Ever-changing Morality

Ever-changing Morality January 2, 2012

Over at Daylight Atheism, Adam Lee is responding to some comments made by Peter Hitchens, the Christian brother of the late Christopher Hitchens. Specifically, he’s responding to this quote:

For a moral code to be effective, it must be attributed to, and vested in, a nonhuman source. It must be beyond the power of humanity to change it to suit itself

Lee seems most interested in tackling the first point: it’s meaningless, because we have no “nonhuman source.” To that end, his response is much like Deacon Duncan’s Undeniable Fact: God does not show up in the real world, so everything we say about God must come from humans.

That’s a solid point, but I think it’s also redundant because Hitchens’ second point fails as well: there very little in the world of religion and culture that is beyond the human ability to change.

That means that even if we were to grant Hitchens his first point, it would still do his argument little good. Even if we had the perfect book, we are still not perfect readers. Every word in that book must be translated, transmitted and interpreted. Even if you could perfect those first two processes, that last one would prove insurmountable.

What does “Thou shalt not kill” mean? A quick survey of biblical religions will return different interpretations of those four simple words. Does it apply to killing in self defense? To killing during war? To killing during an unjust war? To killing animals? To criminals, and if not, what types of criminals?

You’ll find Christians, Jews and Muslims on all sides of each questions. So what, exactly, is the advantage of having this “nonhuman source”?

I disagree with Lee that religion makes moral ideas harder to change. From my read of history, religious morality shifts at the same rate as other forms of culturally-embedded morality. Certainly the history of Christianity has shown massive shifts in its consensus over how to live a moral life, and no doubt this will continue. “Biblical morality” no longer means living a celibate life with few possessions, but perhaps it will return to that as the centuries roll on.

Part of this is because humans are champions rationalizers; we can find all sorts of reasons to do those things that we want or that make sense to us. Convincing someone to not do something that doesn’t make sense to them is tremendously difficult, as witnessed by the Catholic Church’s failure to prevent contraception use among American Catholics. But what makes sense to us comes from our preconceptions, which are shaped by our experiences and our society, and not just by what we hear from the pulpit.

For Hitchens to act as if having a “nonhuman source” grants us an unchanging moral code is to ignore most of what we learned from the past fifty years of philosophy and everything we’ve learned from history. There is only one law that continues to govern all human morality: This too shall pass.

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