Sunday, September 24, 2017

Objective vs. Relative Morality

[The following is something I came up with after being told for the umpteenth time that atheists can't be moral or can't have a basis for judging "right" from "wrong" because they can only rely on "relative" moral standards.  Unlike theists, of course, who get their "objective" moral standards straight from God.]

Morality — the system or method by which we determine whether actions are “good” or “bad” — can either be “relative” or “objective” (a.k.a. “absolute”). Objective morality is morality based on universal principles that everybody agrees on, whereas relative morality is determined differently by different groups and is subject to change over time and in different places and cultures. Now, theists and atheists alike claim to be be able to determine right from wrong, good from bad, but what type of morality can each group actually claim to have? Objective or relative?

Let’s start with atheists. Now most atheists get their sense of “right” and “wrong” from the realization that other people are human beings the same as they are, and are therefore deserving of the exact same rights and respect as themselves. “People are people” may sound like a simple tautology, but it’s objectively true and it’s the core principle that provides atheists with the objective morality that lets them condemn slavery, murder, robbery, lying, etc. Now, this isn’t to say that all atheists are good people, since we all have free will and can decide whether to be good or bad, but at least atheists have something objective by which they can make value judgments in the first place.

What about theists? Well, they tend to rely more on wholly relative morality to make value judgments for the following reasons:
  • Different theists believe in different Gods, each of which is said to have given different moral laws for us to follow. So, right there, theistic morality is wholly relative according to which God you believe in.

  • Even within a single God belief (Christianity, say), there are tons and tons of different denominations and sects who all interpret the supposed “word of God” in different ways from a purely doctrinal standpoint. So, once again, even within the Christian faith, theistic morality is wholly relative according to which particular sect or denomination you belong to.

  • Even within a single sect or denomination, it’s pretty much guaranteed that different preachers or even individual members will have their own specific interpretations as to just what their God wants them to do. Should you shun homosexuals or welcome them? Should you donate money to homeless people or is that just encouraging bad habits? Do women really need to be subject to their husbands’ will or not? Is it enough to just accept Jesus into your heart, or do you actually need to do good deeds and repent for your sins? Is it really harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, or is that just a metaphor? Does “turn the other cheek” mean you can’t own a gun for self-defense? Did God really just promise to “answer prayers” (and sometimes the answer is “no”) or did he actually promise to give “whatsoever we ask for in faith”? Is lusting after a woman in your heart really the same as committing adultery, or was Jesus just being metaphorical again? What’s the best way to “love thy neighbor as thyself” while still preventing transgender people from using the bathroom they feel most comfortable in? Is it OK to vote for somebody who claims to share your values if he talks about sexually assaulting women, mocks disabled people and lies all the time? What, actually, would Jesus do? And so on and so forth. Thus, theistic morality is wholly relative according to the individual beliefs of each particular theist.

  • For theists that claim to get their morality from holy scriptures written thousands of years ago, many of the oldest commandments and moral codes from those books no longer apply today. The explanation for this is usually that those commandments were given for a specific group of people, that the culture and socio-economic conditions back then were different than they are today and/or that some sort of “new covenant” made those old commandments obsolete. It was OK to own slaves back then, but not today. It was commanded that disobedient children should be stoned to death back then, but we don’t need to follow that commandment today. Jews were required to keep kosher, but later Christians didn’t need to. All of which is to say that theistic morality can actually change over time and is wholly relative to the particular people to whom the moral commandments were given.
Now, keep in mind what I said earlier about atheists basing their morality on objective principles. Because these principles are objective, theists are capable of perceiving them as well. In fact, this is what allows, say, Christians to decide which parts of the Bible to follow in the first place and which parts should be ignored or reinterpreted away. The problem is, though, that many theists allow these objective moral principles to be overwhelmed by the teachings of their particular religion to the point where they are willing to discriminate against other people simply because this is what they have been taught is correct. Without the teachings of their religion they may never feel it right to, say, kill an infidel, or deny homosexuals the right to marry or treat other people as property. But because they have been indoctrinated to accept the relative morality provided by their religion, they end up chucking objective morality right out the window.

Now this isn’t to say that all theists are bad people or incapable of making moral judgments. After all, just because a moral principle is relative doesn’t mean it is wrong. But it does mean that their sense of right and wrong is at the whim of their religious indoctrination and this is why a lot of otherwise good people can be convinced to do some very bad things (or, as Steven Weinberg once put it, “With or without [religion] you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” In other words, without a source of truly objective morals to rely on, theists can only do what they are told is right, regardless of whether it actually is right.

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