Monday, August 5, 2013

More on Secular Morality - We're Talking About Different Things

Coincidentally, on Friday, I ended up having a mini-debate with someone on this topic of secular morality, wherein I come to my own realization about the nature of the conversation.

Some hominid chimed in on the Friendly Atheist:

Sure you can be moral without believing in a super-being in the sky, but no, you can't be consciously moral without a belief regarding what "good" itself is. What is the end that being "moral" acts towards? What am I trying to achieve by being "moral"? This is something that everyone, Christian, atheist, Muslim, etc., has to make a decision about; what IS "good", what would it look like to achieve that, what is the logical path that leads to this, and am I willing to do that rather?
Once you've answered these questions I suppose that, in a non-religious sense, you already "believe" in a "god" (what is "good"), a heaven (what would it look like for reality to be defined by that "good") a sacrificial system (what am I willing to give up/do in order to achieve this). I'm not trying to pull the old "atheists just don't know they believe in God" card, but am just trying to point out that it isn't really that huge a conceptual leap from "being moral without God" to believing in God and even to religion (systems of practices structured to help you in your endeavor to act together with others towards "good").
My monocle popped clear off my face, and I had to comment (during work no-less - yes, I'll set aside my income to argue with someone online).
The basis of secular morality is minimizing harm and maximizing good. The reason we "want" that, is due to biology programming into us pain/pleasure receptors, a survival instinct, and because we're a social species, a sense of empathy. The only philosophy required after that, is a question of "what's the best way of accomplishing those goals?"
No magic required. No gods required. No supernatural required. 
Another person responded:
You are begging the question. Who gets to determine what is harm and what is good? What one man views as good another will view as harm. So by this test all of secular morality is subjective . That really cannot be the basis for morality.
 I replied:
It's not "who", it's "what". It's objective fact that throwing someone off a cliff harms that person, because we've labeled "harm" to identify an objective phenomenon. That person stopped functioning... i.e. didn't survive. This aligns with secular morality's basis as harm.
In this sense, you're trying to proscribe what harm is, rather than having a word that describes something that exists in reality.
That's your problem.
... whereas I cannot even fathom what the religious notion of morality could be. As far as I can tell, it's just obedience to an arbitrarily dictated ruleset... where the alignment to reality is irrelevant.
If you don't agree that morality is about minimizing harm and maximizing benefit, I'm afraid you've distorted the concept of morality beyond recognition.
I lost track of the debate at that point. I see it continued without me.

In my last comment, I think I hit upon something I hadn't really thought about before. We may be talking about different things, when we use the word "morality."

What I think the theist means by morality is some ultimate ruleset handed down by a supreme being, and if we didn't receive such a thing, we'd all be amoral animals without any kind of sense of right or wrong. It's a completely abstract set of rules.

Whereas I'm talking about an actual directly observed behavioral phenomenon... not just in our species, but in many others, to varying degrees. Different levels of "brain power" result in different levels of sophistication of the morality. (link to Telegraph article on animals telling right from wrong) (Wiki article on morality/animal morality)

The "harm", "benefit" and "morality" are labels we slap on observed phenomenon, ones that we then describe as we investigate. To the theist, it seems those words are arbitrarily dictated by Some Guy in the Sky. I acknowledge that some would think otherwise, such that these rules are what God has figured out would be the best approach for us to establish a peaceful, happy society... but that's actually conceding my position - that it's based on reality, not decree.

If God can figure out what that maximal set of behavioral patterns are, why can't we? Even if we're playing a game of "hot and cold", for different rule sets that we randomly try, we can eventually figure it out through trial and error.

... which, incidentally, is what human history actually looks like. It took us along time to figure out that slavery is always wrong, for instance.

Maybe God was just coincidentally figuring it out at the same pace as humanity.

I'll reel in my digressions and wrap this up. In terms of debate, I've come to realize, that just like one needs to ask the theist "What, by the laser-knuckles of Odin, do you mean by 'God'?", we must also ask them what they mean by "morality"... otherwise, like so many debates I've had on this topic, we're often just talking past each other.

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