, our inborn sense of right and wrong that developed from the need to live together in societies", is not a fixed standard. You view would have us trying to compare a given view of morality to a moving target.

  9. I'm not claiming that God doesn't exist.

    I also never agreed that the external moral standard was fixed. You are claiming that the Bible's morals are fixed, which I am stating is irrelevant. Who cares if the Bible's morals are fixed if the morals of the people interpreting it aren't?

  10. Okay, good. So you don't believe that God doesn't exist? I'm glad we finally got that out of the way.

    Okay, I guess I misinterpreted what you wrote above. So you're saying that you believe morality (what is right and wrong, not just people's view of morality) changes?

  11. Oh no, I believe that God doesn't exist. I just don't claim it. Because I can't know that with 100% certainty. Further, I have no way to demonstrate that God doesn't exist, so I wouldn't be able to produce evidence to support my claim.

    Others claim that God exists. However, they cannot support this claim with any evidence. Therefore, I reject the claim; I do not believe it is true.

    Atheism is a conclusion (the end point of the rational process), not a claim (the starting point).

    I will soon compose a blog post demonstrating that the default position for any extraordinary claim is not to believe it, and that this holds true for you as well as for me.

  12. Re: morality: I believe that the fact that morality is based on happiness and suffering does not change. That is, however, not the same as having a fixed set of rules like the Bible.

  13. Okay, so regarding God's existence, is it fair to say that you claim God doesn't exist and that I claim God does exist, but neither of us can produce evidence to support our claim? You say atheism is a conclusion, but by the same logic, one could reach the conclusion that God does exists. Would you agree that we both believe what we believe by faith, since evidence alone cannot settle this issue?

    For the record, I still maintain that there is objective evidence of God's existence. The fact that you refuse to accept it does not negate its validity as evidence.

  14. Please show me the objective evidence. I do not claim that God does not exist, so please show me the logical process that leads to the conclusion that he does.

  15. I've told you before. Remember the example of the painting? God created the universe and told us so in the Bible. We can see that the universe exists. I guess the question comes down to, "Do you believe what God says on His own authority?" I know that you don't believe the Bible, but on what logical basis? I know that we've been down that road before as well, although I don't think we've traveled it all the way to the end. In the end, all my arguments rely on the Bible, either directly or indirectly.

  16. Right, and I've refuted the painting metaphor as invalid. We know that paintings have painters because we understand the process by paintings are created; we can observe and painter in the real world and see how it's done. No one has ever observed an omnipotent deity poof a universe into existence, and we certainly have no idea what sort of a process would be used to accomplish such as thing.

    So the distinction is that one is verifiable while the other isn't.

    As soon as I can, I'll do a blog post on the Bible as evidence.

  17. Sorry, by *which* paintings are created...

  18. Sorry I was gone for lent. Back now. Responded to this here: