Thursday, 25 May 2017

On the side of the angels?

Or, a closer look at Morality

One of the popular arguments for deities (specifically the Abrahamic god) is based on morality.  This has always surprised me.  The argument that our morality is derived from this deity seems absurd.  The idea that we'd get morality from an ancient blood-god that commanded and committed genocide, seems, well, beyond ridiculous.  It's way out there in cloud-cuckoo land.

Nonetheless, it merits a deeper response. Many theists seem fond of it. I'm even accused of borrowing my morals from Christianity (rolls eyes).  One assumes if I was to borrow my morals from some other belief system, it wouldn't be one with a body-count as high as Christianity. Or Islam.

The argument roughly is that humans have objective morals, objective morals can only come from gods that need living creatures killed to deter its retribution, therefore this god exists.

1. Objective or Subjective Morals?

 The first problem is that a false dichotomy is created with morals. Borrowing from axiology (philosophy of values) it is asserted that locus of morality is either the object, or the subject.  If morality is objective, all the subject need do is recognise what is moral in that case. Morality is external to the subject.

If morality is subjective, the subject applies their values to the relevant case. It is thus the subject that determines if something is moral.  Morality is internal to the subject.

The crucial difference is that we would not disagree on what is moral, it it is objective.  It can't change. It's a property of that case.  We can only disagree if morals are subjective.

This however, is not the only way morals could be classed.  We could also distinguish that is authoritarian, and that which is rational.  The challenge for theists is explaining why their morality is objective, rather than authoritarian.

Let's illustrate. The bible contains the edict to kill witches. Exodus 22:18 - "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live".  For centuries, thousands and thousands of people were killed by Christians for witchcraft. It continues in some parts of the world.  It is a merciless and cruel act, tragically based on a fictional crime.

It's clearly not an application of a subjective, or rational, moral philosophy.  If the only option is objective, then it must be the objectively moral thing to do.  It is also vile and repugnant. In truth, it is not objective. It is authoritarian. And for most of Christianity's history, it was also the right thing to do.  So, no, I don't borrow my morals from Christianity!

2. Do Objective Morals Exist?

What would it take to show that morals are objective?  This requires finding a moral rule that we agree is moral, but is inexplicable by other means.  I can conceive of a minimum of two tests.

a) The Evolutionary Test

Evolutionary biology provides several mechanisms to account for why humans would adopt rules and behaviours we would class as moral.  These include kin-selection and reciprocal altruism.  In addition, some behaviours can be Evolutionary Stable Strategies.  Their evolutionary advantages make them stable and are selected for in successful societies.

Parental care is easily explained by kin-selection mechanisms.  Charity toward others also appears to be an ESS.  Early human societies would have suffered from a lot of food variance.  Being willing to sharing food acts like an insurance policy for all. An unwillingness to share would be punished by others refusing to share. This would hurt the selfish during times they suffered food shortages.

In short, we expect certain rules and behaviours to be selected for because they are evolutionary stable or advantageous.  They benefited humans, in the communities they lived in.

b) The Rawlsian Contractarian Test

Rawls is not an explicit Contractarian. Rather he is a hypothetical Contractarian.  Whether a rule is moral or not, can be evaluated rationally by all parties. If the parties agree on the rule, it can be considered moral.  To prompt rational consideration, Rawls uses the veil of ignorance.  Nobody knows whether they will be the victim of such a rule, or a benefactor.  This ignorance forces everyone to consider everyone.

Hence, a Contractarian would argue that say, killing people for witchcraft or owning blacks as slaves, is immoral.  The parties would not agree such acts are moral out of concern they could be victimised by the rule.

This makes Contractarian rules, neither purely subjective nor objective. It makes moral rules a rational product of human societies.

c) Do such rules exist?

There are many Christian rules that fail the tests above.  The problem is they're also immoral.  Whether it is the public execution of non-virgin brides, or the killing of Sabbath stick-gatherers, they don't appear moral.

3. Objective Morals Don't Exist

The morality argument fails on its first premise. Objective morals don't appear to exist.  What is considered moral changes.  Our attitude to slavery has changed, in many parts of the world, so has attitudes to divorce, gay marriage, women's suffrage and capital punishment.  Applying the brutal and authoritarian morality of the slave-owners of the biblical era would get you arrested today.

