Atheists and religious alike seek to identify foundation of morality

Tue, Oct 18, 2011, 01:00

RITE & REASON:In his Rite and Reasonarticles last July/August, Prof James Mackey’s central thesis is that the theory of evolution (which he describes as “Dawkins’s Darwinism”) is unfit to serve as a moral code for the human race.

I agree. It is not. And no atheist that I know, particularly Richard Dawkins, has ever suggested that it is or should be or even could be.

The theory of evolution describes how biological life evolves. Prof Mackey misunderstands the phrase “survival of the fittest” to imply that the physically strongest do not help the weak. The word “fittest” more accurately describes the beings that “fit” best into their environment. Helping the weak can be part of the symbiotic relationships that help species to thrive in many environments.

What then is morality? It is the ability to differentiate right from wrong, or good from bad?

Does morality exist only in our minds? In practical terms, this is a distraction. If morality exists only in our minds, then we have to agree together what we believe it is. If morality exists independently of our minds, we have to identify together what we believe it is.

In practical terms, this is the same task: we have to decide together what we believe to be right and wrong.

So what criteria should we use? Most religious people believe that their god (small ‘g’) dictates what is right and wrong. Most atheists believe that we have to work it out ourselves. But listening to what you believe gods tell you causes two problems.

Firstly, different people believe that different gods are telling them that different things are right and wrong.

Even when people believe in the same god, they often believe that this same god is telling them that different things are right and wrong.

Secondly, there is the question that Plato raised in his dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro: if you believe in a god, what criteria does your god use to decide what is right and wrong?

Do gods cause random torture to be wrong, based on an arbitrary decision, or do they identify that random torture is wrong, based on independent criteria?

If it is the former, then they could just as easily have decided that random torture is right, and so morality is arbitrary. If it is the latter, then there is a foundation for morality that exists independently of gods.

This brings religious people into the same place as atheists in seeking to identify the foundation of morality. Many atheists believe that the best criteria to use is: what effect does this action have on the well-being or suffering of sentient beings?

The neurobiologist Sam Harris examines this in his recent book, The Moral Landscape.He argues that the worst possible world is one in which all conscious beings are suffering to the maximal extent for no reason. He argues that, in principle, every step away from that world is right, and every step towards that world is wrong.

In this context, religion distracts us from identifying right and wrong because religious commands are not based on maximising the well-being or minimising the suffering of sentient beings.

Instead, they corrupt actual real-life morality with imaginary ideas of supernatural souls and imaginary consequences in an imaginary afterlife.

Certainly, the Christian Bible distracts us from identifying right and wrong, because the Christian god conveys instructions that we intuitively know are wrong.

The Bible says we should love our neighbour, but stone him to death for gathering sticks on the Sabbath.

How do we know that we are correct? We don’t. Whether we are religious or not, we can only go by our best efforts to decide together what is right and wrong.

Religion assumes that man is incapable of making moral decisions without supernatural guidance. But we are. It is a skill, and our understanding of it evolves as we practise empathy and reciprocity.

Michael Nugent is chairman of Atheist Ireland