I don’t know why, or what’s happened, but recently I’ve been bombarded with unusual numbers of theists lobbing uneducated, presumptuous questions and comments about morality at me. I feel like I’m at the zoo, dodging dung darts from chimps. I even hear monkey noises when I read these messages. Did Ray Comfort amass some sort of army of banana enthusiasts and unleash them on social media? Has God sent armies of half-wits on a mission?
GM aside: I have to say that it is utterly exhausting to have to defend my own morality day in and day out, but these questions illustrate how faith can thieve people of their class, respect for other people and empathy. What sort of human being goes around demanding that others, who’ve done no wrong as far as they can tell, explain how they know right from wrong? This is biblical morality? Am I supposed to be impressed? ‘Cause I’m not impressed. Like, at all.
Here’s one question I received recently on the topic of morality:
If everyone is the by-product of a bunch of chemical accidents, who’s to say anything is right or wrong? Who makes the rules?
Here’s the thing about a question like this. It’s based on the presumption that “right” and “wrong” is as applied only to the human condition. It already makes the leap that “absolute morality” is something we apply only to human behaviour and the benefit of humankind. If there is such a thing as absolute morality, would good not be good… absolutely?
For instance, from a human perspective, going for a walk in summer seems innocuous, no? From an ant’s perspective, though, a human going for a walk might be the worst (and last) thing that ever happened to them. Mosquitos can carry malaria and dengue, so it seems a reasonable thing to do to kill them when you see them, but is that absolutely moral? It ends the life of a living creature who had no idea, as far as we can tell, that his actions could harm.
So, unless we are willing to say that absolute morality includes not walking where there might be life to squish, not killing pests that cause disease, and many other actions we take on a daily basis that cause harm or discomfort to other life, then it’s not really absolute, is it? It’s pretty clear, though, that a believer presumes human life trumps all other life, and the ideas of “right” and “wrong” can only apply to our species. Maybe some of them make exceptions for cute, furry, four-legged things.
By the very definition, this makes their morality anything but absolute. How can it be, when it works only to establish what is right and wrong for one species out of 8.7 million types of life on Earth? Not even taking into account the 100 billion galaxies in the observable Universe. Consider this short, amusing film:
In this situation, how can absolute morality apply to both the man and the alien race? He is clearly doing nothing wrong from his perspective, but from theirs, what he is doing is catastrophic. How do you apply absolute morality to this hypothetical? Sure, it’s just an animation, but you and I both know that right here on earth when we fumigate our homes, tear down rainforests or even just take a long, leisurely shower, we’re doing the same thing to tiny forms of earthly life.
Please, apply absolute morality to these situations, remembering that “absolute” implies “total” which would include all life, and not just humans and their cute, furry friends named Spot.
For the sake of discussion, however, let’s forget that any other forms of life exist. Let’s just pretend that human life is, in fact, all that matters. Go back a few thousand years to the Mayan civilizations, where they were sure that sacrificing human beings was the right thing to do. What if they were right? What if some objective force in the clouds casts judgment on our behaviour in that way, and those of us who have not sacrificed a young virgin will spend eternity sick and starving in Xibalba?
Seven million Mayans believed this. How do we know they were wrong?
The Mayans left that behind though, didn’t they? I lived in the Mayan Riviera for two years. I knew plenty of Mayan descendants who wouldn’t harm the hair on another human’s head. Why did they change their views on what was right and moral?
Christians used to believe that witches ought to be punished and used their Bible to back it up,
Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live – Exodus 22:18
The New Testament says that women not be allowed to teach or preach or speak in church. It also says to pray in private, love your enemy and not to accumulate too much wealth, as God will condemn the wealthy. Christians ignore these commands though because they no longer suit the time we live in. Often, when I reference the verse that commands women not teach, apologists offer up the explanation that the instruction suited the time that the Bible was written in. Precisely. Times changed our morality, making morality the very opposite of absolute.
So why have so many things that were once considered moral, been left behind in antiquity? Why don’t we burn witches anymore? Why don’t the Mayans sacrifice people to the Gods?
The reason is simple. It’s because as civilization grew and evolved, we began to realize that some actions are not good for the well-being and progress of humankind. We did this through our own observations, using our own innate moral guidance system otherwise known as conscience and empathy.
When you and I experience pain, suffering, anger, frustration, or sadness, it doesn’t feel good. This is a purely subjective feeling. Our experience with these feelings allows us to recognize them in other people. When you see a person experience pain, and you know what that pain feels like, you experience discomfort by proxy. This is called empathy. You are empathizing with your fellow human beings. Because you experience discomfort when you recognize pain in others, you avoid causing it. We all, innately, want to avoid this discomfort.
As we progress, humans learn more about each other. As we learn more about each other, we understand more about what actions and practices may help our species progress, and which ones will hold us back. This is the reason why we drop old, outdated versions of morality. Even commands found in your so-called source of “absolute morality” have clearly been dropped for better, more effective ideas. This is not objective morality. This is not absolute morality. What is right and wrong for our species is an ever-evolving set of ideas. Human morality changes as time marches forward, and it differs from place to place.
The fact is, most us have no desire to kill or rape or steal in the first place… without being told it’s wrong. We are born with empathy and conscience. We are set up with this mechanism built-in already so that we act in ways that help to keep our species healthy, alive and moving forward. While some people clearly lack some levels of empathy and a conscience, they do so in the way that some people lack a finger or their hearing. It is a disorder that can be described as anything from autism to sociopathy.
What is right and wrong is discussed daily in parliaments, congresses, and senates around the world. Some argue that action A is good and will help humankind. Others argue that action A is bad and will hold us back. In most places, it is the majority opinion that wins over and passes laws for or against action A. Laws that passed 1919 may be repealed in 2019 because they no longer match what we know about us. Right and wrong, as applied to humankind, is constantly changing, morphing and moulding itself to suit new findings, new technology and new ways of thinking.
To assert the existence of absolute morality in a world where right and wrong changes quite drastically from place to place and time to time, is to willfully ignore the evidence. Morality is anything but absolute. It is a writhing, untamable chameleon, changing with the wind and seething like a rough sea. It’s not a fully knowable thing, only a testable thing; a do-your-best sort of thing. What we consider moral today, may disgust the humans of the future, as slavery and ritual human sacrifice does us now.
For me, the only way I know how to be moral is to recognize negative feelings in others and avoid causing them. Unlike Abraham of the Bible, for me, this would trump the word of any God sick enough to command me to kill. Would it do the same for you?
So, who makes the rules? We do. We always have. We always will. Our morality is on us; it’s our responsibility and ours alone. The sooner believers accept this, the better off we’ll all be.
I want to know if you believe in absolute morality. Let me know in the comments.
Image: Creative Commons/Pixabay