These changes in morality are more consistent with an explicit Contractarian moral philosophy.  We debate what is moral. We try to consider the welfare effects not on us, but others. And what was once moral, like slavery, becomes immoral. What was once immoral, like homosexuality, is no longer.

4. Conclusion

The argument that the Abrahamic god is the source of our moral sense is ridiculous. It relies on a false dichotomy between objective and subjective morals. It confuses authoritarian, or evolutionary stable rules, as objective morals.  And it turns a blind eye to the atrocities undertaken, and commanded by the Abrahamic god.


  1. A mother of sound mind loves her baby, no matter the culture or time. Our existence demonstrates proof of the objective moral value of love.

    1. Human infants require an extraordinary level of care relative to most other species. That takes a lot of resources. Love is selected for. It also has a strong biochemical basis. So, no. It doesn't demonstrate objective morality. It demonstrates that for a K-selected species like humans, it is evolutionary stable.

  2. Love goes beyond chemicals Kaimatai, and guess what? I haven't given up on you or Professor Flynn.

    1. But I didn't say love was chemicals. The point is that it is not an example of objective-morality.

    2. True, brain activity is an emergent property of chemicals and electricity, not just chemicals.

  3. What do you mean by "love is selected for" and it has a biochemical basis?

    1. Are you saying we have no choices?

    2. In the context of an omniscient deity, yes.

      In the context of biological behaviour, of social organisms capable of learning, no. It's a silly misrepresentation of evolution to resort to pure genetic determinism.

    3. Excellent. So you agree Richard Dawkins' ideas make no sense?

    4. Dawkin's ideas make a lot of sense. Your quote-mining and misrepresentation of him, does not rescue your argument. Nor does it repair your reputation for dishonesty.

  4. How does materialism make sense? You say that we have choices, but Dawkins says we're programmed. You don't have to agree with him to be an atheist. Some atheists find his ideas to be an embarrassment to atheism.

    1. No, that's not what Dawkins says.
      Nor is this germane to the subject of objective morality.

  5. I was on YouTube and the video of her conversation with Matt came up as a suggestion so I listened to it again. Matt had the proper reaction of hanging up on her when she refused to have any respect for reason. I wanted to ask why atheists still waste time with her?

    1. It can still be useful to examine or analyse arguments for the Abrahamic god, using her posts as the motivation. I would hope that she's not the only person who reads this blog :)

    2. What a coincidence! Today I've featured my first rebuttal to you and it has received the most views. 😎😉 My next and newest blog will be on the problem of pain. I think pain is the strongest predictor of atheism.

    3. So? If you're pleased with a near unreadable blog that fails to resolve the absence of genetic evidence for Adam & Eve; or any instructions on the use of soap for hygiene reasons; justifies slavery as a necessary evil; asserts that the vulnerable communities must bear the greatest burden of natural disasters; pretends that faith-healing isn't about physical health; confuses geocentrism with the flat-earth; and cannot find contemporaneous extra-biblical support for the gospel Jesus, then all this says is you're more interested in blog-visitors than "rebuttals".

      And given that this is a blog about morality, you still haven't established your premise that morality is objective.

      No amount of blog visitors compensates for intellectual failure.

  6. I have always been bemused by the claim of theists that any genuine morality must be "objective"; and the related claim that any objective morality must be sanctioned by a god: particularly having regard to the parent flaws in the moral teachings of their holy books. I found your analysis incredibly useful. Thank you.

  7. I once disappeared for an inordinate amount of time down a philosophical rabbit warren reading and pondering the origins of the words 'moral', and 'ethical', then 'logic', and on and on- finally emerging feeling less, not more, enlightened

    Alas, for me, questions such as 'Do Objective Morals Exist?' are now worthy of no more consideration - by me - than anything produced by an online randomising PoMo generator.

    Whoever said 'knowledge is power' probably wasn't anticipating a world in which it was 'normal' for rank amateurs to get their grubby, intellectually onanistic, undisciplined, hands on etymological dictionaries and thesauruses now on the interwebs.